Restaurant reviews and the rise of social media

The vast majority of diners aged under-35 have never read a traditional restaurant review, according to a survey conducted for a Birmingham food festival.

Social media and changing consumer habits are sounding the death knell for “old-style” newspaper reviews, it is claimed.

Clearly, this is bad news for professional food pundits like Marina O’Loughlin, of The Guardian, and The Independent’s Tracey MacLeod – who ignore me if our paths ever cross – as well as all the male scoffers who scribble for publications in London.

Does one take the findings of the survey, conducted on behalf of the Colmore Business District (CBD) Food Festival, with a dose of sea salt? Probably. Newspaper critics continue to wield a disproportionate influence when it comes to “making or breaking” a restaurant, whether that is due to the exacting professionalism of their reports or the sycophancy of readers.

Still, there is no smoke without liquid nitrogen and mainstream publishers ignore surveys such as that produced for the CBD Food Festival (July 18-19) at their peril. The web has spoken and it isn’t going to stop.

Chefs and restaurateurs can get as sniffy as they like about diners endlessly snapping pictures of their food before posting to Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. But the trend simply is not going to go away.

The survey claims 59% of thirty-somethings and under check-in, post pictures or tweet about restaurants, thus undermining the role of the sometimes anonymous restaurant reviewer. Peer-to-peer “reviews” and blogs are eating into the meatloaf once enjoyed exclusively by traditional food critics.

A report compiled on the back of the survey says: “The increasing influence of Instagram, which uses hashtags such as #FoodPorn to encourage users to post pictures of their dishes, and the more traditional medium of Facebook, provide the socially-savvy with a new way of consuming information about restaurants with more than half of those surveyed (55%) saying they would try a new dish solely on the strength of an online friend’s recommendation.

“The emergence of apps such as Foursquare, which can link with users’ Facebook and Twitter profiles to share their location, are another nail in the coffin of the food critic – with 63% of diners now  ‘checking in’ at a venue to alert pals of the latest place to be seen.

“By comparison, just 7% said they would seek out a review of a restaurant by a food critic to help influence their decision and only 16% would browse through food reviews when looking for venue inspiration.”

Having a foot in both camps, as a one-time newspaper critic now writing predominantly online with a soupçon of telly work, I was asked to comment on the survey for the CBD Food Festival. This is what I said:

“The continuing decline in newspaper and magazine sales means many people, young and old, now rely on new media for information about restaurants.

“It is great that diners use Twitter and Instagram to alert their friends and colleagues to new restaurants, cafés and bars. This is merely an extension of ‘word of mouth’ communication, which has existed in the hospitality industry for as long as there have been kitchens selling food to the public.

“The medium may have changed, as has the speed with which dining recommendations are passed on and shared across a potentially huge audience. But the message remains the same: customers react very strongly when it comes to bad food and they will happily tell anyone who will listen, whether that is in person or via social media.”

As part of the food festival, I will be taking part in a cookery demonstration with David Colcombe, chef director of Opus restaurant in Cornwall Street. Team McColcombe will be going head-to-head with Glynn Purnell and Paul Fulford, the semi-retired restaurant reviewer for the Birmingham Mail.

_Me, Glynn & David

Here’s one I made earlier: Glynn Purnell gets frisky at a previous food festival with yours truly as David Colcombe tries to think of a recipe

David also points to the growing influence of social media on the dining scene, a move that he has largely embraced.

He remembers the days when chefs used to show their colleagues recipe books if they needed to talk in detail about dishes. “Nowadays, the younger chefs are walking around with a portfolio of pictures they’ve taken on their phones or found on the internet and downloaded,” says David.

Unlike some of his industry colleagues, who lambast “hobby reviewers” for snapping pictures of dishes, the chef adopts a laissez-faire attitude.

He says: “There is an inevitability about people taking photos at the dinner table. As a restaurant, it’s something we’re very relaxed about. A large part of one’s experience when eating is looking at the dish and we are happy that people are excited about sharing their experience.”

Ironically, Paul Fulford has acquired a cult following for the hazy pictures of food he takes with his long-suffering camera phone.

images-1

In focus: Paul Fulford in recherché mode

According to sources, Paul has struggled with the transition from his favourite box Brownie to “this bloody Samsung telephone communication device.” The veteran hack’s food close-ups are legendary, earning him the nickname King of the Blurries.

Now I have been in situations where I have considered the taking of pictures an annoying distraction from the sometimes joyful, sometimes frenzied, sometimes miserable experience of breaking bread. But I have zero sympathy for chefs who berate customers for doing so. If your food isn’t up to the job, don’t let it leave the kitchen.

  • The fourth CBD Food Festival 2014 takes place on Friday, July 18 and Saturday, July 19, from 11am to 7pm, in Victoria Square, Birmingham City Centre. Entry is free.
  • 24 venues, including many independent businesses, will be serving taster plates of food priced from £3.
  • Participants include: All Bar One; Asha’s; The Bureau; Bushwackers; The Centenary Lounge; Chi Bar; Chung Ying Central; Costa Coffee; Edmund’s Lounge, Bar & Eatery; Ginger’s Bar; Hindleys Bakery; Hotel du Vin & Bistro; Isaacs Contemporary Indian Dining; The Jekyll & Hyde; JoJolapa Bar & Restaurant; Metro Bar & Grill; The Old Contemptibles; The Old Joint Stock Pub & Theatre; Opus at Cornwall Street; Pure Bar & Kitchen; Purnell’s/Purnell’s Bistro; The Square Peg; Urban Coffee Company; and Yorks Bakery Café.
  • For further information, go to www.colmorebusinessdistrict.com

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