Chowhound.com is the king of internet food websites, with 800,000 unique monthly visitors and myriad opinions on anything food-related. If you seek a roasted goat caterer in Phoenix, or Japanese Kit Kats by mail order, or need a recipe for a killer pear tart, someone on Chowhound knows the answer.
It’s an online community filled with food obsessed people. The ancient software looks anachronistic, like a dot matrix print job in the dye sublimated, photo-realisitic 21st century. Despite the site’s low tech look, the community’s level of knowledge is simply unsurpassed compared to wannabe newcomer websites with a similar mission.
Jim Leff and Bob Okumura started Chowhound in 1997, and have kept their grassroots website running, albeit in the red. Users were implored to contribute funds to prop up the wobbly legs of the site, which forever seemed on the verge of collapse. Several months ago, the site mysteriously removed their good will donation tool, which seemed odd to those used to kicking down money into the collection box. Now we know why.
As announced on their home page today, CNet Networks bought Chowhound.com, and is developing badly needed new software for the site.
I owe a great deal to the site. I’ve met good friends and eaten great meals thanks to the passionate community. This blog is an offshoot of years of food writing I contributed under this pen name to Chowhound. I’ve given back by helping organize fundraising potlucks in Los Angeles. On one hand, I guess this means we’re no longer under the gun to raise money for Chowhound. On the other hand, as an addicted reader of the site, I had questions. How can you sell out to the Man? Will corporate meddling cause Chowhound to suck? Here is my interview with Jim Leff, and Karen Wood of CNet Networks.
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Professor Salt: Can you talk about how the Cnet deal happened? Were you shopping the site around?
Jim Leff: We were at an impossible juncture. The site was unmanageable on the ad-hoc basis we were running it. The bills were climbing, the tasks were mounting, and our tech stuff, which had already strained way beyond the breaking point, seemed about to snap. And frankly, I was beyond exhausted.
Quite honestly, I’d been thinking about closing since 1998! I hate the idea of disappointing 800,000 comrades in chow! To be more honest about it we were trying to figure out ways NOT to close and not to pull the plug on this party when all of a sudden the phone started ringing
I hadn’t heard that web communities were currently in vogue with investors. It was a timely surprise. I got a call from CNet and they seemed exactly right. They understood what we were doing in a deep way I was quite sure they weren’t just giving me a line, but that they were truly fundamentally all about the value of expert, passionate opinions. It would make no sense at all for them to allow us to dumb down. I knew that bringing Chowhound to CNET Networks would protect what we’d all spent so much time building. And so that’s what we went with.
PS: From a business standpoint, why would Cnet want to buy Chowhound?
Karen Wood: CNet’s built its reputation on building really rich, authentic content brands built around people and areas of passion. We started with computers and technology over ten years ago, and today we have a site that spans music, consumer electronics, video games, television and the common thread among all our sites is that passion that our users have for that subject and our ability to serve them because we also share those passions.
PS: Why make the acquisition announcement now, and not closer to the software release?
KW: We want to kick off our design process with the help of the community. There’s an opportunity for the users to weigh in and give us their thoughts on what they’d like to see, what to change or not change, and we’ll take those recommendations to heart into the next level of design so we’re on track for a relaunch this summer.
JL: I can tell you that people at the very highest level of CNet are interested in pleasing the users and how this new software’s going to go down. The development process is still coming together, so it’s the perfect time for users to tell us what they want.
PS: As a daily reader, I’m concerned this could either be the start of something great or the downfall of Chowhound.
JL: We’re trying for great, as opposed to downfall.
PS: As a professional musician, you might be used to the idea that the best guys stay small and have a cult following. How’s it feel to sell out?
JL: I’m working even harder than before to manage this big sucker. I want to do right by our users, our staff, and by CNet. I’m working morning, noon, and night to help make this all work and try to do everybody proud. I’ve had not a minute to think about how ANYTHING feels. After the software upgrade and relaunch, I’ll try to steal a week to sprawl on a beach somewhere and look at big picture. Meanwhile, it’s just chowhound.com as usual.
PS: Sorry if that last question felt a bit pointed. I suspect that some people think Jim Leff’s sitting in Castle Chowhound, smoking a big cigar, counting his money, and laughing his way to the bank.
JL: You bet, and I understand. I’d like a cigar, though.
PS: Let’s step backward to the site’s early history. Just how did a jazz trombonist / writer get himself into running a site of this magnitude?
JL: Total hobby, just on a whim. My friend Bob Okumura had all the skills I lacked in programming, design, tech, accounting, and also loved chow so we combined forces. By that point, I already ran online communities for twelve years. It was always my hobby, so in that spirit, we opened Chowhound.
