Saturday, August 15, 2015

On Food Bloggers

I've been blogging for over eight years now and during that time the blog landscape has changed considerably. When I began there were maybe six or so food bloggers.  We were all known to Chefs and restaurants and, I am told, were often the topic of conversation when Chefs gathered for a drink after the restaurants had all closed. Today there are hundreds of bloggers writing about all kinds of topics.  Many have carved out a specialized niche where they write about, say, only cupcakes or hamburgers.  

I have never considered myself to be a restaurant critic.  I will visit a restaurant and write about my impressions and tell the food stories behind some of the players.  Everyone seems to have a friend who dines out often, is eager to try new places, cooks at home and enjoys lively discussions about food.  I am that person.  What I write is pretty much the way I would describe a restaurant to a friend who asked about it.  To that I try to add as many pictures as possible - of the plates, the atmosphere and the people who both work there and visit.

As a former magazine columnist who still is lucky enough to be offered freelance assignments, the blog was a way for me to keep my journalistic muscles in shape.  Many bloggers and food writers have no background in writing.  I think of it as being the publisher and reporter of my own, little publication.  I get to call the editorial shots which, is often the best part, seeking out stories and deciding for myself just what I'll cover.  Food is an endlessly interesting subject.

I also have a lot of fun writing the blog, as you can imagine.  I enjoy the social aspect of "social media" and most often the fun of it all is getting together with other writers and bloggers at food events and restaurants.  I often will self-parody myself and make fun of the so-called "celebrity" status of being a well-known blogger.  We do get invited to some extraordinary and elegant events that people who are strictly restaurant critics do not.  On the other hand, without a staff of proofreaders and assistants, we all make mistakes.

I try to use that status to give back.  I have helped promote many charitable causes (I have a flawless record of helping to sell out all of the events that I promote and attend) and most readers know of my volunteer work with the very worthy organization Future Chefs both as an advisor and mentor.  This has been the most rewarding part of it all and I wish more food bloggers would adopt an important non profit to support and align with. Seeing a few of our alumni go on to become the next generation of top tier Chefs in Boston has been worth more than any payment for freelance gigs or photos in society columns.  

I have been invited to sit on panel discussions for the Massachusetts Restaurant Association and Publicity Club Of Boston to share my insight on what bloggers like to write about.  Chefs have given me exclusive stories that have gone viral and the broadcast media has cooperated with hundreds of thousands of page views.  I do radio shows.  ABC TV has called me for media comments.

I receive email from people all over the world who are coming to Boston and want to know where to eat.  I've endured criticism for being a "foodie" but feel quite confident that most people are okay with that label.  In fact, when someone in London googles "Boston foodie" this blog has been the number one return for many years now.  A good forty percent of my audience is international.  I've been sent hundreds of gadgets and food samples to try. Frankly, most of them are not worth writing about so I don't.  I've been invited to audition for several reality TV shows but I'm not much one for manufactured drama, no matter how many hits it will get me. And when people take cheap shots at me I still, sometimes, feels compelled to point out that no one is forcing them to read.

The food blog community in Boston is a friendly place.  Many newer bloggers attack it competitively at first, dollar signs in their eyes as the next famous food critic.  Every photo is watermarked.  They run home after an event and stay up all night so that they can be the first to post.  I used to, too.  After a while, however, you realize that there is room for everyone at the table.  Your voice will find an audience if you are good at it.  And, quite often, your post will drive traffic into the restaurant.  

I'm not an investigate reporter.  I don't need scoops.  I am enough of a writer to find an angle that nobody else has thought of.  I am not threatened by the fact that there are now hundreds of food bloggers and probably will be for a long time.  

With all of that in mind, I recently reached out to Chefs and restaurant owners to share their thoughts on the current state of food blogging in Boston.  I had a great response with some real insight and a range of opinions. Here it is.  

“I think food bloggers are still an absolute and important part of the local food community. To me, they can carry more weight, information and sincerity than horrific “user” sights like Yelp!.  Bloggers can be a trusted source for the online community of people interested in learning about food and restaurants.  

I do believe newer bloggers could benefit from the more seasoned athletes (guys like Marc Hurwitz, Patrick McGuire, William McAdoo, Rachel Cossar  and others) on respecting the "pen is mightier than the sword" philosophy.

For the most part, these guys stay clear of undeserved business bashing and understand that restaurants can and will have an off night and they always respect the hospitality workers including the servers, hosts, cooks, dishwashers and everyone in between.  

Newer bloggers should remember that there’s only a few professional critics left in the city and they should blog with information and facts; random bloggers that come in and demand free food and after the third Grey Goose martini start bragging that their wife always thought they should be a food critic or (gasp) restaurant owner… These are the bloggers to be wary of. There's only one Boston Globe and Devra First so new bloggers should stick to blogging, not criticism. 

Bloggers that express a deep love and understanding of food, beverage and vibe are the ones I love to cook for (and forgive my previous rant as 99% of the bloggers I've met in this city are people I love to read and follow). Bloggers have been a tremendous part of the Boston restaurant fellowship and growth and I am genuinely happy to see them when they dine with me at the restaurants."

Brian Poe, Chef & Owner of Poe’s Kitchen at the Rattlesnake, The Tip Tap Room, Bukowski Tavern – Cambridge and CLUCKIT!

