My Five Cents: Restaurants, Beware of Food Writers Who Expect Freebies

Full disclosure: Last night I took my good friend Don Waddington to dinner. Don, who recently lost his wife, Polly, wanted to attend Sevy’s 100th wine dinner celebration. Sevy’s has been Don and Polly’s favorite restaurant since it opened. The Waddingtons traveled on both D Magazine chef cruises, which also included Jim Severson and his wife, Amy. I know Jim and Amy and consider them good friends. Amy contributes to SideDish. I do not review Sevy’s, and it is one of the few restaurants I go to on my own nickel.

Back to last night. Sevy’s private dining room was filled with loyal customers. It was not a media event. I wasn’t working. However, I noticed a woman with a camera and a tape recorder in her hand working the room as if she was the hostess. She snapped pictures, took down names, and chatted with everyone in the room. When a course was served, she would sit down, but once she was finished, she was up again and working the room. At one point, I overheard her say, “Well, I can’t write about it if I don’t taste it.”

I turned to Amy Severson and asked if she knew the name of the woman. “She came in the restaurant the other day and introduced herself as a food writer, asked for a copy of our logo, and made a reservation for the wine dinner,” Amy said. “There was never any discussion of any quid pro quo, nor was there any discussion of her covering the wine and food dinner for us as a PR move.”

However, it was obvious to all at our table that this woman was all about PR, but not for the restaurant. She was there to promote herself.

Oh, let’s get to the bottom of this.

Her name is Robin D. Everson and she writes for Examiner.com. According to the “Write for Us” page on the website:

Examiner.com is fully powered by Examiners, thousands of writers who are self-motivated independent contributors. Each Examiner is able to express through words and photos a deep expertise in a topic. Their knowledge is enhanced by a viewpoint unique to their experiences and oftentimes, their location.

There is nothing on the site about journalistic guidelines. Last night was a perfect example of what is wrong with blogs and other social media outlets with self-motivated independent contributors who feel entitled to free food or services for their efforts.

If this had been a media event where food is always free, I wouldn’t be writing this. Last night, we all paid $80 per person to eat and drink. I sat there horrified as I watched this woman basically hassle diners throughout the entire meal. She tried to take my picture, and when I declined she said, “Well, I promised the chef pictures of all of the diners.” Mind you, she never introduced herself before asking to take my picture, and when I turned her down, she huffed off.

“We are so embarrassed,” Amy told me today. “We erred on the side of hospitality in dealing with this woman. We were unprepared for this as a team. Because how do you tell her to sit down and enjoy the meal? I think it would have appeared in writing that we were less than gracious hosts. Because in hindsight I guess we should have asked her to leave.”

I can’t help but wonder how many times this happens in other restaurants. Especially small, chef-driven restaurants that aren’t media savvy or that have owners who read food blogs. If one got past Amy Severson, I can only imagine how many free dinners are doled out to people who present themselves as food or lifestyle writers and expect and accept free food or services for a glowing write-up. Ethics aside, it’s against FTC guidelines. You must disclose the fact that you did not pay for a meal, or any other service, if you write about the experience. Restaurants take reservations and expect payment for services. When presented with the bill last night, Ms. Everson claimed she had no money.

A restaurant’s fear of bad publicity for not allowing a “food writer” to experience an elegant wine dinner is not a part of a journalist’s game. It’s not how professionals play.

This isn’t just a problem for restaurants. There are many PR companies that represent restaurants and feel the crush of food bloggers. Media dinners are common events and are used to showcase a new restaurant, menu, or chef. Not long ago, these dinners drew maybe five or six reporters. According to several PR people I contacted today, media dinners now host up to 30 writers, and some small restaurant have had to provide two seatings to accompany the “writers,” some of whom bring guests without asking. Where does a PR company draw the line on who’s in and who’s out? And how is it that so many people with a blog feel so entitled?

I encourage restaurants to conduct due diligence on anyone who introduces himself or herself as a food writer. If you want the publicity and are willing to give up a free meal for one or 30, go for it. Just make sure you make the rules clear up front. Otherwise, you run the risk of ruining the hard work of a restaurant staff. And, more important, offending loyal customers.

