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1
July
2008

Reviewer vs. Reviewee

I started as a reader.

When I wanted to find a place to have dessert I would look online and read the reviews. I compared star ratings, weighed the best and worst comments, and made my decision. Once I ate at a few places and began to learn more I felt compelled to share my thoughts. I became a blogger and started Lovescool, where I dutifully brought my camera around town and tried to tell the world about fun desserts that I found.

After writing as a blogger for a few months, I took a professional writing position at Chocolatier magazine, where my words were subject to editorial review and the permanence of print. Someone else took the pictures, and I took advantage of the perks that companies dish out when they want to be reviewed. After each experience as a dessert reader, blogger and reporter, my interest in the field grew and I felt like I could offer something more. Finally, I jumped the fence and switched from press member to shop owner.

As a chef and owner, I am now subject to the same praise, and criticism, that I dished out. This reversal of roles has given me unique insight into how the whole press system works. Sometimes I find it funny, like when a reviewer tries to sneak in under the radar but we know exactly who they are. Other times it is frustrating, like when a reviewer is in a bad mood or the facts are reported incorrectly. Most of all I find the press to be very interesting. The harshest critic of my store will always be me, so I take every review as an opportunity to see the way the world is interpreting the messages I am trying to send.

From my experience, there are two types of reviewers. Bloggers with their own website, and official members of the press (I’ll call them “reporters”) who work for an established news agency. I believe both approach the review process from completely different angles, even though they have the same goal of sharing information. Bloggers go in for the details, while reporters focus on trends and the story behind a place.

I can spot a blogger at Amai from a mile away, and I love it. They usually come in alone, order at least 4 different things, then set everything up on a table and take pictures before trying a bite of each one. I do the same thing so I completely understand. You want to give everything a chance and find the “specialty” of the house, but you may only be able to visit once so you have to try a lot.

Even though I understand how it works, my alter ego as a chef and owner makes me want to say “STOP! This is not the way things are meant to be enjoyed!” For example, our Earl Grey scone was not meant to be eaten at the same time as a lychee brownie, chai cookie, chestnut cake and a vanilla bean lemonade. (I’ve seen someone do this in one sitting.) The store was also meant to be a place for relaxation or meeting with friends, and focusing the camera on a small detail of the food or display case misses the overall experience. When a blogger is finished eating, they will often leave without saying anything and I will see a posting online later in the week. A few times, usually if they know I am also a blogger, they will introduce themselves and talk about what they liked. They rarely ask questions.

Reporters usually call ahead and ask questions over the phone. If they like what they hear, they might request samples for a photo shoot or send a photographer over. They give me a chance to tell my story and answer questions about Amai directly, but they might not try anything. This is why many people trust the reviews of bloggers more than reporters, but rely on reporters for the history and big picture of a place. Reporters are also able to reach such a large audience that it tends to have a bigger impact than a blogger. Every time we are in the New York Times, even if it is a tiny mention, we see a direct impact on sales. Blogs can lead to a core set of strong supporters, but it takes a lot longer to see the effect on sales.

Many restaurateurs get upset with bloggers and embrace reporters. I’m not exactly sure why, but it may be a misconception that bloggers are amateurs and get the facts wrong. I don’t think this is true, and even if it was, it misses the point of a review. From my experience with Amai, mistakes have been made equally between bloggers, commenters and experienced press members. Some incorrect statements that have been printed by all forms of media are:

  • We don’t use loose leaf tea for our green tea (we only serve loose leaf tea, green tea included)
  • We don’t have iced coffee (we do in the summer, not in the winter)
  • The Chai Almond cookies are leaf-shaped (they are cut like a flower)
  • The green tea cupcake is made with chocolate (the cake and the buttercream are made with matcha, no chocolate)
  • The company is based based in Brooklyn (we are on 3rd Avenue in Manhattan)

Overall these are small things, but they have led to hundreds of questions and calls to the store. Bloggers and reporters could all do a bit more fact checking, but when it is all said and done, even incorrect press is good press. As long as the tone of the article is positive, it will benefit the store. I’m still thrilled when someone says they love our “Green Bean” muffin (it’s Green Tea with Red Bean, but ok) because we have made them happy. Details are secondary in most cases.

