Food Blogging for Free Bites?

J.C. Reid, a fellow blogger at the Houston Press and the man behind the awesome Houston Foodie site, has written a very interesting article today on Eating Our Words that all food bloggers should read:

Will Blog for (Free) Food?

In the article, J.C. describes a recent event that was attended by several area food bloggers (as well as other non-food bloggers) at a new restaurant, Saute.  The restaurant fed us for free, in exchange for an honest appraisal of their food and constructive criticism.  As you may imagine, this arrangement represented a very, very, very thin line between business-minded reciprocity and outright bribery.  Was that line crossed?

More importantly, J.C. asks:

Even a few years ago food bloggers wouldn’t have registered a blip on a restaurateur’s radar. But a funny thing happened on the way to making a dinner reservation. People started reading even the most obscure food blogs to find out where and what to eat. So what’s a restaurant owner to do?

Food blogging has made a strange and rapid rise lately, perhaps due in part to so many people recognizing that — in all honesty — it’s not hard to do.  You have to have at least some formal training to be an art critic, for example, but any yahoo with an America Online account can now stand upon a soapbox and rant loudly to the internet about the poor service or overly-expensive food or low-quality steak they received on any given night.  Everyone eats, right?  So everyone should be able to criticize food!  Right?

I’m not the only one who’s noticed this trend.  But, being as I have no formal training myself other than working in a restaurant and a small cafe for brief stints (as well as having a chef for a mother), I’m not one to cast stones.  Instead, I’m far more interested in your opinions.  Have food bloggers become — to use the colloquialism — too big for their britches?  Are restaurants and the general public paying too much attention to the opinions and whims of the great untrained, instead of genuinely talented and respected food writers?  Go and read J.C.’s article, and leave your comments there.  Let us know what you think!

14 thoughts on “Food Blogging for Free Bites?”

  1. This isn’t a just an issue for food bloggers. My business partners runs one of the largest NBA fan sites on the web – He’s been covering the Houston Rockets longer than most of the sports writers in Houston and yet he is not afforded the same media access as other media members because of the league’s fear that it will open the door to any and all bloggers, fan sites, etc.

    Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, temporarily banned bloggers from the locker room last year in response to an overly harsh blog post.

    The “new” media is confusing for all kinds of people and it poses all sorts of ethical dilemmas for bloggers and journalists. I’m glad food bloggers recognize it as well.

  2. It’s an interesting debate. I’m going to be a wuss and punt and suggest that there is no “correct” answer. Some (not all) food bloggers write as hobby bloggers sans pay, so if you can grab a free meal out of the deal that’s all the better. I didn’t get invited to the soiree, which tells you something about where I rank in the local foodie blogosphere. 😀

    That being said, despite the fact that we don’t agree on everything, the food bloggers that I’ve met are, mostly, very sophisticated diners. Local restaurants, including start-ups, have at their disposal a vast pool of relatively cheap market research. If they choose to take advantage of it.

    The write-ups that I’ve seen (by Houston Foodie and Food Princess) have been very well disclosed and very fair, outlining the good and bad of the experience. I think reader’s appreciate honesty when they read it, and if they trust the content of a blog then they’re more likely to come back again and again. On the other hand, if they don’t trust that a blogger is being honest in their work, then they’ll move on to another part of the vast Internet.

  3. Not to take this too far into the esoteric, but it is interesting that we as a society seem to be generally LESS trusting of the media and MORE trusting of bloggers. There have even been surveys reflecting this trend.

    I think that is more an indictment of the mass media than praise of blogging, but it is still a pretty interesting social trend.

  4. “Not to take this too far into the esoteric, but it is interesting that we as a society seem to be generally LESS trusting of the media and MORE trusting of bloggers.”

    I think that part of this is due to the fact that bloggers, as opposed to MSM, are fairly open about any biases they have.

  5. I am uncomfortable with the whole thing and did not go to the Saute junket because of it. I am not a food critic or a professional food writer, so I have no ethical reasons. I just don’t like bad food.

    I go to restaurants because I like to eat, so going to a restaurant I normally would not visit just because the food is free really smacks of payola. I looked at the Saute menu well before they went “viral”, thought the menu looked like a tedious mess and decided there is no point in going. Am offer of free food really didn’t change my mind.

    I don’t expect this Saute thing to become a trend. There are just far too many downsides to letting complete amateurs rip on your unsteady kitchen before you have the kinks worked out.

