Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Why restaurants need real reviewers

Restaurant reviewers have been known to wear disguises for the sake of going unnoticed. You couldn’t blame them these days for trying to stay incognito while a publisher is within pink-slip range.

It’s obvious that America’s newspapers are going through the sort of dislocation the stagecoach business tried to survive when the railroad came to town. The break-glass emergency response has been to sacrifice senior editorial staffers—typically the most loyal and experienced, and hence the highest paid—in lieu of myrrh, goats or virgins. Most definitely not virgins. The young innocents are the ones who’ve been left in the newsroom because they’re green, cheap and far more obliging than the ink-stained curmudgeons who caught the blade.

Given that situation, reviewers might suspect some cold heart has taped an “Axe Me” sign to their backs. To do the job, they have to wield a certain level of experience and knowledge in constant need of being refreshed. Translation: Senior staffer, paid accordingly, with a decent expense account, compensated for the indulgence of dining out. Any publisher reading that is probably reflexively reaching for an axe right now.

Meanwhile, anyone who’s watched The Food Network figures they could be a reviewer, and many would do it for free. Indeed, many do. It’s routine at small papers for local residents—perhaps one-time reporters on their high school papers—to review local eateries for nothing more than compensation for the meals. They do it for the prestige and meals. Literally, they work for food.

Other sports diners indulge their inner Gael Greene by turning to Yelp, Boorah, personal blogs, Eater, Zagat, message boards, restaurant blog sites, social media, or just about any other post-it-yourself channel for those who fancy themselves citizen-journalists.

You know publishers are looking at those currents and wondering, Do I really need a reviewer? Couldn’t I just somehow tap that stream of commentary for free? Especially since Twitter and those other new media are providing a way for restaurants to market themselves instead of advertising with us? Hell, who needs a review, anyways? Are readers going to buy a subscription for something they could find anywhere for zilch? Where’s that machete…

Then comes a piece of citizen hackery like the posting a week ago on the Los Angeles branch of Eater, one of the top-tier blog sites for scene-conscious restaurant fans. A contributor named Kat Odell heaved considerable raked mud at an L.A. hotspot called The Must, revealing among other things that it was “not adhering to simple food saftey [sic] standards, such as soap, sanitizing and throwing out chicken salad that’s 2 weeks old.”

Citing an unidentified "tipster," she also reported the restaurant was using low-cost distributor-brand cheese but billing it as artisan, and generally ripping off customers by using ingredients inferior to what were cited on the menu.

The problem, as you may have guessed, is that the assertions were never validated or substantiated at all by Odell. Eater initially stuck by her when the bar-restaurant objected, then acknowledged the place had refuted the assertions.

“We ran this tip without contacting the owners of the restaurant, who have since refuted the tip in its entirety,” Eater said in an “update” to Odell’s posting, which is still posted on the site in its entirety. “We apologize to the owners of the restaurant, and our readers, for not investigating our source's claims before airing them.”

Maybe it’ll take some time, but the dining-out public is going to realize it needs professional reviewers who adhere to the professional standards set by a newspaper, magazine or journalistically based website. If you doubt it, check out some of the responses that Eater’s readers posted to Odell’s blog entry.

And publishers are going to learn that consumers value thedependability. It won’t be easy to leverage the appreciation into subscriptions, but media have to get into a mindset of selling information services, not print by the inch. It comes down to authority, quality and dependability, which carries a price.

It’s a lesson that restaurants should encourage the professional media to learn quickly. Because it’s the industry that would really be walloped if the pros are supplanted by an all-volunteer horde.

If you doubt it, consider what the owners of The Must had to say about the experience. And note that the response is provided by the Los Angeles Times.

Extra points--and added impetus for restaurateurs--for perusing what the Times readers had to say about Eater's blunder.

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