Comments

  • Samantha

    Someone needs to inform your staff of your feelings. Like Andrew Chalk who is at every wine dinner. Or Haily Hamilton who writes about her free wine junkets and rarely mentions the comps. Or the rest of the staff that grazes each night for free across town. I own two restaurants and we do talk. This woman at Sevys sounds like a beast but not much worse than you and your staff. Your credibility is shaky dear.

  • Jon Battle

    The idea of someone walking around the restaurant tasting my food, or invading my dining experience is beyond scary. Restaurant owners should review credentials carefully before allowing any kind of access and their guideline shoud be “The dining customer comes first”. !! Thanks for this article.

  • Andrew and Hayley disclose their freebies in their posts. They are not supposed to ask for freebies or attend events they don’t write about. Give me names and instances and I will address them. We run as tight as ship as we can around here. And me? Tell me where I eat for free.

  • I, too, write with examiner.com and am embarrassed by this chick’s behavior. I pay for EVERY SINGLE meal I write about, and hate seeing someone take advantage of their so-called “title” for the sake of free grub.
    I have a site and a blog that I have for FUN, because I love food, and yes, on occasion I do get invited to a dinner here and there, but I just write as a diner, not as a “food blogger”, because I found that once a restaurant knows what you are doing, you will get a different treatment and a better meal than if you are just a regular diner off the street.

  • Kadiemom

    Pretty tacky. I just glanced at her “articles” and they read like something written by a high school student.

  • Martin

    Frankly, no food writer should EVER eat free. Even if they are the most ethical person ever, it could give the appearance of bis if the food was provided for free by the restaurant.
    If that was the general policy agreed on by journalists (blog or otherwise) and restaurateurs, something like this couldn’t happen because nobody could troll for free food.

  • Ben hutchison

    “Samantha” dear,
    Who are you to throw around accusations under cover of anonimity?
    If you are going to accuse others of impropriety, at least have the courage and decency to not hide your identity.

  • Amy S

    @Jon – She showed up at our restaurant earlier in the week. She said she wanted to come to the dinner. She never inquired if there were comped PR seats available (which there never are, not even for Andrew or Hayley, who do attend, and pay for, several of our monthly Wine and Food dinners). And asking someone who makes a reservation if they intend to pay for the meal is a rude question, don’t you think? Wouldn’t you raise your eyebrows a bit if you made a reservation and the hostess asked “do you intend to pay for your dinner?” WT, I mean, hunh?

    These dinners are served at shared tables, and most of the guests have been coming to them for so long, they know each other well. There’s a great deal of interaction between tables, mixed with discussions of the wines by the Sigel’s reps and the food by Sevy during the course intermezzos. It is not labored or formal. It’s a lively and fun evening with customized dishes coupled with very nice wines for a reasonable amount. Last night’s dinner was extra special, but typically the five courses of food and wine are priced at $65 per person.

    And yes, lesson learned.

  • A Food Writer

    Some bloggers base their entire “business” around free food. I was astounded to see that local blog Dallas Food Nerd has a form on their website for restaurants who want to be reviewed to fill out. There’s a field that says, “Will you provide complimentary food (giftcard format is fine) in exchange for honest review of your restaurant? *not required but suggested as our bloggers are very busy”. I suppose they’re up front about it at least (and “honest” to boot!), but… really? Come on.

  • Kris

    Unconscionable! This piece is a great reminder to every restaurant owner to think NOW about how to respond should one of these vultures show up at their place – I think they count on the element of surprise to get stunned restaurateurs to comply. A simple plan would be to make sure you get the “critic’s” name, media outlet and all contact info, then let them know that unless another arrangement is made in advance, they are expected to pay.

  • Don’t call me a “foodie”

    Dallas Food Nerd isn’t food people, they are social media people on the blag. There are a dozen other “Twitcelebs” running around town checking in at every 4sq and junket possible who call themselves “food journalists” and “food writers” and are basically just chasing a free meal and free press.

