Thursday, August 4, 2011

This Week in Blogstralia: The Employee Lounge

Every now and again I find a URL in my browser that leads to some great work being done in the blogosphere. The Employee Lounge is this week's great-work example.

Linh Trieu, speaking on behalf of herself and blog partner Tina Magee-Jenks, was kind enough to spend some of her time with the House of Georges in an effort to educate us on what it is that goes on in the Lounge. Our conversation, after the jump.

bankmeister: Let me start by saying that, in a sense, The Employee Lounge is a perfect example of my worst nightmare. But wait, I mean that in a good way. That is, your blog(s) embody most everything I’d like mine to, but it does not. You’ve got good design, unique artwork, consistent posting, and a great concept. As someone who’s logged many a chef hour in Kansas City kitchens, I love the idea of the Lounge. It’s fresh, fun, and always, I imagine, going to give you new material. So on the surface, the idea of interviewing hospitality employees and posting those conversations with original photography is big-time facepalm material in my mind. As in, it’s one of those why-didn’t-I-think-of-that sort of moments. Regardless, kudos to you both for giving birth to the concept.

Employee Lounge: To respond to that, even though there was no question posed, I've had a personal blog for a few years and it was none of those things, consistent, original or conceptually focused. I was all over the place, but it was good practice and of course, a great learning experience. Reading other blogs is also really important. Seeing how other people do things is just as important as what their content is.

bankmeister: Indeed. And this seems like a good opportunity to get the questions rolling, so walk me through the process of how the Lounge got off the ground. Actually, back up a step. The bit the Pitch blog did on the Lounge says that Linh used to work with Tina’s husband. Sketch out the networking framework of how Linh and her husband’s idea transformed into Linh and Tina’s project. Did it happen overnight, or was it one of those things that was casually discussed before finally saying, No, really -– let’s do this thing.

Employee Lounge: Our collaboration happened pretty quickly. The Employee Lounge was just a name I came up with for a pie-in-the-sky restaurant concept, but it was one that was always about community. It was just going to be a place you could escape to during your work day. I took a lot of the things that George and I talked about and applied it to the blog, like the Employee of the Month. Now, that's our most popular post on the blog every month. But pipe dreams don't pay the bills so I got my first corporate job where I met Chris Magee-Jenks. We were cube buddies, font nerds and avid blog readers. Almost every day, we'd be messaging each other about cool stuff we'd see on the computer.

That's one of the things I really loved about working in an office, the friendship and sharing of ideas and inspiration. One day, Chris came to me for advice about how to promote his wife's photography business. The conversation ended up with me pitching the blog concept and asking if she'd be willing to work with me. She was about to get back into nannying, I had just quit my job and here we are. The timing was right; Tina and I are both in the similar stages of our careers so we work really well together.

bankmeister: Walk me through the events leading up to your first post back in March. Did it feel, heading into the initial assembly of it, like it was a lot of work, and now it comes easier, or was it a breeze from day one?

Employee Lounge: I am not a planner and Tina likes working that way too. We spent one day setting up the framework on the blog, knowing that we wanted to keep things simple. Then, we went to people we knew in the service industry and started posting fast and furious. It's important to have content so we posted as many people as we could. After that we slowed down to one post a day, which caused our numbers to go down. We realized that we had to diversify the content to keep things interesting. Now, we collaborate with other bloggers and brainstorm design-related projects. We want to keep using our other skills in design and illustration. In some ways, it's always been a lot of work. Mostly, it's super fun and it keeps us motivated, so we enjoy all of it, the ups and the downs.

bankmeister: Early in the archives there’s a lot of Tannin and Hotel Rieger action going on, and in the Pitch piece, you talk about choosing a venue first, seeing who’s available second. You also, in that article, say that “the only thing it costs” you is your “time.” Is that a possibility because of the way you quote/unquote choose your subjects? Have you encountered any resistance from establishment staffs in the form of, Oh you should really come back after lunch, or tomorrow when so-and-so’s working, or have your receptions been 100 percent positive?

