Michael Gebert—former Grub Street Chicago editor, longtime Reader freelancer, and now editor of the new website Fooditor, which he launched yesterday—has been writing and making videos about Chicago’s food scene for quite a while now. He was part of the core group that splintered from Chowhound to create LTHForum in 2004, and has been doing a video podcast about food called Sky Full of Bacon since 2008. I know Gebert from working with him over the last five years on the Reader‘s ongoing chef-challenge series, Key Ingredient, for which he does the videography, but he’s also been blogging for the Reader about Chicago’s food scene since shortly after Grub Street Chicago shut down in May 2013.
That is, he blogged for the Reader until a couple weeks ago, when he announced that he was starting his own site (he’ll continue doing the Key Ingredient videos, though). The conception took part in two phases, Gebert says. “One was the bullshit phase, which started the minute I got laid off from Grub Street. I thought, ‘I should do that on my own.’ I spent a long time thinking about it in a half-assed way, and got serious about it around the first of this year.” He did Photoshop mock-ups to figure out what he wanted the site to look like, hired a developer to create it, and started creating content (though not quite as much as he’d hoped).
Part of the idea behind Fooditor is to cover food news, but Gebert is particularly interested in the behind-the-scenes aspect of the food world. There’s only one story so far on his site, an in-depth feature on how Manny’s, after 70 years serving deli sandwiches, will finally become an honest-to-god delicatessen. But for an idea of Gebert’s ability to dive beneath the surface of a story, you only have to look at the pieces he’s written for the Reader about chefs, oyster shuckers, food podcasters, and farmers. “People love knowing what’s going on inside the business,” he says. “Working in a corporate job makes you long for the perceived romance of working in a job where there’s fire and shouting and things have to get done right now. In a restaurant you can’t say, ‘Let’s table this entree for two weeks and we’ll get back together and talk about it then.”
In addition to longer features, the site has a calendar of upcoming food events (mostly made up of press releases), brief summaries of the week’s food news, and a tool for finding a place to eat, searchable by cuisine or neighborhood (which is still in its infancy, but will currently get you lists of the best barbecue, Italian beef, pizza, and tacos in the city, plus top picks for restaurants in Lincoln Square, Logan Square, the West Loop, and Albany Park).
There are also a few ads on the site, though not as many as Gebert expects to have in the future. Focusing on getting advertisers before the site went live would have pushed back the launch date, he says, and it’s better to sell a product that exists than one that you can’t yet see. But he’s worked in advertising for close to 30 years—first full-time, and as a freelancer since 2000—so he may have an advantage in reaching advertisers.
Selling ads will be key to another part of Fooditor: running stories by writers other than Gebert (no one’s turned anything in yet, he says, but local writers Melissa McEwen, Dennis Lee, and Anthony Todd are all working on pieces). He’ll pay for pieces he publishes—which shouldn’t be noteworthy but is, since many websites pay little to nothing for contributions. “Not to paint this as a philanthropic enterprise, but I hate the freelance market race to the bottom,” he says. “I’m trying to pay decent amounts for real work.”
Part of Gebert’s motivation to start a local food website is the loss of Chicago coverage over the past few years, as Grub Street, Serious Eats, and Tasting Table either killed or drastically scaled back their coverage of the city and Time Out Chicago discontinued its print edition. “A lot of those things had good readership,” he says. “They didn’t die because no one was reading it, they died because Comcast bought Daily Candy and killed it, that kind of thing.”
“As you may have heard, we’re a pretty good food city. I thought it was time to give that another try.”