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Now reading Flooding the Zone

Flooding the Zone

How Eater’s obsessions helped turn a restaurant gossip site into a multimillion-dollar business.

Lockhart Steele is the founder of Eater.com (with Ben Leventhal), Curbed.com, and Racked.com—and, after selling the group of sites to Vox Media in 2013, is now Vox’s editorial director. I sat him down to learn about how obsessions—his and his readers’—helped turn a restaurant gossip site into a multimillion-dollar business. —Brette Warshaw

Ben Leventhal and I met for the first time in May of 2005. Ben was working at VH1 and doing his newsletter She Loves NY as a hobby. I was working at Gawker and doing a personal blog at the time, and I had already started doing Curbed. I was trying to figure out how to incorporate restaurants, because Curbed is about neighborhoods, and restaurants are a key part of a neighborhood. But I hadn’t nailed how to do it.

We decided within a half hour that we were going to launch a food blog together, and that it was going to be called Eater. What we realized was that somebody had to do a great restaurant blog for New York. At that point, there weren’t any—it was just personal food blogs.

The food bloggers back then were just as annoying as they are now—lots of people going to eat one meal somewhere and then basically writing fancy Yelp reviews—so we knew that we didn’t want to do reviews, because we didn’t have the resources to do it well. We knew that we didn’t want to do food porn, because most of the food blogs we looked at just had really bad photography, kind of gross.

Neither of us were professional chefs or professionals in the food world at all; we were total amateurs. So we approached it like, Well, what are we interested in? We were interested in the experience of dining out—it was what both of us loved to do. We could be experts at, Is this a great room? Or, How does this restaurant make you feel? We found that we could focus on the experience of dining, and that was really fun.

And then we realized that the world of chefs and restaurateurs—the petty rivalries and feuds—was fascinating. Stories would just erupt out of it. Early on in Eater’s life somebody said to me as an insult: Eater’s just like Page Six. And I was like, If Eater’s just like Page Six, that’s the best news ever. Everybody loves Page Six. People always said the same thing: It might work in New York, but we’re not interested in gossip here. Or: We don’t do gossip. But it’s like, hello, every human in the world loves gossip.

What gossip allowed us to do is tap into some ongoing narratives. And so we started to build cults of personalities around restaurateurs. Keith McNally. The Steve Hansons. Drew Nieporent was an early fan of Eater, and hilarious to write about. We wrote about everything they did.

There were heroes and there were villains. And what was fun was that you could be a hero today, and a villain tomorrow, and then you could be a hero again. Everything our main characters did was interesting. If Steve Hanson had an opinion about forks, it was inherently fascinating. Like, we really, really cared. That’s how we built Eater’s voice. Of course we were doing openings and closings and all of that stuff, but I think that’s why Eater always had a little more edge.

FLOODING THE ZONE

Howell Raines, who was the old executive editor at the New York Times, created the phrase “flooding the zone.” The idea was that when a big story is breaking, what the Times should do is “flood the zone”—i.e. put lots of reporters on one story so the competition feels like they can’t compete. Like, I’m one reporter on this story, and the Times has nine people on it. This isn’t fair.

We got into this idea, because you can just crush the competition. Raines was fighting the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal; we were fighting other sites. Of course we didn’t have nine reporters to put on the story—but there are no column inches on the web, so we could write about things over and over and over again. We could flood the zone in our own way.

So what we would do is pick individual restaurant openings, and then track the opening in microscopic detail. The approach culminated when Andrew Carmellini opened The Dutch. That’s when Amanda had taken over Eater, and she did a feature called The Daily Dutch. Literally every single day leading up to the opening of The Dutch, Eater wrote something about it. And then readers got on board with it, so when something like the lighting was being delivered, a reader would be like Oh! and take a photo and send it to us. And then basically it was like, HOLY MOTHER, BREAKING NEWS, LIGHTING DELIVERED AT THE DUTCH. And of course you might think that this is ridiculous, this is minutiae, this is actually boring. But one of the things that was important for Eater, before we did reviews, was that we didn’t come out and say “we like this” or “we hate this.” If we ignored it, it obviously meant that it bored us and that we didn’t care—it just wasn’t interesting. But if we wrote about it everyday, then we signaled to the reader that we thought that it was important.