Seeing both sides of this picture has made me less inclined to bring my camera and take pictures when I eat. I’d rather take the whole experience in and tell my friends about it later. This is great for capturing the spirit of a place, but makes me a terrible blogger now since I can’t remember many details without taking pictures or notes all of the time. I also give a place a few chances before judging. It is very easy to have a bad day, or a bad employee, ruin something that is usually very good. More than anything, it has made me appreciate the effort that every chef and store owner, no matter how good or bad we think they are, puts into everything. That alone is worth a million reviews. Mr. Anton Ego said it best in Ratatouille..

“In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.”



27 COMMENTS SO FAR...

sam says on July 1st, 2008 at 10:09 pm:

This is a brilliant commentary on the different approaches to reviewing from different mediums. Thank you for sharing your perceptions on this subject.

keiko says on July 2nd, 2008 at 5:34 am:

Great write-up Kelli – thank you for sharing your thoughts and I’m glad to see you and Amai ‘evolving’ through Lovescool. I must try all the new things next time I’m there, so I guess I have to come every day to enjoy each sweet properly ;) Hi to Andrew and everyone. kxx

anita says on July 2nd, 2008 at 8:29 am:

It’s interesting to hear about this from the other side of the counter, especially from someone who was a blogger/reviewer before ‘switching sides’. We read so much about how reviewees dislike bloggers, but I think they would loosen up a lot more if they understood the constraints we’re working under, like you do.

One of the reasons I don’t ask a lot of questions when I write a review (which I do so rarely now, because they’re controversy-magnets) is that few restaurateurs treat bloggers with respect. If I know they’re actively interested in what’s going on in the blog world, I am a little more bold, but I still never march in and announce my presence, and rarely call ahead.

I worry that they’ll think I am angling for a freebie, or trying to let them know how important I think I am, when (in their eyes) I’m “just some little blogger”. I never want to feel like I am sneaking around, but it’s a hard balance.

Karen says on July 2nd, 2008 at 8:42 am:

It’s interesting how you say this… I had recently read an article in the NY Times about how restaurant owners don’t necessarily like bloggers (mostly about taking photos and annoying other guests). If I go to a new place, I usually have a camera on me, but I don’t necessarily take a photo. And funny enough, I have never actually posted any pictures of Amai on my own blog, or even a full length review.

Kelli says on July 2nd, 2008 at 9:05 am:

There is so much to say on this topic! I should have talked about photos more in my post. I remember thinking that there must be some secret reason I didn’t understand that made owners not allow pictures. As far as I can tell now, I see none. I always allow pictures to be taken in Amai. I actually encourage it! Maybe an owner is worried about people copying their creation, but I believe that is not something you can control. If someone wants to copy you they’ll do it eventually, pictures allowed or not. As for disrupting other customers, this may be true in some cases, but blogging is not new. People in a restaurant or store can guess what the person is doing. A blogger (or any food fan, really) has to be careful not to disrupt anyone else, and they usually are.

Bloggers do have to approach reviews differently than the press. I would think it’s a little strange if a blogger called me ahead of time like a reporter from the Times. Ideally, I think it’s best to go in, get a sense of the place, and go from there. Definitely ask for the owner and introduce yourself. It’s nice to know who’s in your store and what they think. If they think you’re just “a little blogger” well I think they’re “a little out of touch”! Blogging is just a new form of word of mouth advertising and customer referrals, and it’s a lot more efficient that relying on in-person conversations to spread the word.

One last thought about “freebies”. Don’t expect or ask for anything. The pros don’t, and neither should bloggers.