    What I do expect is for restaurants to adopt higher standards and really think hard about the chefs they are hiring. I think (or hope, at least) that days of hiring anyone who can slap together a panini thats half-way edible are over.

  6. I might have a heart attack. I agree with Misha.

    I did not go to the Saute tasting, mainly because I had to work. I don’t think I would have gone, anyway, because it just seemed unethical in my book. If it were a “soft open” for friends and family, that’s one thing. However, to open yourself up to bloggers, all of whom have differing opinions and palates, would be insane. How much good advice would you get? Would all those differing opinions cloud your judgement and menu-editing? How do you choose which opinions to take and which to reject? Can you be thick-skinned enough to take the heat from very critical people? Plus, those bloggers would now be recognized by the chef/wait staff/owners, which means preferential treatment once the place has its hard open. That’s why Frank Bruni and Ruth Reichl take/took such pains to conceal their identities when they’re reviewing for the NYT. They know that to properly review a restaurant, they must not be recognized and receive the best treatment, but be regular customers.

    I think that’s why I tend to concentrate more on my food and what I cook at home. I’ll write about a restaurant occassionally, but that’s the exception rather than the rule. Of course, DC will throw that out the window.

    Just my two cents. I haven’t read much about the place, but I hope those that were there are fair in their praise and criticism.

  7. “Would all those differing opinions cloud your judgement and menu-editing?” This is a challenge! We also have to balance a food blogger’s opinion with the opinions of the majority of our customers, who comment, “that was a great dish!” The opinions don’t often align!

    Yet, we do learn valuable information from the multitude of opinions. In our food tasting event (which was very well disclosed, and we appreciate that all the bloggers were very transparent about it in their write-ups. Transparency is the watch-word in journalism today, not the myth of “objectivity”), Garry also tried out a few new dishes, which clearly didn’t meet with everyone’s liking. We admire his creativity, as he has certainly generated some hits that our customers keep coming back for; but with creativity comes risk, and we were able to learn from this with our food tasting event.

    Now, we’ve got some interesting thoughts on the direction the restaurant should take. And, we do want some changes. More on that soon – we’ll send you all an email for your opinions, and we think everyone will find it exciting.


    Kevin & Connie

  8. I think they whole free schtuff for bloggers issue is pretty pervasive in the Blogging community in general right now.

    In the end, I think it’s all about disclosure. Did Denny’s give you a free Grand Slam breakfast wanting to get you in their restaurant and talking about them? Great, just mention that and write your brutally honest feedback. If I owned a restaurant (or a business with products to be reviewed), that is personally what I would be hoping for — perhaps one-on-one feedback while you’re in my restaurant so I can suck your brain dry of ideas and then something candid and interesting on your Blog (good or not-so-awesome) to link back to. It’s all about networking out to your Community. That’s worth giving away a free meal imho.

    Part of the power of Blogging is not worrying about what an editor (or boss-like person) will say about your posts – if you don’t like, then you don’t like it and that’s what you say on your Blog. Whether you’re a pro food critic or not, it’s refreshing to get the straight juice. Did I just make that phrase up? I think I did.

    As long as restaurant owners and chefs don’t act like big sissies when you actually give them feedback, then it’s an interesting PR move. Any food blogger (or any kind of blogger) that compromises their true voice over a free dinner isn’t worth reading anyway.

    Having said all that, I agree with Megan in that I’d much prefer a review from a critic (green or otherwise) that enjoyed a meal as the average joe would consume it. Seems like it’s less about the dollars and more about getting a true feel for how the kitchen cooks, presents and the wait staff serves.

    Wow, this is a long comment. Interesting post 🙂

  9. It’s an issue for all bloggers, no matter our ilk. I teach at quilt festivals and get offered free supplies to use in the classes –and I am happy to be at the stage in my career where “they” care — but I won’t use a material I don’t think works, even if it’s free. If a reviewer/blogger is straight with his/her audience, then, why not. BUT, given the nature of limited personal budgets and apparently unlimited restaurants, is buying attention going to sway opinion?

  10. “Arrangements” such as you describe really leave a bad taste in my mouth. Going into a meal, knowing it will be free does alter one’s mindset. All the restaurants I’ve been to are willing to take comments. Comments such as these usually turn more heads because the customer is under no obligation to provide them. They do also say quite a bit about the reviewer.

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