I've written about the Hampton Roads food zine Southern Grit when the first issue was about to be released early last year. I highlighted Chris Fellini whom I've known from the Norfolk scene. When I talked to him about the birth of Southern Grit he said it would never have happened if it weren't for Joshua Fitzwater, known as "Fitz." Since then I've talked to Fitz myself and seen him work the magazine out in the wild. He's passionate about the publication and is pretty much running the whole operation: managing contributors, photography, writing, advertising, etc...
When I first chatted with him it was about Slice & Torte (check them out, seriously) and how much he needed people to know about the great things happening over there. He is passionate about those things he cares about and he's willing to tell anyone who will lend him a little bit of their time. One of the ways he wants to spread the word about what he thinks is the "thing" in the Hampton Roads area is through Southern Grit.
Southern Grit's mission is to talk about the area's food scene without the rose colored glasses on. From the few issues I've read some of the articles were written with the gloves off. One of their more infamous articles was "cease and disist" on the use of Edison bulbs in restaurants that hit a nerve. I'll be honest and say I didn't know it was satire at first but the writer (Chris Fellini) later came out and claimed it to be so. This is an example of how the publication is putting its finger on the pulse of Hampton Roads food culture. Another stir-up concerns the LeGrand Burger, claimed to be one of the best in Norfolk (I think it is, I don't care if it looks like a Big Mac) - Southern Grit is hitting it from all angles, the likes, dislikes, even the weight of the burger patties (makes me think of Grandpa Fred from Sixteen Candles telling Long Duck Dong "you don't spell it son, you eat it!).
I sent him some questions, similar to what I did with Fellini last year, to let people get to know him a little better. if you're already familiar with Fitz you'll know he loves Nouvelle, if you read below you'll understand why. Another thing about him is that he runs 757E Zine, a local culture rag. Running magazines has him looking at numbers, readership sweet spots and how his work compares to material with a larger circulation - Veer, Whurk, etc...
Please read on and look out for the new issue of Southern Grit that hits the presses this Friday. You'll find it on the street February 1, 2016!
All images courtesy of Fitz and Southern Grit.
GC: What is your experience in the restaurant industry? Why write a magazine about it?
JF: Recently I did a stint as Nouvelle’s dish bitch and then ended up working front of the house as a waiter and a really, really bad bartender for a bit. The idea to launch Southern Grit materialized from the food section of 757E Magazine (which later became Fuss Magazine). 757E’s food section set me down a path of getting to know chefs.
As a person who identifies as an artist, I started to really see some of the better chefs in Hampton Roads as artists in their own right, so I really wanted to make a food magazine. At the time however - guessing about a year ago now - I was worried about doing most of the writing for Southern Grit as I did for 757E. Chris Fellini had just written an article for 757E that I felt stood above the rest and so I approached him about starting a food magazine. He threw the name Pantry and Southern Grit at me. I lobbied hard for Southern Grit and we went with that.
GC: Your experience in the industry and recent life events seem to be key in your decision to start Southern Grit, what else influenced you?
JF: My background as a photographer (I took classes under Stephen M. Katz and Sam Hughes) plays a large roll. I initially went to college and ended up getting my first associate degree in Applied Arts - Studio Arts. I was in love with drawing and painting at the time. However, while pursing that, I had to take a photography class as an elective. Sam Hughes taught the class and while at the time he was probably the best wedding photographer in Hampton Roads he had a history with journalism photography. First under his creative influence, and then after taking a really pivotal photojournalism class under Stephen Katz (in my opinion the best photographer to work at the Virginia Pilot), I wound up getting involved in the student paper.
In under a year, I worked my way up to editor-in-chief and produced three editions of the student paper - until we got shut down for an article I co-wrote involving student funds. Looking back, this may have been the beginning of striving to be honest about what I write and shoot rather than being popular.
GC: What will Southern Grit try to provide to readers?
JF: An honest conversation about food and food related issues. Before Fellini and I launched Southern Grit, we had a huge conversation about writing honestly and not pandering. We didn’t want to be Veer or Wurk or Culture Snack. There simply is just too much of this, "Everything is great” mentality in those print publications.
