I’m a food blogger not a food blagger (or why there’s no such thing as a free lunch).
“ And yes, I’ve gone off on one, like a wet-lipped food blogger angling for a job,”
A recent line from Jay Rayner. He doesn’t like bloggers who review food without paying for it.
The whole storm in a teacup about freebies started before I went off to a conference a week ago and I was a little surprised to see it still rumbling on. Here’s a link
People have been suspended from Twitter, articles have been written, a few tweeps have got on their high moral horses.
As I’m not in the market for Twitterspats I thought I’d wade in on the blog, with my take on it. I’m only talking about food bloggers, not professional critics. Their paymaster is the paper, not the restaurant and it’s an entirely different dynamic.
I didn’t get into blogging to get freebies. I didn’t do it to suck up to PRs or chefs. It developed naturally and became a thing, in a way that I hadn’t anticipated.
Why do I blog about restaurants? It wasn’t planned. I reconnected on Twitter with a PR who specialises in legal and we started to do some work together. My aim was to raise the profile of my firm with potential clients and to help with recruitment.
I started to write some articles. Some aimed at lawyers, some at the property industry. But having written only lawyers’ letters and reports on title for the previous twenty-odd years, I was rusty.
I started with a few hotel reviews and moved onto food. And then The Lawyer magazine said it was looking for lawyers to write about restaurants. That gig had my name on it. I’d done half a dozen or so already on my own blog, so I volunteered. I’d turn up, eat, and review. No one mentioned money.
I wrote what I wanted, because I thought the Lawyer was paying. It became clear to me, as time went on, that it was actually the restaurants, through their PRs, who paid for the meal. I was taken aback. It was my first exposure to the whole ‘you scratch my back’ PR world.
But I didn’t have to think about it too hard because my contact at the Lawyer left shortly after that and the reviews stopped. But I’d enjoyed doing them so much I just carried on for my own pleasure. And clients and contacts had started to notice them and it had become a bit of a talking point.
So I carried on eating, putting on weight and posting. I gained a bit in confidence and then someone tweeted about the London Blog Leaderboard, on the Urbanspoon site. I’d never heard of it. Food blogs, ranked by popularity i.e. page views. You link your blog to it and then people are directed to your blog from its site
I started at an embarrassing number 272 out of 650. I’m competitive, so I started to work out what I had to do to improve my ranking. I think that to some degree it was a form of escapism: from the pressures of my job and from dealing with the aftermath of the grief I felt at the death of my father.
I started to do a bit more reviewing and noticed my rankings going up. I can’t say I wasn’t influenced by it, because I was and for a while in a slightly unhealthy way. But I wasn’t prepared to go to places I didn’t really want to visit and I’ve got a demanding day job.
And I wanted to increase my exposure to lawyers, so I thought I’d go back to The Lawyer and offer them a weekly review, at my own expense. They agreed.
Doing more reviews, I started to connect with people on Twitter who were involved in restaurant PR. It was great because I could find out the latest openings and could engage with others who were as food-obsessed as myself. And then, I’m not sure why, I started getting invited to some PR-organised events. A meat demo at Smiths of Smithfield, where I met some food bloggers was the first such.
I hadn’t really understood the whole blogger/pr thing really but I knew I was expected to write about the event. Thing was, I didn’t enjoy it. So I wrote to the PR, thanked her and told her the truth. I didn’t write it up. She was very lovely, but I suspected I’d broken an unwritten rule. And I’d felt pressured. And I looked at blogs from some of the other guests. They’d clearly had a different experience. Cynicism was starting to creep in.
Not long after, I got an invitation to a dinner at Brasserie Zedel, from Jeremy King himself. I was a bit surprised when it turned up in my inbox as I didn’t know anyone of that name and assumed my spam filter had failed. But he’d asked a well known PR chap to do a social media campaign and I’d been identified. I don’t know why. Maybe Urbanspoon. I hadn’t been to Zedel and I had a really interesting evening, chatting to King and Corbin, the owners.
There were all sorts of interesting people on that table, some of whom I subsequently discovered to be within what I believe to be a blogger clique. I spoke to them as I would to anyone else. Some were warm and welcoming but others were decidedly cool. It was my first intimation of a blogger hierarchy.
I didn’t write about that meal: that wasn’t the point of the evening. I did, however, go back shortly thereafter and write about it. Was I influenced by the fact I’d met the restaurateur? A little. The thought of him reading anything negative was a deterrent to writing in my usual sarcastic tone. Not that I had anything particularly negative to say. Same with The Wolseley. The fact that I’d had a personal interaction with the owners was impossible to ignore.
And a few months later, a food blogging lawyer referred a PR to me as, he couldn’t do a review she’d asked him to do. It was a place I knew well, one I liked, but didn’t love. I agreed, despite my misgivings. I went and reviewed. The owner didn’t leave us alone all evening. It was embarrassing. The meal was fine. I blogged it and disclosed the fact that it was paid for. But I felt constrained. I could feel the eyes of the owner on me. And I didn’t feel free to write as I wished.
And I met a PR chap later and we had a conversation about that whole blogger circuit and I intimated that I’d quite like to be invited to new openings. It wasn’t for freebies. It was because I felt left out.
And then the final straw. Asked by that PR I’d had the conversation with to blog a new opening, I agreed. I think, if I’m honest, I’d wanted to get in with the in-crowd, you know, that little group who seem to go to every opening and to be leading more interesting lives than your own, like the cool kids in the playground. I’m not proud of that.
But it was truly awful. It was a complete waste of my time and I didn’t write anything about it. And there was a lot to say. So the next time that PR asked me, this time to a new opening I really wanted to try, I said no. And I explained why. So I won’t be asked again and that’s really fine.
I won’t do paid for reviews ever again.
If the only way I could eat at restaurants was to do it by writing nice reviews, I wouldn’t do it. Some bloggers say they aren’t influenced by being invited/paid for. I know that I was. I also know that if a chef or the maître d’ fawns all over me, knowing I’m reviewing, I do feel uncomfortable and it will affect how I write.
And it isn’t just about the food. If you’re given something for free in this context, there’s a weight of expectation behind that on the part of the giver. We all know there’s no such thing as a free lunch.
And it’s not enough to just disclose it. That’s missing the point. As soon as I know it’s a comped review I look at it differently because, using my own experience as my guide, I know it won’t be unbiased. When the restaurant knows you’re paying, you get different treatment. Or extras. Or both.
And there are degrees of “paid for”. There are bloggers so well known that restaurateurs look out for them and give them special treatment. Unless those bloggers are sociopaths, being fussed over and made to feel special is going to make them feel warm and fuzzy. The resulting review is thus influenced.
Maybe food bloggers who do accept meals need to have a very thick skin to do honest reviews, so that they don’t care about upsetting people. I’m afraid that for all my says-it-straight shtick I don’t enjoy saying unpleasant things or writing negative pieces. And I can’t bite the hand that feeds me.
I always wanted to be involved in the food industry in some way and this blog has been my roundabout route into it. The blog is meant to inform and to entertain. It is a way of raising my profile within my own industry and it’s a hobby. It’s not an attempt to get freebies or gain influence with restaurateurs. I’m lucky enough to be able to pay for myself.
Eating out and writing about it. It’s one of the only things that I can do that combine work and pleasure and it’s something I really love doing. It’s one of the few times when getting paid to do it, even if that’s just the price of the meal, devalues the experience interferes with my objectivity and ruins my enjoyment.