A Food Blog Is Born: How A Food Media Conference Changed Birmingham’s Culinary Culture
How did two food bloggers help transform downtown Birmingham’s dining imprint? We talked with Jessica Merlin and Scott Doty of What to Eat Birmingham to find out how their passion for sharing about good eats influenced the development of Pizitz Food Hall.
Five years ago, Jessie Merlin sat attentively in the audience of the inaugural Food Blog South.
The Pittsburgh native, an infectious disease physician and researcher, had moved to Birmingham to work at UAB. But her hobby, shared with her husband Scott Doty, was food. Eating it. Writing about it. Telling everyone about their next favorite meal procured from that hole-in-the-wall restaurant you might pass if you didn’t know where to look.
That day at Woodlawn Hall, a group of attendees showed her how to set up WordPress and Twitter accounts. She walked out of the event inspired to start a blog—“Birmingham Foodies,” which evolved into What To Eat In Birmingham.
Now the site is regarded as a trustworthy and formidable source on Birmingham food. And because of that, Jessie and Scott have had a hand in shaping one of the most important redevelopments the city has seen: Pizitz Food Hall.
With Pizitz open for more than a week now, and Food Media South (born from Food Blog South) taking place this weekend, we sat down to talk with Jessie and Scott. We had a lot of questions for them.
How, with no advertising, did they create a blog that draws up to 30,000 readers a month? How, in a town home to national, big-name publishers, did they become the ones chosen to curate restaurants for Pizitz?
How did a doctor and an industrial designer help change the landscape of Birmingham food?
Sitting at a table at Pizitz on a recent evening, she is speaking about the consistency of the ice cream at Lichita’s Paleteria and the tuna in the poke bowls from Ono Poke. The stalls are next to one another. But that’s not how she first experienced the poke and the popsicles.
She and Scott first ate dishes from these proprietors after forming relationships with them where they were operating or existing in the community. (Lichita’s first location is on Valley Avenue. Ono Poke was born from the family that runs Pho 280.)
Bayer Properties, which developed Pizitz, approached Scott and Jessie to serve as consultants to the Food Hall. As a result, they have worked to curate the mix of restaurants, drawing upon the relationships they’ve built through five years of blogging.
“We wanted to show them how great this city really is, and for us that was told in stories about food.”
Scott, who has designed products for the likes of Michael Graves for Target, has also served as what he calls a design “cheerleader,” often sitting in on tenant meetings with Yellowhammer Creative and Appleseed Workshop regarding branding and designs for the stalls. Some tenants had never worked with designers or architects before.
“Sitting here at Pizitz, I feel like I’m in the middle of our blog come to life,” Jessie said.
But she and Scott, whom she refers to as “Mr. Foodie” on the blog, didn’t start What To Eat In Birmingham with the intention of working with a food hall. What To Eat In Birmingham was born out of several factors, Jessie said.
“When we moved to Birmingham, we couldn’t find a resource to tell us about the kind of food we wanted to eat,” Jessie said. The couple had met swing dancing in Philadelphia, and spent their courtship and marriage enjoying good food. “Our friends from the northeast were shocked and worried we moved to Birmingham, Alabama. We wanted to show them how great this city really is, and for us that was told in stories about food,” she said.
They launched the blog at a time when something else was happening: In 2008, the economy took a downturn. As a result of that, and lagging to keep pace with the digital revolution, local and regional media were affected. “At the time, there were tons of food writers in Birmingham—but in general they weren’t writing about Birmingham,” Scott said. “We stepped in and filled a void,” Jessie said.
Shaun Chavis, who co-founded Food Blog South along with Jason Horn, is a James Beard Award-winning editor and president of Atlanta’s Saltshaker Media. “I’m so proud of what Jessie and Scott have done with their blog and in helping develop the food hall,” she said.
She explained that 2010, the first year of the event, was a time filled with possibilities. Birmingham had started to get national media attention for its deeply rooted food culture. New publishing platforms were coming online. Content was becoming democratized.
“Jason and I started Food Blog South because there was starting to be a national conversation about Southern food, but there wasn’t a Southern event for food bloggers. We didn’t want to travel to an event in New York or Los Angeles, so we created an event here. We believed Southern people should be talking about Southern food.”
