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Across This Line, You DO NOT

June 21, 2011

It’s just a hunch, but I’m guessing that nobody is really interested in reading a philosophical and theoretical discussion about the ethics of food writing.

However, not only has this been a recent topic of conversation here on the FLB, but it has also generated quite a bit of heat over at Wendalicious. And I think it deserves a little bit of attention, especially given a few recent events.

Not least of which is the new Chipotle that opens today on Wolf Road.

See, now you have to ask yourself, why did I mention that? Did I write it because I was invited to the pre-opening day festivities in which my family was treated to free burritos and sodas? Or did I mention it because I hope Chipotle’s increased presence will ultimately inspire our local restaurants to strive for similar thresholds of sustainably and ethically raised ingredients?

Honestly, the answer is a little of both. Is this the same as pay for play? I don’t think so.

The FLB isn’t here for just fun and games. Ultimately my goal is to improve the food in the Capital Region. Part of this is trying to raise the standards consumers expect local establishments to meet. Another part is reaching out to local food producers and praising their good works and exposing their failings.

But to do that I need to be visible. To do that I need to build relationships. On some level that occasionally involves a bit of quid pro quo.

As much as possible I try to put this front and center. I mean, it’s highlighted in the top right corner of every page of the blog. My Open Letter to Capital Region Chefs. If you are doing something good, tell me about it, and I’ll promote it.

There is not much of a difference between that and, “If you are doing something good, show me about it, and I’ll promote it.” The showing is where it can get complicated, because that can involve invitations to tastings that are not available to the public.

And I recognize it is a slippery slope. Which is why I’m glad there are people like B around to help keep me honest. He may or may not believe the things I have to say, but I think he should. Here’s why.

At the end of the day, in the context of this blog, all I have is my honest opinion. If I let my standards drop and recommend something that should not be recommended, I will lose the trust of my readers. That is not something I am willing to barter for free food.

But I also recognize it is not that simple.

Take yesterday’s post about my cake from Crisan. The woman who took my order there knows me. She knows the blog, and she knows what excites me. How can I be sure that anyone else would get a similar cake? And even if they did, would the Crisan staffer inform the customer of the provenance of their strawberries?

Being served the complementary dish of luffa at Ala Shanghai offers a similar quandary, except it goes one step further. Something like the luffa would have made a great Eat This! post for All Over Albany. But given the actual journalistic standards of the AOA editors, I’m sure that would not have been okay.

If you look back at the post, it’s not about how great Ala Shanghai is, but rather about the experience of being given this dish for free, and receiving the very useful information that the restaurant has a seasonal menu which includes this unusual and delicious dish. It’s those last two things that are special, and I would have completely overlooked them had it not been for Lanny taking the initiative.

And this has been my criticism of Steve Barnes for a long time, so I understand.

There is no reason to believe that the food he is served at 677 Prime isn’t given just a little bit of extra care and attention. And sometimes it’s the details that matter. However, for the most part what I write about aren’t executional details. I try to write about larger issues like what makes food good, and what makes a restaurant special. And I think that’s a critical difference. 

That said, there are lines that I do not cross.

Recently I got a rather interesting email. I’m not even going to tell you who it was from, lest my mention give them the added publicity they were seeking. But it was from what appears to be a reputable social media / word-of-mouth marketing firm that represents a large New York State agency. And they were actually offering me cash to write a post in support of their efforts. Here’s the relevant blurb:

In exchange for your assistance in promoting this initiative, [REDACTED] is willing to advertise on your site. In order to do this, we are interested in hearing about what our options are, the cost associated with these options, and what our next steps would be.

Taking money for a post is dirty. Sampling a restaurant’s food is the cost of doing business. My opinions are my own. They cannot be bought. The promise of free food will not always get me to show up at an event. The arrival of products on my doorstep will not always result in a post.

But I write about my experiences with food. And if I eat it there’s a chance I will write about it, especially if I can craft it into some story that is consistent with the themes of the FLB. If you have any specific concerns about places I may have strayed, let’s talk about them. But I think you would be hard pressed to find one.

18 Comments leave one →
  1. June 21, 2011 9:26 am

    I appreciate your desire to put everything out on the table. Writing about something like food walks a fine line, as you mentioned. When places know who you are, they’re going to want to give you stellar treatment. On a number of occasions, after returning to Wagon Train BBQ after promoting the hell out of The Graveyard Challenge and packing their restaurant full of people, I went in to have a burger, and, after paying, was greeted by the owner. He got upset that I didn’t tell him I was there prior to paying because he would have bought it for me. I urged him that I was returning to enjoy their food, and that I want to pay for what I eat; I’m a customer just like anybody else.

    There’s a lot of times where that’s out of your control. For example, I gave a fake name last Friday when I made a reservation for Honey Ham at Ala Shanghai. When Lanny saw it was me, he brought out a few appetizers for me to try, on the house. Part of my ethics is to not judge a place, good or bad, based on something complimentary, so when I write up the Honey Ham, which was an epic experience, any mention of the appetizers will be paranthetical.

