Everything is going on-line these days - and food is no exception. Foodeasy ( www.foodeasy.com ) is a tempting site, providing a dining guide for restaurants in Hong Kong and Shenzhen - with plans to spread coverage around the region. The brainchild of a group of young friends from university, Easy Group was born a year and a half ago. All local-born Chinese and active Web surfers, they sensed the Internet ride was coming to Hong Kong. They spotted a gap in the crowded market - a need for an Internet content provider (ICP) that offered in-depth, comprehensive information catering to the local market. They decided on food and dining because food is the common interest of most people in Hong Kong. 'At the time, people were all trying to be Internet service providers (ISPs) and do everything - food, entertainment, news, investment, you name it,' said Lawrence Cheng, one of the founders of the Easy Group. 'Then you became a portal, but we did not have the resources to do that.' There were basically three forms of companies on the Net, he said. The first layer was the ISP, which provided the modem and the Internet connection, and charged people for time on the Net. The second was a portal, which provided a search engine and a horizontal destination that involved a lot of sites. The last layer - ICP, or a vertical portal, which was Foodeasy's level - provided in-depth knowledge of a subject. 'We were very focused from the start. What we wanted, simply, was to become the best food and dining on-line guide for Hong Kong,' said Mr Cheng. There were other similar sites in Hong Kong. A notable one was the Hong Kong Dining Guide ( http://www.yp.ht/dining.com/ ), created jointly by Automated System and a subsidiary of Cable & Wireless HKT. But the Easy Group was not deterred. 'We did not have too much pressure as all of us were working; we just want to give it a try,' said Patrick Leung, another founder of the group. It was not easy in the beginning as many restaurants, family-owned and small, did not see the need to put information on the Internet, even though it was free. With Hong Kong's 9,000 to 10,000 registered restaurants, the work required to cover them and keep up with menus and prices was tremendous. And it is one of the most volatile industries; new ones come and old ones go every day. Gradually, help came in from restaurants and on-line visitors. 'We were surprised by the active response from our viewers,' said Mr Cheng. 'They correct missing and inaccurate information; they offer suggestions for our site, as well as food and restaurant reviews.' To encourage the involvement of users, the company gives $5 to $10 for each correction. The bilingual site is growing fast. Now it covers 6,000 restaurants, compared with 2,000 in the first two months. A search engine is provided. After you identify the type of cuisine, the location and price range sought, the site provides a list of selections. I was able to locate a trendy Italian restaurant in Wan Chai that offers thin-crusted pizza toasted in a wood oven. The site even offers a road map and a colourful photo of the restaurant. The information proved to be accurate, and the dinner pleasant. There are more than 10,000 visitors and 60,000 page views a day. An average visitor browses the site once in 10 days for dining information. The 11 founders contributed about $1 million and unaccounted time. Six months after launching, the group is close to breaking even, and is free of debt. Mr Leung said: 'We have merely scratched the surface; there is a long way to go.' Foodeasy has formed several alliances, including prominent names such as AOL, Yahoo! Hong Kong and Sina. These benefit the service provider, which gains content in a specialised area, and the content provider, which receives the channel of exposure. The ISPs and ICPs share advertising revenue. Being small was an advantage, Mr Cheng said. 'Unlike our competitors that had to observe restrictions on partnerships with portals and ISPs, we have no strings attached,' he said. Being small provided another benefit: decisions could be made faster. The group will continue to build up the site, which is still rough in many aspects. It will also expand geographically - a Shenzhen site has been set up and a Macau site is on the way. Mr Leung talked about the deeper reason behind their venture, which he called 'post-economic-crisis syndrome'. 'Most of us worked for international financial organisations when the Asian financial crisis happened, and we witnessed massive layoffs in the regions. It was very brutal,' he said. It had changed the way they saw their careers and lives. 'We used to be told that as long as you perform, you will be fine. But this time it is not true. We see entire branches wiped off, and it seems to be related to a bigger picture beyond us,' he said. Their two-room office in an ageing building in Lan Kwai Fong may not look as glamorous as the bank buildings in Central and Admiralty, but it represents a start and gives them control of their own fates.