Thoughts on Blogging and Photography in the Restaurant Sphere

Two years ago, when I started this blog, I never thought I would have to defend what I chose to cover. At some point, the majority of my posts became food-related, and I embraced this topic, developing various streams of content, including cooking trials, restaurant reviews, and a weekly roundup of culinary stories.

Last month, an awkward run-in with the manager at 100 Bar and Kitchen led me to further examine my role as a blogger and disseminator of information and opinions.

To recap what happened: Mack was taking photos of the interior of 100 when Dean, the manager of the resto-pub, stopped him. In Mack’s words:

“He then told me that I couldn’t just take photos without getting permission first. When I asked him why, he stumbled a bit and then said he had no way of knowing whether I was from a competitor or not. He asked what the photos were for, and I said a review on a blog. That seemed to confuse him, and he asked again. I gave him the URL for Sharon’s blog, and sensing that it wasn’t going anywhere, asked him for a card and promised to send him the link.”

Mack’s post on some being afraid of social media got me thinking about how bloggers are viewed in a city like Edmonton when compared with mainstream media. Understandably, a restaurant can be put on the map with a favourable Journal review (Sebastian Lysz said Devlin’s was packed the same night after a positive review), but few restaurants consider the effect of a positive comment in the social media sphere. Perhaps restauranteurs aren’t aware of this relatively new movement, but I think it is their responsibility to find out what other sources of information are out there, and join the conversation.

Earlier this year, restaurant giant Jean-Georges Vongerichten responded on his personal blog to an unfavourable review he received in the New York Times. While some may read his retort as sour grapes, I think his blog is the perfect medium to express his inspiration for the restaurant, and defend some of the choices he made. Of course, while I doubt someone of Vongerichten’s stature would respond in kind to every negative review he may receive in the blogosphere, I think his example proves that some restauranteurs are beginning to understand the potential of the web.

For the record, Mack e-mailed both my review and his social media post to Dean at 100 shortly after they were written…and we haven’t yet heard back. While we didn’t expect to be invited back for a complimentary meal, a cursory acknowledgement of our concerns would have been appreciated.

In food-forward cities like New York, restaurant news doesn’t break in mainstream media. Instead, blogs like Eater and Serious Eats cover restaurant openings and closings, and of course, post timely reviews. In Edmonton, contributors on Connect2Edmonton, Chowhound and Yelp forums keep each other informed on things that are happening around the city. A recent article in the NYT quoted a manager of a San Francisco restaurant that “sponsors” reviews on Yelp as saying, “Feedback is good when you’re in the customer satisfaction business. If you don’t evolve in this marketplace, you go extinct.”

To blog or not to blog?

While I am not arrogant enough to think of my blog as a be all, end all publicity vehicle for restaurants, for those that do not have a web presence, I think that it is reasonable to say that a review, particularly for smaller, independent eateries, can link potential customers with businesses. I can’t tell you how many search hits I receive for new restaurants that I have simply mentioned in passing in my weekly “Food Notes” posts. Some of these establishments do not have websites (and yes, I understand that the day-to-day demands of running a restaurant are not small), but even a skeleton page with a contact number, hours, and a PDF copy of the menu would suffice for most people.

On the issue of fairness, while papers like the NYT have huge budgets for their food sections (and a policy reflective of both fairness and deep pockets in sending reviewers for at least three meals), multiple visits for the average person would be next to impossible – not only would it be time consuming, but incredibly expensive. I will admit to having something of a personal code of ethics when I review restaurants though – I will qualify any pre-determined bias, including a discounted meal; always pay for my own food; and in an effort to remain objective, refrain from writing about chefs and their food after I have met them.

Andree Lau, the Calgary-based author of Are You Gonna Eat That?, also has her own personal philosophy when it comes to what to write. “When I first started blogging,” she said via e-mail, “I wanted to highlight positive experiences. I figured mediocre visits weren’t worth wasting people’s time with, but now that I’ve been blogging for a while, I’m considering adding more write-ups about repeated negative experiences. In general, I don’t think it’s fair to write a negative entry based on one visit.”

For most restaurants, that kind of candid critique would be difficult to obtain – how many people actually fill out comment cards? Cindy Lazarenko, chef and owner of Culina Highlands, welcomes honest feedback, and understands that the typical “Yes, it’s great” response that servers receive when checking on diners in her restaurant isn’t likely an accurate barometer of their experience. “I want feedback,” she says. “It’s the only way you’re going to learn and grow and get better, but not if it’s done in a negative way. The people here – myself and my husband – put everything into this [restaurant] and it’s coming from a good place, so it’s really hard when you get that negative feedback.”

While I can’t guarantee that the blogosphere will be free of biased, cutthroat feedback, my view is that a restaurant should periodically “check in” with what their customers are saying, good or bad. In the event that improvements need to be made, staff could begin a dialogue with patrons for what changes they would like to see: a virtual focus group, to be harnessed free of charge.

Picture this?

For me, blogging and photography go hand in hand. Often, in mainstream media (and even for the paper I contribute to), only one shot – of a dish, the chef, or the interior – is ever published. What I always longed for – and what blogs gave me – was a visual feel for the establishment, even before I ever set foot in the place. Some large publications have, to their credit, recognized this hunger and have developed multimedia components in an effort to provide information alongside visual aids (this is a recent example from the NYT), but such endeavours are few and far between for most publications.

Over the past two years, my personal approach to photography has evolved. There was a time where I indiscriminately used flash and a time that I posted sweeping shots of restaurant interiors filled with fellow diners – without much thought. Now, I carry a small three-inch tripod with me at all times, in order to maximize what light is available in the room, and I refrain from uploading pictures that include other patrons. I have taken interior shots for my own use when blogging about an experience, but only because I’m not the type to take notes during a meal.

One blogger suggested that permission should be acquired prior to taking photos on a restaurant’s private property. On that, I disagree, because such an act is tantamount to announcing one’s presence and intention. While I wouldn’t mind notifying restaurants of my review after the fact, I wouldn’t want staff to potentially modify their service in any way simply because a critique is in order. Liane Faulder agrees, and Ruth Reichl, formerly a NYT restaurant critic, practically made a career out of disguising herself (and wrote a bestselling memoir about her experience), precisely to avoid the circus that would arise out of recognition.

For restaurants like 100 who may have an official policy against personal photography, I would invite them to post it on the door of their establishment. In June, Chef David Chang banned food photography at his high-profile New York eatery Momofuku Ko – so diners are given the choice to either lose their cameras or their coveted reservation.

On the other side, some chefs welcome the publicity and recognition of their work. For example, Sebastian Lysz is personally “flattered” when people want to photograph his food. And when it comes down to dishes, I have to agree with Lau’s assessment: “I don’t ask permission to take shots of my own food, which I consider to be a product that I have paid for and am free to do with what I please.”

As a blogger, it is in my best interest to ensure that restaurants are well-equipped to look for, and respond to reviews. Much like Lazarenko, I welcome feedback. So though I will continue blogging without looking back, I hope that local eateries begin to look forward, and join in on the conversation.