    Until restaurants start putting their foot down, this kind of BS will continue.

  • A Food Writer, thanks for calling my attention to Dallas Food Nerd. That’s is pretty gutsy application. And while most of the posts are press releases and such, I see a few FTC violations on the site. If you represent a client and write a blog post about their new menu or special offers without revealing you are doing PR for them, then you are breaking the rules. Problem is, most bloggers don’t even know the rules.

  • Diane Fourton

    Finally someone had the huevos grande to speak up about this disturbing trend. I applaud you, Nancy Nichols! Great job.

  • InsideEdition

    That Food Nerd place is creepy. I’m sick of all of the happy go lucky looky at me bloggers I can’t imagine what kind of people think they deserve free things. For what? Their own blog. No service to the restaurant at all. This makes me look at reports more closely. Thanks

  • beda

    I’ve never attended a function similar to this without paying for my ticket in advance. I’m surprised she and all the other attendees didn’t pay before sitting down.

  • Dubious Brother

    @Amy S – I don’t think it would be rude to remind the person making the reservation what the cost for the evening would be. I would ask just to be sure as my American Express card does not have a $500,000 limit. That would be the time to make expectations known.
    On another note, Sevy’s bar always gets good reviews from me as they are one of a few in Dallas that have decaf espresso and Black Sambuca.

  • Amy S

    Ms. Everson did return to the restaurant a short time ago to pay her check which is much appreciated.

    While we do not exchange free food or beverage in exchange for PR or write ups, we are known to have a generous comp policy, even encouraging servers to treat first time guests with a complimentary crostini to welcome them. Our regulars, well they love our comp policy too.

  • Chef dfw

    Wait, you’re talking about Examiner? It sounds just like Crave DFW.

  • Golfnfashion

    Doesn’t everyone realize that having a blog makes one an expert in whatever subject matter they choose to write?  I also find it amusing when Twitter posters, who are obviously paid by the establishments about which they tweet (based on the frequency of posts as well as the verbiage used), post as just a “regular” customer.  I appreciate people are simply trying to earn a living but don’t think most of us don’t know you’re on the payroll.

  • and then there’s yelp. don’t get me started.

  • Nancy, I work at a PR firm based in Dallas and New York, Tucker & Associates. We’ve worked with many restaurants in the past and often run into this issue with both food and travel bloggers. We love working with bloggers and advise our clients that online media is becoming more and more one of the best ways to reach their desired audiences. But we do have to consider the expense (both monetary cost and time) of bringing them in. So, to answer your question of “where do PR firms draw the line?” We take a quantitative and qualitative approach: We “qualify” these bloggers by looking at the reach of their sites (i.e., unique visitors), and reading their blogs to check for quality and tone. It’s not a perfect science, but we think it’s necessary before we can recommend that our client host a food writer (or travel writer, for that matter). Most of the bloggers we’ve worked with are very professional, but unfortunately we do have to turn some away.

  • Don’t call me a “foodie”

    At least on Yelp, everyone knows the posters are “average citizens”, and for every * that a disgruntled diner spews out, there’ll be a fawning ***** right behind it.

    The problem with the “foodieblogwriters” is that they package themselves as legitimate experts, and the readers don’t know the difference, meanwhile the restos get suckered, as in the Sevy’s story.

  • Kris

    Glad she came back and paid!

  • Thanks, Brooke. I’ve heard from several local PR people today and they are struggling with the requests they get. I do think a lot of people start blogs with good intentions and want to write nice things only. I just don’t see what kind of value that is to a business. One restaurateur in Dallas told me last year that he uses as many food blogs as he can. He claims it’s free publicity and he can reach them all with one email or tweet. I can only wonder how many butts that puts in his restaurant. Other than the ones on the bloggers.

