|Daniel Vaughn bites into a rib at the Baby Back Shak in 2009. (Photo by David Woo/The Dallas Morning News)|
(Note: Rebecca LaFlure is a Texas native, long-time barbecue fan and journalism graduate student at Northwestern University. Prior to attending Northwestern, she worked as a reporter for media outlets in Killeen and Austin. She currently covers national security as a fellow at the Center for Public Integrity in Washington D.C. The following article was initially written as a research paper for a 21st Century Media course at Northwestern.)
By Rebecca LaFlure
On March 21, Texas Monthly announced it hired someone for “what may be the most coveted job” in the Lone Star State: the magazine’s first barbecue editor. News of the unusual title spread fast. New York Times writer Manny Fernandez called the new hire “a walking milestone in the history of Texas barbecue.”
I mentioned the newly created position to my friend Matt Goodman, a digital producer for an ABC affiliate in Dallas, Texas. “Let me guess,” he said. “They hired Daniel Vaughn.”
Goodman guessed right. Vaughn managed to turn his love for barbecue into a career. He left his job as a Dallas architect to become the country’s only barbecue editor. Vaughn joined Texas Monthly’s barbecue franchise, which, according to its website, includes a Joint Finder smart phone application, annual barbecue festival and a Top 50 list published every five years. Vaughn regularly produces a mix of barbecue reviews, news articles, interviews and weekly columns for the magazine’s barbecue website, TMBBQ.com.
Vaughn didn’t get the job by chance. He developed a brand as a barbecue expert through a blog he started in 2008 called Full Custom Gospel Barbecue, where Vaughn posted reviews of the hundreds of barbecue joints he visited. “At the time, nobody had done that before,” said R.J. Hinkle, a Dallas-area photographer for QuadGraphics who’s attended barbecue tours with a group called the Texas BBQ Posse. “Not only did he create a brand, but he created a genre and a market.”
William Brichta, CEO of Shape Strategies, described brands as “earned positions in the consumer’s mind, granted by virtue of who you are, what you do, what you stand for, and how well you do it.” He said when building a brand, you should “recognize the elements that are authentically yours, understand them, label them, and build your body of work to consistently express them.” Vaughn did exactly that. In a time when most publications were slashing positions not creating them, Vaughn carved out a niche for himself by focusing on, and writing about, one high-interest topic he felt was under-covered. He became an expert on the topic, largely because of the shear number of barbecue places he visited, and pursued opportunities that fell in line with the barbecue brand.
Vaughn posted on his blog under the name “BBQ Snob.” He further built his brand through his Twitter handle, @BBQSnob, where he regularly tweets barbecue photos and reviews to his more than 13,000 followers. This year, he released his first book, “The Prophets of Smoked Meat: A Journey Through Texas Barbecue,” as a part of food personality Anthony Bourdain’s new book line. Hinkle described Vaughn’s brand as the “Encyclopedia of barbecue.”
“He’s a great resource because he’s been to so many places,” Hinkle said. “We don’t always agree, but [when I go to a new barbecue place] I’m like, ‘Let’s see what Daniel says.’”
The making of “BBQ Snob”
Phil Rosenthal wrote in a Chicago Tribune piece how movie critic Roger Ebert “wrote a business script worth following” that in order to build a personal brand, one must “be great. None of this advice is any good if you’re no good at what you do.” Vaughn echoed a similar sentiment when asked how he built a reputation around being a barbecue guru. He said he aims to “create good work and let the brand create itself.”
I met Vaughn on May 19 after a book-signing event with Anthony Bourdain in Chicago. Even the clothes he wore said something about his brand. He donned a navy blue shirt with the word “BBQ” written inside the shape of Texas, and red and black cowboy boots with a meat chart of a cow stitched at the top. He sported the same footwear during a March interview with the New York Times. Despite possessing the nickname BBQ Snob, Vaughn is friendly and approachable. He is also a man who truly loves good barbecue and is serious about his work. He admits that his followers only see one aspect of who he is. As Joel Stein put it in an article for Time, “in the age of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Flickr, putting out an exaggerated version of your personality is necessary.”
But Vaughn insists he has not created a fake persona. This falls in line with Brichta’s comments that brands should be believable—people don’t like feeling manipulated. “I never felt the need to create some alter ego or character. I can’t imagine anything more uncomfortable,” Vaughn said. “If you have something to say, people will respect you a lot more if it’s you saying it.”