I agree with Chef Poe on Devra First.  I have long said that she is the best restaurant critic in print although I do not always agree with her.  She seems to have unlocked the key to it:  that food is an emotional experience, not just a list of ingredients and the names of mixologists.   The classic form of print restaurant critic is already outmoded.  People don't want 10,000 words and one or two photos. She seems to keep it fresh.

"In today's world of social media where everyone has the opportunity to become a critic, food bloggers are the new opinion leaders and trend setters. They are often more influential than the mainstream press because of the instant access to their content." 

Chef Jacky Robert of Ma Maison

Even in print I have noticed that publications will not wait months to visit a new restaurant.  They now are quick to offer a preview or first peek inside.  Conversely, given the economic realities, new restaurants are set to be on top of their game from opening night.  Far more time is spent on training and they would rather delay an opening than not be ready for critics from day one.

“It seems to me that everyone is a food critic these days with all of the social media sites and review opportunities. I know when I am researching where to eat in a new area, I love to go online to see what others think of a potential restaurant. When I stumble upon a blogger though, I tend to regard their input higher than the reviewers on Yelp or Trip Advisor. Typically they have a wider experience and also have a food or restaurant background. They seem to see the big picture and really try to interpret what the chef or restaurant is trying to accomplish, rather than what they wish they were trying to portray. I also love when they include photos of what they are enjoying.” 

Jennifer Ziskin, Co-Owner of Heritage of Sherborn and La Morra

“Food Bloggers are very important to the local food/restaurant community. With so many choices in your local community and with consumers realizing that many paid sites are biased, guests are looking for a trusted expert in the food industry for suggestions on their next culinary experience.” 

Peter Ackerman,  Senior Vice President Salvatore’s Restaurants

“Bloggers have always been a big part of our success. I want people to come in, evaluate and if they like what we’re doing become passionate ambassadors of our restaurants.” 

Paul Turano Chef/Owner Cook in Newton, MA | Tryst in Arlington, MA

“Bloggers are extremely important to the food community. We’ve always found them to be supportive of the restaurant and by them communicating via their blogs more and more people have become aware of our location." 

Salvatore Boscarino, Co-Owner Pier 6

“Food Bloggers are an incredible resource for local restaurant communities today - they are an amazing form of marketing that stretches beyond an establishment’s everyday reach. Food bloggers are modern day journalists - they breathe life and individualism into the media landscape."

Brooke Barsanti, Food & Wine Programmer, Boston Center for Adult Education

“It is becoming increasingly more important for us as restaurateurs to have media exposure online. The rich SEO content that bloggers provide carries a lot of weight and when done responsibly we always welcome it.” 

Jack Bardy, Co-Owner, The Beehive/Beat Brasserie

"There are so many great chefs and wonderful new restaurants in the greater Boston area, it can be hard to keep track of what’s new as a hospitality professional, let alone a consumer. I think the food blogger community plays a crucial role in providing timely and relevant information to the public, as well as informing us on what’s new, different, and interesting in the ever-changing restaurant world."

Corey Barriera, Regional Director of Operations at Papa Razzi

“Food bloggers are very important to the restaurant community. These days there are so many vehicles to get insight on a restaurant and whether you should dine there or not. We all have fallen into the routine of the quick google search before dining; good, bad, or indifferent it’s what we do. Having people who write about you that people trust and follow can help get a true and honest perspective on what your venue is. There are so many choices for diners today, which is a great thing so a positive review from a blogger that people trust can really go a long way to help your establishment go to the top of the list. BLOG away, hopefully it’s all good!”

Davide Crusoe, General Manager of Chopps American Bar and Grill 

“At The Palm Boston, we value the feedback of the blogging community tremendously. Diners look to bloggers as experts and as a trusted source with knowledgeable and independent thoughts and opinions on their personal dining experiences. These opinions carry more weight than public review sites and definitely impact the consumers’ everyday dining decisions.”

Brian Brosnihan, General Manager of The Palm Boston

"Food bloggers play an integral role in the restaurant industry across the globe, especially here in the Boston area. We’ve found that the Boston blogging community shows an extraordinary interest in the blood, sweat, and tears that we put into our work on a daily basis.  Boston blogs tend to dig a little deeper into the creativity of the hospitality industry to give readers insight into what we have going on beyond the menu.”

Israel Medina, Executive Chef of BOKX 109 in Newton

“Food blogs have become much more prominent in the Boston restaurant community over the past decade and readers truly value the opinions of a knowledgeable blogger. The blogging community really sets the stage for prospective customers, providing them with valuable insight and a firsthand perspective into the restaurant’s culture, offerings, and experience before they even walk through the door.”
Bill Brodsky, Chief Culinary Officer, Boston Nightlife Ventures

I also heard from some Chefs and restaurant owners who wished to remain off the record. A few said that they no longer pay attention to food bloggers preferring, instead, to solely focus on serving the best food and giving the finest service that a restaurant is capable of.   Bravo! NOT a bad set of priorities.  You can have all the food bloggers in the world at your restaurant.  Without impressive food and service it won't help at all.

1 comment:

  1. I don't consider myself a food blogger, just a guy who really likes to eat and has very particular tastes. I started offering up my opinions on sites like Urbanspoon (now Zomato) and Google Local Guides simply as a way for close friends to get my take on good places to go. The friendship part is key because without proper context, it is hard to know if my opinion will line up with your own. Some folks value huge portions and low prices. Others seek out the most rarefied and exclusive restaurants or bars.