The Facebook of Food? Foodily Makes Meal Planning Social

2/2/11Follow @wroush

Eating is usually a social experience. But choosing what to eat—that’s the more solitary pursuit. In most families, the meal planning, not to mention the shopping and the cooking, falls to one person, usually a busy mom who’s toiling alone until the food is on the table.

There’s a startup in San Mateo, CA, that wants to change that. It’s called Foodily, and last year its founders, a group of former Yahoo executives, raised $5 million in venture support from Index Ventures to introduce a slick recipe-search site drawing on hundreds of sources around the Web, including both commercial sites like AllRecipes.com and Epicurious and popular food blogs like Closet Cooking (which specializes in recipes that can be prepared in a tiny, closet-sized kitchen). Foodily presents search results in a unique side-by-side format that makes it easy to compare photos, ratings, and ingredient lists for different recipes.

But that was only the spadework for the real service Foodily’s founders envisioned, which was more like a social network for meal planners. And today the startup has turned on new features that bring that vision to life, by allowing Foodily users to share favorite recipes and whole menus and food-related events with friends.

“There couldn’t be a more frequently asked question than ‘What do you want to eat today,’” says Andrea Cutright, Foodily’s co-founder and CEO. “But it’s a category where the online experience is still rather dated. You go to Google, you enter ‘cauliflower gratin,’ you get 80 million results, and none of them are connected to what people will really eat or what your friends like.” The answer, Cutright says, is social search—one of the rare slices of the Web search market where Google isn’t yet dominant.

Most of Foodily’s new features tap into users’ existing social networks via Facebook Connect. That means you’ll need an account at Facebook, and a network of friends, to take advantage of them. The first order of business is to assemble individual recipes that you find via Foodily into a menu. As a Super Bowl meal for a big group of friends, for example, you might serve spinach stuffed mushrooms, Thai chicken wings, beef stew, and blondies. (The examples are from Foodily design director Phillip Bensaid, not me—I’m neither a carnivore nor much of a football fan.) If you mark the stuffed mushrooms recipe as a favorite in Foodily, it will appear in your Facebook news feed, where your friends will have the opportunity to “like” or comment on your choice.

From within Foodily, you can also set up your Super Bowl party by creating a private event listing on Facebook and inviting selected friends, who can chitchat with you about the menu on the event page. Finally, here’s the feature that truly makes Foodily social, even after the Super Bowl: Every search you do on Foodily will highlight recipes favorited by your friends as the top results.

Cutright says a 2010 survey by AllRecipes.com highlighted the need for such features. Asked whether they pay attention to the user ratings on Web-published recipes, 100 percent of AllRecipes’ users said yes. But 80 percent said they’d actually prefer to choose recipes by asking their friends. “It’s a level of knowledge and context and comprehension that helps people make a real decision,” says Cutright. “And on top of that, it helps them to have a conversation. If you are coming to my Super Bowl party and I see that you like chili, I am going to make that for you.”

You won’t see ads on Foodily anytime soon. The startup, which has 12 employees and got seed funding from TellMe veteran and current Flipboard CEO Mike McCue before bringing in the Index investment last summer, plans to make money by working with food distributors to pair search results with coupons. “The money in recipes isn’t in ads, it’s in food,” says Cutright, who held a variety of senior marketing positions at Yahoo from 1999 to 2007. In fact, foods purchased using online coupons added up to $56 billion in the U.S. in 2009, she says. She said Foodily’s crawling and indexing algorithms are especially good at understanding the ingredients in Web recipes, which means the startup is “uniquely suited to match coupons to recipes…no one else has our technology to be able to do that.”

In an interview with Cutright last week, I suggested that Foodily was trying to be “the Facebook of food.” She replied that having Facebook’s reach would certainly be nice, but she came back with a different comparison. “Foodily is to food like Qwiki is to information,” Cutright said, referring to the hot San Francisco-based startup that automatically assembles Web reference material on millions of subjects into narrated multimedia summaries. By presenting recipes side by side, in a horizontally scrolling format that feels reminiscent of flipping through a cookbook or a food magazine, Foodily is trying to “bring back the joy of browsing,” Cutright says. The combination of commercial and food-blog content also sets the site apart—as do the new social features. Says the CEO, “It’s a level of engagement that doesn’t exist around food online.”

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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