Food bloggers: Love them, hate them
Cash for reviews, food lying untouched as free drinks are gulped down… writers and restaurateurs alike join hands to speak about the menace that everyone is too uncomfortable to address
Have you picked where you are dining out tonight? Was it based on an Instagram post or a Tweet from an 'influencer' aka food blogger? You might want to take out 6.18 minutes and watch Sweet Karela, a video uploaded recently by Simrranjit Ghuraa, aka The Hunger Blogger.
With over 64,000 views, the video is a direct attack on what many in the industry see as the menace of food blogging. The video, shot in September, featuring chef Anand Morani of Brewbot and Chef Owner Rakesh Talwar of Spare Kitchen, Tripti Bhatia from Detales Communication among others, discusses the problem of paid and uninformed reviews congesting social media.
Free for all
Ghuraa is a 29-year-old hotelier who owns The Roa Hotel in Ghatkopar West. In 2014, he turned to food blogging and regularly uploads posts both on YouTube (1,269 subscribers) and Instagram (27,800 followers). A second generation hotelier, Ghuraa's posts discuss new dishes in Mumbai's restaurants and his review of their taste and texture. Sweet Karela was something he felt needed to be voiced as a 'few bad eggs were ruining the community's image'. "Two years ago, there were no launch and trial invites. It is only in the past year that the frequency of restaurant invites has increased," he says.
Gaggan Anand, owner and executive chef of Gaggan, Bangkok
Many bloggers, he feels, are in it for the free food. "At a bloggers' table, an aspiring blogger told me 'khana free mein milta hai, daru milti hai, aur restaurants invite bhi karte hai (There's free food, alcohol on the house and the restaurants actually invite us)'. They see blogging as a means of earning pocket money and having fun,"
An active blogger, who operates the Thehoggersblog, with friends Neha Shaw and Suyog Narvekar on Wordpress and Instagram, Amrith Padmanand is also a public relations rofessional who has often handled clients in the hospitality industry. The 23-year-old has witnessed bloggers using a review invite to throw a belated birthday treat. "They will get six friends and order food and drinks in the name of the review," says Padmanand. What pinches is that they won't post about the experience at all.
The new platforms are as much to blame, feel seasoned bloggers. While blogging, when it was all the rage five years ago, required content and an opinion that could have been backed by fact, it's essentially micro-blogging with its instant uploads and hashtags that have brought down the quality of food blogging in recent times.
Roxanne Bamboat, The Tiny Taster
Roxanne Bamboat, who goes by the name The Tiny Taster and posts on her website, Instagram and Snapchat, says that in 2012 when she started writing on the food scene in Mumbai, the other writers on the scene were Kalyan Karmakar (Finely Chopped) and Nikhil Merchant (Nochalant Gourmand). "Now, the micro bloggers are around 18 to 24 years old. They are treated as celebrities."
Game of numbers
Bamboat, who has 6,305 followers, has another point to make. While the blogs of the mid-2000s thrived on hits, Instagram posts/Tweets or Snapchats have a quicker turnaround and one can the see the numbers that each 'blogger' will bring in.
A positive post by someone with at least 2,000 followers, will have an immediate impact. "Between those who like and share the posts, a buzz will be created. It is something journalists are not doing. On an average, 200 to 500 people like each of my posts. Many ask about the place, when is a good time to go and what should they order," Padmanand explains, adding, "Clients want to invite bloggers with the maximum followers, which is understandable."
The hitch is that not all the numbers are real. Those numbers are bought to a large extent, he says. Often, people will follow you so that you follow them, only to unfollow you later. Apps like Crowdfire and Unfollowers for Instagram let you unfollow 60-200 people per hour. This makes people believe that you have a high rate of followers and are an influencers.
Thus begins the circle. A computer engineer, Rohit Haryani started The Hungry Mumbaikar, a blog and an Instagram handle, in 2015 to share his experience of eating out in the city on social media.
The Instagram account, which has 59.6K followers, sees two posts per day. Besides the food, he discusses the venue, "the vibe, music, service, pricing and whether items are value for money". "Posts on social media create visibility and awareness for brands, thereby directing potential customers and letting them do more business," says the 26-year-old.
Watch what you post
That an amateur blogger — someone who aspires to become an influencer but doesn't have as many followers — who was a plus one at a at a restaurant launch said 'writing one caption is a problem, and tell me, who reads all that today?' is the problem that's plaguing the industry.
