Since Eater launched in New York City in 2005, it's grown to cover more than just the Big Apple: Sub-sites for cities like Los Angeles launched in 2006, with Austin and Chicago following a few years later in 2010, adding to the spectrum of cities that the national food blog recognizes as prime culinary capitals. And now, Eater has finally come to Houston.
Eater Houston's website launches today, alongside Eater Dallas and Eater Atlanta. I still recall the anguished cries of "Why not Houston?" when Eater's national site announced that it was searching for editors in Dallas, Atlanta and New Orleans. Even though an Eater in our city is technically competition for this very food blog, I still voiced strident objection that Atlanta and Dallas should be recognized before the Bayou City.
"It was that outcry that made us realize [we needed to come to Houston]," laughed Lockhart Steele (I'm still not convinced that's his real name) over the phone yesterday afternoon. "There was a real deafening roar coming from your part of the world."
Steele founded Eater along with Ben Leventhal as a spin-off of popular real estate website Curbed. Over time, they also added Racked to their mini media empire, with an eye to expanding Eater to as many cities as possible.
"We need people on the ground in these cities," Steele said. "We're obsessed with the newest openings, the gossip in the industry."
Indeed, Eater is known for controversial sections like "To Catch a Critic," in which it unfairly called out former Dallas Observer critic Hanna Raskin back in January and posted a photo of then-new Village Voice critic Lauren Shockey last November. (Side note: I'm not anonymous, so I hope never to make an appearance in that column.)
However, the site is also equally known for breaking news stories, such as Amber Ambrose's recent revelation that Top Chef might have received more than ample compensation from Dallas and San Antonio to shoot in their cities.
But aside from Top Chef tussles, Houston isn't really the cutthroat city that New York is; our drama tends to be of the lighter kind. And Steele recognizes that, having hired Ambrose -- you may remember her from her time here at Eating Our Words -- to head up the Houston operations.
"Every city we go to has a flavor of its own," Steele said, "and we count on the local editor to bring her city's point of view to the table."
With the launch of three "Southern" sites on the same day, it's apparent that the rest of the country -- New York included -- is looking to our part of the world for revelations of the type encouraged by organizations like the Southern Foodways Alliance and Foodways Texas. Our scene is less controversial and more collaborative, and that's what interests Eater.
"In general right now, we just hear more and more and more about the Southern cooking scene," Steele said. "People's level of interest has really increased. The food scene down there is so enormous."
"It's reached the point where New York chefs are talking about these cities," he exclaimed. "It was the right time to do it because there's so much going on."
And if you take a look at Eater Houston's site, you'll already see five pages of exploits and aggregated content to read through: proof positive that Houston's food scene can not only generate substantial news stories, but can support additional news outlets as well. That's success as I measure it.
The launch of both Eater Houston and Eater Dallas also marks a first-time trifecta for Eater: three cities in the same state. (Fans of Dallas Observer former staff writer Andrea Grimes will note that she landed the Eater Dallas editor position.) It was Eater Austin's editor, Paula Forbes, that encouraged Steele to look into Houston as a candidate in the first place -- "[She'd] been cajoling us, saying 'Let's make this happen, people!'" Steele said -- and he hopes that a friendly rivalry will develop between the three sites. Poking of that kind already takes place between Eater Seattle and Eater Portland, after all.
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But most of all, Steele hopes to build a community here in Houston as the site plays the role of newsman rather than critic.
"Developing characters, telling stories and letting stories evolve," is what's important, he explained. A year from now, "if we really engaged the community," Steele finished, "that would be successful to me."