I mean op-ed wise, Tom Robotham puts out some good work in Veer but by in large in all three of those publications when you read them it’s going to be a love fest from front to back. Don’t get me wrong though; there are tons of things in Hampton Roads to love. I was raised here. This is my home. Shit, earlier this year I turned down two design job offers out of state (plus some financial peace of mind) because this is where I want to live.
The problem is that when you scream from the rafters about how awesome something is just because it’s new, or because that particular restaurant, business, etc… is taking out an ad in your publication, you take away from those chefs or restaurants that are truly killing it.
GC: How far out of the area are you hoping the magazine will reach?
JF: We will endeavor to reach out of the area and more into the greater south as we grow. I eventually want to see Southern Grit be a retail magazine not a free one. That’s one of the reasons I decided not to go with newsprint, but rather a magazine quality glossy paper.
For the moment I want to continue to build our social media numbers and expand our print edition both by volume and by spots we distribute to. We very shortly are going to run an online campaign to take steps towards just that. With the growth we already have seen (particularly in regards to our social media numbers plus how fast our print magazines are gone once we put them out), I’m hoping this online campaign will be of interest to restaurants and business owners in Hampton Roads who wish to reach their demographics through an inventive and most importantly, pander free, publication. Our readers, of which I am so very grateful for write us and get what we are about. I think people are tired of reading advertising vehicles disguised as magazines.
In terms of food and art in the region, Hampton Roads is seriously expanding and developing a unique voice. I want Southern Grit to function in those circles. I like that Chefs message us, that industry workers message us. I believe they know we are doing this with passion and not to entice a full page ad.
GC: Are you doing the bulk of the editing and writing for the magazine?
JF: Due to Fellini's desire to Hunter S. Thompson it the fuck out of dodge, then come back, then turn around and set out to leave again, haha, yeah at this point I do.
Having worked at Nouvelle for a stint and mainly in light of getting to know many of the best Norfolk based chefs over the last year, I feel comfortable pulling a lot of the writing weight now. I do want to note, however, that after the first edition when Fellini left the state for a bit, Wade A. Hunter stepped forward and wrote a lot of really solid articles for Southern Grit, as well as aided with concepts and copy editing. I’m glad both of them still contribute articles to Southern Grit and that both of them are my friends. They both are really talented writers.
Also worth mentioning are the numerous other contributors that produced articles that break up the homogeneity. Honestly, the only thing I mind about writing so much of the content is that I can’t focus on that alone. In light of having to design, photograph, and now illustrate so much of the publication, I find myself spread thin sometimes. I’m not always the best multitasker either.
GC: How has the reception been when looking for supporters and advertisers?
JF: Selling advertising space sucks for someone who isn’t about sales. It takes a certain mindset and I am an artist, not a salesman. I am very grateful that O’Connor Brewing Co. and Streats both did a three-issue deal. We have also found support from other local businesses. Right now we are looking for an ad rep – so hit me up young and hungry sales person!
I seriously hope that in the future that this part of the business doesn’t rest with me. I’m hoping this new online campaign will be successful and take some of the worry out of it for me. In college I learned a lot of what I use for Southern Grit - how to paint with oils, sculpt, draw, use watercolors, shoot photos manually, write - but I’ll say that business, instead of philosophy, might have been a smarter minor!
In terms of support in a non-monetary way, it has been overwhelming. I’m very appreciative of the press you have given us, plus the press Joe Fitz at the Dominion Collective gave us. As well as all the advice and time Dave Hausman at Handsome Biscuit/ Toast/ Field Guide, Charles Burnell at Work Release, Jamie Sums at 80/20, and Jesse Scaccia at Alt Daily have all given to me. Rina Estero at Nouvelle Restaurant also took a real interest in Southern Grit and was very helpful in facilitating some of the recent social media growth. And again, it goes without saying that our readers seriously rule! It’s been awesome having people come up to me and talk about articles my contributors and I spent hours on end creating.
