Over the past year, the online coupon space has been expanding at a rapid pace. In addition to sites like Groupon and Scoop St., larger companies are drilling down into the local arena of online discounts. Like Gilt Groupe. After experiencing runaway success offering luxury items at discounts online, Gilt is moving into the local space with its new Gilt City sites.

One upstart local deal site is Blackboard Eats, which right now focuses on offering specials at established and well-respected restaurants in New York and LA.

Blackboard Eats launched in September of last year and has over 50,000 subscribers to its newsletter. The company has some proven success as well. For example, they sent $100,000 of business to Susanne Tracht's well-loved Los Angeles restaurant Jar last month.

Unlike most coupon sites, Blackboard Eats has a focus on editorial heft. The company is staffed with writers from publications like Gourmet, Daily Candy, Zagat and Food and Wine and features deals at high-end restaurants that don't normally associate themselves with discounts at all.

I caught up with founder Maggie Nemser to find out how Blackboard Eats plans to differentiate itself in the online coupon space, and to get some advice on where to eat in New York.

How did you come up with the idea for Blackboard Eats?
I was a food editor at Yahoo, and while I was working there, I would get a lot of emails from local PR reps representing these great restaurants, but there was nothing I could do to give airtime to their fantastic specials because Yahoo is national and these were local. I started to do some research and realized there was no one stop shop of highly curated, exclusive specials. We've seen clumsy coupons or discounts to places we wouldn't necessarily want to go to. But I didn't feel like there was a site out there for me and other people who are passionate about food, who aren't just looking for a deal for the sake of it. I did a lot of research, and talked to a lot of people and realized some of the reasons we don't see some of those things out there.

What are those reasons?
These restaurants care more about their brand than anything. It's hurtful to them to be associated with deal sites that don't create a following of food lovers and active diners, and instead cultivate a following of value seekers. I decided to get my team together, with people I've had the opportunity to meet and work with over the years in the food space, and bring in some of the brightest and most unique voices in the food space, from editors to writers and partnership specialists. We brought together a really strong team, and got the design down. We've created a space where restuarants would feel safe having their brands promoted, and a place where we could give really engaging snippets of restaurants and editorial.

Where does Blackboard Eats fit into the group coupon space?
We're really different from every deal site that's out right now. The Groupons of the world are fantastic and inspire people to do everything from bungee jumping to boat trips. And they give some nice restaurant discounts as well. But we just deal in food. We're also all about quality, and really handpicking places carefully. Unlike Groupon and other deal sites, we don't charge upfront. If you wanted to go to a restaurant being featured on another deal site, you would have to pay for the experience upfront. You'd pay say $40 for $80 of food. If you decide you don't actually want to get there and use it, you've already paid for the experience. We allow you some spontaneity and offer a pass code. It's up to you whether you want to utilize it. We also handpick all of our restaurants very carefully. We send reviewers in anonymously. We're not charging the restaurants that we choose to feature. It's just a completely different model. We're building a brand over time, we're not trying to have some crazy valuation tomorrow. First and foremost, we want to take care of restaurants and subscribers.

How does your business model work?
We don't charge upfront and we don't charge the restaurant, which is different from other deal sites. We're comprised of food editors, and we're not arbitrarily featuring restaurants that are going out of business or need the traffic. We're featuring spots that we go after, that we love. We're carefully rolling out into cities, and launching in ways that really resonate with the locals of each city by hiring the best food editors and writers and showcases the cit's most beloved restaurants from taco stands to expensive destinations.

If you don't charge users or restaurants, how does Blackboard Eats make money?

We have Visa on board, and we're doing neat things with them. Visa pays us for the real estate on our emails and our website. We have two kinds of sponsors. One special is a form of sponsored email. This is content we choose, we send a writer in anonymously and do all the things we do with BlackBoard Eats, but it's sponsored by Visa. If you have a Visa Signature, not only do you get, say 30% off at Landmarc, but you also get a free dessert platter. We'll also be sending out extra specials with big advertisers, where we creatively tie in their brand without hurting our user experience because it's all the same content it would be for our specials. We're also sending out sponsor specials and in those cases, they're not necessarily chosen by us, but they're going to be damn good still. We're still going to have criteria for what restaurants get mentioned in the sponsored specials.

We have several revenue streams, some of which we have developed ourselves and others are advertising with a localized spin. We've had
several restaurants come to us because they want to get featured. As we introduce new efforts, we will never touch the quality of our Tuesday/Thursday blast. And we will always have standards for what is broadcast in sponsored blasts.

It seems like there's a land rush in the local space online right now. Why do you think that is?
For me, as an editor by trade, I found it got challenging after awhile to speak to the nation, it's not an intimate conversation. For me there's real tangible value emotionally to feel like you can actually give quality content to people in way that's relatable to their daily lives. I feel like a lot of national stuff is pretty watered down. Beyond personal enjoyment, I think there are a lot of companies like the big, monster (great) companies like Yahoo and AOL. They're relooking at their local efforts, because they're finding that people are starting to go to the very fine tuned database and directories versus the more global aggregations, because they're simply less specific. People have a desire to know that things are hand touched a bit more. When numbers are down — it's a science — when you look at the number of hits on a website and see the fine tuned efforts in local are doing better, that's where people want to go.

How are you planning to expand?
We're launching San Francisco very soon. We're also launching a really cool thing I can't talk about yet. We're making some key hires right now for that thing I can't really talk about. We're going to be doing international things as well. Tying in travel in ways that it relates to food. We've got a lot of plans, and a really strong team. We're going to grow in smart, relevant ways.

Meghan Keane

Published 30 April, 2010 by Meghan Keane

Based in New York, Meghan Keane is US Editor of Econsultancy. You can follow her on Twitter: @keanesian.

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