September 27 2018
The Infatuation

Words by Zoë Beery
theinfatuation.com

If it weren’t for the bold blue square bearing their illustrated ham-horn logo just outside the graffitied doors, it might be easy to miss The Infatuation’s offices. Nestled between a discount clothing store and an empty storefront, it looks more like a freight carriage, or the gateway to a busy industrial workshop. But press the call button and you’ll summon a little box with a linoleum floor that whisks you to an open, light-filled office where, six stories above the Canal Street subway stop, a few dozen people help the world decide where to eat.

Elevator entrance that leads to the Soho office of The Infatuation.

Jesse Rose, head of product.

The Company Breakdown

Name: The Infatuation
Founded: 2009, as a blog
Funding to date: $33.5 million
Profitable T: 2017
Staff: 60 employees
Vacation policy: 13 days minimum, no rollover; plus closed Christmas through New Years
Office Spotify playlist: #ThrowbackThursday
Instagram accounts: 22, including @pizza and @avocadotoast
First event: The Turkey Leg Ball in 2010, a Thanksgiving party at 250-capacity Studio 450 
Next event: NYC EEEEEATSCON, a “food festival for music festival people” at 14,000-seat Forest Hills Stadium, on October 6, 2018 

It is an unassuming first impression for a company whose clout could demand at least a lobby. On the Friday morning I visited in April I was welcomed by Jesse Rose, who runs The Infatuation’s product team.

5’11” with a broad and blindingly white smile, he still sported the modest tan he’d earned from a recent vacation.He walked me over to the open-plan kitchen, where gadgets swamped nearly every inch of counter space: an espresso maker, a coffee grinder, two different coffeemakers and, jammed up against the end, a beer cooler with a tap on top. “Are you hungry?” Rose asked. “We have a lot of snacks.” He flung open three deep drawers in the kitchen island, which were stuffed with Cheez-Its, Girl Scout cookies, Bark Thins and two dozen other kinds of processed delights.

“You would probably think we aren’t into junk food here. But we are.”

The Infatuation, which offers voice-y restaurant ratings, reviews and advice for cities, prides itself on this subversion: they expect people to think they’re snobby and delight in explaining that, actually, they aren’t. Most people who work there were users before they were employees, and the worst thing you can call someone here is the f-word – foodie, a designation which belongs to an earlier time, when the Venn diagram of food experts and everyday food eaters had little overlap. Instead, The Infatuation argues, anyone can be an expert if armed with the right information and a little initiative. To the company and its users, food is not an experience to be debated on Yelp but an imperative to try something new. And, perhaps because the company launched in ambition-fueled New York, also a bit of a competition.

“Our users are in the know, and want to de-snobbify food while still elevating it.”

— Chris Stang, CEO and co-founder

Stang has a relaxed manner that feels authentic but fine-tuned. He co-founded what would become The Infatuation with his friend Andrew Steinthal in 2009, back when the two of them were record company executives. Nearing the top of the music industry ladder and known in their respective offices as the guys to talk to for a great night out, they started a food blog. Five years and reams of press coverage later, they quit their jobs and went full-time with The Infatuation, determined to create the world’s best restaurant discovery platform. By the time Stang brought Rose onboard in 2016, over avocado toast at Two Hands (Infatuation list: 21 Coffee Shops That Serve Great Food), the company had hundreds of reviews and were seeing more than a million monthly pageviews but were still operating out of a one-bedroom apartment in Chinatown where the handful of employees worked around a dining room table. Stand-up meetings were held in the kitchen and, if that space was taken, the bathroom.

The current office is considerably more spacious, with desks protruding from an exposed brick wall and three glass-walled conference rooms with plenty of room to sit down. Little jokes populate many surfaces:

A framed headshot of L.A. editorial lead Brant Cox from his acting days, Cox’s contribution to an office White Elephant exchange, sits on a conference room credenza.

A bootleg Dwayne Johnson calendar graces the kitchen.

A delightfully dated Scholastic book about the internet from 2000 sits permanently on the engineering team’s desk.

The Platform Engineer

Name: Jorge Davila
Lives in: Greenwich Village
Favorite restaurant: Pho Grand (The First Timer’s Guide to Vietnamese Restaurants)
On uniforms: “Jesse says I pulled a Steve Jobs – I wear the same jeans and t-shirt every day. It’s just comfortable and I don’t have to think about it.”
On peer pressure: “I got my glasses from some store in Chelsea, and there are a lot of Warby Parker fans around here who are trying to win me over. But I’m not doing it!”
On what’s next: “I take a lot of programming classes and just finished one about AI. I’d like to find a way to implement some of that here.”

Jorge Davila came to The Infatuation from Mommy Nearest, a parenting site with location-based recommendations that he co-founded with a friend. His time there helped to prepare him for his current project at The Infatuation: migrating over unwieldy data from Zagat, one of the most recognizable brands in the space, which the company purchased this year. Next to him sits Buck Heroux, the CTO; the engineering team has four people on it, so they work together closely, often via a shared Google doc where they hash out ideas before formal meetings. “It’s very collaborative here,” Davila said, “and we get to work on lots of interesting problems.”