Wandering Chopsticks says on July 2nd, 2008 at 10:57 am:

Thanks Kelli!

I found it very interesting to hear it from an owner’s perspective. If I lived in NYC, I’d visit your shop just to see what it’s like after reading this. :)

Personally, I don’t visit places only once and order a bunch of things just to have the photos for a blog post. My posts are usually based on several visits. I just go out to eat as I normally would with other people and take a quick picture before we dig in. It’s about the whole experience, enjoying the food with friends.

If I like a place in particular, or it’s obvious the owner is there, I chat with them to include more info in my post. But otherwise, I approach blogging like any other customer. They often don’t know or care about other information, they’re just there for the food. And if the food is good, I encourage my friends and readers to visit. It’s as simple as that. I love sharing good eats, not angling for freebies, or trying to be conspicuous.

Lisa says on July 2nd, 2008 at 1:05 pm:

This is a very interesting and informative post. Thanks for your views!

FJK says on July 2nd, 2008 at 2:44 pm:

Thanks for a wonderful post.

Having been a reporter, editor, public relations professional and now a blogger, I appreciate all the different angles capturing one’s experience to share with others entails.

Personally, I don’t do restaurant and resource reviews on my blog — I only share what I like and what my experience was. I think to do a true review you need to go more times, try more things and lose the personal perspective. I don’t usually have the time or inclination to that so I try to be a visual and narrative conduit to share my experience with others.

I look forward to visiting your shop when I’m in NYC next.

crabbycook says on July 2nd, 2008 at 4:05 pm:

Well, if I saw someone eating a scone, a brownie, a cookie, a piece of cake and a lemonade in one sitting, the first word to my mind would be glutton, not blogger. But that’s just me.

What’s most interesting about your post is the perception of what the three groups believe their public wants. The journalist worries about trends and the people taking advangtage of them. The blogger worries about whether the food is any good. The owner is concerned not just about the tastes, but also the perception and experience their customers have.

All three want their product to be consumed but for differing reasons and sometimes by very different audiences.

Fascinating post. Thanks.

Kelli says on July 2nd, 2008 at 4:19 pm:

Thanks for your feedback everyone. I wasn’t sure how this post would be received, but I have been thinking about it for awhile so I thought I’d share my thoughts. I’m glad many of you can relate. Thanks for adding to the points too – there is a lot more to say on this topic and many different perspectives to be shared.

Crabbycook – I agree. Each group serves a different need. We need them all!

Danny says on July 3rd, 2008 at 10:57 am:

It is so refreshing to hear this perspective from a store owner. Too many times we hear restaurateurs who seem to be stuck in the 20th century. Also, it is interesting to hear you talk about the difference between print journalism and a typical blogger. I think for most of us, the idea was born out of the desire to share an experience and less about fact-checking. And your note about introducing oneself to the owner.. that’s something I might have to try next time. Once I was at a Brooklyn restaurant and one of the owners came up to me and I just froze… haha. Anyway, the cupcakes at Amai are pretty awesome. Keep up the good work!

David says on July 3rd, 2008 at 12:07 pm:

I was recently in a 3-star restaurant and the folks at the next table insisted on having the waiter stop what they were doing, mid motion, while they composed and took their photos. Of each and every single course. It was distracting to us, as well as the other diners, and as anyone who works in the food business knows, interfered with the smooth flow of service, which is what that restaurant is striving to achieve and why people go there.

If I’m going to take a picture, I pull out my camera, take a couple of shots, then put it away. I try to get a shot quickly and as unobtrusively as possible.

There’s a trend in travel called ‘sustainable travel’ that we might want to mimic, where you don’t interfere or leave your mark when you go somewhere, and you’re sensitive to your surroundings…like understanding that Amai isn’t about overindulging, but has a different sensibility. If folks don’t get that, they’re missing out on an important part of the experience that no photo can match.