While on the one hand, there are bloggers such The Big Bhookad, run by 28-year-old Adarsh Munjal, across Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and You Tube, with eye-grabbing pictures — shot by his partner Snehsha Tank, who runs a photography firm Lensplate — there are those who repost publicity images. Their "write-ups" read: "Tried d panini and pasta, both were very well made… Pizza n Falafal were decent..service was good.. over all a must visit place…"
It's the audience that's driving the content, says Pankil Shah owner of Woodside Inn and The Pantry. "Microbloggers attract a certain type of followers, who don't read newspapers or traditional media to find out where to head next. The social media handle feels more human to them, more relatable because it's one from among them that is recommending a place or a dish."
Talwar has often been at the receiving end of 18-22-year-olds, with no food knowledge, telling him how it's done. The Chef Owner of Spare Kitchen and Café Cubano, who painstakingly ensures that every morning, a fresh batch of fresh coconut milk is prepared in his kitchen for the Thai curry, says once a micro-blogger, no more than 24 years old, told him that the "the curry was too thin".
"Of course it is. He is used to the thickened curry made of coconut milk powder. What explanation am I to give him? A chef will never deliberately give you a bad dish, and after 30 years in the industry, I can say I know my stuff," he laughs helplessly.
While he does meet bloggers who know their food, and even understand the nuances of food, many stick to 'melt in the mouth' and 'spot on flavours' to describe dishes. "What does that even mean? As chefs, we gruel through college and work hard in the kitchens to understand flavours, and here we have kids telling us what to do," says Talwar.
Forget good or informed reviews, there's a chance that what you are getting is not even a genuine review. Sources in the industry say, microbloggers earn between Rs 15,000 and Rs 30,000 a month, and attend at least three events a week on an average.
On August 25, those on the industry mailing list received an email from Blogger B (name withheld). Blogger B said he had received an email from Blogger A asking him if he'd agree to do a "few paid promotions". With all transactions in cash and refusal to maintain any email communication for the activity, Blogger B said he'd become suspicious and found out that Blogger A had charged the client a sum that was twice of what Blogger B was being paid.
The other half, Blogger A was keeping for himself. B's problem was that A had quoted a price in B's name that was an unlawful transaction without his consent. Even as the community began to discuss the issue, they received another email the next day from Blogger B saying that the "there had been a miscommunication, his mail had been blown out of proportion and that an amicable conclusion had been met". (Copies of both emails are with Sunday mid-day).
Putting them through a sieve
To battle the menace, restaurant and publicity managers have now checks and balances in place. At Bastian and One Street Over in Bandra, Chef Kelvin Cheung doesn't host bloggers and influencers over free meals often. "As a chef, if there is any honest feedback, I welcome it. If used in the right manner, social media is a very helpful tool," he says, adding that he and his team respond in real-time to anyone who leaves a comment on social media. "It gives us greater reach, I post a picture of a dish in the morning, and have customers walking in to try that dish," adds Cheung, whose own followers on Instagram run into 20.4K.
Shobita Kadan, marketing head at the Impresario Group, says whetting the microbloggers and how relevant their content is to your brand is important. "For Social, our target audience is following the food and lifestyle bloggers, and is keen to take their opinion of where they should head next but when I want to do an in-depth feature on our food or interiors I work with specialists who have thorough knowledge on the subject," she adds.
Rahul Akerkar, who gave the city Indigo and Tote of the Turf, says while there may be many drawbacks to social media it has a place today and an important one too. "The medium is a great marketing tool if used effectively. It is here to stay." Talking about the power of social media, he says, "One would hope that the reader is halfway intelligent, and can figure out whether the reviewer or blogger understands what they're talking about; whether it's a genuine, meaningful critique and not some malicious slander written to simply malign another restaurant."
The introspection is encouraged by the community's desire to stay true to food. "We still believe in providing good content and find new places to explore each day to tell our readers," says Padmanand.
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Amrith Padmanand, who operates the Thehoggersblog, with friends Neha Shaw and Suyog Narvekar on Blogpost and Instagram, says on an average 200 to 500 people like each of his posts. Responders ask about the venue and what to order
Chef Owner Rakesh Talwar of Spare Kitchen in Simrranjit Ghuraa's Sweet Karela. He told mid-day that once a blogger told him that the Thai curry he'd made was too thin. "Of course it is. He is used to the thickened curry made of coconut milk powder"
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