By RODNEY HO/ firstname.lastname@example.org, originally filed Friday, July 1, 2016
For years, listeners of Stephen “Steak” Shapiro on the radio would complain that he cared more about what he ate at the Palm the night before than what happened to the Atlanta Braves.
But he’s been able to take his passion for the Atlanta foodie scene and parlay it into a viable business called Atlanta Eats.
Initially, in 2012, he created a slick 30-minute “Atlanta Eats” TV show showcasing three local restaurants. Shapiro himself frequently hosted most of the segments. The show aired on Peachtree TV and CBS46 on weekend mornings.
Since then, he’s added a radio show hosted by Mara Davis, built an online video library featuring hundreds of Atlanta eateries, hosted an annual food festival and developed a separate Bread n Butter Production company, which creates food-related lifestyle videos for clients such as Piedmont Healthcare and Toyota.
For 50-year-old Shapiro, being an entrepreneur is nothing new. He co-owned 790/The Zone for more than a decade, building it into a dominant sports talk station on a weak AM signal. Ultimately, that business was undone by an ill-fated side investment in sports talk stations in St. Louis, forcing him to sell in 2010.
But he picked himself up, rounded up 13 investors — including real estate developer Steve Selig — and started Atlanta Eats.
“Building Atlanta Eats is not dissimilar to building a radio station,” Shapiro said. “Nose to the grindstone every day, working to grow the brand with hopes the business will follow.”
SIDEBAR: Why is he nicknamed “Steak”? Three decades ago, Boston sports talk host Eddie Andelman gave a 20-year-old intern the name “Steak” after a menu item at a steakhouse in Minneapolis he liked. It stuck. And it works, given Steak’s love for vittles.
During the first two years of Atlanta Eats, Shapiro spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of his investors’ cash to create quality videos without any immediate return. “The market didn’t know what we were doing,” Shapiro said. “‘Why is this sports guy trying to do food? Is he doing this as a hobby? Does he just want to be on TV?’”
But the reality, he said, is he caught the growing foodie culture in Atlanta, captured by Yelp, by food blogs, by local celebrity chefs.
And while his obsessive discussion about food on the Zone drove some radio fans nuts, Shapiro said his passion is what resonates on both radio and on his TV segments. “It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about Matt Ryan being a top 10 quarterback or whether thin crust pizza is better than deep dish. Food, like sports, lends itself to great opinions.”
Andrew Saltzman, now chief revenue officer for the Atlanta Hawks, was co-creator of the Zone with Shapiro back in the day and is now considered the “consigliere”/adivsor for Atlanta Eats. He recalls people coming up to Shapiro more often to ask about the chicken parm at the Palm than his thoughts on the Braves.
With Atlanta eats, “Steak caught a craze at the right time,” Saltzman said.
Shapiro still gets to indulge his sports fix every day on former rival station 680/The Fan as a co-host of “The Front Row” from 9 a.m. to noon weekdays. On the radio, he’s no longer the boss — just an employee.
“You want to be one of the boys,” he said. “You want to be an on-air personality like everybody else. But when you’re signing the paychecks, that made for a very strange dynamic. I don’t miss that at all.”
Juggling two jobs, he admitted, “is a grind. I have three kids and a full-time job at 680. You can’t take the eye off the ball.”
Fortunately, Shapiro relies heavily on his former Zone sales manager Cody Hicks to keep the day-to-day operations going for him.
At the Atlanta Eats offices in Buckhead, employees maintain a list of all the restaurants it has featured on an old-school whiteboard, in alphabetical order from Buckhead South African restaurant 10 Degrees South to Mediterranean Atlanta restaurant Yalla.
“It’s a visual representation of all the 300-plus restaurants we’ve featured for when we are brainstorming content ideas for themed shows, digital/social content, etc.,” Hicks said.
The TV show continues to air on weekends on Peachtree TV, with hour-long specials on CBS46 airing after major events such as the Masters or the SEC Championship.
“When I’m on the TV show, my phone blows up,” said Davis, the former Dave FM mid-day host who now freelances for “Atlanta Eats” TV and hosts the weekly radio show on NewsRadio 106.7 every Saturday at 4 p.m. “It definitely packs a punch.”
While Atlanta Eats did videos for free in the early going, the company now charges restaurants for the privilege.
Matt Coggin, who owns D.B.A. Barbecue in Virginia-Highland, invested about half his annual marketing budget to create a video earlier this year. It has aired twice since April and will be part of a tailgate special airing on CBS46 this fall. “It was well worth doing it,” he said. “I was able to get a better return than hiring a publicist.”
In the video, he specifically highlighted non-barbecue dishes such as his pastrami sandwich and fried chicken. After the show aired, he instantly saw sales increases for those menu items. And he could tell people traveled farther distances to check his place out. “There were people from Johns Creek, Stone Mountain and Roswell who heard about us through ‘Atlanta Eats,’” he said.
And the videos themselves? “Very cleanly edited,” Coggin said. “I feel like the food is eye popping.”
Shapiro is blunt: “It’s food porn!”
Hicks noted that restaurants that often generate the most bang for their buck from these videos are in the categories of pizza, barbecue and burgers.
“Those types of cuisines are more approachable for the masses that the TV show reaches,” Hicks said. “Diving deeper, I think people’s opinions on best barbecue is argued as vehemently as their favorite college football team. As far as burgers and pizza, I just think people love both at a deep, emotional level.. and if you think about it, it makes sense as there isn’t any other type of food that we grow up on at such an early age as pizza and burgers.”
As Shapiro was building Atlanta Eats, he also discovered a demand for quality food-related videos from companies that have nothing to do with food itself but simply wanted to capture the audiences interested in the subject.
Piedmont Healthcare, for instance, taped a series of “Living Better” videos using celebrity chefs, hiring Atlanta Eats to make it happen. For instance, Tap executive chef Tyler Williams did a 90-second piece explaining the benefits of four spices: turmeric, cinnamon, garlic and ginger.
Matt Gove, chief consumer officer, said this was a way to generate more engagement with its customers or potential customers. “It’s one thing for Piedmont to throw up a recipe video,” he said. “It’s quite another to get someone like Tyler Williams, who is recognizable for his work in restaurants in Atlanta. And Atlanta Eats has an influential following.”
Shapiro sees a lot of growth potential on the Bread n Butter side of the business. He said the two operations are pacing to generate a combined $3.5 million in revenue this year, up from $700,000 year one. He now has 10 full-time employees and 30-plus freelancers any given month. He could see the company reaching $10 million in two or three years.
“Everybody is hungry for content,” he said, pun probably intended. “We’re experts at one thing: food and beverage content. Millennials care about food in a way nobody thought they would. This is a great place to be.”
“Atlanta Eats,” 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, 10:30 a.m. Sundays, Peachtree TV
On the radio
“Atlanta Eats with Mara Davis,” 4-5 p.m. Saturdays, NewsRadio 106.7