He crossed the restaurant with a tray of food in hand and sat down at the table. His order, Panera Bread’s ham and cheese cinnamon crunch bagel, was a sweet and savory combination. He would customarily offer a reviewer’s critique, but the sandwich was not the topic of today’s conversation.Instead, Marshall King, known for his column “Dining A La King” and his articles on food and restaurants in Michiana, began to talk about the world of journalism and food – and himself.
Commonly called the “Food Guy,” King has been writing about restaurants and what’s on the menu for over 20 years.
He’s written about the challenges of a local hemp farmer, the deep-fried Twinkies at the Elkhart County 4-H Fair and the imminent closing of Hunter’s restaurant in Elkhart due to the coming of a new overpass.
King began writing the column in 2000. Working as an education writer for The Elkhart Truth, he was approached by his editor and asked to write the stories behind the restaurants in the area. Their research had shown that people were passionate about eating out[to avoid repeat of “interest” in sentence] and that news about restaurants would be of interest.
“I was given an opening to do some food writing at the time when Food Network was launching,” King said, “[and] global flavors suddenly became more widely available.”
The column was a success. “Dining A La King” became a weekly feature.
King never ran out of news leads.
“Because of the life of a restaurant, places come and go,” he said. “People buy a place, it doesn’t work out, somebody else buys it. So, there is constant overturn. There are places that last for decades. There are more places that don’t.”
Looking for stories, King would often call the health department and ask about what was coming. Sometimes he would stop by a place and talk to a manager or owner. Even other owners were willing to share information to help him.
“And then people would say, ‘Hey, have you been to this place, in..,’” King said as he waved his hand to the side, “‘30 miles from here,’” and sometimes those would be stories too.
When he first began, he didn’t review the food. He reported the news. But it soon became evident that readers were curious and he began to share his judgment on the places he was writing about.
His writing invariably was more of a gentle review than a harsh critique. King was not interested in being the deciding factor in whether a restaurant would live or die.
“One of the principles was what our moms taught us: ‘If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all,’” King said.
If a restaurant was clearly struggling, he would wait to write about them. “After someone spent their life’s savings and months to open a new restaurant, I wanted to tell their story,” King said, “but not act in ways that would jeopardize them. If they weren’t good enough, the market would close them.”
“Dining A La King” has been read by tens of thousands of readers over the years. “I helped some restaurant owners get the word out about what they offered and in some cases that had a positive impact on their business,” King said. “…People found a place because I tried it and wrote about it.”
Now with the convenience of instant updates delivered on mobile devices, the newspaper business is not what it used to be. The world of journalism is changing and many local papers are cutting back or shutting down.
From 2000 to 2020 the weekday circulation of daily U.S. newspapers dropped from an estimated 52 million to 24 million, according to statistics posted by the U.S Census Bureau. With this drop, newspaper publishers were estimated to have lost 52% of newspaper revenue.
King lost his job at The Elkhart Truth in 2016 after the business was sold and the newsroom was pared down.
“Based on how much I see people staring at their phones I don’t think it’s that we are reading less,” King said. “It’s just we are reading digital things that flow towards us rather than that newspaper subscription.”
Many are producing on social media platforms like Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and TikTok, but not in the way that King did with The Elkhart Truth, when every column was vetted by a series of editors.
“Social media means we all have publish buttons and anybody can say anything and none of it has to be verified,” said King. “People posting to a Facebook feed is not the same thing [as journalism]. They may be sharing information but it’s not done with those ethical and professional considerations.”
“I’m more worried about politics and democracy than I am the food business when it comes to this,” King said. “When no one is watching the government, they feel a little more free to cut some corners or not act in the good of the people.”
King then alluded to a study reported in the February 2020 issue of the Journal of Financial Economics, which confirmed that after the closure of a local newspaper municipal costs have increased.
“People are still reading,” he said. “It’s just that centralizing force that community newspapers were for so long is no longer what it was. It is not good for a community. But the funding models, how you pay for people to do this work and how you then disseminate that work so people do find it and read it and even maybe pay for it, is being figured out in the digital age …that process means there’s a lot of growing pains.”
When King lost his job at The Elkhart Truth, he continued to write the column as a freelancer. “It was hard and yet good,” King said. “It freed me to do other things and was a clean break. There was tremendous grief, but also opportunity.”
“Dining A La King” lived on in The South Bend Tribune and The Goshen News — until the spring of 2021, when King stepped away.
“I’ve realized that I need a break,” King said in the column posted in April 2021 in The Goshen News. “I need to be able to focus on the book I’ve been working on the last several years about the life and death of Michael “MJ” Sharp.” The book, “Disarmed,” was published in January 2022.
“I have expertise both on the local food scene and on food in general,” he said. “I‘m not looking to chuck that or not write about those things. I’m trying to figure out what it looks like in the time and space that I’m not doing it for a newspaper.”
The “Food Guy” hasn’t given up yet, he continues to write about great food, restaurants, local farmers and more on the Substack platform through an independent publication, The Hungry Newsletter.
“I am a writer,” he said. “I will keep writing.” And then regular readers know what comes next: “I’m hungry. Let’s eat.”