For years, Don Rockwell has been giving his opinions away for free via his eponymous dining board, no doubt directing hundreds of customers to restaurants across the D.C. area. Rockwell has taken pride in two practices as the founder and one of the moderators of DonRockwell.com: He pays for his meals, and for members of the board, the site isn’t compromised by advertising.
Last week, Rockwell officially started asking for money for his knowledge of the local restaurant scene. He launched DCDining.com, a no-frills site that sells customized dining packages for people willing to pay, for example, $18.95 for “The Perfect Meal.” Customers fill out an online form, and Rockwell reviews the specific request before scouting out the right location; he will also make the reservation for the client.
In announcing his new service, Rockwell sent out this release in which he noted:
As you read this letter, you should no longer consider me an “amateur” in the restaurant business; I am going to take my great passion – and perhaps my greatest area of expertise – and make it my career.
DCDining.com will have its soft opening next week, and will be the first of its type in the United States, if not the world – a concierge service where I will lead tourists, visitors, businesses, and anyone passionate about dining to the right restaurant. Publicity, hype, and marketing? They’ll have no effect on my decision making, and if I have any say in the matter, those superficial lures are going to have less and less importance as time goes by.
So why the new direction for Rockwell? As with a lot of things in life, it boils down to money, timing, and a need for more balance in life. For years now, Rockwell has had essentially two jobs: He’s been working as a computer consultant for the Environmental Protection Agency since 1986. In his off hours, he’s also been monitoring and managing his self-named board, which has grown from, as he noted in the announcement, “a tiny, close-knit band of marauding food pirates to a large, diverse community, with statistics measured in the thousands and millions.”
Something had to give. He needed to find a way to monetize the site, shut it down, or come up with another solution.
“There’s nothing in it financially for me at all,” Rockwell, 49, acknowledged about his foodie board. “What am I going to do when I’m 60? What am I going to do when I’m 70?”
DCDining was his answer. Rockwell has decided, for the time-being, to drop his EPA consulting gig and focus his energies almost exclusively on DonRockwell.com, which will remain unchanged and mostly advertising-free, as well as DCDining.com. He says he has enough money saved to sustain him for awhile until he can generate more income from his new project.
“I had to start somewhere, or I wouldn’t have started at all,” Rockwell wrote to me via e-mail. “I’m the kind of person who comes up with an idea, then just sticks my head down and plows forward. It’s probably my biggest strength, and it’s also probably my biggest weakness. One thing I know is that, in my mind, this is going to benefit both restaurants and diners, and that is my goal.”
If Rockwell claims he won’t be swayed by publicity, hype, or marketing, then what about chefs? His site features quotes from a number of them, including Eric Ziebold at CityZen, Frank Ruta from Palena, James Alefantis from Buck’s Fishing and Camping, Edan MacQuaid from Pizzeria Orso, R.J. Cooper from the forthcoming Rogue 24, and a number of others.
Won’t Rockwell feel compelled to send customers to the restaurants whose chefs have helped promote his new venture?
“The people I solicited quotes from are the people whose work I believe in,” said Rockwell during a phone interview, noting perhaps one or two exceptions.
But what if one of these chefs started slipping, would you still direct your clients to their restaurants?
“No,” Rockwell said, “I would stop sending people there.”
Rockwell said he counts only four industry people among his friends, people with whom he socializes outside the context of their restaurants. Those folks are Ziebold, sommelier Mark Slater at Ray’s the Steaks, Kavita Singh from New Heights, and Koji Terano from Sushi-Ko. Rockwell says he’s always up front with people about these relationships, right down to listing them on his site. (Registration required.)
DCDining is only in its soft-launch phase and the requests are just trickling in. Ultimately, Rockwell said, he doesn’t believe the brunt of his customers will be D.C. residents, who will continue to do what they always do: check reviews on the Washington Post, Washingtonian, Yelp, and, yes, DonRockwell.com. Instead, he hopes to tap into the hotel and convention networks, with the idea of providing tourists with information on where and what to eat.
If Rockwell seems to have perspective about who will use DCDining.com, he also has perspective about its name. DonRockwell.com takes the founder’s name, but is focused on the larger dining community and its many opinions. DCDining, on the other hand, “doesn’t have my name on it,” Rockwell said, “and it’s all about me.”