Houston Food Finder is Closing Soon, Most Likely — Updated
Update, 6/6/2020: In response to all of those who have asked if Houston Food Finder can be saved: of course it can. What it is going to take is additional monthly sponsors of our work. It is not my preference to shut down what I have dedicated my life to for over three years. If you are interested in becoming a sponsor, please email me for information. — Phaedra Cook
Over the next two weeks, Houston Food Finder is rolling out what are likely to be our final stories and podcast episodes. Then, it’s probably going to be time to roll up the carpets, pack the wagon and say goodbye.
I founded this online publication in November 2016 because I saw as a need for a new voice — or, rather, multiple voices — in Houston food journalism. The debut of Houston Food Finder was announced on Cleverley Stone’s radio show. Sadly, we lost her to cancer last week. Our kick-off party was at Brennan’s of Houston — a small gathering of readers and industry professionals who believed in our mission.
This was always a publication, not a blog, even though people sometimes used that term to describe Houston Food Finder. To clarify: a blog is usually one person who does not necessarily adhere to journalistic standards. Houston Food Finder is a vehicle for multiple freelance writers to work within a set of professional criteria and get paid for stories that would, hopefully, be of interest to our readers. As any writer who worked with us can tell you, the focus was always on quality: factual, well-sourced articles and big, beautiful photos. Our subjects were largely the independently owned restaurants and bars in Houston and its suburbs.
I’ll admit, when I first started telling restaurant owners and chefs about this idea, I was naive about what their enthusiasm and dozens of promises of support meant. It has rarely translated to financial support. Most months since our inception, I haven’t been able to pay myself, and it’s only been by the grace of my spouse, Chuck, that I’ve been able to keep Houston Food Finder running this long.
We were, however, able to pay our writers and business-related bills — and that is thanks to our supporting readers, periodic advertisers (many who have been repeat customers) and regular sponsors, most especially Rainbow Lodge and Phat Eatery. Owners Donnette Hansen and Alex Auyeung, respectively, have been saints, even at times like these when I’m in meltdown mode. That is what has kept me believing that someday our ship would come in, and we’d get enough regular financial support for me to earn an actual salary for the full-time dream job that I built for myself.
The hours have been long. Days are filled with writing, editing, answering emails, fielding phone calls, talking with interviewees, doing research, creating advertising copy and graphics and, most recently, recording and producing our new podcast. This publication has taken every single business skill I have and I have loved nearly every minute of it. If I could figure out how to get compensated for it, I’d do it forever.
Since the COVID-19 crisis forced Houston restaurants to close dining rooms, and bars to close completely, about a third of our support has come from our readers. Since the rest of Houston’s business community was also struggling and was unable to spend much on advertising, my other hope was that maybe we could get more readers on board with small monthly donations. About a year-and-a-half ago, I launched a Patreon page to support Houston Food Finder, bolstered by gift card rewards donated to us by kind restaurant, hotel and bar owners from across the city. Unfortunately, we still only have 18 Patreon supporters.
The last time I was ready to throw in the towel was almost exactly a year ago. However, Rachel Austin of public relations firm Hometown Social started a GoFundMe and Shanon Scott, owner of ROMA, started a weekly Regions of Italy dinner series, giving a us $20 for each dinner sold. The approximately $7,000 raised between the two efforts got us through a few more months. This generosity managed to get us a bit more on our feet and we stumble our way to here, June 2020.
We left the GoFundMe account open since the goal was $10,000. Occasionally, a contribution would come through, and it was valuable and meaningful when it did. Unfortunately, about two months ago, a fraudulent transaction came through the account, and GoFundMe decided to address the issue by rejecting all of the contributions that had been made over the past few months, incurring a shortage and the need to withdraw money from our business account to cover it. We closed the GoFundMe and set up a new “tip jar” on Facebook. The approximately $1,000 raised there, along with our Patreon supporters and regular sponsors, have helped us keep writing and publishing during the pandemic.
