An increasing number of us look to one place for our content: the internet. We are the 21st century’s digital tribe of subscribers, with automatically renewing credit card payments that dole out money to platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime and Audible.
As unquestioning as I am about this culture of consumption, I was still wary when I discovered a start-up that many have referred to as the “Spotify of cookbooks”. Can a cookbook ever be digitised, I wondered? The allure of it, to many, lies in the ability of the reader to hold the book — dog-eared pages and spice stains included — imagining elaborate dinner parties and painstakingly-constructed dishes.
But New York-based Nadia Arumugam and London-based Matthew Cockerill, co-founders of ckbk, a recently-launched platform that provides users access to content from hundreds of cookbooks, believe that the time is right for such a concept to take hold. “The digital model works particularly well for cookbooks because they are reference books, unlike fiction,” says Arumugam. “You keep going back to recipes that you love, recipes that you know. And ckbk gives you ‘all-you-can-eat’ access to this enormous wealth.”
Launched in April this year, the platform works on a ‘freemium’ model catering to home cooks (there is also a version for professional cooks, launched in June). All users can view three recipes a month, and for a monthly fee of $8.99 (approximately ₹644), they can gain access to around 80,000 recipes from over 350 cookbooks, including classics by culinary stalwarts like Marcella Hazan, Heston Blumenthal and even Balbir Singh’s 1961 tome on Indian cooking. Many of the books are titles that were included in the founders’ earlier 1,000 Cookbooks project, a compilation of the best cookbooks ever written, as decided by a panel of 800 food experts from around the world, including Nigella Lawson, Daniel Boulod and Wolfgang Puck.
Armed with this list of titles, the ckbk team went to the publishers to license the content — not just individual recipes, but the entire book, including the forwards and personal anecdotes — in an effort to replicate the cookbook experience as authentically as possible. That process, along with the data conversion process, has taken the team more than two years. Last year, a Kickstarter campaign saw more than 800 people back the project, making a commitment to pay for content, with the ckbk team raising more than double its $25,000 goal.
And asking users to pay for content is a fair ask, believe the founders, especially because revenue is shared with the licensing partners. “In the digital world, people expect everything for free, and that’s the antithesis of what we’re trying to do,” shares Arumugam. “We’re saying to users, ‘recognise the value in paid content because it’s quality content, and there’s a reason why you have to pay for it.’”
For the millennial generation — which witnessed the explosion of food blogs and recipes generated in seconds by a quick Google search — ckbk provides the opportunity to return to a more traditional format of recipe reading, but in a familiar, tech-friendly interface which, like all other subscription platforms, uses its algorithms to provide users with a curated experience (the more you use it, the more suggestions it will be able to provide for your next meal). Arumugam, 38, laughs and points out that she can also be considered part of the millennial generation, and that her background as a cookbook writer helps bridge the gap between the culinary resources of the print era and today’s digital world. It also, she points out, helps us skip the fatigue of Googling a recipe, to discover 150,000 results, most of them unvetted. “Today, people are so interested in where their food comes from, and if you’re making a real investment in your food, you want to know that what you make with it is actually going to be something you want to eat,” she adds. It also enables classic authors and experts to be rediscovered by a new generation.
Born in Malaysia to Tamil parents of Indian descent, raised in London and now settled in New York, (where she lives with her husband and two sons), Arumugam is quick to credit her multicultural upbringing for her culinary interests. By her own admission though, her life wasn’t always this immersed in food. She studied English Literature at Oxford before doing a Master’s in International Relations at the London School of Economics. A brief stint as a political risk analyst followed, but a keenness for food sent her back to school, this time for a culinary diploma. “My interest in international relations is actually really deeply embedded in my interest in food,” she says. “Food serves as a focal lens to understand how human beings interact in the evolution of communities and society.”
The next 15 years saw her working as a journalist, food writer and cookbook author. It was her most recent cookbook, Women Chefs of New York (2015) that, in a circuitous way, started her ckbk journey. An introduction by her publisher to Cockerill — who had pioneered open access in the field of scientific journals — got the ball rolling. The duo started working together in 2016, and after stepping in as an angel investor, Arumugam came on board as co-founder.
And it was her experience as a recipe developer — crafting processes from scratch for home cooks — that revealed to her the importance of access to the classics. But even as a cookbook author herself, Arumugam laughingly admits that when she’s looking for a recipe, her first course of action is to go online. “It seemed such a missed opportunity not have the wealth of culinary resources that are within the covers of all of these great cookbooks,” she says. “The fact is, they weren’t online, and they weren’t digital.” Making a cookbook instantly searchable and accessible even while you’re sitting at work, thinking about what to make for dinner — that is what makes the platform so useful, she says.
With three rounds of funding already, ckbk is raising yet another round, and plans for the future include integrated shopping lists that are sent directly to a user’s preferred grocery delivery site, personalised ‘playlists’ of recipes and recommendations for desserts and side dishes to go with your entrée, and more nutritional information for the recipes. The founders share that there is a 65 percent conversion rate from the 14-day free trial to paid membership, and a 91 percent retention on membership renewal from one month to the next. Also on the cards are B2B partnerships, including one with BSH, the German home appliance company (parent company to Bosch and Siemens, among others), where some of the brand’s smart ovens will come with free access to ckbk (to be unveiled in the UK). Future plans include integrating the technology of smart kitchens to allow users to craft menus based on what they have in their refrigerators.
Updated Date: Sep 15, 2019 13:39:10 IST