Nothing brings people together quite like food.
It’s through food that two guys from Hamilton have solidified a lifelong friendship, cultivated dozens of others and have connected with thousands of people on social media by sharing stories of their adventures through the local culinary scene.
Todd and Mush of Steeltown Chowdown (Hamilton’s Food Authorities) — a frank, funny and thoughtful blog dedicated to the exploration of the food scene in Hamilton and beyond — say food is what has fuelled their friendship for decades.
The pair grew up on the West Mountain and met in Grade 5 and have remained close friends ever since.
At times in their lives, they told In the Hammer, their paths didn’t always converge but they always came back together over food.
“Our common hobby was eating,” Mush said. “So whenever we got together, it would be at restaurants.”
Hamilton Food Authorities
As they got older and started families, the friends would continue to come together regularly over meals at places in Hamilton and surrounding areas and their friendship matured and deepened through their culinary experiences.
They would spend their time catching up and talking about the food they were eating and good-naturedly debating the merits and pitfalls of whichever establishment they were patronizing that week.
They ate out so much, in fact, that they started to earn reputations as being ‘in the know’ among family and friends.
“Our friends would know us as the ones to ask where to eat in Hamilton,” Todd said. “Because of that, on our social media accounts, we’d begun preemptively sharing our experiences for friends and family.”
It’s from this process that Steeltown Chowdown was born.
“Mush had always joked we should start a food blog but we never pursued it further,” Todd recalls.
“Then one day I received a text [from Mush], ‘Steeltown Eats,’ I remember walking across the street to get lunch at Denninger’s the day I read it and casually snickered and sent him the response ‘Steeltown Chowdown?.’ A week later my phone vibrates and it’s Mush with just a picture of a logo for Steeltown Chowdown, I smiled and replied: ‘I guess we’re doing this?’”
In September 2017, Mush and Todd launched Steeltown Chowdown into the digital sphere. Since that time, their following has grown to more than 15,000 followers and they’ve created more than 1,000 unique posts.
They’ve accomplished this while still working full-time in marketing and sales for directly competing companies in the food retail space.
“It’s by complete coincidence,” Todd said adding that their day jobs “naturally lends itself to a better understanding of the industry as well as the challenges of the landscape.”
The Chowdown effect
Not only has their sales and marketing expertise propelled them to tastemaker status in Hamilton, but it’s also had a quantifiable positive impact on the businesses they feature.
David Capretta, the owner and chef of Mr. Grande Pizza, a longtime local pizza joint with a well-established reputation for quality, quantity and deliciousness, credits Steeltown Chowdown with ‘saving’ his business in 2020.
“I wasn’t really into social before this year,” Capretta told In the Hammer. “They came in, they gave us some really great feedback, we did a giveaway and we got an amazing response.”
Capretta says that since last summer when he had somewhere between 300 and 350 followers on Instagram, he now has more than 1,700 thanks in large part to Steeltown Chowdown’s coverage.
“We get a bump from every post, every giveaway,” he said. “I’m extremely grateful for these guys.”
So grateful, in fact, that Mr. Grande has named one of their legendary 64-slice slab pizzas after Steeltown Chowdown.
The Steeltown Chow is a mouthwatering, quad-flavoured pizza that consists of Chicken Shawarma, Taco, Big Mac and Double Pepperoni.
The Chow has been a considerable success, Capretta said, adding that “it went viral on our scale.”
Jaced Kaleci, the owner and chef of Sammy’s Family Restaurant in Ancaster, said he too has felt the impact of Todd and Mush’s efforts.
“One of their posts sent in 15 to 20 customers,” Kaleci said. “Of those, I’ve retained four or five long-term customers.”
Steeltown Chowdown’s efforts go beyond the photos and digital posts they create.
“They’re really good people and so easy going,” Kaleci said. “They’re very open and wanted to help me and gave me some great advice.”
For the Steeltown Chowdown boys, this gets to the heart of why they love doing what they do.
“Our favourite part is the friends we’ve made along the way, pretty cliche…we know,” said Todd.
“Meeting restaurant owners like Jay at Sammy’s and Joanne at Crumbuns, other food bloggers such as @TheDaveFather and @hamontsmallfry, and even some of our followers has led to some great friendships because we all have a passion for food and the restaurant business.”
Adventures in eating
While the majority of their posts focus on Hamilton-based eateries, Mush and Todd do find themselves and their posts venturing beyond the city’s limits.
The reason for this, they said, is because they consider Steeltown Chowdown to be a chronicle of ALL the places they’ve eaten, regardless of quality, genre, or geography but the heart of their blog remains in Hamilton.
“Hamilton’s food scene is incredibly exciting, and the lower rents have allowed innovators to take chances and build followings with truly unique offerings,” Todd said.
“As long time residents we’ve seen so much change, especially to the downtown core. It’s a great feeling to see an entrepreneur’s dream come true and we love to be a part of supporting that dream, especially for a fellow Hamiltonian.”
What sets Steeltown Chowdown apart from Hamilton’s other tastemakers, though, is how their friendship and its nuances play out in their posts.
Todd and Mush push each other to try different things (Todd is typically the instigator as, according to them, Mush has a far less adventurous palate), they debate their points of view among themselves and with followers.
“I also love that partnering with Mush has taught me the value of having someone comfortably challenge your ideas,” Todd said, adding that the one food that they can’t agree on is Hamilton’s famous Roma pizza: Todd is firmly in the Roma-pizza-is-not-pizza camp whereas Mush defends passionately Roma’s pizza status.
Differences aside, however, it’s through this tension and genial back and forth that one arrives at a fulsome and honest impression of the food or eateries under review.
“I am very proud of the fact we are always completely honest in our reviews. While sometimes we receive some pushback, I think it’s very important to direct people to the most deserving restaurants with the limited dollars they have to spend,” Todd said.
“You can’t please everyone so we try to stay true to ourselves and what we would like to see if we were on the other side.”