Employee Lounge: I have friends at both The Rieger and Tannin so they were a big help for the first days of our blog. If you can't go to your friends first, who can you go to? You don't have to explain the shit out of things to them, they just say, Cool, I'll help you. Honestly, there will continue to be Rieger and Tannin posts in the future because I hang out there a lot.

Now that we do "restaurant snapshots," it costs us a bit of money too. We never, ever ask for anything free (well, we did ask some restaurants to donate gift certificates to our EOM, but it wasn't for us). Everyone is running a business and we understand that. We try to be respectful and remain professional (to the best of our ability, (sometimes I have too much to drink)). We have definitely been turned away. People are naturally suspicious when you come in their doors with a big camera. Or they think we're trying to sell them something. But it's no biggie, there are tons of people we can talk to. We have learned that it doesn't hurt to send an e-mail in advance sometimes, but mostly we work without a schedule.

bankmeister: Describe for me, if you will, the process of assembling a post.

Employee Lounge: Tina and I Google chat all day long. It starts like this: Where are we going today? What time? Once we have a rough idea, I pick her up and we get started. I interview, she shoots. We use Blogger and can access it at the same time. She processes and posts the pictures, I write the bio and link to everything related. Then I post links on Twitter and Facebook.

bankmeister: Regarding the photography, I noticed a pattern in the posts. There seems to be a fairly conservative beginning picture that captures the subject’s upper body, and then there are a couple more shots that take, if you will, some creative liberties. For example, the photographer seems to like hands and feet, or having something like a cell phone on a table be the foreground, and the subject more in the background for those secondary shots. Is this a fair assessment?

Employee Lounge: We discussed how we wanted to shoot our subjects only in the beginning, inspired by a photographer who created triptychs made up of three different subjects to create a full-length standing portrait. Portraiture is not just about the face. It's also in the way they stand or sit, or make a certain gesture. Focusing in on those details tells a deeper story.

bankmeister: And how about tattoos? They seem to always get some lens attention if the subject’s sporting some ink.

Employee Lounge: Even though neither of us have tattoos, we appreciate the art form. Since we both come from art backgrounds, we try to include all kinds of art as much as possible, whether it's tattoos, restaurant graphics, fashion or food.

bankmeister: What about the writing end of things? I’ve seen some posts that get the token paragraph, then other subjects get three chunky ones. And there’re one or two folks who barely had four lines scratched out about them. Is there a mold or an outline for each post, or does some form of time, availability, and the subject dictate what the post will look like?

Employee Lounge: I only write what they say. Some people are more talkative than others. Some days I'm a better interviewer. Other days, I can barely remember what the next question is. A lot of things affect the outcome, like how well I know them, but I don't stress about the length of each post. I think people who visit our blogs are there to look at the photos more than they do for my writing.

bankmeister: The blog’s subtitle is something I’d like to discuss. Have you found it tricky to get a post a day published? More specifically, are the two of you working full time and working on the blog in your spare time? Have you made any efforts to monetize it, and if not, will you in the future?

Employee Lounge: Well, we try to post two a day. A profile plus something related.You can't be a daily if you don't post everyday, and sometimes it can be hard. We only have content if we make time to go out and interview people. But if one of us goes on vacation, we have posts backed up and ready. Last month though, our one-week break turned into a three-week break, so that was tricky. I fill in for Tina sometimes with some food or KC shots. We both freelance so our schedules are more flexible. For now we haven't made any efforts to make money from our blog, mainly because we want to prove to ourselves the value of our work and our content. But it's is definitely something we'd like to see happen in the future.

bankmeister: The best part about the subtitle, though, is the commitment, if I may call it that, to making Kansas City better. This is stupendous and commendable on levels immeasurable. Very cool. Do you look forward to that part of a subject’s interview more, or is it more interesting to learn about the subjects themselves? Have you ever considered rewording the final question?

Employee Lounge: This question makes our blog cohesive, but it's the hardest question we ask. It's easy to talk about yourself. I like learning about the people more and no, we have no immediate plans or rewording our KC question.

bankmeister: Allow me to clarify: To each his own, and if eight out of 10 people want to say “more public transportation,” then fine. What about not leaving it so open-ended? I have no idea how this would work, but off of the top of my head, you could allow them to suppose they were given the government checkbook for a day, or were put in charge of a rally, or an exhibition.

