Has Eater Cofounder Ben Leventhal Gone Two-Point-Uh-Oh with NBC’s Feast?

When entering a field as crowded as food blogging in New York City one needs a great idea. Ben Leventhal thinks he has one. Again. Leventhal’s been struck by such notions before. In 2005, along with blogger-about -town Lockhart Steele, he cofounded Curbed’s Eater.com — and it quickly became the online bible for a certain segment of food-obsessed metropolitans. The buoyant effervescence of the mid-oughts-Gotham-boom dining propelled the duo to national prominence, and Eater spawned West Coast, and then last fall, national, offspring.

It was only a matter of time before the then 30-year-old Leventhal became too big for his blogger britches. By 2010, as a freshly minted New York Post Most Eligible Bachelor, he found himself leading NBC’s local blogging efforts as Managing Editor of Lifestyle for NBC Local Media, and came up with the idea for a new food site called Feast and, more importantly, Feast Rank, the site’s most original contribution to the field.

Besides posts by bloggers, aggregating the usual suspects and posting proprietary video, the site assigns restaurants a Feast Rank, a 1-100 score generated by a wholly automated algorithm and in New York comprising 75 sources — everything from the New York Times restaurant stars to Grub Street stories to Zagat listings to Yelp and Citysearch reviews to local blog and social media chatter, all apparently updating in real-time (a handy “+” or “-” indicating recent point shifts in opinion runs across the top of the page like numbers on a stock ticker, so it seems real official-like).

“Ben has been interested in that for a while now — this algorithm,” says Serious Eats founder Ed Levine. “It seems like it’s more about utility than Eater was. Which makes sense. If it’s a corporate initiative, utility is going to be driving it, because they think they can quantify utility.”

However, to some, Rank doesn’t deliver. “The base idea is fantastic. It’s experimental, its new, its ownable and represents an interesting and proprietary way to garner interest and create content out of things that are already happening anyway,” says Tom Ajello, Creative Director of Poke, an interactive and design agency in New York. “The problem is,” says Ajello, “The Feast Rank feature is buried, impossible to decipher once you find it, and not iconically or creatively represented in a way that will engage people.” Rank does give food-obsessed New Yorkers one more thing to obsess and argue over — and of course, complain about. And one thing they seem to agree on complaining about is the word chosen to represent the top ranked restaurants: “Epic” — sounding as much like the rallying cry of Psi U as it does a taste discrimination — has been the target of much scorn. Also there are some bugs in the ranking system and apparently kinks to work out in the algorithm that compiles ratings and buzz to generate Feast Rank (though, these things tend to improve over time). Instead of offering a unified voice, the Feast Rank ratings are, at least at this point in the launch, slip-shod and inconsistent. “It seems like a supremely bad idea,” says Jonathan Gold, the former New York critic for Gourmet magazine who went West to LA and on to become the first food writer to win a Pulitzer Prize for criticism. “Real-time samplings of a thousand half-formed opinions are useful to political pollsters, but not necessarily to somebody trying to figure out whether it’s going to be Motorino or Maialino after the show. It’s hard to see why it would be any more reliable than Yelp or Citysearch, which to me are most useful when it, because you can follow specific commenters, functions most like a regular review.”

But if anyone has the track record to make you believe Feast Rank will work out the kinks, it’s Leventhal. “If you think about it: Eater begot Grub Street, Grub Street begot Feast, and what do all those sites have in common? Ben — who’s really good at this stuff,” says Levine. “He’s the one link — to use a double entendre — between all those sites. There’s clearly a lot of corporate resources behind Feast and it’s too soon to know how it will turn out, but I have a lot of respect for what Ben does. He’s one of the first great minds when it comes to this stuff.”

But in the free-love world of online publishing, where there’s links enough for all (if not enough ad dollars) might there still not be something paradoxical about Leventhal sitting atop the masthead and serving as editor-at-large of Eater, the food blog he founded, while at the same time launching its most serious competition for ads? Feast is set to expand from Miami and New York and roll out to LA and Chicago by the end of the month, and, according to Leventhal and Brian Buchwald, EVP of NBC Local Integrated Media, the plan is to continue the concept in all 10 of NBC Digital’s local markets.

NBC began beating the drum for Feast in January with a faux food truck loaded with celebrity chefs such as Daniel Boulud making the rounds of Manhattan street corners (an event covered breathlessly in a series of posts on Eater.com). The truck pulled up on 23rd street, Union Square and in Soho, setting up velvet ropes manned by hyper-active clip-board-list toting publicists at each stop. Just like the halal cart. “It’s a clearinghouse of news and information,” says Buchwald, “What we’re trying to do is organize that information for the user, to make it more digestible for them to then go off to a Grub Street or an Eater. We’re going to be a good traffic source for a New York mag, or a New York Times or whomever.” There are no formal relationships between NBC and any of the sources, however. Even Eater. “They’re exactly the same as every other content source,” Leventhal says.

Not much has been said about Leventhal’s professional separation from Eater (though he acknowledged n a post on Eater in October, informing readers that he took the NBC job, that his role had obviously changed there over the previous 10 months). As recently as October, the New York Times interviewed Steele and Leventhal together on the occasion of Eater’s national launch. Rumors of discord within the happy halls of Curbed abound though. Says a writer who’s worked with Levanthal, “He seems to speak to everyone in the condescending overtones of an especially bored and precocious 14-year old.” Says another former Curbed writer when asked about Leventhal, simply, “What an asshole.” “We wish Ben well in all of his endeavors,” says Joshua Albertson, Vice President of Sales and General Manager of Curbed. When asked if the coverage of Feast’s launch on Curbed-owned Eater didn’t seem a little, um, excited (i.e. “all the glorious details have been released”), Albertson counters, “I wouldn’t say excitement is the right word. Of course, we’re interested in what they’re doing. We’ll link to them when they’ve got something good, and I expect that they’ll do the same.”

Well sure, the internet is built on links, right? But isn’t it a tad confusing to have Leventhal commenting on Feast coverage on Eater using an official-looking Eater admin logo and log-in? “Nothing seems paradoxical about this from an ad sales point of view,“ says Albertson. “Feast isn’t the first competitor to Eater in this space and it won’t be the last.”

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