ChuckEats says on July 3rd, 2008 at 4:33 pm:

This is a refreshing change of pace from the usual confrontational nonsense. I do want to pick up on one point – your intended experience. I think, yes, as a business owner, you should try to create an experience; but, just like an author, you have to let it go. Everyone has a different idea of what makes the perfect experience for them. For me, it’s taking pics of my meals; it elevates the experience for me (now and later.)

Paul. says on July 3rd, 2008 at 5:41 pm:

What a balanced perspective on reporters, bloggers and restauranteurs,Kelli. (Some of those Boston chefs in last week’s Chowhound dust-up could do well from reading this.)

A little off-topic, but regarding your musing about the benefits of not allowing photos, I’m not sure about restaurants, but I was once involved in a specialty food store where we finally had to impose such a rule. Our store had many distinctive visual design elements, all created in-house. So we took personal pride when visitors flattered us by asking to take photographs. (Although the rules may be different for a restaurant, it’s my humble opinion that it’s only polite to ask first.)

That flattery turned to dismay when a Customer showed us a Japanese Trrade report with photos of our store (without creditting us) and a UK chain was established which was almost an exact knock-off of us. Around the same time, we noticed photographers focusing in on the labels of specific products (such as yours, Kelli) and discovered those pictures were quick notes so that our competitors could track down the unique products we had worked so hard to source. We then created our “No Photography” rule and took solace in the fact the “look” of our store was just a small piece of our experience and that we could find and develop relationships with new vendors without having to copy our competitors.

I have to salute David’s suggestion of a “no footprint” (my camper friends’ term) visit. That’s something I strive for, myself. Otherwise we subject ourselves to what I call the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle of Reviewing (The presence of the reviewer influences the outcome); I think they used to call it The Bryan Miller Effect.

Kelli says on July 3rd, 2008 at 7:30 pm:

I can’t believe (well, actually, I can) that someone would stop the flow of service and interrupt others just to get a picture. I think it’s a shame, even if it made their day. It’s a balance in any public space – enjoying your time while not ruining it for others. I like the “no footprint” idea, but I think of it more like a doctor’s credo. “Do no harm”.

Paul- Your story is really interesting. What a shame. I’m really glad to hear about your experience and it makes me understand more about why a no photo policy can be justified. I’m sorry that happened to you and your hard work was taken advantage of.

I actually spent a long time talking about this with a customer of mine once. He was in the fashion industry, and felt strongly that pictures and access to designs led to cheap copies, and never gave the original creator proper credit. I can see how it does happen. I’ve already seen it a little bit myself. Maybe I’m still being naive, but I like to think that in the end the truly creative people will get the rewards they deserve, and the copiers will meet their demise. It just forces the creator to keep on evolving and staying ahead of the copy game. It’s tough.

Laurie says on July 3rd, 2008 at 11:06 pm:

As usual, Kelli, I find you extremely insightful & beyond dedicated to the work you do & the love you have for your chosen profession. The level of depth & the creativity you exhibit is awe inspiring. The way you expressed yourself in this post is worthy of another career in journalism…in your spare time, should you ever have any!

crabbycook says on July 4th, 2008 at 7:46 am:

I’ve never understood people taking photos of their meals in restaurants. It’s bad enough I eat luke warm food at home because I’m taking pics for my blog posts, but to go out and treat my dinner like a photo shoot just seems idiotic.

I’ve never told a restaurateur or business owner that I’m a blogger. First,I don’t want them thinking I’m some socially inept shut-in furiously pecking away at my keyboard.

Second, I don’t want to risk that their knowing somehow changes my experience. I want the same food/service experience that everyone else is having. I don’t want them doing anything different for me and I don’t want the burden of wondering if things are being done differently (even though in all likelihood they aren’t).

No, I just want to have my experience and go quietly on my way. If it’s worthy of blogging about I will.