PS: Cnet’s involvement allows you do more technical things than relying on just Bob, then?
JL: Bob’s a jack of all trades, and there been many times over the years that we wished we had a crew of programmers and server admins. Then the genie appeared and we got it. It’ll be so much better for the users and so much easier for me to run. You can’t even imagine the taskload to keep this sucker running.
Basically we spent two years doing this for fun and saying, “gee whiz, look at all the people,” and then the next five years just trying to get through the day managing all these users, and keep it all going.
Fortunately, we got this amazing crew that’s really into the credo of finding great stuff and never settling for crap, and allowing consumers to opine on a level playing field that’s genuine and authentic. It’s a close-knit volunteer staff of good Samaritans. We didn’t have the heavy duty technical staff and other resources we needed until now. Instead, we ran on sheer chow adrenaline. It’s not a viable long term solution.
PS: A few years ago, the server bill wasn’t paid and the site went down for a day. People freaked out with relief when it came back online. Closing the site permanently would’ve been tragic to a lot of people. How close were you this time?
JL: I’ve been close to closing this site for many years. It’s impossible to gather the entire world of chowhounds in one place with hardly any staff and no budget. It’s an impossible wish, and every week for the past five years, I’ve thought, “I’m washing my hands of this whole thing.”
Keeping this show running for eight years was miraculous but it had reached the point where I had to conjure up miracles by the week. And they were harder and harder to pull from my sleeve. I definitely felt the weight of all the hounds out there. Shoot, how could I possibly let them down? But the solution just fell into place. And I’m super pleased that CNET gets what we do. That’s the real miracle.
Usually for things like this it’s out of the frying pan and into the fryer. But this is going to only make us better. Every one of our users knows how badly we need new software; we need a new design; we need our moderators not to be in a constant state of frenzied burnout. And this acquisition allows us to do all those things.
And we’re still here! In fact, when, a few weeks after acquisition, our server company sent me a BIG bill, the kind that usually sets me off in a panic. I called a woman in a cubicle somewhere in San Francisco and she cheerfully took care of it. It was a deeply emotional experience, like, “WOW! I don’t have to worry about that, I can just think about food, and help people swap tips about food.”
PS: In Los Angeles, we’re planning another fundraising Chow Fiesta soon. I guess we don’t need to do that any more.
JL: We’ve taken down the Good Will page where people can make honor subscription payments. Don’t need to anymore. Just come to the site and enjoy!
PS: It’ll be great because we can still have our get-togethers and it’ll be about the food and companionship, and not keeping the lights on at Chowhound.
JL: It won’t be gloomy with everyone worrying about Chowhound disappearing any minute. There’s nothing gloomy about our community, and the begging for support was always a little discouraging and troubling to me.
PS: How does your role within the new site change?
JL: I’m still here, but I get a whole lot of smart, talented people to brainstorm with. The main good news for me is I’m going to have a lot more time to do lots of writing for the site and I can’t tell you how happy I am. I’ve sort of let that whole side of me go, as I’ve attempted to keep dozens of balls in the air but now I can do what I really do best, and I can’t wait.
I’m more creative, and for the last few years, I’ve been a janitor. CNet’s going to let me get out of that drudge and be creative.
PS: What can chowhounds expect to see on our end of the screen, both short term and long term?
JL: Get psyched. New software. Much better design. Search features. Our search engine’s been broken for years. Bear in mind that like a man stuck in the desert for years, dreaming of the feast he’s going to have when he gets back to civilization I’ve saved up a zillion ideas of cool things to do. We might not get to do all zillion, but the users are going to be VERY pleasantly surprised.
PS: What I’m hoping for seems sort of impossible: to keep all the great things intact, and yet manage to gain more great things.
KW: We hope it’s not impossible at all.
JL: Our team is intact. And their motivation remains what it always was: throw a swell party for our fellow eaters, and foster the growth of an unparalleled chow resource. Everyone in the back room continues with labor of love intensity. There’s no downside.
PS: When will see a different looking Chowhound?
JL: We’re aiming for this summer.
PS: Any closing comments on what the future holds for the site, or for Jim Leff?
JL: I look forward to being another chowhound again, rather than dealing with all the back room issues that users never know about. I just want to say this. My goal from day one has to be to put together a resource so food-lovers who share an irreverent and impassioned attitude toward food could have a way to network in a place built just for them. There’s a certain vibe, a certain set of shared values. And the vibe and values will continue. I’m proud to be a part of this community, and I’m relieved to say that it has a really bright future. We’re all going to be swapping chow tips for a good long time. So watch out for Chowhound Starship Mellencamp, everybody!
PS: Dude, you’re so `80′s.