This week’s AMA guest provides us with perfect food prep we need to get ready for Thanksgiving. As the self-proclaimed “Eater-In-Chief” of Oklahoma, Greg is the taste buds behind the food-focused website, I Ate Oklahoma. Greg has been reviewing restaurants and writing about Oklahoma’s food culture for nearly a decade. He’s not interested in putting down a restaurant for a bad experience but instead chooses to focus on the best food experiences that Oklahoma has to offer.
We invited Greg to answer our Slack Community’s questions about the editorial process, the etiquette of being a kind reviewer, small business anxiety, and so much more.
Our weekly #ama or Ask Me Anything is a popular Reddit format, where an expert who’s got something figured out, or took on a successful project, introduce themselves and what they’ve been working on and openly answers questions for an hour. We’ve taken this idea and formatted it to our Slack community.
Check out the delicious tidbits that Greg has to share and be sure to join our creative community on Slack to ask your questions of our professionals anytime.
Hello everybody! I’m Greg Elwell, Eater-in-Chief of I Ate Oklahoma, a startup food review, news, and feature website here in Oklahoma City.
I’m a lifelong Oklahoma guy, except for the first 9 months or so, when I was busy being a baby in South Carolina. But for as long as I’ve been able to talk/not wear a diaper (that last one just happened recently), I’ve been in Oklahoma.
I graduated from Oklahoma State University with a degree in news-editorial journalism in 2002. I’ve worked for The Oklahoman, Oklahoma Gazette, Oklahoma Today, Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation and, in keeping with only being employed by places with Oklahoma in the name, I started iateoklahoma.com earlier this year.
Why go independent? I didn’t really have a choice. The Oklahoma Gazette fired me in June. So I decided to keep doing what I love for the only person who would have me: me.
I still do freelance writing for Oklahoma Today and just about anyone else who asks. So just Oklahoma Today, really.
Things I can talk about:
- Small business startup anxiety
- Balancing editorial ethics with paying the bills
- Where you should eat
- Why focusing on the good is almost always better than giving in to the Dark Side
- Being a (mostly) one-man show on the Internet
How did you overcome the small business startup anxiety?! And what’s the realest / best advice for others who are on the cusp of cutting the day job cord?
Oh, I haven’t overcome the anxiety at all. I just didn’t have a choice in the matter.
What I can say is that belief in your skills is an absolute must. I’ve worked for newspapers since I was in the 8th grade. I’ve won awards for writing. I may feel like a fraud sometimes, but other people have vouched for me enough that I started to believe them.
Build up a cash reserve, if possible. Pay down debt as much as you can. Work in advance to line up customers. Then go for it.
Is Nic’s really as good as everyone claims?
I think it is, but taste is subjective. Have you ever been told that a movie is going to be SUPER hilarious and then you go and it’s sort of funny, but not exactly life changing? That’s what a Nic’s burger has become for many people.
I love the burgers at Nic’s Grill. Nic’s Diner isn’t nearly as good. If you’re going to go, wait in line at Nic’s Grill. Get there early. Bring cash. And remember that it’s a burger. It just happens to be a very good burger.
I have a theory that the outside-wait-in-line plus gruff ordering experience adds to the flavor & good reviews.
Do you review your experiences too, or just flavors?
Original Nic’s rules!!!
Oh, and Hi Greg!
@carabell_okc The experience is absolutely part of a review. Great food and terrible service makes for a bad restaurant.
When did you first know you wanted to go independent?
Shortly before I got fired, honestly. I’d been toying with the idea for a while, but when management at the Gazette made it clear they were trying to get me to quit, I started running numbers and figuring out how to make it work.
When they pulled the trigger and fired me, I didn’t have a choice. But I greatly prefer everything about it, except the money…for now.
What drew you to food blogging? Which food bloggers / reviewers inspire you?
Boredom. Honestly, I was bored. After working for The Oklahoman — which is a word factory — I was doing PR for the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation and I was bored out of my mind. Not that OMRF isn’t interesting, but the workload was so much lighter.
I saw eataroundokc.com and said, “Hey, I’d like to try this” and they were happy to have someone who knew how to write and edit come on board.
As for inspirations, I highly respect Dave Cathey with the Oklahoman and Jonathan Gold, the L.A. Times reviewer. (They made a documentary about him: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2614776/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1
I got to interview him and he was just as interesting and nice as I’d hoped.
But I recommend any reviewer. Seeing how others do a job, good or bad, helps you figure out what kind of job you’d do in their place.
Do restaurants know who you are when you come in, or do you still get to go “undercover” when you’re reviewing restaurants? Do you get any special treatment when they do know who you are?