  • The Guy

    As an occasional SideDish commenter on Friday’s “Tell Us Where You Ate” thread, I am fully aware that I am not professional in any way, shape or form. I couldn’t even call myself a “reviewer” with any sense of dignity. Just because I like bottled water doesn’t make me a marine biologist. And while we’re at it, how in the hell could I honestly comment on the value of a meal if I didn’t pay for it? I’d probably suffer from sleeplessness due to heartburn if I tried to wheedle a free meal by subterfuge.

    The same could be said for 99% of these “experts” whose only talent is being so desperate as to apply for a job at Examiner.com. Their ads have all the panache of an “Earn Big Bucks By Being A Secret Shopper” posting. That and being able to log onto Yelp, TripAdvisor, etc. while deluding themselves that they have the training and experience to be considered worthy of attention.

    Maybe a sign at the restaurant door is neededto restore order. “Diners, Friends and Critics Welcome–Each Should Expect The Same Great Service and Value. No Exceptions!”

  • Amy S

    @The Guy – Brilliance.

  • The Guy, thanks for the insightful comment.

  • I don’t really have a lot to add about this topic since I’m not a restaurant owner and don’t review restaurants, but I found this fascinating. It’s amazing what restaurant owners have to go through!

  • Liquid Ninja

    It was probably Ed Bailey’s wife trying to finally trying to get her hands on some good food for once….

  • jtt

    Nancy, your 5cents gave back Sevys their hard-earned $80. You took a stand. It took guts and you prevailed. In the end, the people who actually enable you to keep your landlord appeased are the people who dont Yelp, blog or “write” for some insignificant newspaper.

    No doubt, when we get an award from an established local mag, sales do increase for the following 6 weeks. It does make a 5-20%ish difference, depending on the day, but it doesnt keep us open. Regulars are the very foundation of any business. We know a very popular restaurant that got suckered into the Yelp free food party by the former dirtbag community manger. The resto manager admitted that it really didnt make a difference either way. Even groupons model is failing. Bloggers, coupon sites, magazine sales reps, charity 1, charity 2, charity 679, crooked concierges, and even the PA for local sports figures; everyone promises more customers but no one offers a moneyback guarantee. Just imagine the number of calls a typical manager recieves a day. (We were promised dinner serving the entire defense of a major sports team by a PA. This PA ate us out of “house and home” for years. Nothing materialized, and i had to finally cut them off. That conversation is always so pleasant.)

    We are all desperate to earn the business of the customer who never expects anything for free, never feels entitled to a discount or a free drink/appetizer, and just wants to pay for his/her dinner, someone who isnt looking to send something back, or for a reason not to pay for his/her bill. (This assumes service was good and nothing was wrong with the food)

    I think the craptastic economy, the unprecedented umeployment rates and poverty have really brought the worst out of a lot of people. They think its just free food. It was someones money that paid for the cost of the food, it was someones labor and sometimes, you have to pay taxes on what you comp. Independent restos cant handle it. We are people, too.

  • Sparky

    You need an ally on this front, Nancy — why is my gut telling me that Jack Perkins might be your best choice? I don’t see him catering to food bloggers much….

  • Amy S

    I would disagree with jtt on a small matter.

    Donating to local charities, large and small. It’s been one area that as a small business owner we’ve made an effort to do and manage perhaps better than restaurant chains. It’s brought in many, many regulars over the years. And mailing out the donations is like Christmas every month – brings a big smile.

    But I understand jtt’s frustration, too many donation requests are brought to the restaurateur within a few days of the event, having sat in a car, or on a desk for three months previously. Please don’t do that.

  • The Guy

    @ Amy—-kind of after the fact, but did this woman’s server get stiffed when she fianlly came in and paid her bill?

  • bc

    My only foray into food writing was for Dave Faries’ now (and quickly) defunct Critic’s Guide back in 2010. I paid for everything, save for a story in which I previewed the vegan week dishes a week in advance. I made mention of it in the story as follows:

    “It should be noted that in order to preview each of these dishes I had to contact the restaurants ahead of time to make sure the kitchens would have the ingredients on hand to prepare these limited run specials. As such, the restaurants knew whom I was when I walked in the door and, in a few cases, I was treated to the dish at minimal or no cost to me (even though I politely insisted that I pay). But in some instances, this was the first time the dish was cooked for anyone outside of the chefs themselves—and at least one restaurant, it was the first time, period.”

