Today we’d like to introduce you to Phaedra Cook.
Phaedra, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
My journey into the food world happened because I wanted to learn how to cook better for my family. I was a Food Network addict back when some of the best shows were on: Good Eats and Emeril, especially. As our kids became more independent teenagers, my husband and I were finally able to start going out more than once a month. We both briefly volunteered at a prominent cooking school in Houston, joined the Houston Chowhounds foodie group in Houston, became avid diners and made a lot of friends with the same interests. We developed a deep love for craft beer and cocktails along the way, and later I focused on wine.
About a decade ago, I started with a well-received blog called “Houston Food Adventures.” Katherine Shilcutt, who at the time was food editor and restaurant critic at the Houston Press, helped it gain a wider readership. After about six months, a national online publication asked if they could start using my content in exchange for “exposure.” I figured if it was good enough content to be of interest, perhaps a publication would actually pay for it. I asked Katherine if she could use another freelance food writer and she said, “Yes.” On and off, I freelanced for the Houston Press for about eight years, becoming the lead restaurant critic in 2014 and eventually food editor. My first print opportunity was in the pages of the beautiful (and sadly, no longer in print) My Table magazine. That first article profiled five French chefs as well as the owners of Culinary Institute Le Notre. To this day, I blame that experience for my love of escargot and expecting wine with my lunch, I wrote for My Table for about another six years and also have had wonderful opportunities with Edible Houston.
Like many who work in a particular profession for a long time at some point, I decided that I wanted to implement my own ideas for an online publication that exclusively focused on Houston’s restaurants, bars and the people who are important to the city’s food culture. I started Houston Food Finder in November 2016. At first, it was just me, but soon added Scott Sandlin, our barbecue columnist, Josh Armendariz, our lead beverage writer, Ellie Sharp, who’s a freelance associate editor now, and others. We currently work with eight freelance writers, two associate editors (David Leftwich, who founded the stunning Sugar & Rice magazine, now works with us occasionally) and one publishing assistant, Carolina, who is definitely my right-hand woman. She’s that classic behind-the-scenes person who makes the engine run.
Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
Houston Food Finder had 40,800 readers last month. We’ve got about 6,000 followers on Facebook, around 3,500 on Instagram and 1,500 on Twitter. We have a newsletter subscriber base of over 800 and we work on growing that all the time. In terms of readership, we are extremely successful.
In the financial sense, though, Houston Food Finder is currently facing the biggest challenge of its existence. I founded the publication with personal funds and the help of a developer friend who built the original website. Unlike our competitors, we have no corporate backing or deep-pocketed investors.
Unfortunately, Houston Food Finder has rarely done better than to break even, which means neither our developer or I have seen a dime come back out of it. I was ready to give up and shut down, frankly, but a good friend and business associate started a GoFundMe campaign to try and secure us enough capital to go on a few more months. My biggest hope is that it generates awareness, not just of us, but of the fact that ALL local publications need support from the communities that they serve to survive. We are not the only one struggling.
I think food publications in particular have it rough right now. Restaurants seem to think inviting food writers to come eat and drink for free in the hopes than an article will come out of it is somehow “support.” Owners need to start recognizing that local publications are the main communication vehicle with the general public about what they are doing: dish and drink specials, new menus, events, etc. Without professionally written and managed publications, words don’t get written. New platforms like Instagram are great for pictures but these don’t tell your story.
Houston Food Finder – what should we know? What do you guys do best? What sets you apart from the competition?
Houston Food Finder’s focus is on creating content about Houston’s bar and restaurant scene of the highest quality. That means good writing, thorough proofreading and big, beautiful photos. Daily publications are under huge pressure to break news and generate a certain amount of content. That means often low-value articles are rushed out with errors. While sometimes we do have to rush to meet a deadline, it’s much more important that our articles are correct. We have never had a single complaint about misquoting an interview subject and I’m very proud of that. If we do get a fact wrong, we correct it right away and note the correction. My joke is, “We will serve no story before its time,” a throwback to the old Paul Masson wine commercials featuring Orson Welles.
Our readers’ trust in what we publish is one of our most important values. For that reason, we always identify sponsored content — but we also strive to ensure that even that is very informative and worth reading. We also align well with advertisers who share our emphasis on quality. It’s easy to talk up a business that you truly love and believe in!
What is “success” or “successful” for you?
As I noted, financial success is eluding us. I hope we find it because I know I built the perfect job for myself and it would kill me to lose it. In all other ways, I’ve already found success.
As an editor, I get to work with talented writers and encourage them to pursue continuous improvement in their craft. Being a publisher challenges the business side of my brain. As a writer myself, I talk regularly with the best people in Houston’s bar and restaurant industry and it’s always interesting.
I’ve had amazing experiences thanks to this work. I’ve interviewed Anthony Bourdain, Ming Tsai and Rick Bayless. I got picked by the Italian-American Chamber of Commerce of Texas to go to Italy and become better educated in authentic Italian ingredients, wine and culture. I literally watched the last three Houston chefs who won the James Beard Foundation “Best Chef Southwest” award in person with my own eyes. My work as a writer and editor gives me experiences I never even dreamed of before. My life is often an adventure and for me, that is a kind of success.
- Advertorial (custom article about your business) $300
- Social media package (same message across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram) $100
- Newsletter ad: $50
- E-blast to our subscribers (sponsored email): $150
- Club Houston Food Finder Tastemaker event at your bar or restaurant: $1,000
- Ticketed, promoted Houston Food Finder event at your bar or restaurant: Varies
- Website: https://houstonfoodfinder.com/
- Phone: (832) 314-4043
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/HoustonFoodFinder/
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/houstonfoodfinder/
- Twitter: https://twitter.com/HTownFoodFinder
Chuck Cook Photography
TRIBUTE at The Houstonian