For four years, Shaun and Jason managed the event, which attracted aspiring bloggers and national media alike. In 2015, when both she and Jason were both moving out of state, Southern Foodways Alliance took over the management of the event, changing the name to Food Media South. But the Food Blog South legacy—and its impact—remains strong. “Jessie and Scott are two of many people who have told us how the event shaped their path.”
“We owe Food Blog South a lot,” Jessie said. “That event inspired me, and taught me a lot about the importance of storytelling.”
“Jason and I started Food Blog South because we believed Southern people should be talking about Southern food.”
Scott and Jessie are contemplative about their place in the food media ecosystem. “We are not trained food critics. There’s an important place for critics and journalists, but we’re not either,” Scott said. “We just love good food. And this is never going to be our main focus—we both have careers. It’s a side hustle.”
They don’t take advertising, never accept free meals, dine anonymously, and don’t publish stories about restaurants whose food they don’t love. “I don’t want to be beholden to anyone who tells me what or how to write,” Jessie said. “We’re fortunate that we both have careers that allow us to create a blog with this kind of freedom. For us it’s about the long-play—building relationships.”
Their focus is on restaurants that fit into one of a few categories, including those introducing a concept/food type new to the area or in an interesting location (like the the Blue Pacific at Hoover Food Mart, a former gas station). Most importantly, they only write about food that meets their exacting standards for quality. Generally, this is not fine dining—someone else writes about those places well, and they get enough press, Jessie said.
Their process is simple: They eat at a lot of restaurants, often making multiple trips. They often bring groups of friends, trying as many dishes as possible and getting input from people they trust. Jessie never takes notes, but Scott takes copious photos.
And when they’ve decided to write about a restaurant for the site, Jessie gets to work, writing quickly and efficiently, frequently in one sitting, sometimes in less than an hour.
“It’s pure fun,” Jessie said. “I don’t have an editor, and I’m not beholden to anyone to write in a certain way. Scott takes a look before I post it to make sure there are no mistakes, and then we post.”
She says she learned to write quickly from writing research grants. “I wrote my first big National Institutes of Health grant at the same time the blog was taking off. Even though food writing and grant writing are very different processes, they really feed off each other. I think my food writing makes me a better grant writer and vice versa.”
Though they aren’t part of traditional food media, Scott and Jessie possess a similar impact. After a story runs on the site, restaurants receive throngs of visitors. Like the time that they wrote about weekend dim sum at Red Bowl on Green Springs Avenue. They posted the story on a Tuesday, and called the owners to tell them to brace themselves. And, sure enough, when the weekend rolled around, the line was out the door—Jessie had to wait 45 minutes to get a table. Which she loved.
But here’s the heart of the matter.
“At the end of the day, the most important thing to us is that we help restaurant owners who otherwise would not get noticed,” Jessie says. “These are people who are typically running small family businesses and turning out incredible products. Really this has nothing to do with us—it’s about these people who pour their hearts into their businesses.”
These days, they are spending a lot of time at Pizitz where new restaurants are opening every few days. “These people are our friends,” Jessie said. “In many cases, they’ve invested their life’s savings into these places, and we want them to work.”
So far, it seems like it is, as a mix of downtown workers, visitors, and people from across Birmingham flock to the food hall, Instagramming their own photos of chicken and waffles from Waffle Works and falafel from Eli’s Jerusalem Grill. Ichicoro Ramen opened this week, and restaurants to come will include an Indian food stall; Ghion Cultural Hall, an Ethiopian restaurant based in Atlanta; and MoMo’s, a dumpling and bahn mi stall—just to name a few.
“This is a highly ethnically diverse food hall,” Jessie said. “This was important to us. Our strong immigrant communities contribute to our food culture. So while it’s really great to eat Southern food in the South, we think it’s also great to eat at an incredible Thai place in the South.”
Which brings us back to this weekend, and Food Media South, an event that draws food media, the well-known bylines and the startups, to the Magic City. This year’s theme is immigration. And Jessie and Scott hope that some of the attendees will take some time to visit Pizitz to meet some of the faces of Birmingham food. Those who are new to downtown, but not new to our community. “We just want everyone to succeed.”
And there’s always room for one more at that table. ♥
For a full list of restaurant and updates on openings at Pizitz Food Hall, visit What To Eat In Birmingham.
Jessie will be doing tours of the food hall this Saturday, February 26 at 2pm, 3pm, and 4pm. Tours are free, but sign up is required and participation is capped at 25 people per tour, and spots are filling up. To sign up, email firstname.lastname@example.org.