Recently in Eater Montreal, Ian Harrison wrote a piece about comps (free meals) for food bloggers. In particular, the bulk of the piece describes the one time that Ian got a comped meal from a restaurant. From the article (I’ve snipped a bit for brevity):
Last summer I celebrated a family event with lunch at Maison Boulud in the Ritz-Carlton hotel. It was close to flawless. My wife was unable to attend so when the restaurant announced in August that Daniel Boulud was going to preside over a menu from his cookbook, Daniel: My French Cuisine, I saw it as an opportunity to try the restaurant together (and, truthfully, spend some quality alone time away from our energetic and relentless daycare-age daughter).
But first I wrote about the event on Eater. When Daniel Boulud comes to town, you do that. […]
Midway through our meal, we spotted Daniel Boulud hobnobbing in the dining room. When he eventually made his way to our table, he couldn’t have been more gracious. But he said something that gave me a twinge of discomfort: “It’s our pleasure to have you here tonight.”
There was a nudge, nudge, wink, wink quality to it. I don’t think it was intended as such but I felt it.
When the bill never came, we left what we hoped was a nice tip and [left]. On the way home we didn’t speak about the food or the excellent bottle of wine we shared. […] Our focus was on the freebie. A freebie in the order of $250.
I am guessing that’s $250 in Canadian, which is about $208.50 or so in US dollars (UK £137, €179.25) at the time of this writing. Even accounting for this, that’s still a pretty lavish meal for just about anyone in the 99% and maybe even a few in the 1%. It’s the kind of meal that some of us, including people like me, usually only dream of.
And apparently, that’s the going rate for good publicity. What’s alarming, though, is that this is clearly unethical PR, in that the food bloggers are implicitly expected to remain opaque about this. Worse than that, though, are this burning questions: How often does this happen in, say, places like Houston, TX? Dallas, TX? Columbus, OH? Jackson, MS? Memphis, TN? Atlanta, GA? (Just to name a few.) How many otherwise great restaurants are barely getting the chance to last longer than a few months because of unscrupulous and unethical behavior in what amounts to outright bribery of the press?
I don’t really rely on news coverage or food blogs to decide on new restaurants to try. Usually, it’s places I have heard about from friends and acquaintances (over a decade ago I found out what Fogo de Chao was all about from one of the companies I was working for at the time, and I have wanted to try the place since). Sometimes, it’s places I have seen while traveling around the city, or occasionally outside of the city. However, I know a lot of people do rely on traditional media or blogs and may go to a restaurant reviewed well in the local paper whereas they would completely ignore a comparable television or print advertisement. By the same token I know that the local television stations continue to publicize the city food inspectors’ violation reports for similar reasons (so people know where not to go to). The value of publicity cannot be ignored, either way.
Blurring the line between news/publicity and advertising is bad not only for the reporter/blogger, but also for those who would otherwise benefit from good publicity. It also potentially gives the entire businesses (PR and news reporting) a bad name, as well as undermining the trust that people place in bloggers and news media to be transparent. A few unscrupulous bloggers out there who take the comps and write what’s been paid for have the potential to ruin it for all of us long term.