    Of the five restaurants visited for that story, some marked the price down 50%, others were just free (and often at off-hours). In every instance, I would insist that I just pay full price, but that offer was mostly (and graciously) declined. If there was a server involved, they got the lion’s share of that benefit in the form of a large tip. I guess my point is that even a non-professional “food writer” like me knows the rules and doesn’t want preferential treatment. Everyone else isn’t ignorant, they’re just gaming the system for their personal benefit.

    Now, the fact that Dave Faries owes me a bunch of money for those articles that I’ll never see is a different story altogether. I have a real job and I just treated the food stuff as a hobby, so I’m not some starving, out of work writer that he took advantage of. That he’s now stuck in Wyoming writing for the Western Nebraska Observer should be punishment enough for those monetary debts, I suppose….

  • I read this article this week:

    http://blog.prnewswire.com/2012/09/24/dear-blogger-other-pitch-mistakes-pr-pros-make/

    The contrast between that and this is interesting.

  • Bill

    Nice contrast Sander. LOL

  • Very sad. The volume of weirdness associated with blogs and online reviewing has become overwhelming. Very discouraging.

  • As the President of the Press Club of North Texas: FOOD,WINE and TRAVEL writers, I have worked diligently to legitimize our DFW Food writers who attend our Restaurant sponsored Media Dinners. It is a changing Media world, we do restaurant reviews unlike the restaurant critics who sneak into a brand new place and criticize everything that’s wrong . I have eliminated those Bloggers like the CraveDFW,Dallas Diva and Examiners that you and Eater Dallas have caught and written about from participating in our group based on,in my opinion, their lack of authentic numbers of their alleged readers. Restaurantuers and their Publicists need to do their due dilligence.All restaurants would greatly appreciate trading a meal for a story that is going to reach potential customers. I write Hockey Stories and do restaurant Reviews for SPORTSPAGEWEEKLY, We print 30,000 magazines per week and while my readers eat Nachos and drink Beer at Sports Bars everyday, they still need to take their significant other to a NICK & SAM’S,OAK or OCEAN PRIME once or twice a year, and I make them confortable in doing it.
    In my opinion,The PR folks need to ensure that these bloggers actually have readers.I was told that CraveDFW had 15,000 followers by their leader but found that according to my research that he had less that 1500 documented who comprise of every chef, publicist,bartender,waitress,barback and diswasher looking to see pretty photos of their restaurant the very next day BUT FEW POTENTIAL NEW CUSTOMERS
    At last week’s Metro Cooking show, their NY Publicists ask why I was not tweeting to which I replyed I don’t tweet,I actually write restaurant reviews and an around town column for a magazine. The Media group consisted of 4 writers and 18 Bloggers.
    I send every restaurant that I want to write a review on a copy of my magazine with distribution numbers and past reviews. It is so simple for Publicists and Restaurants to screen away the fakes,just ask for documentation of their work and readership!

  • I’ll throw a log on this fire…what about “food writers” who garner media passes for CHARITY events, i.e. Chefs for Farmers, the Dallas Farmers Market Friends Hoedown, etc? They’re usually freelance writers for pubs or outlets, but still, c’mon!

    I write for fun on my own personal blog. When I do write for an outlet, I pay out of my own pocket, regardless. If the chef is a friend and refuses to take my cashola, I simply dump the entirety of the bill + 20% into their tip jar.

  • Thank you, RICHARD. All great points.

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  • Manford

    There are plenty of PR types in this town who are more than happy to take a bunch of bloggers to their clients’ restaurants and have them eat for free, or charter a bus to take them to Austin to hang out at Alamo Drafthouse, or send them expensive products. They want high impression rates. The quality of the coverage isn’t important, and neither are ethics.

    Restauranteurs who hire these PR people go along with the gambit, which makes them as responsible for shoddy writing and unethical food writers as anybody else. They’ll also fall all over themselves to give out free food if they recognize a food writer in their establishment.