Jesse Rose on current product challenges

We're really lucky because the company built a revenue model based on events, content, and social. This has allowed our team to be 100% user-experience driven. For The Infatuation, we're focused on increasing the utility across our products. Restaurant reviews and guides are evergreen, so we have the ability to build really interesting products on top of the data that our content team is creating. We're currently taking a look across all of our products (web, apps, our SMS-messaging service, Text Rex) and trying to focus each one on their specific use cases.

This past March, we acquired Zagat from Google and spent six months rearchitecting the infrastructure to decouple it from internal Google data pipelines. Now that the transition is over, we're spending a lot of time thinking of the future of the platform. In 1979, Zagat started by sourcing opinions from their friends via written surveys. Our plan is to bring it back to its roots by building a community-driven platform built on trust from the start. We're in the early product planning stages but see this as an opportunity to build a large-scale platform to help us achieve our mission of being the best resource to find where to eat or drink.

Glowing over the family gathering was a two-foot-tall white neon sign reading #EEEEEATS, the Infatuation-coined hashtag that people use thousands of times daily on Instagram (its lifetime tally so far is over 11.5 million). 

The Infatuation may be unique in some ways, but many of its tech challenges are the same as any other growing startup. On Fridays, the office gets food delivery instead of catering, and by 1:30 pm the kitchen island had filled with brown bags from Made Nice (Infatuation list: 29 Great Places To Eat Something Kind of Healthy for Dinner). The whole staff gathered for a standing lunch.

Earlier in the day Rose had talked about how a background in food was a relative rarity among his coworkers, but now, over a salmon bowl, he revealed that his mother is the author of eleven cookbooks on Chinese food. Heroux pulled out a bottle of hot sauce and warned that it was pretty spicy. Rose asked if he’d made it. “Not this one,” he said, “but I’ll bring another one in soon.” Heroux, a native of Colorado, grew up eating a lot of Mexican food and now makes his own green-chili hot sauces in his Williamsburg apartment, which – coincidentally, he insisted – is a few blocks away from hot sauce mecca Heatonist. “They have a secret back room there that I want to get into,” he said, “but I can’t figure out what the criteria are. I even told them about making my own stuff, but it didn’t work.”

The Product Engineer

Name: Dina Smither
Lives in: East Village
Favorite restaurant: Sao Mai (The Best Places to Have Dinner for Around $30 In the East Village)
On the f-word: “I’m not necessarily a food person, but I grew up half in Lebanon, and meals are really important there.”
On experience: “I’ve had three different jobs and already experienced the growing pains of a startup, which is helpful.”
On her fifteen house plants: “My favorite right now is this 5-foot-tall palm. I absolutely did not need it, I could not justify the spend, so I bought it for myself and then Venmo’d my boyfriend for it as a Valentine’s Day gift.”

“I need pragmatism and good communication, people who realize there will be handoffs and recognize that things won’t be perfect.”

Coming from big tech – he previously worked at Palantir – he is wary of that culture’s deification of pure intellect at the expense of practicality. “This is gonna sound bad, but tech companies try to hire smart people at any cost, and we need more than that here,” he added.

To that end, he is willing to experiment with his team. Dina Smither, a product engineer, came onboard with a relatively short engineering resumé – she studied graphic design and had learned to code just a year and a half before being hired. “I felt like my design experience at my previous job had pigeonholed me as a UI engineer, and I wanted to be a frontend developer,” she said. “They were really open to my background.” At the time, product was nestled inside an agency; Smither helped to transition it in-house. She likes being on such a “tight-knit” team, she said, which is further bound together by Heroux’s disinterest in excessive engineering protocols. “It’s a lot of work with such a small group, but everyone is very easygoing and no one really gets upset,” she said. It’s a good environment for cutting teeth.

With the Zagat acquisition and talk of growth-fueled infrastructure, it’s clear that The Infatuation is well past its apartment-office mythmaking days; over the past few months, they passed the inevitable milestone of building out an HR and communications team. As CEO, Stang is himself working on maturing into a more traditional leadership role. He’s gotten better, for example, at reminding himself that even on Sundays, Slacks from your boss are hard to ignore. “I’ll get really excited about things, but I need to be more aware of not talking to people off-hours and pulling them out of their day,” he said.

Polaroids from many of The Infatuation's social events

People started filtering out around 3:30 p.m., fair for a Friday, although departures around 6 p.m. aren’t abnormal the rest of the week. Stang’s wife and father-in-law arrived in anticipation of dinner plans and waited for him at the kitchen island. He wasn’t sure where they would go just yet, but he’d likely refer to his own site. “It’s pretty cool helping to run this place since we get to make something that impacts people’s daily lives.”