I met S. two years ago and told her I was one of her followers.
She was a popular food blogger in Madrid, with over 16 thousand likes on her Facebook page and over 18 thousand followers in her Instagram account. I soon found out that she also used to write for a Spanish newspaper, before she changed career course and became a full time food blogger and captain of her own restaurant communications company.
It was inevitable then that our conversation steered towards the new digital landscape that aging journalists navigated. Being both chroniclers of cuisine over the years, we exchanged thoughts on the widespread practice in Madrid (and around the world) of food bloggers accepting free meals at restaurants.
“Of course bloggers should eat for free,” she said. “Unlike newspaper journalists, bloggers don’t get paid, they do it for the love of it.”
But I argued, from one semi-retired periodista to another, that accepting free meals breaks the rules of the journalism code of ethics, in particular, “Journalists should refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment… if they compromise journalistic integrity.”
“Yes, but the rules are more relaxed now, and bloggers have a bigger audience. Now journalists follow the bloggers,” she said. “If you are a restaurant owner, you’d be crazy to not use bloggers for the price of a few meals, it’s free advertising and will save you a lot of money!”
Such is true. In 2014, a Singaporean food blogger presented an actual case study of a bistro that enjoyed a 1220% return on marketing investment by using bloggers. Given these phenomenal sales figures, it does make perfect business sense right?
But when does this practice cross the line, and actually harm the ecosystem of the culinary world?
Some time later, I met S’s husband, who was her co-blogger and business partner . He told me that they requested restaurants to also pay for the companions of the bloggers since, in his words, “nobody likes to eat alone.” Again, he believed it was a small price for restaurants to pay for publicity.
For some chefs, this is an awkward situation that even has a name: “blogger blackmail”.
“It really feels like blackmail,” said T., the chef of a small but popular French restaurant in Madrid. He told me that he had been avoiding one popular blogger for weeks because she was insisting on coming over with a photographer, bartering her thousands of followers for free food. T. has been a professional chef for over twenty years, in different cities around the world, and he said that this was never a problem many years ago.
Another chef and former colleague on mine, N., who formerly worked at a Michelin-starred, Ibero-Asian fusion restaurant in Madrid, even clued me in on the South Park episode “You’re not Yelping” that made fun of this breed of blackmailing critics without cred.
My personal take on this heated topic? I do feel like a holier-than-thou Luddite preaching that no food blogger should ever accept freebies. Print journalists are a dying breed after all, and those days when we visited restaurants incognito with a little budget from the paper are long gone and left to nostalgia.
But I believe there is common ground. So here are my humble solutions where I believe both restaurateur and writer can benefit:
- Be transparent. Restaurant owners and chefs can certainly invite bloggers to come in for a taste test, but bloggers should be upfront about this in their articles and say that they had been invited.
- No promises. Invited bloggers should also not promise glowing reviews after being treated to free food. Simply because the situation can easily become sticky and awkward – what if the generous restaurant owner treated you to a 200 euro steak but you thought it tasted like week old cat food? How then will you gain readers’ trust?
- Thou shalt not take advantage of chefs’ generosity. I met a Spanish blogger who was upset that she had to pay for the whole meal, even if 2 dishes and her drinks were courtesy of the restaurant. (I mean, if you owned a MacBook Air and an iPhone, surely you can afford a 14 euro menu del día!)
- Be honest, but do your homework. I know a lot of talented, passionate chefs who naturally feel gutted by a bad review, especially from someone with no experience in the kitchen. Chef and Steward shared his thoughts about this in an old article , saying “Anyone who has worked in the food industry – and I mean in a stand alone restaurant or hotel restaurant – knows that chefs are passionate about food and only respect those who also know about food and what they are talking about. So when you criticize his/her work it needs to be balanced and not done like Fox News,” he wrote. British restaurateur, Michellin starred “first celebrity chef” Marco Pierre White penned in his book White Heat, “If I came to your house for dinner, criticized all your furniture and your wife’s haircut and said all your opinions were stupid, how would you feel?”
As I wind this 825 word-and-counting, “TL,DR” post, it has come to my attention that an old workmate was concerned I would “piss off all the food bloggers” by writing about this topic. I certainly do not think so (heck, my blog is 2 weeks old and known only to a grand total of three people). My only intention is to promote truthfulness in today’s post-truth world. Sure, I may be part of a dying breed, but there are a few things that the old guard can still teach ’em Millennials!