Industry Insiders: Jeff Zalaznick, Private Eye

Jeff Zalaznick transitioned his career from mergers & acquisitions to breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The editor-in-chief of AlwaysHungryNY.com and founder of DinePrivate.com was once a J.P. Morgan employee before finding his passion and his business partner, famed restaurateur Joe Bastianich. The native New Yorker talks about his newest online accommodation for private dining.

How was Always Hungry born? I started Always Hungry after a career in investment banking and finance and realized that food and restaurants were where my passion lay. I felt that at the time there was a huge gap in online sites that were focusing on not only the best technology for restaurant search engines — which Always Hungry has in terms of finding where to eat and what to eat when you get there — but also food-focused content. So that’s how Always Hungry was born. Always Hungry launched about a year ago.

And Dine Private was conceived from that? I was sitting at ‘inoteca with Joe Bastianich (Babbo, Spotted Pig), and he started talking about a way to sell private dining online. We started discussing the fact there was clearly a gap in the market. Private dining didn’t have an efficient sales channel. And basically a year later, we’re here. Dine Private was born out of that conversation and a lot of work in between. Always Hungry launched a year ago; I started working on it two years ago. Around the same time that I was launching Always Hungry, I started discussing Dine Private. It was launched in September.

Is there a subscription fee for Dine Private? No. Dine Private is free for the consumer, so for the customer or anyone in the business of planning events, anyone that goes to our website, it’s totally free. The goal of Dine Private is to offer the best pricing. This happens because restaurants have begun to price their rooms more competitively because they’re selling them against one another through our site. In terms of the cost to the restaurant, the restaurant pays a subscription fee and a booking commission.

How many restaurants do you have now in your database? When we launched, we chose a highly qualified group of people that we thought would be great partners in launching the site, and who could help us create the best product possible. We launched with a group of 14 restaurants that included all the BLT restaurants, the Craft restaurants, Daniel, and Babbo and Del Posto. Since then we’ve had this unbelievable response from the restaurants themselves. We’ve been inundated with requests, and at this point we’re probably signing between two and three a week. Right now we’re trying to get as many as we can and get them online so they can start booking private dining as quickly as possible.

Is Dine Private targeted towards smaller groups as well, for say, a birthday party? This is for anyone looking to plan any sort of event. From huge 200-person parties to a birthday dinner with no more than 12 people. We take over where the restaurant says, “Hold on, let me transfer you.” Whether that number is 8 people, 10 people, or 12 people, every restaurant has a threshold where you move from being a normal dinner reservation to being considered private dining or group dining. Now that person can go on Dine Private and immediately see what’s available on a certain day for a specific amount of people. That saves a lot of time. And you can do that for a party of 8 or a party of 300 people.

Are the price minimums negotiable? The whole idea is that the price that you get through us is almost the post-negotiation price because what we’ve done is create a way for the restaurant to price their room more efficiently. We hope that this creates an efficient marketplace. The goal is to save people money. For years, the private dining business was very opportunistic — they would size you up and see what kind of price they could get out of you. Now they realize that it is their benefit to be up-front with their pricing because they get better responses from their customers.

How has the customer reaction been so far? The customer reaction has been incredible. For anyone in the business of planning events, this is kind of the answer to their prayers; such an immense time saver. Instead of having to call a variety of venues to check on availability and pricing, they can get real time availability using our search engine in a matter of seconds.

What are the stipulations for the restaurants you feature? We chose the group that we chose to launch the site based on people that we thought were, in terms of their private dining practices, somewhat diverse, but were also set up to work through this and perfect the product with us. It’s not meant to seem like those are the only places we’re working with. Right now we’re working on signing up everyone from 20-person restaurants in the LES to different Mexican, Chinese, and Japanese restaurants — really all over the place at a variety of different price points. For us, all you need to have to be on Dine Private is a private room or real estate that you’re able to have a private event.

How are you marketing the site? Right now we’re working with a lot of people in the events business, whether it’s from concierge services to people that work within the big banks or law firms on the admin side to help plan events. We’re directly targeting them and their consumer through a variety of consumer benefit systems, and we’re also going to do some special events.

Are you still working day-to-day on Always Hungry? Now I run Dine Private on a day-to-day basis, but I still do Always Hungry and oversee everything there. Right now I have both.

Do you ever get any criticism on the top five lists? We don’t get too much criticism, but I definitely get emails all the time about it. It’s definitely something people love to discuss and argue over. It brings up great conversations and sometimes someone will bring something out of left field that changes my opinion.

And then will you edit the list? No. Once the lists are done — they’re done. But we’re always trying to do new ones to make them more and more accurate.

How many nights a week do you eat out? Seven. And most lunches, too. I’m lucky enough for it to be my business, so a lot of time it’s business related, but I would be doing it regardless.

What are your go-to spots? I have a different favorite for everything. For Italian I love Michael White at Marea, I could have the octopus and bone marrow pasta anytime. I love Del Posto, I love what they’re doing at Locanda Verde. For Chinese, I love Chinatown Brasserie.

Where do you go out after dinner? Recently I’ve been going to the Boom Boom Room. When I’m not there, sometimes I go to Southside, Avenue, places like that.