The long and well-stocked bar at The 502 Bar & Bistro just opened last week. | Photo by Steve Coomes

As a journalist, I’ve covered dozens of sporting events, yet at none of these was I asked to pay for my seat on press row. Far as I know, no other reporter has either. It’s assumed that if you work for a credible media outlet, you can “get credentialed” with a free pass that gives you some of the best seats in the house and walk-around access to places fans only dream of going.

No matter what happens at those events, reporters are expected to write it as they see it, even when things turn ugly. It even seems that part of a sports reporter’s job is to find fault so as to appear objective.

My career as a restaurant reporter is lived in a markedly different fashion. People in my trade used to follow the old saying, “Never accept more than a cup of coffee” so you’d never get too friendly with your subjects. If they were restaurant critics with any integrity, they couldn’t even accept that, and the publications they wrote for reimbursed all expenses.

Author Steve Coomes | Photo by Nancy LaRocca
Author Steve Coomes | Photo by Nancy LaRocca

But a paradigm shift is underway in restaurant reporting. Due to the continued paring back of staffs at all publications, more and more freelancers are employed to cover this industry. Those freelancers are not only paid low sums for their work, they’re rarely reimbursed for meals, drinks, tips or the miles rolled up driving to dinner and home.

And yet as reporters, they’re expected to be non-biased chroniclers of what they eat and what they learn about the people who serve those meals. They’re expected to become experts in their understanding and recollection of the subject matter, which requires a significant investment in time if they’re going to be good at that work.

In 2016, here’s where things get a little tricky: Restaurateurs now regularly offer reporters free meals to get them to write about their restaurants or post web pictures of those meals. I’m one among many who’s accepted freebies under these terms. Outside of true restaurant critiques, this is increasingly how the business is covered.

Why? Because no freelance writers I know make enough money to cover every opening, menu change, wine dinner, fundraiser, etc., like a staff reporter at a large publication would do. In fact, I know no local staff reporter given such a budget to accomplish that.

So restaurateurs have smartly recognized the benefit of a meal given quid pro quo as cheap advertising. The actual cost of food to a restaurateur for a $100 free meal is about $30, yet the exposure gained on the pages of a well-followed web or print publication could cost five, 10 and 20 times more. This new arrangement, without a doubt, is a good deal for all involved. Reporters get to do their jobs and enjoy the work, restaurateurs get broad and inexpensive exposure, and restaurant fanatic readers learn more about the options available to them.

But how truthful is the reporting when a meal is given for free?

My answer ties back to a college class I had that dealt with the issue of situational specifics, where you can’t apply common black-and-white rules to every situation. You first have to assess the context of the situation prior to making an evaluation. In the case of restaurant reporting, situational specificity is highly fluid.

Take, for example, the increasingly common soft-opening meal. These are dress rehearsals in which a restaurant’s staff gets a chance to experience the pressure of cooking for and serving actual guests without the pressure of real criticism. In other words, if the food comes out slowly, it’s expected the staff gets some grace from guests because its learning and because the meal is free. Guests are also asked to reserve comments for managers and owners, and post no photos on social media.

Well, that last one changes if you’re a reporter. If the food is pretty, and your plate rarely isn’t—because you’re a reporter or photographer—you’re encouraged to use those images in your story. It is, after all, your duty to show it like it was.

But if things aren’t perfect, you’re asked not to write about those miscues because it’s a training exercise. The same rule applies to any guest of such events.

I respect and accept those wishes for the benefit that I get out of the meal: All the material I need to write a story, take photos of the meal and make a living doing both. I tell people what’s new, what the space looks like, what I ate and drank, and they’re free to decide whether they want to go.

But not so long ago I ran into a predicament when one soft-opening meal was not good on multiple levels, yet I wrote about it anyway, touching only on the good points of what I ate and what the restaurant looked like. I didn’t write that the service staff was unskilled and likely not to improve anytime soon. I sidestepped several other shortcomings that, if mentioned here, would give away the restaurant’s identity, so I’ll keep those to myself because the meal was free.

A friend who dined with me that night said I was too soft in my reporting on the soft opening experience (though he’d enjoyed the same free meal), and that made me wonder: Should I have treated that story like any sports reporter and given the vivid critique warranted by such an underwhelming performance?

Probably not, and here’s why:

Athletes spend their entire lives improving their abilities, whereas many restaurant employees are transient sorts who don’t always become experts in those roles. In short, I lower my standards.

Athletes also tend to play for large, well-funded organizations that have no problem carving out some precious seats for reporters. Restaurateurs hosting soft openings, however, give away tens of thousands of dollars of food away in the process, money that comes straight from their pockets.

In this context, a reporter’s job is to write it straight as possible by telling readers it was a soft opening, and then listing what was seen and tasted. By all means let readers know that this is a free practice session.

Let the serious critics keep their niche, and let reporters and restaurateurs keep this happy relationship as long as it works. Fact is, the ultimate reviewer is the guest, which is the way it should be.

 

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Steve Coomes is a restaurant veteran turned award-winning food, spirits and travel writer. In his 25-year career, he has edited and written for multiple national trade and consumer publications including Nation's Restaurant News and Southern Living. He is a feature writer for Edible Louisville & The Bluegrass, Whisky Magazine, WhiskeyWash.com and The Bourbon Review. The author of two books, "Country Ham: A Southern Tradition of Hogs, Salt & Smoke," and the "Home Distiller's Guide to Spirits," he also serves as a ghostwriter for multiple clients.

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