    But, it’s clear what message you’re trying to get across, and this post does a good job to clarify it for the naysayers.

  2. Matt K permalink
    June 21, 2011 10:33 am

    I think as long as you announce possible biases in an article, then you are OK. Where the line gets crossed is when you (and I’m using the generic “you” here not FLB in particular) give what seems to be an “unbiased” opinion when you have, in fact, been biased by many things.

    I think your transparency thus far has been exceptional. Keep up the good work!

  3. June 21, 2011 4:36 pm

    I’m very eager to hear how you think I should do my job, Daniel. Go only to places where I’m not recognized or where I know the food won’t be worth mentioning on the blog or in print? Wear disguises? Refuse any and all dishes offered to me? Don’t take the server’s or chef’s recommendation for what’s new and interesting? That would mean missing many things that readers might like to know about.

    Like you, I strive to be ethical. I pay full price for everything I order. On at least a half-dozen occasions over the years, when an owner has gone overboard and refused to send me a check, I told the server, “If I don’t get charged for my dinner, I will never come back and won’t be able to write about you again.” You can be sure I got a bill immediately. If a small dish or a drink is sent to me, which doesn’t happen regularly, I add the price of it to the tip. I’ve recently tipped 50 percent after an extra app arrived, for instance, and I left $28 on an $8 bar tab after a sommelier shared a couple of glasses from wines he was tasting. If you’re concerned about writing about something like the luffa at Ala Shanghai, paying for it by leaving its cost as part of the tip goes a long way toward maintaining your integrity and independence. Yes, you got it without asking, because the owner recognizes you as a blogger and a good customer, but you also left money for it. As for advertising considerations, I’m thankful to be in the privileged position of not having to deal with them. I don’t even know what an ad on Table Hopping, or anywhere in the Times Union, costs. The quid-pro-quo offer you describe is way out of bounds.

    Do some kitchens pay special attention to plates they send me? I don’t doubt it. But I also know they’re similarly attentive to all of their best customers. One of the things that most appeals to me about restaurants is their democratic nature; all you have to do to get special treatment is be a good repeat customer. Anybody can become a cherished regular who gets a good table, preferred reservation time on a busy night, a drink on the house or special dishes from the kitchen. You don’t have to have a food blog or newspaper job.

    Also like you, I believe in spotlighting well made, ethically sourced, tasty, interesting food as part of my job. (The majority of it, however, is covering news, not describing what I’ve recently eaten.) My opinions cannot be bought, and nobody decides what goes on my blog but me.

    • Kerosena permalink
      June 22, 2011 10:32 am

      “Anybody can become a cherished regular who gets a good table, preferred reservation time on a busy night, a drink on the house or special dishes from the kitchen. You don’t have to have a food blog or newspaper job.”

      Agreed. And often one doesn’t even have to be a ‘cherished regular,’ just a good customer. Be pleasant. Ask for recommendations. Engage the staff. Visit the restaurant at a not-so-busy time. Leave a good (not obscene) tip. Don’t be a pest.

      I think restaurants like customers that show a genuine interest in what they do. Yes, my husband has some ties to the restaurant industry in Albany, but we are also treated very well when we go to restaurants in other cities.

      My point is that even if the customer doesn’t have a blog, perks and exceptional service are not hard to come by.

    • June 22, 2011 2:00 pm

      Bravo, Steve.

      I didn’t really see the point in mentioning Table Hopping here as it’s a different type of food blog. It’s more news and trends, local and national, than local recommendations. When there’s a review on TH, it’s a linked review from the paper, and on the occasions Steve links to his own restaurant review it’s published under journalistic ethical guidelines. There’s not a comparison.

      But Steve’s overall point about paying is it’s all about. It’s not hard to pay if you want to. If it’s not on the bill, add to the tip. Since it really is that easy, if you accept something for free the assumption is that you want free stuff. I think that’s unethical when you’re blogging about it, but I understand my opinion is probably in the minority because hey, free stuff! Who doesn’t like free stuff?

      • June 22, 2011 2:26 pm

        Add the amount to the tip? Not sure I follow the math. The restaurant owner was trying to bribe – I mean impress – the blogger, with a free $15 app. You add $15 to the tip. The waitstaff gets the money, not the restaurant. Now the owner is mad at the waiter/ress *and* the blogger.

      • June 22, 2011 4:12 pm

        Joe, the point is to avoid the appearance of impropriety. If you have ever worked at a job with an ethics code, you should have heard that the appreance of unethica behavior violates the code just the same as the actual breach does. So, for example, even if your child went through all the normal channels to get a job and you had no input into the hiring process, it would violate all workplace ethical codes that I’m aware of if you were their supervisor. The idea is that if you want to talk about food — review it, recommend it, etc. — you should not take things for free from them. It’s not a matter of where the money goes, but where it comes from; we’re not hearing the opining of the restaurant owner, are we?