New restaurants generally don’t know who I am. I’m a pretty basic looking guy. Fat. Beard. It’s easy to get lost in the crowd. And servers, by and large, give 0 shits about a restaurant critic unless their manager or the owner is over their shoulder.
Some places it’s a little harder to do, especially mom and pop places after we’ve been introduced, but I try my best to ward off a lot of special treatment.
If a meal is comped, it generally occurs after I’ve already reviewed them. And I try to always carry some cash so I can tip a server if that happens.
How do you pick out restaurants to sample? Also, you seem to try everything as soon as it opens….how’d you hook that up? Amazing perk!
When a new restaurant from an established group (Good Egg, 84 Hospitality, etc) opens, they often invite me to the soft opening. Part of it is good publicity for them, as people talk about it on social media, but I often give constructive criticism. Restaurants often take time to get into a groove, which is why I don’t review anything until it’s settled into a routine. That’s the food most people are going to get, so that’s what I need to base my reviews on.
Picking restaurants comes from talking to people. I can’t be everywhere or eat everything, much as I try, but I listen to others and figure out what people are interested in. Sometimes I just try a place because I drive past it and it looks interesting. If the food is good, I go back with a camera and write it up.
What’s your 3 year plan look like in regards to keeping your brand going? Do you even have a plan?
I do not have a plan. I should though, right? At the moment, I’m seeking out advertisers and working odd jobs in order to keep everything afloat. I also have an amazing support network.
But, yeah, I’m kind of an idiot. So I have a business coach who is helping me set things up, like LLC paperwork, etc.
Hi Greg, it has to at least feel good, not having every word you type critiqued to death, does that part feel strange?
It feels freeing. Good editing is very important, but by the time I left the Gazette, they had become so intent on pushing me out that they were literally draining the fun out of the stories.
The great thing about being my own boss is that I get to say what I want without having some nonsensical rule designed to placate advertisers thrown in my face.
How do advertisers take away from the integrity of your piece?
Advertisers can only affect your work if you let them. But when those decisions are made by someone whose main interest is the money, there’s an imbalance.
I think it’s important that advertisers know that when they buy an ad, they get…an ad. Not a shill. Not someone who will protect them at all costs. Advertising is valuable. Supporting journalism is valuable.But I won’t say I like food that I don’t like just because someone pays for an ad. Once you give in on that, none of your advice can be taken seriously.
Given your background in writing, do you prefer written reviews? Is video a medium you could see transitioning to? Also do you shoot the photos on your reviews? (they’re v nice pix)
I’m pretty obsessed with youtube anyway, but most of the food / culture reviews I’ve connected with lately have been from youtubers.
I do shoot my own pictures and I’ve had to learn on the fly to improve them to the point where they don’t totally suck.
I like video reviews, but I’m not so quick on my feet that I can do a lot of that stuff. I’m also technologically dumb, so writing and taking pictures is just the best way I know how at the moment.
There is talk of starting a podcast with help from a local bank and I’m definitely trying to work more video onto the site. It’s just a slow process.
Can’t wait to see what the future holds for you and where you can push it!
One of the things that drew me to your work was that you don’t leave bad reviews “bad restaurants put themselves out of business”. Is there a reason behind your focus on good/constructive reviews?
A review that rips someone apart is just there to make the reviewer feel good about how smart, how superior they are. I prefer to keep how smart and superior I am to myself. ?
Truthfully, people just want the good stuff. A bad review might be fun to read, but it doesn’t help you find a good place for brunch.
Besides, lots of restaurants have a bad day here or there. Should I jeopardize people’s jobs because I came in on an off day?
I know how hard it is to do a job day in and day out. I want people to succeed. So I give constructive criticism in person and just point people toward the good stuff online.
I love this attitude!
I LOVE this.
I loved the posts about the Taco Bell menu items. They were super entertaining and it was a creative take. What inspired that? Plans to do anything similar in the future?
I know I’m not the only one who loves fast food, so I wanted a way to connect with people who aren’t “foodies.” Plus, any chance I have to work with my friends Brian (@brianbyrne) and Spencer (@spencerlenox) (on Twitter), I’ll do.
Upcoming Worst-to-Best subjects include McDonalds and possibly even Long John Silvers once I get signed up for medical insurance.
Oh, man. Please add Arby’s to this list. They have some odd stuff!
Links? Where can I see this?
@the_tiffanylea I’m planning to do a tasting of all the ice cream flavors.
yes please. What’s with all the nut flavors?
Do you have opinions on etiquette: tipping, complaints, etc.?
Tipping: Always tip. Always. Maybe 10% if absolutely everything is the worst ever, but servers make $2.13 an hour. Without tips, they don’t live. Same for Postmates drivers.
