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.
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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.