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Trouble at the top of the food chain
TO pay or not to pay - that's the question Shakespeare's Hamlet might ask if he lived in Singapore and wasn't so hung up about wanting to be or not to be.
Instead, it's a question that is increasingly being asked in food-obsessed Singapore, where the explosion of social media has spawned a flood of bloggers/journalists writing incessantly about it: should a writer pay for a meal at the restaurant he or she writes about?
The answer may seem like an obvious "yes", but it is the reality that is causing some concern in the fiercely competitive F&B industry, where restaurants depend on a constant flow of publicity to stay on the radar of fickle diners.
It wasn't so long ago that restaurants had to depend on established newspapers and magazines to deem if they were worthy of coverage. Not any more. Social media has opened up a whole new vista, and food bloggers once considered lowly outliers are now feverishly feted by restaurants ever-willing to barter a free meal for a good word in cyberspace.
Anyone with a smartphone is now bombarded with Instagram posts of food, blogger reviews as well as those by conventional media - and there's no way of filtering the legitimacy of one from another. Hosted meals are either not mentioned at all, or in fine print at the end of the review. Restaurants with the means to host multiple media will always have the edge over smaller, indie restaurants without such budgets. Is it a case of sour grapes among industry observers or does this point to fissures that could lead to more serious issues later on?
Welcome to the new world
In an ideal situation, food writers visit a restaurant incognito, pay for the meal and then write about it. But not all restaurants are willing to sit around and wait for that to happen, which is why the concept of restaurants hosting free meals for journalists is not new; it is a marketing tool to introduce new menus or concepts to the media, which are not obliged to provide coverage in exchange.
Restaurants embrace online media because many bloggers are young and more likely to cover everything they are invited to. For this reason, like it or not, social media is here to stay, says Edina Hong, co-owner of the Emmanuel Stroobant group.
"There is no good or bad about it. Consumers are exposed to digital content on a daily basis. It is essential for restaurants to see the importance of social media and include it in their marketing. Bloggers are good for my casual restaurants because they target the younger crowd, which prefer modern means of communication."
Restaurateur Beppe de Vito thinks nothing of spending some S$10,000 over the first three months of opening a new eatery, which involves heavy media entertaining - 12 to 15 writers a month. "It's always been a big part of our marketing efforts, although the restaurant and media landscape has changed drastically over the last five years," he says. "Back then, it was only for the traditional media; now, every person on the street can be 'media', so long as they have access to the Internet. The frequency of media entertaining has increased along with it."
But he stops short of paying for reviews, along with the restaurateurs named here.
The fear of missing out is another reason why F&B operators have latched on to social media. "There are clients who want so much online coverage that we are forced to reach out to bloggers," says a public relations consultant who has her share of horror stories about bloggers who take advantage of invitations to turn a free meal into a private party. "There are also clients who want only social media and not the traditional press," she adds, estimating that on average, a new restaurant can host 50 to 60 journalists from across media platforms.
A veteran PR director from a top hotel here also cites pressure from management to embrace the new media - "especially if your bosses (and their wives, children, friends and neighbours) keep raving about blogs and social media posts about your competitors; it's 10 times worse if your competitors are mentioned but you're not; we have to join the crowd or be accused of not doing our job".
The food-blogging business
How badly do restaurants want to be featured by food bloggers? Enough to pay four-figure sums for a well-known "influencer" to mention them on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, it seems. No longer content to just accept invitations to hosted meals, bloggers with large followings now charge enough to make for a very profitable sideline or full-time career.
Brad Lau - also known as Ladyironchef and perhaps the best known food blogger with 600,000 followers on Instagram alone - declined to be interviewed for this article, but is known to charge a fee for showing up at a media tasting and more for an actual article. One F&B operator told The Business Times that it paid him S$3,800 recently to promote its restaurant. It also paid Daniel Ang of DanielFoodDiary (166,000 Instagram followers) S$2,300; Seth Lui (9,965 Instagram followers) charges "between S$1,000 and S$10,000" for advertorials. Maureen Ow, a former journalist who blogs under the moniker Miss Tam Chiak, keeps her fees under S$2,000.
These so-called A-list bloggers command page views of a million or more. Derrick Tan of SGFood on Foot, who gets 70,000 page views, has his fee starting at S$500.
Besides sponsored posts or advertorials, bloggers also make money from advertising. The more page views one gets, the more money there is to be made. In Daniel Ang's case, even though he has kept his day job as a mass communications lecturer, he makes a high four-figure sum a month from advertising, in addition to sponsored posts.
Still, even among the blogging community, there is disagreement over what constitutes professional ethics.
Mr Ang says: "If I did (blogging) full-time, I would find it hard to be objective. Singapore's food companies are also closely related, and if you write a bad review about one restaurant, the likelihood of them being linked to another or a chain is very high. You don't want to be offending your advertisers, so it's a sensitive situation."
Aun Koh of food blog Chubby Hubby fame, claims that he does not accept any invitations for tastings, "because once you do, no matter what anyone says, you owe them something; there's no such thing as a free lunch".
Edsmond Cheong of The Chosen Glutton counters: "When I go to a tasting, if there are more bad things than good things, then I won't write about it." The 25-year-old University of Sheffield student goes for two to three tastings a week.
Aaron Nathanael Ho of Rubbish Eat Rubbish Grow says: "A lot of new bloggers don't know how to appreciate food, and can't tell what's good and what's bad, so it does make you wonder about their motives. I met a blogger once who didn't even know that egg shells are sometimes brown; he thought all eggs came out white!"
The part-time NTU tutor accepts one tasting invitation a week and doesn't shy away from writing negative reviews. "Sometimes the PR companies don't invite me back for more tastings, but it's okay, I just go and pay for the meal myself."