GC: Will Southern Grit primarily cover food and restaurants?
JF: I think concerning the broader Virginia reach, Whurk employs a younger perspective, one that Veer is sadly lacking. This makes Whurk a tad more relevant to what is truly current and interesting to readers. However, Veer will most likely continue dominate as a free, broad culture review publication. Politically Veer does outshine other free publications available in Hampton Roads and despite many of us around here seeing the dinosaur mentality it often exudes, it's not going anywhere. For me, personally, I've enjoyed delving deeper into documenting and writing about the chefs and restaurants that are creating so much talk and energy around food in the area. I’m going to focus on thoroughly exploring that subject instead of throwing my resources at several different creative fields in Hampton Rooads. In terms of serious eaters in this area as well, I think it's becoming obvious that people are expecting more in terms of a meal out considering how diners are growingly engaged in the food they choose and support with their dollars. I hope that ultimately how deep Southern Grit gets into issues surrounding food, plus the quality of the visual along with the honest, straight-forward way the contributors and I write about the subject will continue to grow the brand that Southern Grit is developing into.
GC: Do you have a target audience?
JF: Charles Burnell told me once always answer that question with “Millennials” hahaha. I do think we have a younger readership like Wurk, but we’re more focused on our end. I think in terms of target audience, more than anything we are (I know some including myself feel this phrase is played out but) we are a foodies’ publication.
For example, we are about to talk candidly in a four-page article about the Legrand Burger, which is both loved and hated by many folks in the business. Danielle Jones of the food media blog Slice and Torte told me, "The LeGrand Burger is an enhancement of everything you want from a classic burger." On the other hand, Sous Chef Jon Scheidt of Nouvelle Restaurant refuses to even call it a burger, stating, "It's JUST a patty melt", whereas Chris Conway of Nomarama Burger Club is quick to tell anyone that will listen, "This, [the LeGrand Burger] is the best burger in the area and I say this with complete confidence”. However, Fellini at the mag most infamously said of the LeGrand Burger that "It's just a glorified Big Mac”. So we are in the process of sculpting an article that goes into the history of the burger as the public knows it asking a question: is LeGrand’s burger true-to-form to a classic burger? Hell, we even weigh the patties of the damn thing and compare its weight to the Big Mac to delve into how similar it may or may not truly be. By and large, even the best of publications like, say, Distinction, which retails for 10 bills is (in this case has), just basically wrote a good but standard bio/breakdown of Steve Marsh and his restaurant. We are always trying to go about things from unique angles. I think this edition the great burger debate piece with LeGrand and a very interesting challenge piece we did with Saint Germain’s Chef Dave Hledik kind of shows why we stand out when it comes to writing about food locally.
Honestly you never know what we will say because we are totally being straight up - even if it isn’t in line with popular attitudes around here. When I meet with contributing writers I always try to press them to write true to the experience they had if they are reviewing something. We really do need to get away from this broad pander mentality.
GC: What is Southern Grit?
JF: You know one of the reasons I lobbied for this name was it kind of is an attitude. It’s an attitude/ presence that I see when I watch Steve Marsh, or Dave Hledik, or Nic Hagen cook. It’s a no-nonsense, passionate, do-not-compromise-at-all way of creating for them, I believe. A good example was watching Rina Estero pick out veggies from Brothers farm… pairing them with proteins, and then having that in mind when pushing herself to constantly evolve her menu. I see this kind of from the beginning, hands-in-everything approach when I'm making the mag.
Chris, Wade, and I brainstorm a theme, we then look at what’s going on locally and try to identify what is interesting; what is striving to distinguish itself as inventive in food. Then I go shoot a photo story of a subject related to what we identified to see if we’re on the right path with our thinking. Then I interview the people involved, write it, match typography to the photography, possibly illustrate it, and then finally tweak everything into a final spread. It’s a labor of love - my hands and creative vision are in most all of it. I think this, in some ways, parallels the lives of the best chefs in the area and this is why I have so much respect for what they do. I honestly don’t look at a plate of food the same way anymore. The truly great ones are a form of art to me now.