Your Five Cents: Do You Want to Read Posts About Free Meals?

Cartoon courtesy of Brainstuck.com.
Cartoon courtesy of Brainstuck.com.

Here is the scenario: a restaurant is new or changes a menu and wants to get the word out. Back in the day, they would have had to buy an ad (print or radio) or make a bunch of calls to writers and hope they would come in and try their stuff. Now media members are bombarded with opportunities to eat for free. Restaurants host elaborate media dinners and previews. They can contact a horde of blogs, websites, magazines, newspapers, and social media sites with one email. The chances are good they’ll pack the house and all it costs them is the price of the food and service.

To be honest, I’m not a fan of media dinners or running reports of them on SideDish. However, by sending a reporter to media dinner, we get an economical opportunity to see restaurants before they open, taste food, and take pictures. Hopefully, that report provides a service to you, the reader. It sure as hell provides a service to the restaurant. It’s a free ad for their business. I certainly don’t see many paid-for ads on the rails of SideDish, a discussion I’ve had with several restaurant owners. We all need to support each other to keep this party going.

I bring this up because yesterday Wes Wells reported on a gratis meal he experienced at Pakpao and a reader commented:  “Why don’t you just post press releases directly? Oh yeah, you wouldn’t get that free meal.” (I added the question mark he forgot to add.)

I’m conflicted. In one way, this type of report can be considered soft news with food porn. Does it serve the reader? I don’t know. Tell me.  Do you want to read this kind of content? If you were the editor, how would you handle the situation?  Drop kick me Jesus through the goal post of life, I’m listening.

21 comments on “Your Five Cents: Do You Want to Read Posts About Free Meals?

  1. If the reports are objective and contain a big ass asteric **** I wouldlove to read them

  2. Mark, I see the comment you tried to published. There is one word the filter will not let through…starts with an A

  3. I don’t see a problem posting it, as long as it is clearly identified that it is not meant as a review and that the food was received for free.

  4. I agree with Martin but that Wes guy is way too gushy. So are you saying restaurants should pay you for these reports?

  5. I think a report on tasting a new menu can be beneficial to readers, but only if the opinion given is objective. Too often it turns into an all-out gushfest, which is understandable — who wants to complain about free food? — but also doing readers that have to pay for their meals a disservice. On the other hand, I think recaps of epic 10-course wine dinners are utterly pointless.

  6. As long as the writer distinguishes between an invited “set-up” affair and an anonymous series of visits to critique, the reader should be able to differentiate. Start-ups need all the help they can get, especially in this town where restaurants open weekly by the dozens. And readers need to know the difference between a Yelp posting and a thoughtful, researched review by an established and knowledgable professional food critic.

  7. I have no problems with it at all, just state at the top that it’s news, not a review. It’s good information for all of us to have.

  8. As long as the opening line is … “I was invited to eat for free at [establishment X] who know that I [insert name] am a food writer/reviewer. This is not a review. [Establishment X] bent over backwards to ensure the food, service and ambiance were the the best they can provide. As a paying customer your experience is likely to differ.” … or words to that effect.

    With a statement like this I do not have an issue with the practice.

  9. I don’t have a problem with it but it needs to be stated that the writer receives a meal for free. When I evaluate whether to dine at a place I believe price points, portion size, and quality are always considered. What is the point of describing how wonderful any new place is if you don’t know how much an average plate may cost?

  10. I’ve found those reports helpful in trying things I would have never traditionally ordered off a menu. It makes sense to give the disclaimer about the free meal or that it was a press dinner, but I think it helps for those us who are still refining our palates.

  11. I think the previews serve a purpose. They really do give readers a broad introduction to a new place or new items.

    There is a lot of “media freebie” stuff in sports, for example (press box food, media luncheons, swag bags, etc). The biggest difference I see is a lack of objectivity and a critical eye on the part of many bloggers.

    Reporters (I use the term loosely) are supposed to be objective. I feel as if bloggers (who don’t really know how to tackle critical reviews or probe for both sides of a story) simply report on how “FABULOUS EVERYTHING IS” which is great if it is but doesn’t do readers a service if it isn’t.

    Additionally, I don’t see a bloggers fully taking advantage of these previews beyond posting photos to Instagram/FB and reporting on the event itself. Take it a step further: get an expert chef or media members to weigh in on a current food trend. Plan a feature story and gather interviews there. There is so much quality content that can be harvested from one media gathering.

    Plan ahead, be critical, get creative and produce great content. Readers and consumers want that from online publishers.

  12. I think people resent being advertised at surreptitiously — a disclaimer at the beginning would be fair. Enjoy the blog, thanks.

  13. Hi, Maria! Thank you for the constructive criticism.

    One thing I’d like to point out is that I act as a contributor for D SideDish, not a critic. Such being the case, my reviews are going to appear a bit rosier than someone who’s job it is to fly under the radar (or not so under the radar in DFW) to truly critique a restaurant, its decor, the service, wine list, etc.

    A contributor’s job is to alert people to new and innovative restaurants, important local events (such as Chefs for Farmers), inventive new dishes, exceptional cocktails, unique wines, pairings dinners, established and upcoming culinary chefs, etc. so that our readers aware of the great happenings in our city. I have had quite a few experiences that weren’t favorable but, staying true to the gig, I’ve approached the chef, management, servers, etc. to voice my opinion so that they are able to address (or not address) said grievance prior to a critic sitting down to their table.

    Also, not all meals are “free”. Many times, I pay out of pocket for cocktails or wine if they aren’t included in a media dinner so that the dish is appreciated to the fullest (I would never enjoy an aged ribeye at Knife without an equally impressive Napa Cab – it would be an insult to the beef). Lastly, for meals that are considered “media events”, I always tip the servers and kitchen staff on my own dime. I’ve worked in restaurants and sincerely appreciate their efforts as it’s one of the toughest businesses in the planet.

    AND… I’ll work on the “gushy”ness of my descriptions. I reviewed my last 10 submissions and I think you may have a point :)

  14. The issue is not media dinners. The article about Pakpao did not mention that the food was free and was written like an advertisement. Therein lies the problem.

  15. Nancy: are there Side Dish contributors who routinely accept free stuff/free trips and write about them here, without disclosing?

  16. Not to my knowledge. They all know the rules and I try my best to add it in if they forget.

  17. The first line of his second paragraph is ” I was invited into the restaurant on Tuesday night as a guest to sample the new fare and cocktails put on the menu by the new executive chef and partner.”

  18. Sports Girl basically summarized my thoughts. I think the most important step that is not currently being taken is to add more objectivity. If a restaurant wants to get free press for having a media dinner, I am fine with that. But I want the person in attendance to give an honest assessment of the food and restaurant as a whole. If they wouldn’t return back on their own, I want to know that. If the food really is just that spectacular, great…please let me know. The restaurant should accept the risk that the people they invite might not think their restaurant is good and therefore publicize that fact. I also agree there is a lot of creative ideas that are being missed.

  19. As the originator of the original post, I wanted to say that I do appreciate photos and facts about new/changed restaurants, even if you received a free meal to obtain them.

    But as you have recognized, it’s the “gushy”ness of the reviews that we have to weed through to get the facts. And I understand not pointing out faults, which is fine too.

    Thank you, and I look forward to your next somewhat more neutral post.