Most bloggers label sponsored posts and advertorials as such, but some don't feel the need to make it unequivocal when they attend invited tastings.
Derrick Tan says: "I don't usually label the tastings, but I tag the articles as media invites. I don't think it's that important to explicitly state it because I know I write objectively."
Ms Ow of Miss Tam Chiak says: "I think we should apply a personal code of ethics to our work. There are some bloggers who think it's free food and so they must write something good about the restaurant."
Mr Ang adds: "It's really a question of ethics. There isn't any regulation, but at the end of the day, your credibility is at stake. If your readers don't agree with the majority of opinions you post, they might stop reading your blog. I think it's a self-regulating industry in that sense."
Even so, a prominent blogger who declines to be named says the scene is a cowboy town, where anything goes, and everybody's a critic. It's a bane to restaurants who have to deal with obscure bloggers who rant about them online, or threaten to shame them if their demands are not met.
The credibility issue
It's an issue that has cropped up beyond Singapore. The concept of restaurants entertaining food journalists, be they from online or print media, has long been a bone of contention in the controversial UK-based The World's 50 Best Restaurants list, which has been accused of cronyism and running a voting system that allows restaurants to entertain food journalists who are also voters.
William Drew, editor of the Restaurant magazine which organises the awards, addresses the issue of voters not having to pay for their meals in an e-mail interview. "We believe voters can make up their own minds as to what constitutes their best restaurant experience, whether or not they have paid the bill. Academy chairs, as with other (anonymous) voters, are free to accept hosted meals. We trust their judgment in making their own voting assessments."
Is it realistically possible to write an objective review if one is being hosted to a free meal?
"Honestly? Unlikely," says Tan Ken Loon of The Naked Finn. "Once the restaurant knows who you are, you will get special treatment and it will make you feel obligated. Even if you don't, you will have a totally different experience to other consumers and the review would be distorted."
Andrew Tjioe, head of the Tung Lok group, declares: "The No 1 rule for any professional writer, voter or anyone with direct influence over any form of publicity, is not to expect to be hosted or benefit in any form.
"It is important for voters to maintain anonymity. Those who make their role known are only opening themselves up to lobbying. There is already word going around that the award is about how well you lobby.
"It is human nature to feel positive about something or someone after receiving any form of goodwill. There is a Chinese saying that goes 'When you eat someone else's, your lips go soft; when you take someone else's, your hands go weak'. You are no longer objective."
Evelyn Chen, the Singapore chair for the World's 50 Best awards as well as a freelance writer and blogger, begs to differ.
She says: "A fraction of our judging panel is made up of food writers who sometimes accept invitations by restaurants in the course of their work. Being a judge on the panel does not preclude them from accepting such invitations. They are, however, required to remain quiet - at all times - about their identity as a voter. The academy chairs are the only ones whose names are made public."
Even so, those in the industry privately question this rationale, given that Ms Chen herself is regularly hosted at restaurants she reviews in her freelance articles and in her blog bibikgourmand - and she does not declare this publicly.
"My blog is a work of passion and it does not generate any income. I have never seen the need to make a declaration (of hosted meals) on my blog. It makes no impact on my objectivity or the way I write about my experiences."
Mr Tan, who co-owns The Naked Finn, laments: "As a consumer, I feel that it is impossible to trust most reviews now.
"There are still quite a few good members of the media who review restaurants incognito. Personally, I don't think it's right (to offer free meals), but at the end of the day, I understand why restaurants need to do it. And if restaurants are doing it, there will always be takers. Consumers just need to be more alert."
He is among the few restaurateurs who do not subscribe to the media-entertainment model. "When we started in 2012, we hosted a radio DJ and a magazine, as they are my personal friends. But since then, I've decided against doing so, as I feel that it is unfair to consumers. I have to admit that it helps with getting new customers quickly, but it's not what we should do."
Les Amis, which is on the Asia's Best 50 list and was previously on the World's Best 100 list, has stopped hosting food writers, whether they are from print or social media.
Its chef Sebastien Lepinoy says: "We used to do a little bit because we were asked to entertain some of them, but no more. Occasionally, if someone happens to write a nice article about us, we invite them for a meal, but other than that, no."
While he is aware that it may affect the restaurant's standing in the Restaurant guide, he is willing to take the chance. "An objective reviewer is one who pays, because they take into account value for money - and that is very important."
Ivan Brehm, chef and co-owner of Bacchanalia, says: "We were approached recently for coverage in exchange for meals or even money. I think it's sad, and becoming another commonplace reality within the industry.
"I have had requests from both online and print but we do not engage them. I do think we would be more known if we procured reviews and exposure. We don't. The only times we have been reviewed happened during our opening, and every now and again, for a guide. These are generally executed by professional diners who do not engage us prior to their meal."
There are calls for legislation in the industry, or at least a code of conduct to compel both online and print media to state prominently in their reviews - not just in fine print or as a small mention - if their meal was hosted or is a paid advertorial. This is the standard practice in the West, says the blogger who requested anonymity.
All about concepts
The last word comes from Purdey Poon, who runs the small, 10-year-old French restaurant Infuzi at the Biopolis with her chef husband Freddie Lee.
"It's (the food media circus) gotten to the point where food is no longer first. It's all about concepts now. As much as we'd love to hop on the bandwagon to chase Mrs Trendy, Ms Hip and Mr Celebrity-Status - because it makes sense from a business point of view - we asked ourselves, 'Do we want to swerve off our path?'
"No, all we really want to be is a husband-wife team that serves up heartfelt food and service, enough to make a living to feed our team and now, our kid.
"At the end of the day, it's restaurants like ours which focus on serious food without all the trimmings that suffer. Ironic, isn't it?"
Additional reporting by Avanti Nim