Vaughn, an Ohio native and trained architect living in Dallas, said he became fascinated with Texas barbecue in 2006 when he took a three-day road trip of 16 barbecue joints throughout Central Texas. In 2008, Vaughn and his architect friend Sam Watkins started the blog Full Custom Gospel Barbecue. Initially, Vaughn viewed the blog as a way for him to keep track of the barbecue joints he visited and his thoughts on the food. As he posted more reviews, he noticed people starting to use his blog as a resource. On his blog, Vaughn would pin point the barbecue places he visited on a map of Texas, and people could click on the various spots to see how Vaughn rated them. If they wanted more information, they could read the full review.
Vaughn later chose the catchy Twitter handle, @BBQSnob, and began tweeting photos and descriptions about the barbecue places in which he ate. Vaughn said he regularly searches Twitter for mentions of barbecue to get ideas of places to go. He has conversations with people about their opinions of barbecue joints and answers their barbecue questions.
Becoming THE expert
Richard Posner, judge and legal scholar, wrote in a New York Times book review that, “Bloggers can specialize in particular topics to an extent that few journalists employed by media companies can, since the more that journalists specialized, the more of them the company would have to hire in order to be able to cover all bases.”
Vaughn said this concept was key to his success: His blog specialized in one topic that people cared about but was not heavily covered in the mainstream media. He also started posting reviews during a great time for Texas barbecue. Young pit masters—like Aaron Franklin, of Franklin Barbecue in Austin—were just getting their start and raising the bar for smoked meat across the state.
His reviews are heavily focused on the meat—different from many other food writers who like to talk about a restaurant’s service and atmosphere. “No one goes on a three-day barbecue road trip looking for where looks the coolest or where they’re going to get their ass kissed,” Vaughn said. “No, they want to know where are they going to find the best barbecue?”
Andy Hobsbawm wrote in “Brands 2.0: Brands in a Digital World” that with the rise of the Internet, people have access to more information than ever before, and the “mass media world is splintering into niches” based on peoples’ individual interests. This trend created the perfect environment for a blogger like Vaughn to make a name for himself covering a specific topic.
Vaughn tapped into an audience he said is primarily male, from older men organizing father-and-son barbecue trips, to younger guys with expendable income. Three Vaughn readers I interviewed, all male, independently mentioned that they’ve used his reviews to find good barbecue joints while traveling through Texas.
Hobsbawm said digital connectivity created a new kind of brand, one in which you must be a “guide not a gatekeeper. Brands need to interpret information when they can no longer be stand-ins for it.” Vaughn doesn’t just tell people about barbecue joints. He became an expert in what makes good barbecue, analyzes smoked meat and shares his opinion. He serves as a barbecue guide.
Vaughn has continued to gain even more readers with the new barbecue editor title at Texas Monthly. Corbin Van Arsdale, a Texas Monthly reader and former Texas congressman, said he became aware of Vaughn after hearing about him getting the barbecue editor job. He reads his work not for a particular writing style, but because he’s the only Texas barbecue expert he knows to go to for information. As Arsdale put it: “I’m not a Daniel Vaughn groupie or anything. I’m a smoked meat groupie, and he’s the only one in town.”
Ken Auletta wrote in the book “Googled: The End of the World as We Know It,” that, “In simple terms, brand often equals trust. In journalism, brand equals credibility, and it means that consumers trust that the news is written for them, not for advertisers, nor for the mayor or bank president.”
Vaughn seems to have built this credibility within the Texas barbecue community. “He’s honest without just ripping into places that are bad or gushing about them if it’s good,” said Hinkle, who described Vaughn’s writing style as “plain-spoken.” “That creates a lot of credibility.”
Justin Fourton, pit master and co-owner of the popular Dallas barbecue joint Pecan Lodge, described Vaughn’s reputation within the barbecue community as “the authoritative source on BBQ in Texas” and “an unbiased and reliable source.”
Fourton first met Vaughn in 2010 when Vaughn came to review his place for the Full Custom Barbecue Blog. He said the exposure his place has received through Vaughn’s blog and subsequent publications helped put his barbecue joint, which has no marketing budget, on the map. He saw a sales bump of about 10 percent with each blog post. As Vaughn gained popularity and started writing for established publications with their own brands, his reviews had even more of an impact. Fourton’s restaurant saw a sales bump of about 20-30 percent each time Vaughn wrote about his restaurant in Texas Monthly or D Magazine.
But more than just shining a light on Texas barbecue, Fourton said Vaughn has elevated the bar for great barbecue and keeps joints focused on continuous improvement. Fourton said Vaughn’s blog, active Twitter account and current work at Texas Monthly allows him, and other pit masters, to stay informed about what’s going on in their sector of the food industry. This information was much more difficult to come by five years ago, he said. Vaughn’s reporting helped fill that information gap. Reading Vaughn’s regular, unbiased feedback on food quality has also helped him constantly improve, he said. This is “compared to most customers who will let you know if they like it, but if something is wrong, they typically keep it to themselves,” he said.