In addition, over the years, we have had approximately 10 people attempt to do commissioned advertising sales for us, only to have all of them ultimately walk away, frustrated at their lack of success. Most sold nothing at all in their first month and gave up.
A lady who I used to volunteer with in a homeless pet fostering organization used to say, “The best thing about beating your head against the wall is that it feels so good when you stop.” Houston Food Finder, as a business model, is a failure — and I did start it to be a business, not a beg-a-thon.
Adding to the challenges, in March 2017, my husband, daughter and I moved to San Diego, which was occasionally a source of speculation and gossip. We made this difficult decision because we had a property here. After my husband was laid off as IT director for an oil and gas company in May 2016, the financial well had ran dry. In addition, we were becoming empty nesters (our two adult sons were in pursuit of their own lives). It made more sense for us to sell our four-bedroom house in Houston and live instead in the two-bedroom condo that we planned to someday retire to. However, there was no way I was going to throw away eight years of work covering Houston’s bar and restaurant scene, not to mention the work and money I’d already put into Houston Food Finder.
Before we left, I made sure that I could get back to Houston when needed on a cheap Spirit Airlines or United Airlines flight — I hardly ever spent more than $200 on a plane ticket. So, once or even twice a month, as the business necessitated, I’d go back to Houston, usually for four or five days at a time. I’d run around, check out the new restaurants, have meetings, make media appearances, host Houston Food Finder events (again, on a quest to make money, but it rarely worked out) and — the best part — see friends.
Houston Food Finder certainly couldn’t afford a hotel room for me, so most of the time, I found a gracious friend who’d allow me to couch-surf or use a guest room. Sometimes, they’d even put me up in a hotel. Thanks to all those friends — too many to name — but most especially to Cuc Lam and Josh Armendariz. I worked with Cuc at the Houston Press; later on, Josh would become a regular writer for Houston Food Finder with a focus on cocktail, spirits and beer. The vast majority of the time, I stayed with them, because it was like staying with family.
It was a slightly unusual arrangement: a hyper-local publication managed from a different state. But the Bayou City has been my home for years and out-of-town writers visit all the time to cover Houston restaurants and bars. Usually people are overjoyed about that, but that’s often not the reaction I receive when people heard about my weird lifestyle.
My friend Michael Garfield asked, “San Diego? How does that work??” My response: “Because I put in the work.” I never made a big deal of the move and many people didn’t know because, well, I was still showing up.
Left to right: Perfect 10 Gala emcee Michael Garfield, Michael Cordúa (holding the honoree plaque for Cleverley Stone), Lucia Cordúa, Sara Padua, David Cordúa and Houston Food Finder editor and publisher Phaedra Cook (in a Kimono Zulu kimono; owner Tina Zulu gave a different kimono to Cleverley before she died).
As you can see, Houston Food Finder has lasted for as long as it has by the grace of many individuals, to whom I am eternally grateful. Sadly, without a sufficient number of supporting businesses with advertising or sponsor dollars to spend, grace can only go so far.
Now, I have to figure out how to be a contributing household member and start digging my family out of a frightening amount of debt. My spouse deserves that, and if something happened to me, it’s not something my kids should be saddled with.
Maybe it’s time for me to finally learn how to be a San Diegan. I don’t have many friends here. It’s been difficult — harder than I anticipated — to have my work and personal life entirely focused on one city while being in another. Spending days at a time to be in Houston helped mend my psyche and my soul. It helped make sense of the strange life I chose.
I held onto you and took care of you for as long as I could, Houston. In so many ways, you took care of me, too. Unless something dramatic happens though that makes me believe this publication can function as a real, thriving business — ethically — it’s time to move on.
Houston Food Finder is far from unique in its financial struggles. Small, local publications have it especially bad, because they have to compete with much bigger, corporate-owned ones. If you have ad dollars to spend, where are you going to go? The publication with 50,000 page views a month, or a million? It’s pretty easy math, really.
