It’s a typical KL scene: two people sit down to eat. Before they pick up a spoon to dig into the food, cameras are raised and the plates tilted towards the light. Photos must come first.
Most of us are guilty of this foodporn habit. But Sean Yoong has a good excuse. He is the founder and editor of Eat Drink KL, one of Malaysia’s most widely read food blogs.
On the page, being a food blogger sounds like a dream job. As Sean himself says, “Calling myself a ‘full time blogger’ makes me sound like such a slacker. It’s one step above full time DVD watcher.”
Yet, as Sean reveals, there are hidden responsibilities to the role. For one thing, people ask him where to propose to their girlfriends – a question that he really doesn’t relish answering.
But let’s go back in time. Back to when Sean was just a guy who enjoyed eating out. One evening in 2009, a friend persuaded him to start his own blog. The same night, he set up a blogspot account – and typed in the first name he could think of: Eat Drink KL.
He tells me that if he had known this would last, he would have chosen a different name. But as it was, the literal title of the blog was a lucky accident, sending it to the top of search results on Google.
Today, Eat Drink KL gets about 200,000 unique visitors a month. There are more than 2000 reviews in the archives. New restaurants know that a review on the website translates into real foot traffic – and anticipate a visit from the mysterious man behind the blog.
In person, Sean Yoong comes across as a polite, understated guy. Quick to make self-deprecating jokes, he’s not somebody to throw around his influence. He also tells me that not in this business for the attention or the freebies: a fact that makes him feel old.
“It was before people actually realized blogging could become something that would get that attention”
“Those of us who started blogging before 2010… we started blogging because just enjoyed eating out and we wanted to capture these experiences. It was before people actually realised blogging could become something that would get that attention, free meals. It was purely for personal gratification.”
“But it’s evolved since then. Now, it seems a lot of people are in it for getting invitations to glamorous events and free meals. Even Instagram is turning into a business,” he says.
Of course, Eat Drink KL is a business too. But surprisingly, Sean only started monetizing the blog in 2013: four years after he first posted a review.
During the early years, he spent his own money to review restaurants, refusing invitations for free meals. “My friends were telling me, you’ve got a good brand, why aren’t you capitalising on it?”
His first foray into business was an e-book guide featuring 100 recommended places for food and drink. Sean asked restaurants to advertise and the response was enough to convince him that this could be a viable business. Four months later, he resigned from his job as a political reporter.
Yet, even now, Sean wants to retain the original feel of the blog. There is very minimal advertising on Eat Drink KL and the blog is still hosted on Blogspot. He confesses that this is partly down to his own lack of tech savvy. “It’s a matter of laziness and convenience,” he says. “I have the dot com registered just in case.”
However, others have been keen to buy into the brand. The publishing company The Expat Group set up EatDrink.MY last year, essentially a syndicated version of Sean’s blog. Sean provides the content for a fee. On his own blog, he continues to publish one post a day, visiting two or three places in one day sometimes. The downside to this? An “expanding waistline, he chuckles.
On top of all this, Sean launched a new project in March this year: a smartphone app. “There was no app specifically for KL restaurants before, beyond directories”, he says, explaining the concept. The Eat Drink KL app combines a directory with a photo-sharing platform and discounts. Users can access discounts of 6% at a range of local restaurants, countering the effects of GST.
In order to activate the discount, users upload a photo of the restaurant, which is then shared in the feed. For every transaction, the restaurant also channels 20 sen to a charity and pays a commission to Eat Drink KL. Users upload a photo of their receipt as proof of the transaction.
To date there are about 4000 registered users. In its first two months, the app raised more than RM300 for the Dignity for Children foundation. The next charity to benefit will be the Nasi Lemak Project, a youth initiative to help feed the homeless.
Sean doesn’t see this as just another discount gimmick. “It’s also an avenue to create more goodwill between customers and restaurants,” he says. He mentions how quickly relations between customers and restaurants can break down – especially with Facebook as a platform for complaints, rage and social media mismanagement.
But surely he must have some pet peeves of his own? Not every restaurant serves good food, after all. “If a restaurant is blatantly overcharging,” he says, that’s a personal gripe.
“Nobody starts a restaurant hoping to be mediocre.”
Generally, though, Sean’s attitude is to scrupulously nice. “I get asked for tips about blogging. My advice – though they might not like it – is to be kind. Because I’ve learned from visiting these thousands of restaurants over the years that nobody starts a restaurant hoping to be mediocre. Everyone wants to create a place that they hope people will enjoy.”
The app is another sign that Eat Drink KL is a brand with enough clout to rally a community. This is important, because as Sean himself knows, the blogosphere is built on shifting sands.
“Six years ago, people would actually read what the bloggers say. Now it’s pretty much just looking at pictures. Food bloggers are actually dinosaurs. The younger set are posting on Instagram. So why bother taking the time to blog when you can do it in less than half the time?”
Despite the competition, however, Sean still seems to be winning the speed race. He is often the first person to review a new restaurant, beating Instagrammers and magazine critics alike. He says that his friends are his “spies” when it comes to finding new spots. But he also has a detective’s instinct, as I discover.
After lunch, we’re driving through Damansara Perdana. When we stop at a red light, Sean draws my attention to a sign that’s just about hidden from full view of the road. You would only notice if you stopped at this particular traffic light and had very keen eyes. “Now that,” he says. “Doesn’t that look like a restaurant to you?”
Words and photos by Ling Low.
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