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Foobooz’s Arthur Etchells Moving On

And he’s jumping on the craft distilling wagon

Arthur Etchells/Facebook

Arthur Etchells, founder of the Philadelphia magazine food and restaurant blog Foobooz, has stepped down from his post after 10 years. In a post titled "Blog Post #12,008 - the one where Arthur Etchells says goodbye", Etchells announced his resignation as editor, said his thanks, expressed his excitement for the future, wherever it might take him, and that was it. Poof.

The Philadelphia Business Journal dug out some of the details: he’s getting into the craft distilling scene. Eater, still curious about the move, got on a call with Etchells for a little interview:

Eater Philly: How did Foobooz go from hobby to a full-time job?

Well, it started with hockey. I played hockey, and I had a blog for my hockey team, which should’ve had a potential audience of 14 people, but it kind of got picked up by everybody in the league and other friends of mine that loved hockey and it was one of the years where the NHL decided to go on strike, or lock-out, and it was tough to find hockey news. So it became this weird little source of 300-400 people coming together a day, and I was like this is weird, I don’t know any of you.

When was this?

This was 10 years ago, 2006. So at the end of the year, we were all getting into craft beer, and I was like, alright I'm going to find a website that has all the good beer events of the summer, and I couldn't find it. And that was annoying because I figured it would exist. And I kept looking for it and kept getting frustrated that I couldn’t find this one link that had all of that information. So my car was in the shop one day, and I was taking the bus to work, and I had a Metro paper, and it had this little blurb that said if you went to the early seating of Le Bec-Fin it was only $75, which at the time seemed like a deal for Le Bec-Fin. I thought to myself, if I ever have a reason to go to Le Bec-Fin, I should put that somewhere where I’ll remember it. And then it clicked in my head, you’ll just put that in the same blog you're going to create that has all the beer events for the summer.

The joke’s always been that if you think you have a great idea, there are already three people doing it. And I kept looking for this site, and I couldn’t find it, so I thought maybe it’s just not a good idea. But then I thought, wait a second, New York! So I looked to see if there was anybody was doing this in New York and I saw these early blogs that were food blogs before anybody was talking about that. So I was actually ahead of the game for once. I had a job in technology at the time that I didn’t like too much, I felt like I was in a dead end. So I thought I would start this website, throw some ads on it so I can learn about web advertising — which I wanted to do anyway — and I'll do this for a little bit and find my next job in tech. It never occurred to me my next job would be running a food blog.

How do you think tech played a big role in making Foobooz a success?

My thought was that this would get me another job in technology, I created some custom programming right off the bat that could handle [restaurant] openings. You’d read that Michael Klein story on a Thursday in the paper, but then you’re like … ”wait what was that place going to be? Where was it going to be?” I’ll build this little piece of technology that could organize it, and that will show off what I can do for my next job. I got to learn more programming stuff as I did it.

What were some of your more memorable moments writing for Foobooz?

There was an article on Philadelphia magazine’s website about Jose Garces getting a Wine & Spirits shop in Garces Trading Company. Well, they had the whole scoop, so I was like, what’s my angle? I can just link out to these guys (which I did a lot while when aggregating all the news), but what else can I add? And my thinking was, well, that’s not really fair, because the state monopoly decided it would work with one business over another, and wouldn’t Tria down the block like to have that option, but it wouldn’t make sense for a monopoly to put two places within a block of each other. So that was my angle. And then comments went off the charts, and they were all happening on Foobooz and not on Philly Mag, which had the scoop. So that’s where they kind of saw that I have a real audience. That got us to do some content sharing, and then that set up the next stage in my career which was selling my blog to Philly Mag, which was perfectly timed because I was moving in with my girlfriend and I was working on my own, and it doesn’t look that great on a lease application.

Did you go to Philly Mag or did they come to you?

Tom McGrath, the editor, was on an off-site management meeting and everybody was supposed to come up with a zany, out-of-the-blue idea, and his was to buy Foobooz. So they approached me and asked if I was interested in doing that, and I asked, “will you give me a job?”

So, now, you’re moving on to Manatawny Still Works. You’re sort of focusing on one part of the industry.

Yeah, dropped the “Foo”, stuck with the “booz”.

Any lasting thoughts about where the dining scene is going?

