It’s not often that pizza can change the trajectory of your life. For Ed Levine, his search for the perfect slice brought him across a piece of wisdom from pizzaiolo, Chris Bianco setting a career shift trajectory for Levine: “I’m on a mission. I have a responsibility to do something with integrity and dignity. I’m just trying to do something—one small thing—right.” Levine’s book Serious Eater, is not your typical business book or origin story. This former music booking agent, advertising account executive, and marketing pro had a prescient sense of timing and risk-taking that paid off as he pursued his passion of finding the best food and sharing it with others through his award-winning website, SeriousEats.com.
The push and pull of artist over businessman threads this book together. His advisors stayed with him through some harrowing experiences of near shutterings. In 2007, he was a food blogging pioneer—there were no examples of successful blogs as business models. He’d pivoted from authoring two books, New York Eats and New York Eats (More) to freelancing for outlets like the New York Times and yet the writing on the wall for how media would shift is glimpsed as his editor’s budget was slashed, forcing Levine to reconsider how he might write about food and make a living. In 2012, Technorati.com listed 16,552 food blogs in existence—that’s seven years after Levine started EdLevineEats.com that would be a practice run for SeriousEats.com
A series of wins and some hard lessons led up to Levine developing the team that would bring Serious Eats to life. This part of the tale reads like pulp fiction at times—there’s betrayal (two business partners going behind his back for funding on a separate project during a work trip—spoiler: their venture got the funding, not his), the anxiety before a website launch (and the amazing story of what happened to the initial developer after being released from the Serious Eats project), all the fundraising that truly separates the business model for Serious Eats from many food blogs in existence. My stomach churned as Levine chronicles rounds of fundraising just to make payroll while the business was trying to find its footing.
At the outset, Levine knew Serious Eats would be a business—there was never any pivot from personal hobby blogging to professional. He also set out well before food magazines solidly figured out their footing on digital ground (even mentions one reporter pandering to him about how his new project is going) and it paid off. But it almost didn’t. In the book, you read how friends and family fundraising almost threatens relationships (and what it looked like to salvage them—this could be a whole sidebar column by Levine for a business magazine: Mixing business with pleasure—how to repair personal relationships dented by professional investment. There were a few instances where investors capped off their giving due to how advertising might or might not play out at the time. And this was when advertising online was a frontier of opportunity—not at all where online advertising is today. Then, once Levine is ready to sell Serious Eats, he takes us along in Serious Eater for the zig-zagged ride of near misses (backstabbing!) and final acquisition.
Full disclosure: I worked with Fexy Media, the company that would eventually purchase Serious Eats. I worked with one of their other publications on a project. I’ve also been a longtime reader of Serious Eats and somehow never considered it a blog. From the beginning it was always set apart as more universal in its scope than personal. I marveled reading about Serious Eats writers pursuing whatever culinary obsessions they had and recall a time when blogging was so nascent you could write about just anything. How different food blogging is now.
Now, there’s understanding by some of how food bloggers can be not just successful but wildly rich, amassing behind-the-scenes teams of content creators, assistants, business developers, and technical support. Recipes have become a commodity and race to owning keywords for organic search dominance. For the past year, I lost my interest in writing and pitching articles encountering the now seemingly formulaic model of keywords leading content for recipe development and writing. So, reading Serious Eater took me back to blogging before it really had found a place in publishing.
Levine has a great sense at sniffing out talent—he says so in the book and before we even begin reading, the foreword verifies that notion. Serious Eats gave Kenji Lopez-Alt a platform within which to write and develop his now legion audience of cooks interested in the intersection of science and cooking. I discovered Lopez-Alt’s writing and sage kitchen wisdom on Serious Eats (and make his spatchcock turkey at Thanksgiving). Then there’s the brilliant Stella Parks, who already had been a force for good baking and witty writing at her blog, bravetart.com before joining the Serious Eats tribe, though I would say that SE amplified her keen sense of nostalgia baking to a bigger audience (side note here, she is a friend).
You can always tell the true measure of a business based on what happens to its employees afterwards—either once well established in their roles at a business or after they’ve moved on. Levine let his “serious eaters” explore their takes on food that most interested them and they have gone off to rich careers for that early shepherding. I appreciated reading how much the right kind of writer mattered and how Levine invested in their careers, noting multiple times, interns who ended up writing their way up the editorial ladder. I’m not going to deny that I read that history longingly sometimes, imagining what it might have been like to be in a supportive editorial environment like that. But then remembering how stressful it is to work in a start-up, how those investor meetings can be anxiety-riddled and how it resembles the peaks and valleys of a sometimes rickety wooden roller-coaster.
What Serious Eater offers for readers is a behind-the-scenes, no-holds barred glimpse at the business side of blogging—what it takes to make a blog profitable and sell it. The personal cost is the one that might make you continue page-turning—this company’s launch came out well before the idea of work-life-balance. But that’s true of start-ups and small business beginnings. You work hard, surround yourself with people who are good at what they do and who show up ready to do the work, and that is in its way, “doing one small thing right.”
Thank you to Portfolio Books for sending me a review copy.