The rise of the citizen critic

I wrote this in March 2009 and thought I might as well publish it here…

Jay Rayner used to let foodie friend Simon Majumdar tag along to the restaurants he reviewed. He even allowed Simon to write about the food in his blog. But since Simon’s blog took off, things have changed.

Majumdar, one half of celebrated blog doshermanos.co.uk, explains how bloggers’ influence has rattled newspaper critics’ nerves.

“When I started the blog, I could write about [restaurants] and they didn’t care. But slowly, when they posted their reviews, people emailed us that they were copying the Dos Hermanos review. They now ask me not to write about the restaurant until they’ve written about it.”

The restaurant industry has been knocked sideways by a tide of foodie bloggers, led by success stories like the Majumdar brothers, who publish to committed networks of readers and fellow bloggers. Rayner even voiced fears that bloggers may one day render the newspaper critic’s role redundant.

‘When opinions are freely available all over the web,’ he wrote in July 2008, ‘the newspaper critic is becoming regarded as rather more of a luxury than many publishers feel they can afford.’

Blogs, or ‘weblogs’, were originally such a niche pastime that a term for them was not coined until 1997, three years after the phenomenon began. By 2001, blogging had exploded in popularity: in July 2006, blog search engine technorati.com estimated there were 50 million blogs, with 175,000 new ones created each day.

The first food blogs developed in 2003, led by Clotilde Dusoulier of chocolateandzucchini.com and Pim Techamuanvivit of chezpim.com, who both hooked readers with blends of restaurant reviews, homespun recipes and culinary whimsy.

Where Clotilde and Pim led, others followed. Successful bloggers now carry such weight with customers that the restaurant industry has been forced to react.

“It’s taken a while for blogging to be taken seriously,” admits Jess Bowen, senior account manager at Sauce Communications, a PR company specialising in hospitality. “When I started in PR four years ago the internet was dismissed in the PR and journalism world. Until the last year or so we were quite dismissive of it, but actually it’s become increasingly credible.”

As well as making its mark on the restaurant world, doshermanos.co.uk is having a noticeable effect on consumers.

“We were the first to write about [Italian restaurant] Bocca di Lupo,” says Majumdar. “They liked our review so they linked to it on their website. The last time I went in the manager said they had had x number of people coming in because they read about it on Dos Hermanos.”

However, as the rules of the game have changed, so have the tactics – on both sides. Competitors can launch vendettas online, while restaurant management and PR companies counteract damaging reviews with faked positive ones. Restaurant consultant James Kirby’s client was the victim of a smear campaign.

“Somebody was giving this place really negative reviews,” he says. “They realised it was the same person going on different websites, like a hate campaign. We think it might have been a competitor.”

Majumdar has experienced this tactic, known as ‘schilling’.

“You sometimes get people from the restaurant you review putting a comment [on the blog] saying, ‘What a load of rubbish, I went there and it was fantastic’. One place left ten or fifteen comments that all traced back to the people who owned it.”

Some restaurateurs miss resolving customers’ problems face-to-face. Chef Sat Bains does not appreciate bloggers complaining to potential customers rather than to him.

“We had a couple in who went home and wrote on their blog that they didn’t like the food but didn’t say anything on the night,” he says. “They’d actually said to me it was a fantastic evening! I phoned them up and asked ‘Why didn’t you say anything?’ They told me, ‘Oh, we didn’t want to ruin the night…’.”

Like it or not, citizen food critics – and their blogs – are going from strength to strength. Only time will tell whether two, five or ten years from now, Jay Rayner will be tagging along to meals with Dos Hermanos.

Ones to hit…

www.chezpim.com

Jet-setting foodie Pim tantalises us with her glamorous fine-dining lifestyle and delectable taste. Now a full-time blogger, her first cookbook will be published later this year.

www.davidlebovitz.com

The American food writer and former pastry chef writes his blog from Paris. His posts depict the varied and surprising ways that food collides with everyday life.

www.chocolateandzucchini.com

Parisienne Clotilde Dusoulier invites us into her world – it’s like Amelie for food-lovers. Follow her through food markets, then back to the kitchen, where she creates new dishes for her next cookbook and ponders life and food.

www.doshermanos.co.uk

With over four decades of dining experience between them, these brothers mean business. Always first through the door of new British restaurants, wherever they may open. The elusive Robin rates the posh joints, while the ubiquitous Simon laps up the leftovers.

www.haveforkwilltravel.blogspot.com

J, the self-proclaimed ‘foodie diva’ does indeed travel – anonymously – to eat posh nosh all over London, and further afield. Her ‘fork ratings’ are chatty and to-the-point.

And one to miss…

www.heateatreview.com

These guys don’t travel nearly enough, except to the supermarket to buy the pre-packaged and microwaveable food they review.

And finally…

www.lastappetite.com/how-to-start-a-food-blog

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