As for complaints, I wrote an entire piece about it: http://iateoklahoma.com/post/how-to-complain
Long story short, though, I think you should complain in person and give the restaurant a chance to make it right before you rip into them online.
How has Oklahoma City’s food scene changed over the last few years? Where would you like to see it go?
OKC is so different than what you would have found 10-15 years ago, but even the last few years have seen some surprising changes. The eat local trend is extremely big now and more and more restaurants are focusing on helping local farmers by using Oklahoma-grown ingredients. Even diners, like The Miller Grill in Yukon, do what they can to use locally sourced ingredients.
We’re also approaching “peak restaurant.” There are simply so many new places that Oklahoma’s kitchen workforce is being stretched thin. When Vast is advertising for help, that’s crazy.
It’s about time for a winnowing. We’re going to see some older places close and fewer new spots open for a while. There has to be some consolidation. Hopefully it will force the restaurants that want to stay open to up their games with food quality and service.
This is all evolution. I think Oklahoma City’s food scene will be stronger for it.
What’s your ideal Thanksgiving spread?
That’s what I’m working on today!
I’m cooking the turkey sous vide for extra succulent meat. Then I like a big pot of semi-lumpy mashed potatoes, turkey gravy, stuffing, some kind of sweet potatoes, green beans, a nice bunch of Parker House rolls with butter and probably a 2 liter of Coke.
**Googles sous vide
Right, right. I’m sous videing too. Totally.
What are your top five must-visit restaurants in the okc area?
1. Ludivine. It may be a bit cliche by this point, but Ludivine is at the forefront of haute cuisine in OKC. Not only is the food interesting and thoughtful, it’s good.
2. Off The Hook. For over-the-top decadent food of the seafood/cajun variety, this is a must.
3. Yuzo Sushi Tapas. The nigiri at Yuzo is top of the line and the service is amazing. Plus, poke bowls.
4. Saucee Sicilian. The best pizza in OKC comes from a food truck. Believe.
5. Sheesh Mahal. Indian/Pakistani food done as well as I’ve ever had it. Really wonderful.
But there are so many more! We’ve really become a food city.
Ugh I’m the worst I’ve been to zero of these.
@carabell_okc It’s easy to fix. ?
That feel when you realize you chose Flint over Ludivine for basically no reason for dinner last night, and then this gets posted. ?
I love this list because it’s not what I would have expected. There’s a lot I haven’t visited.
I noticed you have a Patreon (go support Greg! https://www.patreon.com/iateoklahoma). How do you feel about using crowdfunding to support journalism or other creative efforts?
It’s a step in the right direction, but it’s a tough row to hoe for most of us with kids and loans that have to be paid off.
Sometimes a big media network has the economies of scale to do massive research and reporting that a single person can’t do.
BUT, it’s also a way for people to support what they love, especially if it’s something not being offered by a larger company.
So far, I’m liking it, but it’s nowhere near enough to sustain me. As it is, I use it more to connect with people who are truly passionate about food.
This is so cool!!! I’ve only really seen illustrators have success at Patreon, so I love seeing it put to other use.
You talked about the trend of eating locally grown ingredients. Does where the ingredients come from really make a meal taste better? Do you think it’s just a trend or does it have some staying power? Why do you think this concept has caught on?
? Sorry, that was a lot of questions. I’m just generally curious about this trend.
Yes. The idea of terroir is an old one. The “flavor of the place.”
But the reason I want locally sourced foods has less to do with what Oklahoma has to offer and more to do with what freshness offers.
Tomatoes grown in Mexico and shipped here must be picked before they’re ripe, which is why so many grocery store tomatoes taste about as good as the cardboard box they come in.
Local eggs, local grass-fed beef, locally grown vegetables all have the benefit of traveling a shorter distance, which means you’re getting them closer to their peak. And that does affect flavor.
I think when people taste the difference, it’s hard to get them to go back to the old ways. It’s absolutely worth a little extra money, especially when you consider that keeping the money in the community has additional benefits.
Do you have any knowledge about ethically sourced meat in Oklahoma? This is something I’ve started thinking about a lot lately but not sure where the right places to go are. How do we as consumers make clear that this is important to us? Any tips on where to go or avoid?
Ideally, get to know the people raising the food. One good place to go is the Oklahoma Food Co-op: http://oklahomafood.coop/ Those folks are working the farms and can tell you exactly how and why they raise the food the way they do.
As for how to make it clear, you vote with your wallet. That’s the best way to send a message.
Thank you all for the questions! I hope I was some help. If you have any more, feel free to DM me or you can reach me on social media:
If you want to listen in to find out when the next AMA is scheduled, or ask your own questions, get your slack invite here: dsndevokc.com/join-our-slack
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