When Serious Eats founder and overlord Ed Levine first told me that he was planning to write a memoir about the birth of the site, I knew it was going to be a riveting read. And sure enough, Serious Eater: A Food Lover's Perilous Quest for Pizza and Redemption is a captivating account of the determination and sheer grit it took to turn Serious Eats from a kernel of an idea into a destination for millions of food-obsessed readers around the world.
We already gave you a peek at Kenji's foreword to the book. Now, it's time to let Ed's words speak for themselves. Here's a look at the prologue of Serious Eater, on shelves now.
Serious Eater: The Prologue
It was a sunny, bitterly cold day in December 2010, though there was so little natural light in the Serious Eats office that it was impossible to tell once you were inside. The eleven of us were crammed into our funky loft office on one of the last blocks of what was once the thriving Little Italy enclave in lower Manhattan. Actually, to call it a loft would be a stretch. It was a nine-hundred-square-foot, awkwardly shaped studio with low ceilings that our Italian commercial baker landlords had once used to churn out cannolis. The “test kitchen” was a funky island we had bought at Ikea that we had rigged with an induction cooktop. It was so not up to code that we could only hope and pray that the Department of Buildings of New York City would never pay us a visit. It was tight in that office, but it was all we could afford. And we were a tight-knit group anyway.
I was about to ring the cowbell, which I did whenever we earned a major piece of business. And we were celebrating a major piece of business: a $500,000 advertising campaign from a huge financial services company. It was a commitment from a Fortune 500 company. It was a big fucking deal. This was going to be the ad campaign that put us over the top, the one that made us a sustainable business after five nail-biting years of me wondering every week if we were good for payroll. We were going to make Serious Eats work as a business. I felt so sure of it, I let myself gloat.
We ordered pizza from Prince Street Pizza to celebrate—specifically, its Spicy Spring, a Sicilian-style pizza with a chili-flecked sauce and crisped slices of pepperoni. A Spicy Spring slice is simply a life-changing slice of pizza. Believe me. I know pizza. I wrote a whole book about it, spending an entire year eating a thousand slices in America and Italy. The pan-baked crust is a gorgeous burnished brown. It is crunchy on the outside and tender on the inside. The crisped pepperoni is the good stuff. It doesn’t turn the whole slice orange, though there’s plenty of spicy rendered fat on top. Once you have a Spicy Spring slice from Prince Street Pizza it’s hard to eat any other slice of Sicilian pizza.
The pizza came, and the celebration was on. We broke out the wine and the beer. Our two resident mixologists, drinks editor Maggie Hoffman and managing editor Carey Jones, whipped up a cocktail or two. Yup, we were on our way. We were kicking ass and taking names.
The next day our ad sales director got an email from his contact at the financial services company’s ad agency. They were canceling the ad buy effective immediately. “Can they just do that?” I asked. “Yup,” he replied. “It happens all the time.” Five hundred thousand dollars—the $500,000 that would keep us safe—went out the door in a nanosecond. It was gone, and it never came back.
The timing of this particular fiasco couldn’t have been worse. We were running out of money. My investor brother had told me, “When you run out of money, you lose control of your business.” Actually, in my case, I was just going to flat-out lose my business.
I had been fruitlessly searching for new investors for the previous three months. My old investors were tapped out. I had learned the hard way that just because almost all my investors were people of considerable means did not mean their checkbooks were always open for me. To keep the business afloat, I had taken out a loan from a bank that I had personally guaranteed. Why? Because one of the deep dark secrets of trying to build a small business in America is that you cannot borrow money for that business without personally guaranteeing it.
Of course the bank tells you that the money you get from them in the form of a line of credit should not be used for operating capital. Good luck with that, I thought to myself. I had no choice, because there was no other money to use to pay the staff. That’s right. I was betting the ranch, or in my case, the apartment we had been living in for more than thirty years.
So the day after my suddenly meaningless cowbell-ringing ceremony, the ball had rolled back down the hill, Sisyphus-style. I tried to put on a brave face, but my lousy poker face made that a doomed endeavor.
How had Serious Eats, the flavor of the month, even the year, the site that the New York Times Magazine called the "culinary supersite," that PBShad called the future of food media, ended up in this insanely precarious position? I knew the answer, but I couldn’t say it aloud to my employees or even my wife. There was no road map for digital publishing businesses, particularly those that are bootstrapped and undercapitalized. We were all making it up as we went along. And press clippings cannot be used as collateral or to pay the rent. All the great slices of pizza from Prince Street were not going to change that.