Bostonia is published in print three times a year and updated weekly on the web.
Millions of people on the lookout for somewhere new to eat regularly turn to Yelp for guidance. Problem is, the website can be overwhelming (142 million reviews and counting), some reviewers are short-sighted and picky, and as one BU professor discovered, at least 16 percent of the site’s reviews are fake.
When it comes to Boston restaurants, two young BU alums think you should trust their taste buds and rely instead on their curated website: the Food Lens. They recommend their favorite spots in Boston—more than 70 have made the list. Their endorsements have tantalizing write-ups, like this one on Fenway barbecue spot Sweet Cheeks Q: “hefty caramelized crusts of brisket, the fork-shredding capacity of St. Louis pork ribs, and the confounding juiciness of fried chicken,” accompanied by full-width, colorful photos.
“We don’t want to overwhelm people with content,” says cofounder Sarah Jesup (CGS’10, SHA’13), who became friends with business partner Molly Ford (CGS’10, COM’12) at BU. The two bonded over a mutual love of food and travel. “We want to provide people with the best places to eat and drink in the city, and not just say, ‘Yeah, you might be able to get a good drink and burger at this place, but the rest of the menu isn’t so good,’” says Jesup, which is why they post reviews only of places they feel are worth recommending.
Unlike a website like Yelp, readers aren’t bombarded with choices.
“If you have a list of 40 places to get a burger, I stop reading that list because I get frustrated and overwhelmed,” Ford says. “So we say, less is more.”
The partners came up with the idea for the site in 2015. They had traveled extensively together to far-flung locales like Istanbul and the Caribbean when they were BU students and after they graduated. On their trips, they often felt let down by reviews they’d read on sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor. “The restaurants recommended by crowdsourced sites usually fell really flat when compared to advice from locals who knew the ins-and-outs of the food scene,” Jesup says. “We created the Food Lens to make sure that people don’t miss out on these recommendations.”
The site launched in March 2017. The former roommates coincidentally both live on Beacon Hill and work out of Jesup’s home office.
Being so enamored of food, the two often go together to check out new restaurants (“We spend our days and nights eating,” Jesup quips). They visit a restaurant several times, and once they decide it’s worth being featured on the site, they assign it to one of their five paid writers. To maintain journalistic integrity, writers do not accept freebies nor do they identify themselves as reviewers to the restaurant staff, Ford says.
“We really try to bring the reader there and give them a picture of what it would be like if they were to dine at the restaurant,” Jesup says. They also don’t hesitate to take a spot off the site if they feel its quality has gone down.
The Food Lens reviews are listed under “The Spots” heading at the top of the site. These include insider tips, like “the Lebanese Cinsaut rosé with just about everything” at the Cambridge Mediterranean restaurant Oleana. Readers can sort reviews by neighborhood, cuisine, best for, or price. Another heading, the “Food Lens Five,” contains short best-of lists for such things as the top five lobster rolls or hangover spots and the top five places to dine in the South End, Porter Square, and Back Bay. Under the “Sides” heading, you get a behind-the-scenes look at some of the people working in Boston’s food and beverage industry (like a recent Q&A with chef Joanne Chang). And the “Events” heading offers upcoming special dining happenings, like the “Truffle Week” celebration at chef Barbara Lynch’s Fort Point restaurants and a cocktail class at No. 9 Park.
For Jesup and Ford, running the Food Lens has become a full-time job, albeit one that has yet to be profitable. There is no advertising on the site, but they’re considering incorporating ads as well as finding other ways to generate revenue. They want to maintain the site’s aesthetic, the two say, and not clutter it with banner ads.
And while the site currently reviews just Boston-area restaurants, the women say it’s possible they could expand to other US cities. But they’re clear that the one place they won’t choose is New York, because it’s already an oversaturated market.
The friends acknowledge that running a website and overseeing a staff is not without its challenges. “Since we’re our own bosses, there’s always something to do, but some days you have that giant question mark. It’s a new learning curve,” Ford says. “For the launch, we were putting together all the content furiously, and now we’re learning marketing.”
“It can be intimidating, but we’ve had a really good response,” Jesup says. “I think it has made us both realize how lucky we are to be doing what we want to do and how a lot of the risks have really panned out because we get to do what we love every day.”