One of the things I joke about is it used to be really cool and exciting to get the newest thing, and then the “cronut-ification” of food happening, where, now, it wasn’t necessarily the “cool kids” following the food scene across the country, now it’s everybody, people watching the today show, getting in line for the cronut. I think there’s a little bit of a fatigue in food, butIthink that’s going to rebound. For a while, there were all these crazy pop-ups, and they’ve chilled out for now. I hope that comes back because that was just an awesome spirit of comradery and great ideas and awesome food.

Are you talking about all of those chef-collaborations?

Yeah, that’s sort of gone by the wayside, but you’ve seen some of it recently. Mike Solomonov is bringing cool people to town all the time, Nick Elmi is just doing wacky things at his new bar — ice luges and Nick Elmi’s bar don’t seem like they should go together — but great that he’s doing it! Bring some fun and vitality back.

What will you be doing at Manatawny?

My role is the Philadelphia regional manager, so I'm responsible for everything that happens Manatawny related in Philadelphia. Growing the brand, marketing, events, social, and, of course, the cherry on top is the tasting room and bottle shop on East Passyunk. It’ll be the honest-to-goodness brick-and-mortar home of Manatawny in Philadelphia, but it’ll also be a hub for people to learn about craft spirits, in general.

Yeah, that doesn’t really exist in South Philly

No, I mean, there’s lemoncello. The community of Passyunk is a big thing, we want to be a part of the community. We want to offer vodka sales on Saturday and Sunday mornings for the brunch set, maybe some smaller format bottles to bring to your BYO, collaborate with the BYO-types so they have a mixer for our product. Those are the kind of things we want to do from Day 1. Then there will be cocktails! I mean, one part of the tasting room will be bar, so we’ll be bringing in different bartenders from around the city to guest bartend.

Why did you choose craft distilling as your next career path?

In my ten years of working with Foobooz I’ve also been a big craft beer fan, and I’ve watched that very closely and intimately covered it. And now, all of a sudden, craft distilling is what everybody’s talking about and I wanted to check it out. For the magazine, Jason [Sheehan] and I decided we wanted to taste as much of the local spirits as we could — which was a selfish goal in that we had a bar in our office and there was cotton candy vodka and not much else. So we pitched it to Philly Mag like we wanted to explore the local distilling scene.

The epiphany came with the first spirit we tried, Rowhouse Spirits’s gin. Jason and I shared an office separated by a divider, and we both took a swig of the gin but we couldn’t see each other over the divider, and neither of us are shy about sharing our opinions… but it was quiet. And I'm waiting for him, and I'm looking over at the divider, and he’s not saying anything. So I peak forward and I see he was doing the same thing, waiting for me to say something. So I said, “This is really good…” and he said, “Yeah, and not just because it’s local, it’s really good.” So then we tried a whole bunch more. I made it halfway through my New Year’s resolution — which was to check out more local distilleries — and then I thought, maybe this is my next step. I watched craft beer happen, but I wasn’t involved. Maybe this time I could get involved.

Some of these people starting up, like Cooper River Distilling in New Jersey, started in a garage. The other guys, Red Brick Distilling, are literally in a basement. Then when I went out and saw Manatawny, one of the co-founders is also the one of the founders of Sly Fox Brewing Company and the head distiller came from Sly Fox and was also a brewer at Victory Brewing Company. So, it was all built, from the get-go, to get big, to expand. It was all built to scale, so I thought that’s the kind of place that would maybe need someone like me.

Why do you think it’s built to scale?

It’s just what their goals were right from the beginning. Not that I think there’s anything wrong with just seeing where something goes, because I really do think a lot of these guys are making good stuff.

How do you plan on growing Manatawny further?

We want to be a big part of East Passyunk, and that community already has all these big events which bring thousands of people to the Avenue, so that’s going to be one big way we’ll be part of it. Maybe we’ll do our own street festival.

Also, I’ll be pounding the pavement. Everybody that saw me come to their bars, well I’ll still be doing that, but I’ll also have a bit of a sales hat on, but it’ll be a soft sale.

How far along is the tasting room?

It’s an empty shell right now, we’re waiting on the L&I go-ahead, which we’re hoping will be very soon. And then it’s a 6-8 week build-out by PARC.

Thanks for your time, Art.

Yeah. It’s funny, in the last week, the number of chefs and restaurateurs that contacted me and thanked me and sung my praises for what I’ve done in the Philadelphia restaurant community, I didn’t expect that. Definitely humbling.

Well, you devoted 10 years of your life to this.

Yeah, I was thinking, when all of this started, Marc Vetri and Jose Garces each had one restaurant.