Thursday, November 23, 2000
HEALTHY. SOMEDAY WEALTHY? FOODFIT OFFERS A DIFFERENT DIET AND TAKES ON A STRATEGIC CHALLENGE
WASHINGTON POST STAFF WRITER
Ellen Haas wants you to have a healthy Thanksgiving dinner. A simple roast turkey, as tradition demands, would stand at the center. On the side, maybe instead of the gloppy green-bean casserole, you could have some celeriac, rutabaga and pear puree or a ragout of chanterelles, chestnuts and cipollini onions with thyme.
Haas is chief executive of Foodfit.com, a Washington-based Web site dedicated to healthy eating. Her company which is allied with some of the biggest names in the culinary arts illustrates the business challenge facing many dot-coms that traffic in information and other Web content.
Sensing that advertising and other direct revenues from the Foodfit site will not be enough to sustain its expensive-to-produce recipes and tools for dietary analysis, the company is also seeking to license its content to others' Web operations, particularly sites operated by supermarket chains. This mirrors a strategy adopted by many other Internet content companies.
But Foodfit's Thanksgiving menu, recipes for which are currently on the site, illustrates the challenges inherent in the approach. As targeted sites rush to license their content to massive conglomerates, will their highly focused and specialized information appeal to the masses?
Haas was a senior official of the Department of Agriculture until 1997, overseeing nutrition and consumer affairs for the agency. She oversaw initiatives like establishing nutritional rules for school lunches and reworking the agency's dietary guidelines into today's ubiquitous "food pyramid."
In 1999, she applied her devotion to food that is both healthy and tasty to start Foodfit, which lets users answer a questionnaire that analyzes their eating habits and suggests recipes that might make their diets healthier.
To prepare and edit those recipes, she hired Bonnie Moore as culinary director and executive chef. Among other posts, Moore had been sous-chef at the Inn at Little Washington in Washington, Va., widely considered one of the best restaurants in the country.
Indeed, Haas has assembled many top chefs locally and nationally to serve on Foodfit's advisory board, among them Mary Sue Milliken, chef of the Border Grill in Santa Monica, Calif., who appears on cable-TVfood shows; icon Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif.; and Patrick O'Connell of the Inn at Little Washington.
Foodfit stresses organic foods, seasonal ingredients and minimal fats. "We're providing a simple, credible way for people to get the kind of information that can improve their everyday lives," said Haas.
And Moore, who edits around 25 recipes a month some she generates and some from other chefs says she goes to some length to make the dishes simple enough for the home cook. Each is tested in a home kitchen. Moore said Foodfit often simplifies the chefs' preparation techniques and avoids hard-to-find ingredients.
Foodfit's business challenge is to sell those recipes and other content to major grocery chains and food manufacturers. As Haas sees it, such companies want a rich Internet presence of their own, but don't have the money or expertise to develop content in-house. Foodfit also aims to earn revenue from advertising, marketing partnerships and sponsorships.
"Licensing alone has not proven to be sufficient as a revenue source for most companies, like advertising. But when you start putting all those things together, you start to get a business that works," said Robert Hertzberg, an Internet content analyst at Jupiter Research.
Foodfit has not yet licensed its content to corporate clients, but Haas said she is in serious negotiations with two large companies she wouldn't identify.
She argues that supermarket chains and food producers are anxious to encourage sales of organic and seasonal produce, which generally earn higher profit margins than other food products.
"They're all looking for additional marketing tools," Haas said. "We can be it."