    If any writer, PR person or restauranteur finds themselves giving or accepting something free, they’re on shaky ground.

  • Edward

    Did I miss something? I see that Amy said they were unprepared for this experience, and then that the woman came back and paid later, but when did she NOT pay at the time? I see Nancy hint around about the meal being comped, etc., but I didn’t read exactly what transpired – did the woman have a fit when the check was presented or what?

  • Jonathan

    I can’t believe this is even being ‘blogged’ about.

  • I’ve never asked for a free meal and have never even mentioned that I’m a blogger unless it’s after my visit. And even then, that only happens if I decide that it good and needs to be talked about and i ask permission to write about it. i don’t consider myself a food critic but when there is good stuff to be said, I want to share it…but i would lose credibility if I was getting my meal comp’d for sure. I don’t believe in blogging to share a negative review. that doesn’t do anybody good. tweeting might be a different story. interesting topic. thx for sharing.

  • I never remember seeing Guy Fieri pay for food, or give a bad review. A truly unbiased meal review would have to be paid for, as price is also important when choosing where to eat. However it would still clearly be worth it for some restaurants to give out free food for advertising instead of cash, food is produced all day for less cash than it costs. This builds more value in the reviewers head than the cost. It may not be unbiased but if it brings a few diners it will be worth it. If only the restaurant owners could also pay their rent with food.

  • Stacy

    I’m enjoying the bloggers who comment and link their name to their blog. Lol!!!

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  • There is indeed a certain effrontery and sense of entitlement amongst some of the bloggers. There are others who do a decent and professional job. I do expect to see full disclosure in every review. FTC guidelines (or not), common decency and honesty should prevail. If you are shilling, then let it be known.
    There is one particularly odious character who doesn’t just stiff the restaurants, he also stiffs other diners. Came to the table where I was sitting – some people in the (small) group know him. He had a couple of glasses of wine and left without paying for them Added to the communal bill – which the rest of us split.
    It came to about $5 each, so it wasn’t a big deal. But it does mean that there isn’t a single thing he writes that I will read. There isn’t a single event (even events whose ideals I strongly support) that I will go to if he is in any way involved. His writing is poor as well.

  • OH! GEE! IS IT STEVIE D?
    ACCORDING TO THE ARTICLE IN D MAGAZINE,
    HE’S INFAMOUS FOR HITTING A TABLE WITH HIS TAP
    FROM MY UNDERSTANDING

  • The only thing I have to add is you can’t judge the town by the drunk asleep on the sidewalk. I am a blogger, and I write a family blog. I do blog about small town places that we actively search out to eat in. I am an adventurous person, and I love to share my finds. The kids know not to touch food until my phone (I use it’s camera to take pics) is down on the table. We pay our bill and leave. I have been offered a free meal from places after they read my posts. Yes, I take them up on it, if it is a place we want to eat again. That said, my time is important. I do some posts because I am asked to do them. If I am asked to critique a restaurant I expect my meal to be paid. That doesn’t mean my review will be all hails and approval. I call it as I see it. That goes for meals, events, products, etc. I have a disclosure that says some of my posts are paid. Everything I write is MY opinion, or my families. I’m not going to tell you what you want to hear because you pay for a meal. Mind you, I have never been comped for my families or friends meals. Only mine. I don’t think that is unfair. Not all bloggers are as rude as the woman you posted about. All most bloggers want is to be recognized for what we do. Our time is important to us,, as are our blogs. My blog is my job. If you want me to write about your product, whatever it is, don’t expect me to do it for free. If I like your product enough to write about it without you asking, give me some kind of recognition, even if it’s just a link back to your website, along with a mention. Everyone needs to start remembering the golden rule. You get more if you give more.

  • I don’t mind giving out some food I cook for free reviews. Who’s hungry?

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  • Caitlin T.

    You can feel your hatred in your writing. It tells a lot about you. It is clear that you felt threatened by another reporter being there doing her job. You could have easily reported on the event but you didn’t. You shouldn’t assassinate others.

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