JJust over 10 years ago, Star-Ledger food writer Pete Genovese pitched his editor on a summer promotion to explore the unique, local food specialties of New Jersey's local eateries.
Readers were engaged — they suggested the foods to try and the local eateries that should be sampled.
Readers were involved — the decision was made to bring several readers along each Saturday to compare notes on the food sampled, and Pete's coverage would be about the food and the readers' reactions. A van was chartered and the Star-Ledger Munchmobile was born.
My first summer at the Star-Ledger was 2006, and my curiosity was peaked one morning in May when a whimsically decaled passenger van sporting an eight-foot fiberglass hot dog (complete with bun and mustard) on its roof, appeared in the newspaper parking lot. I had to investigate.
What I learned was that this unlikely mobile tribute to gastronomy was the Star-Ledger Munchmobile, the center of a cult-like readership following. Thousands of readers registered on a waiting list for their turn to be a featured weekly “muncher” and travel New Jersey's roads with Pete. The Saturday excursions, likely to run much of the 200-mile length of New Jersey, were detailed each week in full color on the cover of the following Friday's feature section.
Chatting with pilot/food writer Pete Genovese, I realized that the thousands of people with hopes of riding the Munchmobile would wait in vain. With a capacity of six weekly riders and a 15-week summer schedule, only a select few would ever fulfill their dreams. What an opportunity!
I pitched Pete on the concept of a new event, the “Mass Munch.” Instead of driving the van and six guests to eight restaurants scattered across the state, we would recruit eight to 12 restaurants to a central location, park the van and invite Pete's legions of fans to join us to get acquainted, compare the food offerings and enjoy the day. The inaugural “Jersey Fresh Shore Chef Crabcake Cook-off” was born. And we sold $24,000 worth of crabcakes in five hours.
That was 2007, and it was the beginning.
Since that hot August afternoon Pete's incredible popularity and tireless efforts have parlayed the Munchmobile into a franchise in its own right. The Friday feature now has a dedicated web blog (www.nj.com/munchmobile ) and the Saturday excursions are featured in video. Along the way, Pete has edited two books (specially designed to fit in a vehicle's glove compartment) to guide travelers to the best local dining opportunities.
The Munchmobile celebrated its 10th anniversary with a picnic on the roof of our parking garage and a new theme song selected from a contest engaging — you guessed it — our readers.
This year the Munchmobile summer opened with a hot dog festival on the Memorial Day holiday, and the ever-more popular crabcake cook-off was presented in mid-season (sales exceeded $65,000 in year three). We celebrated the United States' Labor Day end-of-summer holiday with a BBQ & Brew tasting. The craft beer event was a hit. We featured a two-ounce tasting glass and 10 tastes for $10 and generated $31,000 on the beer tastings alone — and now we have a new beer blog (www.nj.com/beer).
So what is my point? Simple. Have fun, work hard and learn to treasure the things that your readers value. We haven't put a paywall up to charge readers to read Pete's blog — but they are paying to meet Pete, attend his events, and read his books!
We have identified half a dozen opportunities to emulate the Munchmobile's financial and audience development success and are well on our way to duplicating this model in sports, business, politics and travel content areas.
The last Saturday in October we generated nearly $300,000 presenting a day-long program of financial planning and programs at an area college featuring our own “Biz Brain” columnist, local experts and media personalities. We packed the auditorium with over 1,000 (paying) attendees and renewed our sponsors before they left at the end of the day.
Interested in some moderate risk-taking? Step outside the box and explore opportunities in your market. Drop me an e-mail — I love to hear new ideas!