Bryan Gooding, producer at QuadPhoto in Dallas who sometimes goes on barbecue tours with a group called the Texas BBQ Posse, said he doesn’t always agree with Vaughn’s reviews, but he looks to Vaughn to find places to eat when traveling across the state. “He sort of reminds me of Anthony Bourdain in that he knows what he doesn’t like and is quick to point that out. He’s more negative than positive.” Gooding said.
However, Gooding echoed Fourton’s belief that Vaughn has helped raise the bar on what’s considered good barbecue by educating people about what to look for. Vaughn uses a lot of terms, which he defines in a glossary on his blog, to describe the barbecue he reviews. For example, “roast beefy” means the meat lacks smoke flavor. “Crust” refers to the flavorful crunchy black layer around the brisket, and “sugar cookie” is the fat that turns sweet and crunchy when a smoker is applied. “He sort of quantified the new kind of barbecue we’re looking for and gave us terms to use,” Gooding said.
Steps to building Vaughn’s brand
Vaughn’s path to success is indicative of how someone without a traditional journalism background can gain success in the 21st Century media industry by building a brand. Other journalists looking to build an individual brand can replicate many of the steps he took.
Phil Rosenthal, the Chicago Tribune columnist, said embracing the future is an important element to brand building. He noted how Roger Ebert “embraced the opportunities of establishing a digital presence and blogging.” He “was quick to see how social media site Twitter enabled him to create a vast community of like-minded people he could both feed and be nourished by.” The same description applies to Daniel Vaughn. “If you’re not using Twitter, you’re in the dark ages,” Vaughn said.
Vaughn also always made sure to pursue opportunities to publicize what he was doing. When he first launched the blog, he sent a press kit to Dallas-area news outlets. The idea was not to get a story written about him immediately, but to develop those connections. “If I can provide something interesting, they’ll write about it,” Vaughn said. “Maybe not tomorrow, but maybe eventually.”
When CNN’s iReport asked citizens to post videos online about their favorite meal, Vaughn said he posted one about barbecue. The video led to CNN calling him to be a spokesperson for a story on National Barbecue Month. He credits the publicity gained from the CNN appearance to him landing a gig writing a list of the top Dallas-area barbecue places for the February 2010 issue of D Magazine. He went to 150 barbecue joints for that story alone.
He also found that a little controversy could be a good thing. In December 2010, Leslie Brenner, restaurant critic for The Dallas Morning News, drafted her own best of barbecue list. But her list looked oddly familiar: Eight of her top picks were in his top 9. Then came what the local media dubbed “Barbecue-Gate.” Vaughn emailed Brenner to say it would have been nice for her to credit his work. She shot back that as a blogger, he was unaware of common journalistic practices. Vaughn said he then notified a friend who worked at the alt weekly Dallas Observer. The Observer post incited coverage from other media outlets, including a mention by Jim Romenesko on the Poynter Institute website.
At end of the year, Anthony Bourdain blogged about the top ten things he was thankful for in 2010. One of the last things on his list: "Thankful that The Dallas Morning News ‘BBQ-Gate’ showed the world what was painfully apparent all along.” Less than three years later, Vaughn is on tour with Bourdain for Vaughn’s first book. “You know, sometimes it’s a good thing to throw a few stones,” Vaughn said. “It just has to be the right person to throw a few stones at.”
Vaughn was also never afraid to approach publications and ask to write for them. Vaughn said he planned to go to a large number of barbecue joints to research for his upcoming book—it turned out to be 186—and figured much of the information he gathered could also be used in Texas Monthly’s Top 50 best barbecue places issue. He offered to work for the magazine for free as long as they paid for his food and travel. The magazine agreed and made him part of the tasting team. Vaughn mentioned he would be willing to leave his job to write for them full time, and in March, Texas Monthly officially announced Vaughn’s new barbecue editor title.
Even his new title “barbecue editor” served as a great branding tool. Because the name sounded different and interesting, Vaughn received calls from across the country requesting interviews, garnering more publicity for him and his new employer.
Vaughn said he had no sense of his personal brand when he started the blog in 2008, but has begun to understand the importance of building and maintaining a brand as he’s gained success. He now not only represents himself but Texas Monthly’s and Anthony Bourdain’s brands. “If I screw up, a lot more people will be affected,” he said. But through it all, Vaughn said his goal as the Texas BBQ Snob has, and will remain, the same—to be a good, highly opinionated ambassador for Texas barbecue.
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