Chowhound.com, the cultish message board where obsessed food lovers trade tips, has been sold to CNET Networks, an Internet media company. The site was founded in 1997 and still looks like websites first did (different colored text is the most elaborate design you’ll see), and functions spottily. But that hasn’t stopped the hounds. Chowhound has become indispensable to people who want to find the best arepa cart in Queens, or would rather hear what a discriminating peer thinks of Del Posto than what Frank Bruni has to say.
Founders Jim Leff and Bob Okumura, overwhelmed by the site’s daily traffic, have struggled to keep Chowhound alive for almost nine years. A few dozen unpaid volunteers currently make up the rest of the elusive “chowhound team.” Leff’s title will change from “Alpha Hound” to Chowhound at Large. Okumura will not join CNET. Leff announced the news on his website on Friday afternoon, acknowledging that the site has “run in the red for years” and assuring fans that the new owners have “no interest in dumbing down anything.” In keeping with the spirit of the website, Leff also called on opinionated chowhounds to send in their design suggestions.
We spoke to him shortly afterwards.
How do you feel?
A couple of weeks after this happened, I got a server bill from my server company, which is usually a panic time of the month for me, because it’s a huge figure, and I just passed it to some woman in a cubicle, and she said “OK, we’ll take care of it,” and I’m just like “Ahh,” and I just realized: this is good, this is gonna work!
Have you had many suitors before, people who wanted to buy Chowhound?
I’ve had people approach me with different business ideas—this and that—and generally I find they just want to eat with me.
What did it take to run the site?
There’s just been no time for anything. I’ve just been trying to keep the party going. It’s insane. We’re years past the point at which we probably should have said, you know, it’s no longer practical. But we all had too much Chowhoundish ardor that we refused to ever say ‘die.’
Will the focus move away from message boards?
When I started this site, I was sort of like a cult-known underground food critic kind of guy who a few people knew—very few people knew. But I was really always aware, even as I started getting a reputation for being an expert on food, that there but for the grace of God go many, many other people. There were all sorts of people who knew at least as much as me, some more, about food in New York and beyond. I always fully realized that and I was always sort of uncomfortable being put into position to be like another authority. It’s just dumb—the authorities don’t really know. The people who know are like the construction workers who try a different muffin everyday on the way home from work. That’s where you get the information. So I became sort of the Michael Gorbechov of food critics. You know, everything I did planted the seeds of my own obsolescence. The writing stuff is currently a little bit static, and we’re really looking forward to sort of freshening that up and giving a lot of, like, really new current content. But the focus is always gonna be on the community because, I mean, I’m totally in awe of the expertise of these guys who come around. That’s always going to be the focus.
In your announcement, you said you’ll have more time to write for the website.
We don’t want to make it too “Jimified,” you know what I mean? The site’s about a community of smart people and the whole point is that people should mistrust authorities like me. So the last thing in the world we wanna do is have it be like a “Follow Jim” thing, but you know, if I can plug in some really interesting content, just for kicks? Great.
Have you already gotten design ideas from many people?
Yes, we’re all taking it very seriously. Our chowhounds are expert, sort of, critics. So we want to put them to work. I mean, if you drive an old car to work everyday, you think of like all the features you want on the Maserati you’ll one day get. So I’m glad we’ve roped a Maserati here, and we’re going to try to customize it to the users’ needs.
What is your reaction to complaints that Chowhound has become “yuppyish?”
Oh God, you know, they’ve been saying that since 1998. It’s just the nature of the thing. You know what I call it? It’s my M&M theory. If you hate green M&Ms, you’re going to hate a large bowl of M&Ms worse than a small bowl, because a large bowl has more green ones. Anything you hate, you’re going to see more of as something grows, and if you’re a pessimist, that’s all you see, and you don’t see all the great stuff that’s growing in equal scale. Look, I’m the ultimate, sort of, “hard ass chowhound,” and I think the level of chowhoundsmanship at this point is as high as ever.
Any adjectives in mind for the design?
Well how about “fixed.” We’re going to have an actual search engine that finds stuff, we’re gonna have indexes that don’t send you ten megabyte pages every time you reload them, um, everything’s going to be better designed. We’re not going to have the entire Midwest cooped up in one single message board. The polite Midwesterners never complained—the Brooklynites complained because they want their own page separate from other boroughs.
You told Chowhounds this deal means you won’t have to disappoint anyone.
Could you disappoint these people? Could you close the door on this and send everyone back to Zagat? I sure couldn’t. I felt like I owed it to them to find a way to put it on a sustainable path. I feel like I hit a homerun, I’m pretty psyched.