After some unsightly online run-ins over the past year, it's fair to say chefs treat bloggers with some caution. But dealt with delicately, bloggers can offer significant assistance to the canny restaurateur. Tom Vaughan explains
In the world of dumb ideas, it must be up there with the worst: a $100 card, launched by an entrepreneur in America, that lets restaurateurs know the diner is potentially going to write an online review, presumably in a bid to get better service and freebies. It's everything that's bad about blogging: an arrogant, threatening gesture designed to draw attention to oneself.
But before stories like this push you onto the anti-blogger bandwagon, remember that the headline-grabbing acts of a few jumped-up wannabe critics is just a small part of it. Look past the attention seekers and charlatans and there are real benefits to be had by working with the blogosphere rather than against it.
Down the phone, chef Chris Galvin sucks his teeth and answers in typically languid style: "You know, it's strange times we're living in. Things move in nanoseconds now and you have to keep up or get left behind." We're on the topic of blogs and chefs: a subject which, for various ugly reasons, has burst into the national press over the past year. And Galvin is right; things move quickly and whether you like them or loathe them, bloggers have rapidly become an accepted part of the restaurant landscape.
The world of published reviews has changed dramatically with the rise of social media, agrees Maureen Mills, owner of PR agency Network London: "Twitter, blogs, social media; it's new to all of us. Two years ago we wouldn't have even been having this conversation," she says. These days she keeps a list of 200-plus online reviewers, and the numbers grow almost daily.
The result of the rise of blogs has been an exponential rise in the number of published reviews. "Once upon a time all chefs had to worry about was the Michelin Guide, the Good Food Guide, the AA and a small handful of food critics," says Galvin. "Now everyone and their wife is a critic, and any criticism is painful; it's like a stiletto in your heart."
Negative reviews The growth in the number of online reviews naturally means an increase in negative ones. In a few notable scenarios, this has all got too much for chefs. Claude Bosi, chef-patron of London's two-Michelin-starred Hibiscus restaurant, was embroiled in one such argument with a blogger on Twitter last year, the ashes of which do not need raking over again. Suffice to say, the wounds won't heal, and when contacted for this article Bosi was very reticent on the subject: "I have nothing to say on it. I'm not the best with the bloggers. I did an interview for a magazine yesterday and the first thing they asked me about was this."
That a chef of such status should be dragged into a public argument shows the emotive force behind any review, especially when there is no quality control and the results can be so permanent. "There are no editors, no subs, no fact checkers on these blogs," says Mills. "And once it's out there it's out there and errors are truths as far as the readership is concerned."
However, if you want to keep your sanity, it's essential to remember exactly who it is writing the review, and just how small their readership might be. Adrian Jones is a freelance chef who had a rather unsavoury incident with a blogger while head chef at the Salisbury Tavern in London's Fulham five years ago.
However, he hasn't let it tarnish his view of bloggers in general: "On the whole they are great - especially if they have got their finger on the pulse and know what they are talking about. But when you've got some jumped up little fart writing on food because he's eaten in a few restaurants it's a bit like me getting into construction because I've worked in a few buildings over the years. I would never write about something I don't know about and more importantly no-one would care."
The glory of the internet is that anyone can voice an opinion, but the vast majority of people don't want to listen to just anyone's opinion. "For some restaurant openings, it seems every person with a computer writes to us trying to get in," says Mills. "But there are two kinds of bloggers - the young upstarts and the professionals - and most readers know this."
Respected bloggers Chris Galvin's wife Sara keeps an eye on the social media side of the business, and says that there are perhaps six or seven bloggers whose opinions she respects - a number Mills agrees with. If you come across a bad review of your restaurant, the first thing to do is find out who they are and just what their knowledge and influence is. "Look at the standard of their work and past reviews and find out how many followers they have on Twitter," says Jo Barnes, co-founder of London-based PR agency Sauce Communications.
That's not to say that some complaints are more important than others - rather it might be the case that the writer in question might not be reflective of usual clientele or is even being sensationalist in order to draw attention to his or her blog.
Michael Caines, chef-patron of two-Michelin-starred Gidleigh Park in Devon, was behind one of the most gracious responses to a bad online review last year when he invited the authors in question to return and have him cook for them, an offer that was never taken up. "I dealt with it in the same way as I would every complaint - respectfully," he says. "Often these bloggers want media attention and by rising to a complaint you fuel the fire. The great thing about the internet is that it gives you the ability to reply. But you've got to do it in a constructive and mature way."
