How the hell am I going to find something to write about that won’t also show up on five other food blogs this week?
For most of the four and a half years I was editor of the Zagat Philly website, this was my main worry. But things are different now. Even as the Philly restaurant scene continues its robust growth, the food blog landscape is going in a different direction.
Right now it seems poised a particularly precarious juncture.
In December, Art Etchells announced he was leaving Foobooz, the food-and-booze blog he’d founded more than a decade prior. Also in December (although unannounced), Zagat Philly editor Caroline Russock stepped down to pursue more longform and travel work. She has yet to be replaced. And this month, Eater Philly put up a post inviting applications to replace editor Alex Tewfik, who is leaving to work at a different publication.
So although Foobooz, Zagat Philly and Eater Philly will all ostensibly continue existing, all three are currently rudderless.
“There’s only so long you can do [daily food blogging] before you burn out,” offered Drew Lazor, former food editor at Philadelphia City Paper and current freelance food journalist.
But what’s happening here goes beyond angst — it’s a growing trend.
The Philly food blog field used to be much more crowded. From around 2009 to 2013, there were at least six outlets (and oftentimes more) at any given time that paid dedicated writers or editors to put up near-daily posts about the Philadelphia food world.
And we’re not even counting amateur blogs, though that’s what kickstarted the online community.
After the turn of the millennium, chatter began to spread on forums (remember forums?) like Chowhound and eGullet that Philly restaurants were stepping it up. Then blogs became a thing, and in the mid-aughts, a raft of non-journalists took up the mantle. Blogs like PhilaFoodie, The Illadelph, Holly Eats and PhilaDining became go-to sites for those looking to keep up with the growing scene. Foobooz was one of these — launched by Etchells as a hobby in 2006.
Daily Candy, a daily email newsletter with a paid editor (obviously ahead of its time) came to Philly in 2006. It wasn’t exclusively about food, but it covered the industry often.
Still, it wasn’t really until 2008 that Michael Klein’s diligent (and continuing) restaurant reporting for Philly.com really had competition. This came in the form of MealTicket. With the encouragement of then-City Paper editor Brian Howard, and the help of Felicia D’Ambrosio — who you may know as Federal Donuts partner and Twitter master — Lazor launched the city’s first serious standalone professional food blog.
Things were just starting to heat up.
Grubstreet came to Philly in June of 2009. Kirsten Henri was the first editor, and when she left to be food editor at Philly Mag in March 2011, Colin Keefe took over. In Dec. 2010, Philly Mag bought and professionalized Foobooz. NBC’s The Feast started a Philadelphia edition in 2010, run by Collin Flatt, who was previously writing at Phoodie (Philebrity’s on-again, off-again attempt to break into the scene) and would eventually become Eater’s first Philly editor when it launched here in January 2011. That same month, Zagat decided it wanted to pay attention to our city, and I was hired to write daily posts there. Thrillist also jumped in, with editor Adam Robb.
It was a crowded field, but also a heady time. Marc Vetri had only just recently branched out from his first restaurant, with Osteria in 2008 and Amis in 2010. Jose Garces was also just emerging, albeit quickly, going from his first Philly spot (Amada, 2005) to his fifth (JG Domestic, 2010) within five years.
“When I started Foobooz, I had to work really hard to find three posts a day,” Etchells recalled. “By the end I was getting deluged.”
At tasting events set up by PR professionals — who often specified “paid media only” — all of us working in the field ran into each other often. There was definitely competition (see the 2010 Philly Mag feature titled “Food Fight: A Look at Philly Food Bloggers”), but also camaraderie. For several years, Lazor even organized an annual holiday dinner for Philly food writers, hosted upstairs at American Sardine Bar.
Then the landscape started to change.
In May 2013, Grubstreet abruptly cut all its various city-specific sites, Philly included. Thrillist fell off around the same time — the company still hires freelancers to contribute, but hasn’t had a fulltime Philly editor since March 2013. MealTicket, which had been taken over by Russock after Lazor left in 2012, ceased existence when she left the paper in June 2015, shortly before City Paper shut down in autumn of that year. And The Feast and Daily Candy had long since evaporated.
What happened? Social media exploded, for one.
“[Blogging] was always just a technological medium, and as such it had an inherent shelf-life,” said David Snyder, the lawyer behind PhilaFoodie. “No one, by analogy, is creating a MySpace account for themselves these days, are they? Other more streamlined platforms, like Instagram, have stepped in to carry those voices where food blogs have left off.”
Lazor agreed. “There’s a million and one Instagram accounts,” he said, “with all these variations of ‘phood’ in their name. I don’t know the people running them but they’ve got big followings and are always doing sponsored posts and stuff.”
Then there’s the general shift in publishing.
“Blogs in general aren’t standalone like they once were,” Etchells observed. “Now they’re just part of the publishing mechanism. Everybody publishes every day, so a blog isn’t that different or unique.”
Plus, the Philly food scene has matured.
“It used to be like, ‘Oh my god, can you believe a restaurant is coming to this neighborhood?’” said Russock. “People used to follow every single chef change and opening — and now there’s just too many. New restaurants are the norm.”
Etchells concurred. “It’s still kind of fun to go to the new restaurants, but there’s not the breathless anticipation of ‘I have to be there on the first night!’”
He described his job as having become almost like MadLibs: X restaurateur and Y chef are launching a Z-type spot at Q address.
That hasn’t stopped Philly.com’s Klein, who, in the words of Lazor, remains a “conscientious and great reporter, the premier voice of food news in Philadelphia.” And print-focused food publications like Edible Philly (helmed by well-traveled food writer Joy Manning) and Spoonful Mag have recently popped up and appear to be flourishing. It’s likely that Zagat and Eater will find new editors (who? Couldn’t say) and Foobooz is already transitioning to new hands.
So, although it’s undergoing a major “changing of the guard” moment, it’s not like there’s no place for professional food writing in Philly.
Like with anything, its future will be different from the past.
Bring on the next course.