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.”