Employee Lounge: That's a good idea actually. But honestly, I think if they got the government checkbook, the people who answered public transport would use that check for public transportation. It's maddening that we keep talking about light rail year after year, but there is never any progress! That's why we support biking as much as we can through links and information on the blog. Baby steps. We keep it open-ended because we don't want to influence their answer.

bankmeister: I know I’m getting philosophical about the thing, but it’s tough to see many folks have ideas that they may never again revisit. Also, you should make weather/landform gripes unacceptable. Enough, though, about me telling you how to run your own blog.

Employee Lounge: Ha! Mountains and an ocean would be nice though!

bankmeister: Let'sreturn to the positive. The features that are not subject profiles are really cool. The guess-where-we-ares, the weekend link love, the outtakes, the industry detours, the guest posts, all of them. I’ve always felt like the more feature ideas you can come up with, the better the blog will be. Are there any creations simmering on your collective stoves that we may soon see in the Lounge?

Employee Lounge: Once a month, we will be posting a feature on Kansas City history. David Hayden did the first one about the Town of Kansas Bridge. My husband George Vial, also a writer, will be working on a post about the history of Weston. We're also collaborating with Jessie Artigue of The Concrete Catwalk on some fashion posts (uniform makeovers, taking your look from after work to the bar, stuff like that). And I would love to see KC chefs share favorite recipes or kitchen tricks. The beauty of blogging is that we can keep adding these things. As soon as we come up with an idea, it can happen.

bankmeister: All in all, the work you two are doing is admirable. I really appreciate, as do others I’m sure, the fact that you have the “stay healthy” tab on the site, and hey –- who doesn’t like recommendations for cheap wine, patios, and brunch spots?

Employee Lounge: Working on the blog, Tina and I have found so much to be inspired by. It's the best thing we ever did for ourselves as artists, and we are insanely happy to have found an audience who support us like they do. The tabs at the top of the page are all things that I like so it's a given. Health care has always been a tough subject, especially in the service industry, I think. I never had health insurance before I worked my corporate job, so I get it.

bankmeister: Good thing going, though, and the work I’ve seen on your two personal sites -- for example, the garden post is just breathtaking –- has great potential as well. I mean, all of the shots on Backyard Ink are fantastic (Editor’s Note: Tell Larry and Rhonda I said the Broncos suck.), as is the photographic work and writing on Bristow Fresh ( If you asked me, I’d say the latter could use more skinny-dip photos, but I’m just a hack in a basement, so if you’re gonna take me seriously, then let’s up the Lounge antes on shots of the breastacular/well-endowed-mannequin variety, too.

Finally, a hearty huzzah to Annie for her perfect answer to how she’d make Kansas City better. This is exactly how I’d answer were I a subject, and if Annie reads this, let’s make a joint effort to do something and get a grassroots/civic-pride movement going. I think we start by going to a Board meeting, no? Oh, and David’s bit about citywide (versus neighborhood) pride was also top-notch.

So, thanks for the time, and if I may toss out a few subject recommendations:

1) Jillian, who can be found at the Foundry.
2) Buck, who can be found at Corner Cocktails in south Waldo (though he'd probably pitch a fit and decline.
3) Bernie, who can be found at the Brooksider
4) Ethan in Westport. You can't swing a dead cat without hitting a joint from which he's collected a paycheck, and
5) Katie, who, if I'm not mistaken, is still at Mike's Tavern.

(Photos courtesy of Tina Magee-Jenks, via The Employee Lounge)


David Hayden said...

Great interview. Linh and Tina really have put something great together for the service industry in Kansas City. I find myself checking it daily for old friends and a really unique lookat the people on the other side of the bar/apron.

Don't feel too bad, I have been working on my blogs for a year and still can't get them to be as cohesive as good as the employee lounge. I think my goal of create civic pride is more attainable.

Linh + Tina said...

Thanks for interviewing us! My sister even called to say we did a good job after reading this....which she doesn't do very often. :) -Linh