By Mazen Al-Angary
Jeddah Food is quite an interesting site, we have been watching since it started to take its first baby steps towards becoming the main reference among savvy food lovers in Jeddah.
What’s Up got the pleasure of meeting Jeddah Food’ founder Rashed Islam, to talk about this exciting project, and to reveal some of their upcoming exciting expansions.
WU: How long has Jeddah Food been around so far?
Rashed Islam: We started the website about two years ago, before that Jeddah Food was a simple blog.
WU: Why focused on Jeddah?
RI: I grew up in Jeddah, it’s my home town, and I spent most of my childhood here, I then moved to London for high school, and both my university undergrad and masters degrees, so when I finished my MBA, I came back to Jeddah where I started a blog, just to keep in touch with new restaurants that were opening in town, as more visitors came to the site, and started to share their favorite venues, it started to grow and developed into a full fledge website.
WU: So has the site reached a point where it can be called a money making business?
RI: Well I can say that it has developed over the years from something that started as a hobby, to a worthwhile business were it is generating enough money to keep it going. However I never started the site with this goal, my main aim was to share great places to dine with others online, the fact that it is also now a small business is just a bonus.
WU: How do you collect all this information about Jeddah? I don’t think the Jeddah Food team are cruising around town all the time, are they?
RI: No not really, although we might stumble upon some great locations ourselves, but the way it works is simple, since Jeddah is a great city with many interesting restaurants, so when a new restaurant pops up, we sometimes get tipped from people about it, by either telling us that they want to review it or ask us to go and review it ourselves, in the end Jeddah Food is all about people’s input, so it is user submitted content, a contribution from the whole community.
WU: How do you approach the restaurant or let’s say the topic, do you use the critic approach?
RI: We like to focus on the experience the reviewer has at any restaurant, and in some cases it would be unique to that visit, where the reviewer would focus on certain key issues like the quality of food, the service, and the environment. That really varies from one person to another. For example you could come to this coffee shop and have a great time, while I could come in 5 minutes later and have a terrible experience, so that is one of the things we take into account, so when you write something on Jeddah Food, it is never closed, since it is open for comments and other people’s reviews as well. Making it an aggregation of opinions.
WU: How do you categories the site?
RI: Jeddah Food is divided into categories, you have all the different restaurants and cuisines categories, so you would have the European category then from that you get Italian, French and so on. You also have other main categories like Far Eastern, American, Middle Eastern, and so on and so forth. We also offer the “Best For Section”, where you can look for the perfect place for breakfast, brunch, lunch, dinner, or even business meetings. We try to present many different ways to highlight restaurants and venues around Jeddah.
WU: How often does the site update its content?
RI: I personally visit the site everyday, to get an overview on the new updates submitted by our readers, and respond to comments.
WU: When you approach a new restaurant, do you walk in letting them know that Jeddah Food is in, reviewing the place?
RI: No way, we visit anonymously, simply because you will get a different experience if you announce yourself. Waiters might even jump-out of their way and make an extra effort to give you such an impression. So we go anonymously to get the actual experience as any other guest would. In some cases if the review isn’t favorable, the restaurant would invite us back.
WU: So they do keep an eye on your site?
RI: Some do, and when they send us an invitation, we would ask the person who reviewed the restaurant to revisit. As a rule of thumb, we often get more people who are trying to vent-out their frustration with a restaurant than people who are trying to write an objective review, in such cases we try to put the reviewer in touch with the management. We also get some reviews that we can’t publish these are picked up by our spam system and human moderators who check on the review before it goes live.
WU: How big is the Jeddah Food team?
RI: We have a team of six people at Jeddah Food, and everyone else is a contributor.
WU: Have you ever thought of providing a printed version of the site?
RI: We made a poll about that, we got a 50/50 response on that, but the benefit of the blog format is better since you get instant updates, fresh news, and a chance to listen to people’s comments, which adds a lot to the review.
WU: Does that mean that you might be working on a system or a mobile application that would deliver the sites content to mobile users?
RI: We have been working for sometime on that, we will be officially launching in a few months, since we are beta testing at this stage. Currently we are developing an application for the iPhone and Android platforms, and soon we will work on other devices like the BlackBerry and Nokia. We see a trend where mobile internet is getting a lot of attention, since it is much more convenient for people to use on the go.
WU: Will the application use geo-locations to offer places that are located around the mobile user?
RI: Of course, let me show you our iPhone app. Once you launch it, the application will know where you are located and will offer you suggestions that you can pick from, or even search live restaurants or cafes that are located near you.
On the Jeddah Food application you can also rate the restaurant or cafe the same way you would do normally on the site, you can read other reviews of the place as they are also submitted, and you can share your images with others over FaceBook and Twitter.
WU: Interesting, I can see the potential for such an application.
RI: You can also get maps of your surroundings, you can get average prices, a contact number for the restaurant, and its website, and you can also get the opening hours. So what we are trying to do is provide our users with all the information they would normally get on the site right into the palms of their hands, to make it easier for them to pick the right place.
WU: That is very exciting, when will this application be available for people to download?
RI: As I said, what you’re looking at is the beta version of the app, it should be ready within the end of April, plus we have many exciting updates to come out soon after the app is launched.
WU: What are your future plans for Jeddah Food besides having this great mobile application coming out soon?
RI: We have a plan for releasing an Arabic version of the whole site for Jeddah soon, since we are currently working on translating all our content, after that we are planning on venturing into the Riyadh market, since that was on the table for some time now, so you can expect that by the end of the year.
WU: Will the new site be called Riyadh Food?
RI: Not really since the name is already registered to another company, so we might rebrand and look for other names to use. But both sites will be linked as sister sites.
WU: Have you noticed a change in the way restaurants react towards some of the reviews on Jeddah Food?
RI: We found that many restaurant managers are proactive when it comes to that, they even subscribe to our reviews RSS feeds to stay in touch with what their clients think of their restaurants, and that is a great thing to elevate the level and quality of service provided by them. We even have restaurant owners responding to comments left on our site, which is a great thing by itself.
WU: How much traffic does the site get?
RI: We get an average of 45 to 50 thousand page visits a month, so that translates to 15,000 unique visitors. We managed to double our visitor counts since last year. And hopefully with the launch of the Arabic site we will get even more visitors to site. You have to remember that Jeddah Food is by the people for the people, so it is all about sharing knowledge in Jeddah.
WU: Okay Rashed since you’re here with me, I must ask you this, recommend a restaurant for me this evening?
RI: (Laughs) Surf to JeddahFod.com, you will find a ton of recommendations there.