In defense of food bloggers

It’s rare I hear someone speak in defense of food bloggers. We’re seen by many as a bunch of good for nothing, nefarious freeloaders. Every time I read a post like this about a poor chef having to contend with hordes of furiously idiotic proletariat – I get vexed. I could at this point launch into a vitriolic defense of my fellow food bloggers; maybe a diatribe about restaurants charging actual hard earned money for a commercial product or mention something about getting out of the kitchen if its too hot – but that isn’t the point of this piece. Let me be the first to extend the olive branch, I want to remind businesses about the many opportunities they have open to them online.

Firstly don’t get me wrong, I know from first hand experience that small businesses are fraught with a vast array of herculean challenges. I’d rather compete in an Ironman triathlon than open a restaurant. Moreover, my hat goes off to anyone willing to strike out in business on their own terms. Snarky critiques from uninformed plebs certainly don’t help when you’ve been on your feet all day and are struggling to make payroll. True story: I once had a happy client at Christmas tell me he hoped I choke to death on my first bite of turkey – over an 8 cent billing discrepancy.

In the days of print media’s pomp, the mighty food critic strode the land, a fearsome creature – eight legs, four heads, fire breathing, sharp pointy teeth – and worst of all, a foe from which there was no shelter. The ability to fend off this debilitating attack was limited to the meager ‘letter to the editor’ parry.

The Internet though is a truly democratizing force. The tables are completely different today, business owners have in fact, never had it this good. I know more than one restaurant owner just fell off their chair right then. Get back on your feet, go have a glass of something strong and come back to us when you’ve stopped having heart palpitations. Blogs, Yelp, Tripadvisor, forums and the like are not in fact yet more monsters to battle and slay. They are in fact a knight in shining armor. They offer business owners the right to reply, build credibility and crucially connect with the very people they seek to delight.

Rather than scold their audiences, savvy business operators can engage their communities. Of course there are babbling imbeciles out there on the Internet, but guess what, they were there long before web browsers. They were in attendance when fire was invented, telling the proud creator, “that fire stuff of yours is way too hot and the color is all wrong”. Before the days of Yelp, these sage folk huddled around the office water cooler. Back then there was minimal opportunity for businesses to correct wrongs, to tell the bigger and better story. Skip forward to today and a business has exponentially more tools to connect with consumers. Its astonishing how few choose to use them, or choose to use them poorly.

And despite this wanton nitwittery (TM) – genuinely exceptional businesses will thrive – again it’s never been this easy for an educated business to succeed. We can all spot the cretin on Yelp bleating about how his onion ring was not perfectly symmetrical. What’s more we can see the other nine million glowing reviews. As consumers we’ve grown better educated on how to sift through the silt for gold. I swear, I think about buying a toaster and I have to become the worlds leading expert on toasters via the likes of Wikipedia, Amazon, review sites etc. before I even think about parting with my cash.

Think about your favorite restaurant or a beloved coffee shop. They build a following through repeated excellence. Sure they make mistakes, but they correct them. They build, they develop and they foster a clientele by engaging with them over and over. You might cross paths with a negative review of your favorite business and think, meh, they had a bad day, they’re human, its o.k. The Internet is not a rampaging demon beset on your destruction at all costs, well, maybe the sltrib comment section is.

As a food critic and blogger – I always go into a business looking for the positives first and foremost. I want to write about kittens and sunshine and share the best possible story. I never want to write negatively, but if I find a bunch of angry goblins have eaten all the kittens, I’m going to write about it. And you know what – as a writer I too get called every name under the sun: I don’t know what I’m talking about, I should shut my pie hole and go back to whatever rock I crawled from under. It’s fair comment on the part of my detractors. Its their opinion of my opinion, it’s free speech.

So what’s an embattled restaurateur to do? The two worst options include lashing out or burying your head in the sand, trust me, we’re all still here on the Internet and we’re still talking about you. Crying about your back breaking hours is best avoided too, guess what – we’ve all got hard lives.

Instead engage with your community. Again, I’m offering the olive branch on behalf of all food bloggers here – here’s a few free tips to get you on your way*:

Invite writers to experience your business. Explain your philosophy and vision, showcase your cuisine, heck offer a tour of the kitchen – but make the personal connection. The elephant in the room is of course the freebie. Most bloggers are not in it for a free meal, and I’d run a mile from any that expected to be comped. As long as the offer is extended by the restaurant and there’s disclosure from the writer to their readers, it’s fair game in my book.

This year for example, I attended a comped meal at Log Haven as they unveiled new dishes on their menu. This wasn’t a review on my part, just a note to our readers as to what they could expect on the menu this year. The article let’s the reader know exactly this.

Hire a PR agency. Good agencies will be able to connect you with your local community in creative ways that need not cost the earth. Email me and I’ll be happy to suggest several great ones. If PR is genuinely a leap too far budget wise, there are still creative ways to reach out to the community. Just get in touch with me, if you want ideas.

Listen to feedback. No really! Listen!. Maybe there is a grain of truth in that criticism. Go read about cognitive dissonance and try to suspend any firmly held beliefs for just a microsecond. You might see that all those Tripadvisor posts about your crappy service team actually have some merit.

Be sure you keep in contact with respected online and offline publications in your community. Keep them up to date on your business, new menus, events, hirings – practically everything and anything you do. News outlets crave stories and information, you would be surprised what you can get published.

Don’t sweat every single bad Yelp review or negative blog piece. Joel Robuchon takes heat on Yelp too. Maybe you contact the writer in question, get to the bottom of their unhappiness. You might invite them back in, show them the very best aspects of you and your business.