I am enormously fearful for the future of journalism. It looks so much like a charitable endeavor now that some publications are literally becoming non-profits. I’ve considered it, but the money still has to come from somewhere. I suppose if supporting journalism is a tax deduction, maybe it would draw more individuals and businesses to our cause. I’d be interested in some feedback on that. If Houston Food Finder were to come back as a non-profit entity, I’d also need some guidance on what those steps are.
I am also afraid for independent bars and restaurants, which have just been through the worst financial time in history. The sad thing is that it looks like we’re going to shutter just when they need us the most. I know sometimes it’s hard to say no to the many chain restaurants in Houston, but consider instead giving your business to a local business owner who’d like nothing better than to feed you or pour you something nice to drink. As a personal favor to me, it would be especially great if you’d continue supporting the restaurants that were our sponsors.
You might have noticed I put “Most Likely” in the headline of this article. As I mentioned earlier, I built my own dream job. I don’t think anything is going to save it, but I’m leaving the window open a bit in case opportunity wants to fly in.
Short of that: thank you to all our our freelance writers and editors, past and present. Among the present: associate editor Ellie Sharp — who relocated to South Carolina two years ago — has been with us since nearly the beginning. She’s been an absolute rock and I trust her completely. The same goes for freelance writer Holly Beretto, who makes the best dining lists in town. I know you’ll miss Beth Levine’s monthly Hit List of new Houston restaurants. Staci Davis, a recent addition, proved a sharp addition with a knack for in-depth reporting and Chelsy Magee took to managing our social media and weekly-ish newsletter like a duck takes to water. Every website needs a developer on call to keep the bugs out, and Mark Matsusaki of Greenkoi Design has been that person for us. Jeff Balke and his company, SiteMender, has also been a valuable technical resource.
A few of our writers had to take a break when the COVID-19 issues hit due to greater personal or professional demands on their time, but I’d still like to mention them. Josh Armendariz, Carlos Brandon, Jamie Alvear and Hank Lewis, you have all been missed the last few months. I’m sorry that you won’t be able to rejoin our merry band.
Last and most definitely not least: associate editor David Leftwich was literally someone who I always wanted to work with. During the COVID-19 dining room shut-down, David worked tirelessly to catalog the restaurants offering to-go and delivery options and divide them by neighborhood.
On the backend side, so did Mark Matsusaki, and Houston writers Mai Pham and Cuc Lam pitched in with considerable writing and information-gathering contributions. We all wanted to ensure that restaurants would survive and get as much revenue as they could, even if they couldn’t seat people inside. David especially, though, put in greater-than-full-time hours on this mission. It was the first time since the inception of this publication that I felt like someone worked as hard as I did and really had my back.
You are all joys and I am going to miss our day-to-day interactions.
The original website, which is still the basic format that has served us well for three years, was designed by my friend Sebastian Nahapetian, a former bartender. Since Houston Food Finder never made a profit, as a minor owner he was never able to receive any dividends for his work. I’m always going to be sad about that — but I am also thankful that he essentially helped create the job I always wanted.
To the writers who I never got to work with, the ones who expected to return as contributors and to the great Houston restaurateurs and bar owners who we never got to mention: I am sorry. I furthermore apologize for everyone who feels sad, betrayed or disappointed. I know you are out there. I know there are things I am leaving undone.
Finally, to Houston in general: I am sorry we couldn’t continue. I hope you’ll enjoy these last few stories and podcast episodes.
What’s next for me? I don’t know. I’ve felt the tug of wanderlust the past few weeks. I’ve got a few book ideas, some focused on the national bar and restaurant scene, some focused on Houston and San Diego. I could replicate Houston Food Finder and run something similar in San Diego — although it would be just a blog and I’d have no illusions that it would be anything more than a hobby. I could go back to IT consulting, which is what I did before, or freelance graphic design and technical writing/editing, my career before that. I could build on the few writing gigs I already have. I guess I could get a real job, but cubicles make me itch and I have been my own boss for so long that I’m an incorrigible employee.
I’ll let you know what my next dream is when I find it.