Schenectady County

Area woman creates a social network site for foodies

Laura Laz might be onto something big. No one can ever really know when it comes to new social media

Laura Laz might be onto something big. No one can ever really know when it comes to new social media.

But if the Clifton Park entrepreneur’s gut feeling is right, then Schenectady could soon be ground zero for a new site deemed the Facebook for foodies.

ChefKey went live last week, and the website is essentially a social networking platform for all things culinary. Like Facebook, users create a profile, add friends, share updates and post photos. But where Facebook connects people of any ilk, ChefKey connects those with an interest in food — chefs, restaurateurs, culinary students, food organizations and associations, fine diners and your regular old foodie.

“What’s everyone having for dinner tonight?”

The question was posted on the site Thursday by one member, and replies trickled in over the next hour.

“Me and my son are having lemon chicken …we love it,” wrote a friend.

“I just had bbq ribs,” wrote another.

“Ahi Katsu, udon noodles with peas and tamari, and sweet carrots. Eight year old daughter is a fan. Success!” said another.

When you look at successful social media websites, you notice some common features. Their interface is clean, simple and intuitive. They inspire meaningful interaction and provide information that people will log on to consume. And, quite obviously, they have a lot of members.

Of these, ChefKey has the first two. Laz is hoping the third will naturally follow.

Before Laz envisioned Chef-Key, her online interactions within the food community took place in different corners of the Internet. Gourmands were socializing in comment threads of Yahoo! news articles. Overworked moms were Googling simple, easy dinner recipes. Restaurants were just learning how to create Facebook pages.

After years of culinary experience ranging from cooking, catering and bartending to promotions, publishing and running a restaurant, Laz decided to take her love of all things food to the next level.

ChefKey would bring all these people together. They could share recipes, promote food festivals and recommend an entrée at their favorite restaurant on one social networking platform. If they wanted a gluten-free soup recipe that didn’t include onions, they could find it here.

If they’re taking a road trip through Tennessee and want to find the best local grub, they could find it here.

“It just makes sense for anyone interested in food,” she said.

With an initial private investment of $300,000, ChefKey will eventually generate revenue from advertising and upgraded memberships for users who want them.

chefs featured

Jaime Ortiz, corporate executive chef at Mazzone Hospitality, is featured in a sidebar on the site labeled “Chef of the Month!”

There are a few more local references on the site, which is designed to grow worldwide.

A dropdown tab for “News” has a few links to local food stories. Another sidebar labeled “Featured Business” shows a logo for CR Gas Logs & Fireplaces, out of Voorheesville. The “Featured Chefs” portion of the sidebar has a picture of Matt “Mario” Krawczyk, the executive chef at Main Street Grille in Clifton Park.

The local connections make sense. Laz has spent years immersed in the local culinary scene and operates her business with three employees, contractors and Web developers from an office in Colonie.

Now, she has her eye on Schenectady.

In the first 24 hours the site went live, 500 users joined ChefKey. Several thousand had signed up before the official launch, and needed to reactivate their accounts. Laz expects that by January the site will have 50,000 members.

“We know we need a lot more people to start working on this because the more users you get, the more people you need to work in IT and customer service and so on,” she said.

expansion plans

Laz wants to relocate ChefKey headquarters to a building in Schenectady that offers room for expansion. The city is an ideal location, she said, because of her connections with business and culinary officials.

It was Schenectady where she first made headway with Chef-Key. Last November, she took a two-week boot camp at the Innogen Business Accelerator, a Schenectady incubator that helps prospective entrepreneurs turn ideas into products or services. Innogen gave her $10,000 to commercialize her idea.

“They’re the most wonderful people you’ll ever meet,” she said. “They even made arrangements to have us go on Rachael Ray in January once we reach a certain number of users on the site.

She has also spoken with officials at the Schenectady County Metroplex Development Authority, who plan to show her potential office buildings.

“It seems like an exciting company,” said Metroplex Chairman Ray Gillen, who confirmed plans to show her spaces around the city.

Once she secures a new headquarters, Laz expects to hire an initial 20 employees from within the city and outside, if need be.

“It all depends on how quickly everything grows,” she said. “There are a lot of jobs that would come into the community. It’s great for Schenectady, it’s great for us, and it’s a great opportunity for the Capital Region to be home to this platform that has the potential to be as big as LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter.”

Once the site passes a certain threshold of users, more features and services will be built into the site.

“I could say, ‘Oh, I feel like having macadamia chicken tonight but don’t want to travel more than 30 miles,’” said Laz, as one example of an eventual service. “They can search for that dish within a certain radius and find the restaurant that has it.”

glossary in works

She wants to expand the site to include dining deals, and is currently working with a handful of culinary institutes to build Chef-KeyPedia — a glossary and encyclopedia that will explain things like quinoa to casual foodies.

ChefKey also has an app.

Its true test might just be its potential for addiction.

Someone logs onto Twitter because they just have to know the short and sweet thoughts of their favorite celebrity. Someone logs onto Facebook because they love the feeling that comes when a bright red notification pops up and it’s that girl from last weekend’s party “liking” their latest profile picture.

The feeling someone gets from swapping banana bread recipes or sharing their two cents on the best Italian restaurant in town could be just as addicting. Only time will tell.

Categories: Business

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