The critical element that links each of these steps is that you’re controlling the conversation, you decide what’s being written about you. You really have that power.

Schwoo. O.k. bring it in you guys, group hug lets all get along and enjoy what brings us all together – food.

* My credentials? Fourteen years in Internet marketing, seven years blogging and coming up three years restaurant critiquing for the Salt Lake Tribune. Oh, and I’ve been eating since I was born.

** featured image courtesy of pixabay.com.

About Stuart Melling

My high school English teacher once told me I was the most arrogant young man she had ever met. Food criticism seemed like a natural leap. Stuart is largely fueled by Uinta Cuthhroat, alliteration and the use of too many big words he doesn't understand. Stuart is also a member of the Association of Food Journalists.

Comments

  1. Stephen L says

    Most of your comments about food blogging ring true. The best blogs have elevated the discourse about food and enlightened readers about some of the food gems in their neighborhoods. However, I strongly disagree about the insidious nature of the comped meal or event. It naturally leads to excessive coziness between reviewer/blogger and establishment. I cannot count the number of times I’ve seen a puff piece written about an establishment because the owner was good buddies with the writer or gave them something for free. A clear line of separation must exist between an independent press and the subjects of their writing. And the excuse that a blogger isn’t really a journalist misses the mark entirely.

  2. says

    Thanks for your considered thoughts Stephen.

    Comps are most definitely a bone of contention, at least in regards restaurant reviews. I fall somewhere in the middle of the argument. I also wear two hats so must balance a fine line, one for GSLC and one for the SL Tribune.

    As I mentioned above (on behalf of GSLC) I’ve no issue accepting an invite for something specific where I respect the business, what they offer and if the event has specific information useful, I can relate to our readers. In fact many are media only events specifically arranged to demonstrate or explain something new. I’d have no access to that information otherwise. Another example – this summer I attended a meal at Finca debuting their pintxos and bocadillos menu to the press. That resulted in a news piece on GSLC, but not a review. I love that restaurant and their ethos, I’ve no issue sharing it with our readers. If I ever fell out of love with that restaurant, I can personally guarantee I’d stop writing about them freebie or not.

    I can tell you for every invite I personally accept I likely turn down 5-10 others. And I always turn down outright requests to review a restaurant for GSLC. I know you’ve read the site for a long time, and my focus has been more on news than full reviews for some time – due to my SL Trib work, there are only so many restaurants I can eat and fully review.

    In my work for the SL Tribune, we know well in advance the restaurants we are going to review. With that knowledge I can avoid any freebie/contact that might at a future date bias my coverage of the restaurant. If in time I do get to know someone in that restaurant it means at a later date, I sit out any review. Again I now know the owner of Finca/Pago now – I won’t ever review his restaurants in a full capacity again. I would definitely be prejudiced. This also means, that I do recognize, at some point, I will make a poor food critic, so I definitely have a limited shelf life.

    Ultimately I think it comes down to who you recognize as having the integrity to relate the information they’ve gathered in an honest way. I’ve read fully featured reviews of businesses – sometimes in print, let alone blogs – where zero disclosure has been given for the comp. How do I know there was a comp, because I turned it down in the same time period…

    One thing you will always find on GSLC for sure is disclosure of any comp. And again, no full reviews, in fact, I’m sure I’ve annoyed some people where their freebie involved me being less than effusive in praise ;)

  3. says

    Some of this is really useful, but our blogging scene is SLC is totally weird. Seems like many of the food bloggers are friends and echo each other. When someone writes something dumb and a chef calls it out as such, that chef is likely to get swarmed by 10 angry food bloggers.

    I really appreciate blogs like SLC Foodie that are explicit about their intent (to build up the food scene here – not to provide food criticism). I do wish we had some folks with the requisite gravitas (culinary training and such) to do some real food criticism though – sometimes the best way to help a food scene evolve is to thin the herd a bit.

  4. says

    Thanks for your thoughts Mark. I do agree the food scene is very small here, claustrophobically so at times. This extends well beyond blogs to well known writers for major publications too, its a very insular scene. Go to any media event and every single person knows everyone else.

    Ethical/anonymous issues aside – its part of the reason in the article I stressed that business owners should embrace the tools they have available to them. A business owner has a direct capability to connect with much of whats being said online about them, and to a degree control it. The number who snub their noses at it, then cry when it blows back in their face later. I am continually astonished, maybe its simply a lack of business savvy.

    As for culinary experience I’m 50/50 with you. I’ve eaten in some restaurants were the chef was formally trained and the food was horrendous – I’ve called them out and got abuse. In my real life job, we look at qualifications last in hiring new team members, as rarely does formal education alone lead to exceptional team members. Education is one thing, but you need the common sense smarts to wield it creatively and wisely.

    On local blogs I will give many a break provided their not shouting from a mighty pedestal and calling the odds. If you’re going to unleash with vitriol you better have the goods to back it up. I’ve definitely stumbled across more than one blog where I’ve shuddered at the lack of basic understanding of ingredients/cuisine/technique etc, but then I look back at some of my own posts from years gone by and cringe at my own writing. Its a constant learning process, and anyone who thinks they’ve mastered it all, well…

  5. says

    Stuart you are a really talented writer. Some of the evolutions you went through I have gone through as well. At first I used as a crutch the fact I was never really an English major or formally trained in the culinary arts, but that crutch can only be used for so long. The Internet is a huge supermarket of information, and a good blog should be a place to come and get a sense of the topic, see a few pictures and then move along. I appreciate the work you have done on GSLC, and supporting local food bloggers like myself.

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