The year was 2005, and six months into his new job, Nish Nadaraja was worried. His new project was doing well in his home city of San Francisco, but it was not really taking off in a big way on a national level.
“I was thinking of going back to my old job!” he says.
That old job was for a boutique marketing agency called Ammo Marketing, where Nadaraja had worked on campaigns for Method Home, Miller High Life, and Volvo, all traditional companies. His new project was based on an amazingly simple premise, ask a question on the internet. The very first question, developed by the company’s CEO when he had a cold, was “Can anyone recommend a good doctor?”
That company became Yelp and Nadaraja became their Head of Brand and Community. The rest is history.
“It’s what I call a slow growth model, built with authenticity over numbers and downloads. I remember thinking that if we could replicate the magic we were having in SF we could be onto something,” says Nadaraja.
One of their main goals was how to get a very nascent community to participate by writing reviews and giving answers/opinions for local recommendations. In 2005, certain markets could be dominated by one critic, especially for instance, the restaurant industry. Nadaraja reasoned that more voices were better, but that too many voices might be too much.
“The Yelp Elite was a way to offer a carrot for behavior and actions that led to more community: reviews, lists, participating on Talk, etc.” he says. “It was also a test to model behavior, so if we could get say 100 awesome Yelpers to be positive but fair, post a lot of content, interact with each other. We thought this would catch fire.”
It did. Nadaraja, (employee #6) left Yelp in 2010 to become an independent brand contractor and along the way has invested in several San Francisco restaurants including Foreign Cinema. He recently signed on as an advisor (with a focus on brand and community) to WUNDER, a SF cannabis beverage company, and in February moved to San Anselmo. Recently we caught up with the now 48 year-old Nadaraja.
JB) You know Michael Bauer, have worked for Yelp, and you are an investor in a few SF eateries, so you have a unique insight into both sides of the restaurant/review equation. How do you view what Yelp has done to/for the restaurant community?
NN) Yes, Michael was actually an early fan of Yelp, or at least he got the idea. For me personally, I loved reading about new places and then going to try them myself. Guess the idea had some legs. Of course, Yelp has not always been great, but I think overall it’s a force for good and for supporting local businesses. The current management seems to have lost their way a bit, but the intention is still there. As we are seeing with cancel culture, it’s not Yelp, but human nature that probably is at the core of negativity. I do think Yelp has worked hard to build features that help businesses react better to reviews and promote their business as well.
JB) The restaurant business is changing. Do you have any insights on where it might be heading?
NN) I think we are going to just be happy to be out socializing and seeing other people as we dine. That’s the best trend! I’m hoping to see feasts, and by that, I mean supper clubs, bar carts at your table for made-to-order martinis, coursed meals. I also think we are going to see more loyalty or subscription models, sort of like Patreon for restaurants. Feastin is one example, so is Third Place.
JB) The review business is also changing. More and more voices/platforms seem to be entering the fray. Are too many voices too much?
NN) I do think there’s a lot of noise out there but that’s where social media is headed. The paradox of choice is that we’ll find specific sources to get our information to try and control the funnel better. I’m hoping technology will let us find the reviews and opinions that match up to our profiles better. I don’t mean so we just have a bunch of “yes” men out there but more filtered, better bits of information.
JB) You recently became involved with WUNDER, a SF based cannabis beverage company. What is your role and what informed that decision?
NN) I’ve been in the cannabis space for about 5 years now, always in a branding capacity. At the end of the day, good products are just that, and cannabis is ultimately just a CPG type of industry. WUNDER is a perfect example of that direction. It’s a fun and gorgeous cannabis-infused sparkling beverage, with packaging to match. I came on as an advisor a few months ago, which just gives me a more vested and official interest in seeing them do and be better.
JB) Licensing with regards to cannabis, especially regarding on sale alcohol, can be quite tricky. Right now, alcohol and cannabis (either THC or CBD) cannot be combined legally on one premises. Do you envision a restaurant model that omits alcohol entirely in favor of cannabis?
NN) I’m hoping cannabis just factors into a larger spirits selection, or at least a CBD variation. At home, I have been known to make a rather excellent WUNDER & gin concoction and I’m just an amateur. From my experience and from talking to hundreds of customers over the years, I think cannabis can be everything from a replacement to alcohol to just a relaxing alternative. Would I go to a cannabis only restaurant, though? Yes, and there have been some private supper clubs that have done that here in San Francisco.
1 ½ ounces Square One Organic vodka* (or Santo tequila*, or Blackened whiskey*)
2 ½ ounces WUNDER Lemon Ginger Lift
1 Meyer lemon wheel
1 Nicholas Collection insulated copper cup from CorkPops* (or standard Moscow Mule cup)
Combine all liquid ingredients in the insulated copper mug with ice. Garnish with lemon wheel and ponder the beauty of Marin County through your home window.
*All companies begun and/or located in Marin County.
Disclaimer: never operate a vehicle under the influence of either cannabis or alcohol, and certainly not both.