Why chefs hate food bloggers (and why they are missing an opportunity)

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Jay Dillon

Director of Strategy and Creative at Inbound Experts
Jay is a digital marketer and producer whose creative and technical skills have developed digital brand strategies and sales campaigns using a range of complex internet applications from stand-alone websites through to Facebook API integrations.
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Chef Restaurant Food Blogger

The Age reported recently that the Restaurant and Catering Association has put forward a social media protocol for its members. I have no idea what a ‘protocol’ actually is, however I was interested to read it includes a general acceptance for some diners to take photos of their meals.

When I am actually using the internet for fun rather than business (not as much as I would like), one of the first things I do is hit up my favourite collection of food bloggers like Ed Charles, Thanh Do, Libby and Amy and others. I love checking in with this little army of amateur food reviewers. The writing is so fresh and honest. Their websites are simple and void of banner ads. Their photography (although often very impressive), unstaged and true.

I still read the professional reviews in the major newspapers and titles like Gourmet Traveller. However, it’s the fast-past raw food blogs that get me excited. There is something about knowing that a humble foodie ‘like me’ is out there reviewing venues, that provides a level of trust and authenticity that is somehow not matched by the weighty C.V of a professional food reviewer.

I can understand why some of the high-end restaurants are hesitant of this food blogger trend. If you have ever know a chef with lofty ambitions, you know that these guys are incredibly driven, passionate and put in the sort of hours that could be considered a breach of the UN’s Convention against Torture.

They have an obligation to themselves, their family, their staff and their lender to run a successful restaurant. A large part of that success comes from keeping control of quality throughout the business. We aren’t just talking about the food they serve us. A restaurant experience includes the quality of the linen, the volume of the music and the brightness of both the lights and the staff.

Controlling the experience outside the venue itself is a little trickier. The big players have PR reps just like many other businesses (ever wondered why the same players keep appearing in Epicure?),  develop advertising for print, retain the services of a professional photographer and, more rarely, employ a social media manager.

I can assure you that as much as they might labour over the acidity levels of the buffalo curd in the starter, they spend an equal amount of time agonising over ‘just the right shot’ for use in a full-colour, third-page ad in the weekend lifestyle mag.

So the idea that a self-titled food blogger with the same qualifications and industry experience as the postie, can snap a shot on their smartphone, write a review and post it up to 6,000 people before the end of service is terrifying for these restaurant owners.

As The Age article mentions, some restaurant owners have resorted to banning photography in their restaurants. However, this approach is anathema to the positive PR these venues are so eager to gain through other means. There is really no way to stop someone taking a sneaky shot of the food or sharing their experience online with others. And so the Restaurant and Catering Association has come out recommending that instead of attempting to hold back the tide, restaurant owners accept the food blogger trend instead.

These restaurant entrepreneurs know how to give each diner a great experience in their venue, but are they expected to just sit by with idle-crossed-fingers hoping an amateur reviewer is able to successfully relay that experience to an online audience?

How restaurant owners can benefit from food bloggers:

  • Make it clear food bloggers are welcome: First things first, develop your venues policy for online reviews. Sit down with your senior team and discuss what you are keen to encourage and what you would like to discourage. Put a reduced version of this policy (the bits you encourage) on your website, menus etc. so that customers know that if they wish to take a photo and upload it to social media, they don’t need to try and hide the fact. Consider including a request that in the unlikely event they have a poor experience, they ask to speak to the restaurant manager.
  • Approachable and knowledgable staff: How good are your staff at describing the menu to the non-food expert? Can they easily relay the provenance of ingredients and the aspirations of the kitchen and menu? I think we all know of waiters who are snobby and only have time for customers with food and wine pedigree. Either get these ones onboard or set them free.
  • Staff with knowledge of photography: Consider training the staff in basic food photography. Imagine if your staff could suggest to a patron to take a photo from down low instead of from above, whilst quickly removing the not-so-photogenic half-eaten bread roll out of shot? There are some great online short-courses around that your front-of-house team could complete after-hours.
  • Lighting: Sure, you might have put a lot of effort into giving your restaurant the feel of a roman bordello. But low lighting = bad photography. Especially when the blogger is photographing your masterpiece with a 5 megapixel phone camera. When catching someone about to take a shot of the food, could your staff invite them to a special section of the restaurant that always has good light?
  • Take-away media: One key frustration of restaurant owners is food bloggers who get it wrong. Not just terrible photos, but an incorrect description of the dish (that was pork not chicken by the way). Why not develop a resources pack and place it on a branded thumb-stick to help the reviewer get it right. This could consist of professional photos (with watermark), an explanation of the menu, the history of the venue and a background into the key kitchen team.
  • In-house social media:  There are a number of tools available that can help you monitor mentions of your venue online. Put a process in place for regularly checking mentions of your restaurant so that you have the opportunity to respond to criticism quickly and politely. When there is mis-information, point people in the right direction. And when the good stuff happens, promote it far and wide! Online conversations are going to happen, it’s your choice as to whether you let them happen without you or participate and influence the outcome.

For Chefs and restaurant owners it’s a brave new world of customers with the power to make or break their business. Word-of-mouth used to mean half-a-dozen people sharing a good or bad experience, now these same people have an average of 130 friends on Facebook  alone – and food bloggers who have actively been building an audience, a whole lot more. For restaurant owners this could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on on whether they decide to ignore the issue, and hope it goes away, or actively be involved for the benefit of the business.

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