Cue the resurgence: Food-blogging pioneer Donnie Burtless - INTERVIEW
blog by Nick Mendola • November 07, 2013 @ 3:09pm
Donnie Burtless has been taking pictures of his food since before it was cool. Well, before it was normal. Okay, before it was commonplace.
Point is: The man behind BuffaloEats.org has been ahead of the trends since his food blog began.
“The first year, people would stop what they’re doing and be like, ‘Why are they taking pictures of food?’,” Burtless said over a drink at Mes Que on Hertel Avenue. “Now I’m like every other hipster kid in a restaurant. It’s worked out because we are not standing out at all.”
Standing out is a relative phrase, as he may be able to sneak into a restaurant but his site is doing ridiculous traffic.
What started as a passion project—“It was literally me keeping track of what I ate so if I liked something I could go back”—has turned into a bit of a monster, with tons of reviews, podcasts and web hits driving the site into a staple of Buffalo food.
A financial auditor by day, Burtless has been stunned to see the hobby he shares with his wife and brother evolve from a sloppy journal into something much bigger.
“If you look at our first posts, they were just garbage,” Burtless said.
“Anything from 2009 I’m embarrassed to look at it. Over time our idea changed, my wife was like, ‘You should probably take this——seriously’ and we developed our critical voice I guess you could say. It’s weird. (Buffalo News food editor) Andrew Galarneau will post our things and we get respect from people that I greatly respect and I still think I’m just a little dude writing some blog.”
The blog, it should be noted, works exhaustively to cover a constantly-growing wishlist. Despite more than 1,000 posts, over 300 this year alone, Buffalo Eats has a list of restaurants they want to hit longer than 100 eateries.
They’ve become influential as well as referential, a tremendous research asset for the eater in Buffalo. Sure, their site gets hits from people visiting the area, but it also opens doors to locals peering into new parts of their city due to the blog’s deep pursuit of all things Buffalo food.
“A lot of our traffic is because if someone is Googling a restaurant that they want to go to, there’s an 80 percent chance that we’ve been there and I have pictures of that,” Burtless said.
The site has put him in some proud places. He was asked to be on a panel of reviews for WGRZ’s Top Ten Restaurants in Western New York, which ran for two weeks and put him alongside local luminaries like Sabres great Danny Gare, Nina Barone of the blog Buffalo Foodie, top area restauranteur Mike Andrzejewski (Tappo, Seabar, Mike A’s Steakhouse and Cantina Loco) and Krista Van Wagner of Curly’s Grill and Banquet Center.
And yet, Burtless finds himself limited by a few obstacles. For one thing, he’s rarely been able to properly assess an establishment more than once. Part of that is the breadth of Buffalo’s eating map and the other is their larger impediment: money.
While some long-running food publications can afford to hit the same joint two or three times before writing a review, Buffalo Eats has to be a bit more economical.
“We go through stretches where we have maybe more money than other times, where we’ll go out to eat like five times a week,” Burtless said. “In other areas, we’ll do like cheap eats where we’ll do two really cheap, small restaurants and figure it out from there. As of right now we’re nearing 500 restaurants in about four years.”
With reviews come critics, and not of the professional writing variety. Burtless has occasionally seen increased attention paid to his table, sometimes to distraction, and to his reviews. It’s not always pretty. One of the site’s “Woah” moments came courtesy of rather troubling post-review negativity.
“For a while I was still naive enough to think we didn’t affect anyone,” Burtless said. “Then somebody tracked me down two-and-a-half years ago, called my work number and threatened to sue me and said, ‘I don’t know how much money you’re worth, but if you think you can get away this…’ It was one of the first moments where I was like, ‘Oh——. Dude, I just wrote an opinion of what it was like when I went into your place.’ It was the first time I realized, wow I could really——people off.”
Mostly, however, things are pretty upbeat in Eatsville. His brother, Tom, helps him produce the enjoyable “Eat It Up” podcast while Burtless credits his wife, Alli Suriani, with making his reviews easier on the eyes.
“I see numbers,” said Burtless, the financial guy. “I see how things work like that. I am not a good writer. I will never say I’m a good writer. My wife went to grad school for five years. She’s written hundreds of papers, huge 25-page theses so she’s my editor. I write something that in my head that makes complete sense and she takes it from my head to the page. She saves my ass, basically.”
Over time, Burtless feels the site has improved for Gladwellian reasons. The more they eat and type, the more refined their reviews. He’s also found that it’s a bigger challenge to go off of neighborhood recommendations. Pizzerias and fish fries have faithful followings and there’s an expectation that goes with reviewing such places.
“I’m stealing a quote from a guest on my podcast but you can’t taste nostalgia,” Burtless said.
A site that began as little more than a cataloging curiosity now has loads of eyes on it, and he’s happy to proffer opinions on what he’d like to see in the future of Buffalo food. He wants to see more daring eateries with new and different cuisines.
There’s no question Burtless remains a guy who’s passionate about his palate and his plate, grateful to share dinner with his wife and friends before passing his opinions on to you. Just don’t call him at work.