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Jess Harter: The mind behind Mouth By Southwest

How one man tapped into a market famished for news about Gilbert/East Valley eating and drinking

We all have that friend we go to for tips on the latest and greatest places for dining and drinking. Jess Harter has become “that guy” for about 1.3 million users of his website, Mouth by Southwest.

Centered mainly on East Valley restaurant and bar news, MXSW is where to look for openings, closings, special events and more. Harter — who lives on the Chandler/Gilbert border — started the site in 2010 after being laid off from the East Valley Tribune, where he’d worked since 1987.

After the Tribune folded, Harter said restaurant owners and managers within a week or two started calling him to ask where they could send information, so he set up a WordPress blog. “It was just something I wanted to do to help out a couple restaurants,” he explains. Most media outlets tended to focus coverage on Scottsdale and Phoenix, and he noticed a dearth of information about other areas.

MXSW grew up with, and likely boosted the success of, the food and beverage scene in Gilbert and the East Valley. “The Gilbert restaurant scene when I started in 2010 is very different than today,” Harter recalls. “The two explosive areas of growth are downtown and — the last few years — San Tan Village. It’s been too much, too fast for people to keep track of.”

Building a Business

In the beginning, Harter saw MXSW as a hobby. “If I got 50 or 100 people to read a post, I thought that was pretty good,” he recalls. “In a couple of years, a few thousand were reading a post. It grew by leaps and bounds. Real popular posts, I’d get 50,000, 60,000, 70,000 hits.” He didn’t do any marketing other than having a social media presence.

Harter posts an average of three to four times a day Monday through Friday and hones in on the basic facts such as opening dates and hours. In fact, he doesn’t do reviews at all, which surprises people.

“When I started MXSW, Yelp reviews, Google reviews and social media reviews already were everywhere,” he muses. “I didn’t see the value in adding one more opinion to the cacophony. I’ve always intended MXSW to be a news site, not a platform for one person’s opinions.”

Although he used to do in-depth on-site coverage of food festivals and other long posts, he tends to keep the articles brief these days. He discovered through site analytics that covering what’s coming, what’s opening, what’s just opened and what’s closed gets the most traffic.

MXSW is now Harter’s full-time job, after growing organically. By late 2011, restaurant owners began asking Harter if they could advertise, but as of 2012, he still only had six ads. “It wasn’t paying my bills or anything,” he notes. But by 2013, it became clear it could become a viable business. “It became the go-to place, so if restaurants wanted to advertise locally, it came to mind,” he says. “I don’t cold call restaurants. They call me.”

Harter also cites the “explosive growth” of restaurants and bars in Gilbert and other eastern cities as a factor in the success of MXSW. “The Joe Johnston influence was huge: the barbecue place, Joe’s Farm Grill, Agritopia, which will be a big cluster of stories I’m writing the next year or two,” he notes. “It was just a dream of Joe’s back in 2010, and here in 2021, it’s happening.”

Throughout it all, Harter has been a stalwart supporter of the industry and gives restaurants an affordable way to reach his audience. He charges $35 a month for a small ad; $75 for a large one.

From Football to Food

Raised in Fargo, North Dakota, Harter always planned to move from the bitter cold and snow of North Dakota to a warm, sunny climate where he could wear shorts in the winter. His dad, a high school baseball coach, was an unofficial scout for the Los Angeles Dodgers, and his family vacationed each winter in either Arizona or Florida to see spring training games.

In his senior year at the University of North Dakota, Harter started working at his hometown newspaper in Fargo, answering calls and compiling sports scores. Despite never having taken a journalism class — he double-majored in philosophy and English and minored in religious studies — he worked in newspapers until his layoff, including a stint in Colorado before taking the job at the East Valley Tribune.

While it’s not a surprise that Harter — a huge football fan who loves the Arizona Cardinals and University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks — spent the bulk of his career on the sports desk, he ended his career running the weekly Get Out entertainment supplement at the Tribune. He credits his tenure there to teaching him the business acumen needed to build MXSW. “Almost all journalists fail when starting their own thing,” he says, because they’re not skilled in marketing or advertising or have the technical expertise to run a website.

In addition to food, drink and football, Harter is nuts about pups. He has two pit bull rescues, Emma and Ella, which he adopted last year from Gilbert-based Love Connection Dog Rescue. He’d always had two or three dogs his entire life, mainly German short-hair retrievers or Labrador retrievers for hunting. In 2010, though, he was at the shelter looking for a similar breed and ended up adopting a brindle-striped pit bull named Tigger, whose continually wagging tail and hopeful look stole his heart. He and Harter’s other dog, Gunner, went with him everywhere until they passed away in 2019 and 2020, respectively.

“They went through more under-construction restaurants in the East Valley than anyone has ever seen,” he laughs. “The dogs would run through half-built kitchens. They loved going to those places."

Here are of four dog-friendly bars in Gilbert that Harter recommends.

O.H.S.O. Brewery & Distillery

Your dog can run and play with other dogs on a grassy area outside, and they put out water dishes and make dog biscuits.

Hair of the Dog

This dog-themed wine bar and tap house has no kitchen (just food trucks), so you can lounge on the couch with your furry friend.

AZ Wilderness

A relaxed patio for stretching out is popular with pups and their owners, and the outdoor theme attracts rugged types and their canine companions.

Uncle Bear’s Grill & Tap AZ

Named after the owner’s dog, Bear, this is a canine lover’s dream, where pictures of customer’s pups are posted on the walls and tap handles are shaped like fire hydrants.

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