The arguments ensuing from bad reviews might soak up the headlines but bloggers and social media can be a real force for good, especially in the early days of businesses. "Nothing gets a restaurant started these days like a good response from online blogs," says Barnes. One trick she deploys to harness bloggers' power is to invite them in for an experience. Countless - not all, but countless - are after freebies. Rather than hit the bottom line with a load of complimentary meals, she invites them in for a cocktail masterclass or event to get them purring about the feel and hospitality of a client.
Barnes also tells the story of a savvy London restaurateur who invited respected bloggers in for the soft opening of his site but in exchange asked them not to write about it. Empowered by being invited into the circle, they were made to feel special. Predictably when they eventually did write about it, they had only good things to say.
Feedback is also vital to any restaurateur, and it's worth noting what any negative reviews mention consistently. "We make sure we take any consistent critiques and look and work at them," says Galvin. "And nowadays there are bloggers out there who have a real audience and good opinions and it's worth listening to them."
So long as there are reviews, there will be bad reviews. But instead of asking yourself what damage the blogging world might do your business, ask yourself what assistance it can bring. Yes, some bloggers can be sensationalist and some can show a glaring lack of knowledge - a stupid few might even flash waste-of-money cards - but many are well respected, have huge audiences and can be a huge help to launching and maintaining a restaurant. "And like it or not," says Barnes. "They are here to stay."
Five rules for dealing with bloggers
Like it or not, bloggers are here to stay. The accusation that some are sensationalist and after publicity for their blogs might be true, but many are very well respected and widely read. Either way, bloggers are going nowhere - so face up to the fact that you can either be working against them or working with them. Keep your cool Whereas once upon a time, a bad review resulted in a furious mood and perhaps even a heated, off-the-record call to the newspaper critic in question, an online reply is in the public domain and available to millions. "Keep your cool," says Jo Barnes. "If you get a bad review take it on the chin. Try and focus on the constructive points." Maureen Mills agrees: "Read it, absorb it, assess it for any value and carry on what you â¨are doing."
Read up "If you look on Twitter, you'll find that a lot of these bloggers are just talking to each other," says Mills. In a sea of wannabe critics, only a handful have real importance. Whether it is in response to a bad review or whether scouting for useful contacts, do your reading. "See where the blogger has been, see their patter and writing style, gauge whether or not they might understand the type of restaurant you are, assess whether they â¨are knowledgeable and whether â¨their audience is the target audience for your restaurant," â¨she advises
Comping it up Were bloggers just turning up, paying for a meal and reviewing, it would be one thing. However, when they have made themselves known to the establishment and receive complimentary courses as a result, matters becomeï¿½ more complicated and it becomes easy to see why chefs might react when this generosity is met with a bad review. "For most restaurants we look after we have a consistent policy - we don't give out freebies to bloggers," says Barnes. "However, if you do comp, don't expect anything in return."
Realise the benefits "Bloggers have effectively launched some restaurants," says Barnes, talking of the buzz that can come from a good response on social media. If you can build up a list of bloggers whose opinion you respect and whose audience you think is suitable to your restaurant, they can be a great help if they visit - not only by potentially spreading good word of mouth but by giving you a fresh set of eyes with which to look at your operation.
The chef on on bloggers
Adrian Jones, freelance chef
"I remember it like it was yesterday," says chef Adrian Jones of the time he was bitten by a blogger. He was running the kitchen of the Salisbury Tavern in Fulham, west London, and his manager had invited in a blogger she'd researched on the internet.
"He kept mentioning that he offered a consultancy and that we apparently had big problems. When it came to paying the bill, he said either we could give him a free meal and he'd write an alright review, or he could pay the bill and who knows what he'd write. I told my manager: 'I don't care what he says, make him pay'.
"If he'd said he didn't like it, that's fine, but to say: 'give me a free meal' - it's disgusting. When we had the likes of AA Gill giving us four stars out of five and Fay Maschler giving us a good review - stuff him!
"However, on the whole, blogging is a great thing - it can be like a fresh pair of eyes looking at your business."
The blogger on chefs
Elizabeth on Food
A perfect example of an erudite, well-fed blogger, Elizabeth Auerbach started her blog, Elizabeth on Food, three years ago, when friends encouraged her to put her knowledge of chefs and food to good use.
"My main focus is the Michelin guide," she explains. "When I travel it is what I always reference. I make a reservation in my own name and always pay the bill - this is very important for my independence to write what I like."
While negative on some points, her fairness and understanding has seen her attract between 500 and 1,000 visitors a day online, while her Twitter followers currently stand just short of 7,000.
As for being overly critical, Auerbach is well aware what is at stake. "For a chef a restaurant is like a child - if you insult it, you insult him. I have the occasional bad meal but I don't like to broadcast it over Twitter and so on - I don't see the point."