The battle between bloggers and restaurateurs
Over a decade ago, when the first food bloggers started sharing their thoughts about their dining experiences in Dubai, the industry was excited about the democratisation of food writing.
“Contemporary bloggers would engage with restaurateurs on a much deeper level, ask every question possible, conduct research prior to their visit, not to mention meet the chef and the front of house teams. In many ways emerging professional bloggers would go about their work akin to how professional journalists would go through the motions of researching and eventually crafting articles,” Farah Sawaf, managing partner at Soul Communications, recalls.
Over the years, however, as the influence of food bloggers and writers has evolved, and as more influencers have joined the fray, frustrated restaurateurs have spoken out about unreasonable demands from some bloggers, while unfavourable reviews have resulted in some very public spats.
For instance, Aegis Hospitality founder Samer Hamadeh told Caterer Middle East last year how a food blogger “threatened” to leave a bad review for Akiba Dori after Hamadeh refused to allow the blogger and six friends to dine for free on a Friday night.
In November 2018, Dubai-based chef Izu Ani banned Foodiva founder and writer Samantha Wood, following a negative review of Gaia posted by a guest writer on the popular website. At the time, Ani said he believed the criticism was personal, following an earlier clash involving Woods’ popular Dine Around Dubai event — a food tour that sees customers pay to be taken to mystery restaurants. Woods responded to Ani’s criticism, citing a number of factual errors in his comments and pointing to a double standard that favoured positive reviews on the site, while negative reviews resulted in banning her.
The cracks are beginning to show as restaurateurs, food writers, and PR consultants struggle to find a balance between promoting an outlet and partnering with the right influencers.
According to Singaporean chef Reif Othman, “food writers are the link between the restaurant and customers”.
But to some extent, part of the problem may come down to semantics: based on feedback from several restaurateurs and chefs, the industry struggles with differentiating between a food blogger and an influencer.
For instance, Hamadeh reveals how following the incident with the anonymous blogger last year, he spoke to several food critics and writers “who opened up about their frustrations with some bloggers giving the rest a bad rep”, adding how “anyone who posts a photo with a caption” is now labelled a blogger.
Wood, who started Foodiva eight years ago, says she has moved away from positioning herself as a food blogger or Foodiva as a food blog, opting to call herself a food writer instead, and Foodiva a restaurant review website.
Food writers that have seen their following organically grow over time are also candid about how they deal with restaurant invitations.
For Naomi D’Souza, who has over 81,000 followers on Instagram, restaurant invitations account for a large part of the content on her account. She says: “When a restaurant invites me for a tasting, I believe they are entitled to do it on their terms as long as it doesn’t cross my boundaries. I will also always ask how many guests I am allowed to bring as I do believe food bloggers, especially the ones doing it for free, have the authority to do so. I would never demand a number way above what’s permitted.
“Food blogging for me is more driven towards passion versus just free food, so for me, it is unacceptable for bloggers to wield their influence in an incorrect way. I was actually shocked when I heard about the recent viral story where a blogger demanded a table for six for her friend’s birthday. I’ve even heard stories where food bloggers demand a carpet to be placed at the foot of the restaurant while it was raining or free Uber rides; it’s quite ridiculous,” she adds.
According to Sawaf, PR managers pay an important role as “gatekeepers” when determining which bloggers would be suitable for an invitation.
She explains: “We believe that unreasonable individuals often present themselves by behaving in an unprofessional manner when initiating the request; or introducing themselves as if they are untouchable by making the restaurant seem to be beneath them i.e. ‘the restaurant ought to be happy I’m even considering visiting’; or requesting the restaurant hosts an unreasonable amount of guests.”
That’s not to say that restaurants haven’t benefited from partnerships with some influencers. Hamadeh reveals how Akiba Dori participated in a Dine Around Dubai event by Foodiva, which resulted in lots of regular customers.
Even when dining invitations are extended to bloggers, restaurateurs say they don’t expect positive reviews in return.
Othman says: “We rarely invite food bloggers to the restaurant and even when we do, we are very selective. My rule of thumb is to not expect a good review. We are not in the business to please food bloggers as it is a service we provide to all our diners and we cook with passion. I value honest opinions about how the dishes are and areas for improvement.”
Hamadeh adds: “We reached out to a few foodies when we first opened as a way for us to get honest feedback on the food. But that was limited to 10 people and they were all brutally honest in their feedback; we would never ask them to write favourable reviews. Plus, it’s always obvious to customers when a review is ridiculously biased, so why play that game?”
For bloggers, it’s important to strike the right balance when it comes to restaurant reviews. D’Souza explains: “I do attend quite a few restaurant openings and dining invitations, however I’m quite picky about the restaurants I choose. Of course, when I’m invited somewhere, the restaurant is always hopeful that the review will be positive, but it is never an expectation or a compulsion. If I had a bad experience, I will post about it but subtly.”
In order to remain objective, D’Souza also tries to keep reviews as factual. She says: “It’s important to keep reviews objective, since not everyone’s tastes are the same. I try my best to keep it as factual as possible. Sometimes when I dislike a dish, I also mention why I didn’t like it. For example, I don’t just say ‘I didn’t like the tiramisu’. Instead, I’ll say ‘The tiramisu wasn’t my favourite, because I prefer it having more cake than cream’. This way, a person who enjoys their tiramisu with more cream than cake will still give it a try.”
Some writers, such as Wood and guest writers for Foodiva maintain their objectivity by declining any invitations in exchange for reviews, and opt to pay for their own meals instead.
So how can restaurants and bloggers maintain their peace, and deal with the reality that both parties need each other?
Othman notes: “As much as restaurateurs have a love-hate relationship with bloggers, we need to read and listen to their feedback. Only then can we take action as to what is lacking in the business. Take everything with a pinch of salt as not all bloggers are good at what they do. Some do it to increase the number of followers, some do it because they are bored.”
According to Wood, reviews on Foodiva act as mystery shopper reports to enable restaurants to make changes to the operation if required. She advises: “Our reviews can identify gaps in a business, which gives the restaurateur the opportunity to rectify and avoid recurrences. I also encourage restaurants to respond to positive and negative reviews in a constructive manner either on the website, or on the social media channels where these were shared – which some embrace more than others.
“With my other PR consultancy hat on, I advise hoteliers and restaurateurs to avoid being reactive, but to be receptive. They should embrace feedback and win food writers back to their restaurant as they spent time writing about them. One negative restaurant review is not going to ruin a business; in fact it will raise the restaurant’s profile. However, the way a restaurateur or chef responds to a negative review is what will help or hinder the restaurant long term.”
D’Souza says it all comes down to managing expectations: “Both parties have to remember that they’re not entitled to anything. Restaurants can hope for a good review, but they shouldn’t demand one. Most bloggers will speak to the restaurant directly in case of a negative experience, so they should also remember to take that criticism constructively. Bloggers, in turn, should try and keep their reviews as fair as possible. Don’t order something you know you don’t like, and then write a bad review about it.
“At the end of the day, it’s mutually beneficial. The restaurant gives the blogger content and the blogger gives them some publicity. Remembering that and maintaining that respect will ensure relationships don’t turn sour.”