By Daniel Roberts, reporter
FORTUNE -- When it comes to online recipes, readers' eyes are just as vital as their stomachs. Gojee, which launched in July, offers recipes in a slideshow format, with stunning photos of the finished product splashed across the screen. Clicking on a dish directs readers to the web page of an individual food blogger with the recipe's full details. The site just nabbed its first major funding, a $1.2 million seed round led by Kapor Capital.
Gojee CEO Michael LaValle, a West Point graduate who joined the infantry and spent a year in Afghanistan, returned to his hometown New York City in 2006 and spent three years at Morgan Stanley in the technology investing group. There he met co-founder Tian He, now Gojee's VP of Engineering, and the two hatched a plan to start the company together. The goal: use data to offer a new experience in online recipe hunting. Says LaValle, "No one was doing anything intelligent around harnessing food data to deliver something cool and useful."
Gojee makes use of data by linking up with supermarket loyalty cards to learn which items have been purchased, customizing recipes it displays by what ingredients are actually in the fridge or pantry. Currently, Gojee is only partnered with D'Agostino's, a Manhattan-based grocer, but users can also manually enter ingredients they have on hand or generally prefer to use.
The potential interest to supermarkets is obvious. "We have seen recipes on the Internet becoming a monster thing that customers are interested in," says Nick D'Agostino III, CEO of the eponymous chain. "I can provide you with a hell of a lot of recipes that meet your requirements, but that you'd never eat. You'd have to tell us 'Okay, I don't like salt, but I also don't like kumquats.'" D'Agostino's customers are an ideal test population for Gojee to find out what works and what doesn't.
What works, LaValle believes, is the way Gojee personalizes the experience, more so than sites like Epicurious, Yummly or the Food Network, big recipe outlets that make up Gojee's main competition. "Their sites always give the same experience," he says. Sounding annoyed, he ticks off a long list of similarities he perceives between his competitors – their layouts, search function and their tone.
Gojee, he says, is the only site responding to changes in Web usage. "The entire way of navigating the web is going to evolve in the next three years, so that led us to fullscreen photos and being able to swipe on a tablet or click left to right on a keyboard."
Perhaps Gojee's most surprising feature is that its recipes are hand-selected from chef blogs that the staff (seven full-time employees) vets. "Every blog we feature has to have great pictures, obviously, but also a unique perspective," LaValle says. "You get to step into their world. If you want to find good food bloggers, there's only our site."
Joshua Stokes is one of those food bloggers. A private chef in New York, Stokes has had a number of his recipes featured on Gojee and says that he's noticed a spike in traffic thanks to the site. He sees both advantages and challenges in Gojee's efforts to take on the larger recipe sites. "A flaw with, say, the Food Network site is that if Bobby Flay throws up a recipe, people will try it no matter what, because it's his," says Stokes. Stokes adds that if these recipes from brand-name chefs disappoint, users tend to abandon them, feeling defeated. They might not try cooking it again.
Still, sites like Food Network have the advantage of built-in audience and traffic dominance. "I've tried all the big recipe sites, mostly because, when I Google a recipe, they're the first to come up," admits Stokes. "It's hard to take on the Google (GOOG) factor."
Stephen DeBerry of Kapor says they invested in Gojee because the VC firm is increasingly interested in healthy food and in startups with a social impact. "We want to help get out of this wagging a finger at the consumer for lifestyle choices, and Gojee does it in a beautiful, fun way," he says. "On the back-end, there are some great opportunities once you learn what people are eating and connect it to retail. The data dimension is what really impressed us." Gojee is the first food-related startup Kapor has invested in directly.
If Gojee is going to grow, it'll need to aggressively announce its presence. Even with its creative features, it's starting from the bottom of a steep hill, at the top of which sit the more established recipe sites. Though Gojee won't disclose its traffic, the company says it has members in 199 different countries, and in has just doubled its stable of food writers, from 80 to 160. Its Google Chrome app has nearly 30,000 users.
"Food is a changing market," says Stokes. "Those other sites have the resources to change, but not always the wherewithal to see what changes are going to happen or should."
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