        I love the hilarious stinger at the end of your comment… oh no, the restaurant owner might get mad! I almost thought it was satire.

      • June 23, 2011 8:25 am

        Actually I disagree. The appearance of impropriety does not violate an ethics code. (I’ve run a few ethics committees) All “conflicts” – which in and of themselves are not improper – must be *disclosed*. That disclosure prompts an investigation – or not. The disclosure is all that is necessary. If the “conflict” does not result in any *harm*, then no foul. Daniel (and Steve B, and Wendalicious, et al) certainly bend over backwards to disclose any conflicts. (Me thinks)

    • June 22, 2011 2:24 pm

      “If a small dish or a drink is sent to me, which doesn’t happen regularly, I add the price of it to the tip.”

      Didn’t think about that, simple and effective, thanks for clarifying, I think that’s something worth reminding on TH. I was honestly wondering how you dealt with being comp’ed at your favorite places in Smallbany.

      As for the rest, I’ve said it on Wendilicious, I think accepting food for free is unethical, whether or not you are doing a blog for “fun” (besides, you know full well the place of FLB on the food blog ladder). I think accepting kitchenware for review and keeping it is also unethical. In both cases, however, I don’t think it’s rocket science: don’t accept the food/invitation, or pay for it, and return the products you review.

      • Just Me permalink
        July 7, 2011 7:44 pm

        -S – What do you do with the products you get to review that you eat or put on your face or on your hands or on your hair, etc.? How do you suggest those get returned?

      • July 7, 2011 9:52 pm

        You just buy them.

  4. June 21, 2011 8:52 pm

    Re: the “pay to play” offer that you (and a lot of us) received via email, which you found offensive – you’re kidding right? From the NYS Health Dept? Full disclosure is all that is necessary. Sunlight is the best antiseptic

  5. June 21, 2011 10:08 pm

    You need a nom de plume and super secret identity like me. Then you will not have to concern yourself with these matters.

  6. June 21, 2011 11:10 pm

    I’ve been fretting about this for awhile and now need to say something.

    Fussy, Wendalicious, DerryX and a few others have become highly visible in the microsphere we call the Cap District food community. Lanny at Ala Shanghai recognizes you when you come in and makes sure you have special dishes. To the extent you are food advocates, that is great. You love food and are recognized for same.

    But there is also a need to have food reviewers who can share the experience of an anonymous diner who slogs in, deals with the printed menu and maybe some attitude problems, gets a good meal or does not. That is the experience that is relevant to the average consumer and by becoming so visible you have disqualified yourselves for this role. Net net, we end up lacking invisible impartial reviewers and that is our loss.

    Steve, I love your writing but you also are not anonymous. I came from San Francisco where Michael Bauer, the lead reviewer, took pains to make himself invisible. There were those who knew who he was but they did not out him because why would you do that, whose interest would it serve?

    You are all fighting the good fight for better food in the Cap District and for recognizing it when it is provided. But we have leapfrogged an evolutionary step in our development as gourmands and I’m not sure that is a good idea.

  7. June 22, 2011 6:06 am

    I got it! Starting next week, Capital District bloggers should only write about Hudson Valley restaurants, and we’ll only write about Albany. Nobody will know who we are!

    • June 22, 2011 5:45 pm

      That is hilarious.. like a blogger exchange program!

  8. Doc permalink
    June 23, 2011 1:49 am

    I would love to add to this discussion but some drug reps are taking me golfing to Pebble Beach early tomorrow and I need my rest. Did I mention that the new anti-wrinkle cream from Pfizer works wonders? In my professional opinion, that is. TTFN, Doc.

  9. July 6, 2011 12:32 pm

    I am a professional blogger, meaning that I do have clients who pay me to blog for them. I know that’s not what you’re really talking about here, but I wanted to put it out there. I also have a personal blog, and paid/sponsored posts are a hot topic in the blogosphere. Have been for a few years. The reality is that, depending on your niche and your goal for your blog, paid posts don’t have to make you feel dirty. I have a sponsored post I have to publish by tomorrow. I will be disclosing the fact that it’s a sponsored post, which is totally compliant with FTC regulations. The real issue here is trust.

    I’ve done product reviews and sponsored posts in the past, and I’ve always disclosed when I’ve gotten something for free or am doing something for pay. (I did this even before the FTC required it.) My readers trust that I’m going to give it to them straight, regardless of whether or not I paid for something. It is possible to provide an unbiased opinion even when you’ve been compensated. (Amusingly, one company still promotes my review of their natural cough syrup, even though my family hated it. They still appreciate the authenticity.)

    If you don’t feel right accepting compensation for your posts, that’s on you. But that doesn’t mean that it’s wrong for other bloggers to accept free stuff or money, so long as they are being transparent.

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