The Dutch was the only big opening that whole summer—so we figure we’ll go all in on it, we’ll flood the zone. And what ends up happening when you flood the zone successfully is, one, your readers get on board with it and, two, the competition backs off the story. So Grub Street would be like, Well, The Dutch is Eater’s thing. And so what we’ve done is we’ve scared the competition off the biggest story of the summer, and given ourselves complete ownership of it. We’ve intimidated the competition out of the game. They have actually folded their hand and walked away. That’s awesome.

And then what are we getting? We’re getting the readers and the commenters being like, Andrew Carmellini’s paying Eater. In fact, Andrew Carmellini’s PR came to us behind the scenes, and begged us to stop writing about The Dutch. They were like, please, please stop.

I always try to tell the newest editors at Eater, Don’t be afraid to follow your own obsession. Obsessions are, by nature, really weird. Obsessions are things when you look at a person and you’re like, Why are they into that? Like, What do they see that I don’t see? And what you’re trying to do by covering your obsession is to suck at least one other person down your own personal rabbit hole of being really, really, really into this one thing.

We generally don’t explain obsessions when we start them, and we certainly don’t explain when we end them. Choire Sicha, who’s the old editor of Gawker and who now runs The Awl, had the greatest phrase in Internet history, which was: Never complain, never explain. And that is all you need to know about how to do everything on the Internet.

Never complain—so when people are mad at you or people are throwing stones at you, or people are saying things like, Hey, you must be getting paid, you never respond. You never need to. And you never complain about what’s going on. Your work speaks for itself. If a reader can’t figure out what you’re doing, or it upsets them, or they think that it’s really fundamentally stupid that you’re writing about this thing all of the time, great news—they don’t have to read your publication. It’s a free world and our publication is here for those who are amused by it. So we will never explain why we were obsessed with something; it should be self-evident. If it’s not self-evident to you, there are many other food blogs out there, and perhaps Eater’s not the one for you.

OBSESSSIONS TODAY

Eater’s not 100 percent obsession. If it was, it would be like a fever dream. So what else does Eater do? Eater does regular reports on openings and closings of restaurants; it reports on the daily food news across the Internet; it talks about what’s happening with chefs; it talks about what’s happening on TV. Some of these things have turned into obsession or touched on obsession, or some of them are just news.

What is it about blogs that caught on in the first place? It was that they catered to obsessions. Whether it’s a painting-your-toenails blog or it’s a blog about pizza, the idea is that you’re doing it about something that you’re really into. And I think now that our sites have all grown up, they’re not really blogs anymore—but they still are deeply obsessed publications.

The right kind of person for Eater probably already runs a Google Doc of all the restaurants that they’ve been to. When I look back at the times I’ve mis-hired editorially, what I tend to find is that someone managed to convince me they were obsessed with a topic that they weren’t actually obsessed with. What we do is so intense, and the minutiae are so particular, that if you honestly don’t really care about restaurants, the idea of writing about the heat getting turned on at The Dutch is the stupidest shit you could possibly write about.

Of course, Eater’s purview is now a little broader than it used to be. Our new layout makes it a little bit harder to do really stupid, super-small stuff. We used to have a format that was called a quick link, which was literally just a tiny little blurb—and those were really useful for things like a Daily Dutch zone-flooding where you’re just like: Update from The Daily Dutch, Heat Will Be Turned On at 2 p.m. Today. You can drop those little things. But we don’t really have that in the same way anymore. I think that now, in this new modern age, some of the obsessions that might have played out exclusively on Eater now play out a little bit on social media, which is fine and fun.

One of the things that I try to say to the team at all of our sites is, Hey, let’s not be afraid to still be weird. Because as you get bigger, you can get forced to just be so mainstream. You have more people coming to your site, so you have more readers who are going to be confused by your obsessions, who are going to be like, What’s the joke, I don’t get it. And you have to be okay with people not getting it.

On the other hand, though, let’s be honest—we probably can’t be as deeply weird as Ben and I could be when it was just the two of us writing Eater, when there were ten thousand people reading it and we could write whatever the hell we wanted. Once Eater grew to a size of like a hundred thousand readers a month, something like Death Watch became too harsh a thing to do, except in very special circumstances. Ultimately, we were wrong on some Death Watches, and what was interesting and a good experiment when we were small became a liability when we were large. We can’t be as thoroughly freaky-weird as we used to be, but I hope we can still keep some of that weirdness in our DNA.