Don Rockwell, a restaurant power player who likes to stay behind the scenes

don rockwell
Web host and incognito diner Don Rockwell studies the menu at Sou'Wester in the Mandarin Oriental hotel. He eats out every night. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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By Kelly DiNardo
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, November 9, 2010; 11:20 AM

On a warm fall day in suburban Virginia, about 50 people mill around picnic tables covered in green plastic tablecloths and overloaded with food. They study, taste and comment on a creamy chicken liver mousse, a rice salad dotted with raisins and peas, ribs slathered with sauce.

As at many family picnics, they are there to laud one of their own. But they aren't family. They are members of DonRockwell.com, an online community that discusses restaurants, recipes and other epicurean interests. And the man who brought them together is absent. He may have named the five-year-old Web site after himself, but Rockwell seems decidedly more comfortable behind the scenes.

Rockwell is a power player on the District's restaurant scene whom most people outside the industry have never even heard of, though he's hoping his newest venture, a restaurant concierge service, will change that. He is also planning to form a restaurant association that he hopes will eventually offer group health insurance to workers, help small restaurants buy ingredients collectively, and more.

Rockwell, 49, became interested in food because of a personal tragedy and almost by accident. The Silver Spring native grew up eating frozen meals; throughout his childhood and well into his college years at Clemson University, where he studied accounting and computer science, dining out involved Hot Shoppes and Big Boy.

Then, a friend introduced him to wine, which sparked a simultaneous interest in food. But it was the death of his second wife in 2002, a little over a year after their wedding, that became the turning point for Rockwell. A friend referred him to the online food forum eGullet, and he started posting regularly, in part to distract himself from his grief.

"I hate to say I had nothing else to do, but I kind of didn't," says Rockwell, who was such a frequent poster that he eventually became the moderator for the D.C. forum.

Posters on eGullet discussed every aspect of food online and regularly met at restaurants or over happy hour to continue the conversation. Then, in 2005, the management at eGullet instituted what Rockwell describes as "a Draconian policy" for those get-togethers, requiring the host to ask for money and pass out eGullet materials. In response, Rockwell launched DonRockwell.com "to continue the vibrant social community that had been lost."

Even so, Rockwell rarely attends the functions that his own site hosts several times a month. He contends he wants the site to be about other people and not have his presence be a distraction.

"He likes his degree of celebrity in the restaurant community, but there's a certain standoffishness to him," says Dean Gold, owner of Dino restaurant and an avid participant on the site. "He has this odd combination of wanting to be famous and having a need for privacy."

The site, which Rockwell until recently has run as a hobby in addition to his job as a computer consultant, is far more than a social forum. It has also created a direct link between diners and the people who feed them, a particularly revolutionary idea when the site started in the pre-Twitter era.

With its plain design and no-frills style, DonRockwell.com averages about 3,000 members and, according to Web analytics company Compete.com, has attracted between about 1,500 and 9,000 unique page views a month since February. Unlike similar sites such as Chowhound or eGullet, Rockwell welcomes chefs and restaurant staffers as long as they are transparent about who they are. He estimates that 25 percent of the members are industry insiders and says that "every major restaurant has representation on the site."

The lack of anonymity on the site - registration with your full name is required - helps keep people with a hidden agenda from posting.


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