Franziska says on July 4th, 2008 at 10:57 am:

I would never ask a waiter to stop what they do just so that I could take a picture. I order my food, a waiter brings it to the table, I wait until he is gone, then I take my pictures, then I eat it and later on I blog about it. If I want to take a picture of food that is on display I usually ask the shop owner or the restaurant owner. I have never come across someone who wouldn’t let me take a picture. I usually tell them why I want to take a picture (it looks so delicious, it looks very unusual, I have never seen anything like this, etc. etc.) As for restaurateurs being afraid someone might copy their food creation… well, copying is a form of flattery and it still comes down to taste. You can copy the look as much as you want, if you don’t get the recipe right it ain’t the same!

Sharon says on July 4th, 2008 at 6:54 pm:

I have enjoyed lovescool.com for quite awhile now. It is really the first “food blog” that I read and it opened up a whole new world for me on the subject of NYC bakeries.
I particularly enjoyed the insight provided in this entry.
I have been to Amai once (so far!) and tried one item. A trip to
enjoy another item is on the calendar and I’m hoping I hit the right day for a sweet potato treat!

gerald hobby says on July 5th, 2008 at 1:11 am:

Need help,

Just open a new restaurant. (14 weeks old) A food reporter for the st. pete times slamed us bad. I am a new owner and tell you that I am not sure what to do. I try to touch every table and read the comment cards. 95 percent of the response is that the food is great. We have a high rate of repeat business. The article seemed to have a negative tone from the start. Your thoughts or advise.

Thank you,

Gerald Hobby
Fish Tail Willys Ocean Grill

Jessica "Su Good Sweets" says on July 5th, 2008 at 11:57 am:

You tackled a tough topic with eloquence. I’m surprised that reporters call ahead of time though. Don’t critics come in unannounced? I’m glad that my work isn’t subjected to the same scrutiny. I would take it personally.

Kelli Bernard says on July 5th, 2008 at 12:39 pm:

Gerald – I don’t think one bad review will ruin a place, so I wouldn’t worry about it in particular. It’s the mix of reviews and customer word of mouth that adds up. Online readers are savvy – they’ll look at everything for the big picture. I did a quick search of your place and couldn’t find the article you mentioned in the St. Petersburgh Times, but I did find other comments/reviews (both good and bad), so I would pay more attention to that. Good luck!

Jessica – You’re right, critics don’t call ahead, but reporters generally do.

JSL@Palate says on July 7th, 2008 at 1:24 am:

Great piece, Kelli, and what great successes!

As a freelance journalist and blogger, I can relate to both sides of the fence. If I’m writing for an editor, it’s all about the angle or relevance and very little about the food itself. If I’m writing as a blogger, I find it a much harder gig because bloggers, like Trekkies, really know their stuff! BTW, if I’m reviewing a restaurant, I call after I’ve visited to check my facts. Never before. Thanks again for your article.

Jen

steamy kitchen says on July 7th, 2008 at 1:51 pm:

I don’t think I could ever review restaurants! As both a blogger and reporter, I love telling the story, but restaurant reviewing is just too much stress for me!

Chez US says on July 14th, 2008 at 4:54 pm:

Great bite here! I am a blogger who also writes reviews every so often. Not professional but everyday. I do always let the restaurant know after I have dined there, to double check the facts and to let them know about the review. I have always received very positive feedback when doing so!

jody flood says on July 16th, 2008 at 11:08 am:

Thanks for the insightful post…I must try to remember how I may be perceived in any situation – as I’m both blogger and company owner…as well as a background in media!!
jody

tracie broom says on July 24th, 2008 at 3:04 pm:

brills!



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ABOUT LOVESCOOL

Lovescool is the documentation of a journey to discover what sweet things are out there, why people love them so much, and perhaps what it takes to start something new.

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AMAI TEA & BAKE HOUSE

An interest, that turned into a blog, that turned into a career. Kelli Bernard is now the owner and baker of Amai Tea & Bake House.

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