December 10, 2020

Before the taco emoji, before fancy tacos, there was L.A. Taco.

The site started in 2006 to document what its founders loved about Los Angeles. It relaunched in 2018 as a hyperlocal news site. Last summer, Javier Cabral joined as editor.

At 31, Cabral has spent 16 years covering food. Through journalism, he turned an eating disorder into a passionate career around local food coverage. He scouted for famed late food critic Jonathan Gold, blogged on his own and worked at VICE before joining L.A. Taco.

A lot has changed in that time, and not just tacos.

I reached out to Cabral, The (Charleston, South Carolina) Post and Courier’s Hanna Raskin and the Miami Herald’s Carlos Frías after writing about the end of an era for local newspaper food editors with the retirement of Lee Dean from The (Minneapolis, Minnesota) Star Tribune.

I wanted to know — in a time of Instagram influencers, Yelp reviews and the shift to harness reader revenue, what’s next for local food coverage?

Here’s what they said.

Pictured from top left, Javier Cabral, editor of L.A. Taco. (Courtesy: L.A. Taco) Right, Hanna Raskin. (Courtesy: Hanna Raskin) Bottom left, Carlos Frías. (Courtesy: Miami Herald)

Fewer recipes, more people

“People don’t come to the Miami Herald for recipes anymore,” said Frías, the Herald’s food editor. “People go to the internet. They go to NYT Cooking … Bon Appétit, Food & Wine.”

Recipes are now more the territory of trade publications, he said, and the Herald mostly runs wire recipes.

“We focus our attention more on individual stories.”

Food is the frame, but it’s not the whole picture.

“It’s become much deeper than just talking about how toothsome a sandwich is,” Cabral said. “Nowadays, that’s not enough.”

If he gets pitched a story about a sandwich, he’ll pass. But if that story is about the 82-year-old immigrant who brought that sandwich recipe with him and is keeping it alive, he’s interested.

Food stories don’t have to be comforting or connecting either, Cabral said. He’s seeing more stories that take on systemic racism, immigration, class and labor.

“It’s not like your unicorns and Instagram cheese pools,” he said. “You have to be OK with making some people uncomfortable.”

Former New Orleans Times-Picayune food writer Brett Anderson’s work in 2018 exemplifies that with coverage of sexual harassment allegations against a celebrity chef. Eater called that work “the watershed moment of the year.”

There are a lot of people taking pretty photos of food right now, said Raskin, the Post and Courier’s food editor and chief critic. But there’s still a lot of space for food writers to work.

“The journalism part is really important,” she said.

We need people not just publishing recipes, but writing Freedom of Information Act requests.

“We need to look into all sides of food and beverage, which means not just the casseroles and cakes you make.”

That means stories about community members who work in the food industry facing tough times, politics, business, social justice and food insecurity.

“Again it’s a lot more than just what you make for dinner.”


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A post shared by Hanna Raskin (@hanna_raskin)

Actual journalism still matters (and audiences show up for it)

When Cabral started covering food, there was no Instagram, no Yelp, no decent phone cameras.

“What’s changed is if you’re a writer, if you’re a journalist, you really have to practice the virtues of journalism,” he said.

That includes transparency, ethics and clear writing. It goes far beyond a great photo of what you’re eating. And, when done right, it brings in audiences that will support the work.

When L.A. Taco moved to a news-first platform, they added a membership approach.

“It’s taken three years, but we are almost at the sustainable level,” Cabral said. “We’re at the cusp.”

In both Miami and Charleston, food’s also a hit.

“Food and Dining content is among the best performing content on our website,” Post and Courier executive editor Mitch Pugh said in an email. “From a digital subscriptions perspective, Business and Food are easily are two top-performing segments. In particular, the work that Hanna Raskin does leads directly to a significant number of new subscribers each month. And her work frequently shows up on the path to conversion for many more subscribers. We believe our investment in serious, focused food coverage has more than paid off. Hanna writes with confidence and authority and our readers clearly find that approach to have significant value.”

And in Miami:

“Food coverage performs very well with a key demographic: Local readers,” Herald analytics editor Amy Lipman Prezant said in an email. “Almost half of the food traffic we get is local, and this is even higher when we are writing stories about food trends or restaurants from Carlos’ unique perspective. Providing this kind of original, super local coverage is essential to our future, as it consistently leads to subscribers and keeps them coming back for more.”

And when Frías looks for food stories, he’s looking for stories that only happen in Miami.

“I never run out of topics,” he said, “because food writing is just local reporting.”


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A post shared by Javier Cabral (@theglutster)

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Kristen Hare covers the people and business of local news and is the editor of Locally at Poynter. She previously worked as a staff writer…
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