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Food blogging takes restaurant critiques into untested territory

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There's a lot to be excited about on the culinary front in the Treasure Valley. When Food Network celebrity Guy Fieri rolled through Boise last spring, he was impressed by the large number of "dynamite joints" for such a remote area of the country.

"You people in Boise have fortified your environment very well," he said about the City of Trees' downtown scene as well as the half-dozen low-key restaurants in Boise, Meridian, Idaho City and Caldwell, where Fieri filmed episodes for his popular Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives show.

The man who eats his way across the country for a living is not alone in his enthusiastic assessment of the local food scene. In the blogosphere—as well as on Twitter and Facebook—a number of food blogs touting area restaurants, independent grocery stores, small dairies, wineries and specialty food purveyors have popped up online.

But along with those numerous blogs come new questions for foodies: Just whom do you trust, and what makes someone an expert?

"That's a tough question," said Guy Hand of Northwest Food News (nwfoodnews.com) and the resident restaurant critic at the Idaho Statesman. "It's probably the same as for a journalist. What qualifies a person to be a writer or a journalist?" Mulling it over, Hand added that there are no formal credentials for a food blogging expert.

The growth of food blogs has brought attention to the issue among those caught in the middle of the situation. Late last year, Hand and Boise-based food blogger Michael Boss of Behind the Menu (behindthemenu.com) had a spirited debate over establishing credibility and ethics in food blogging as opposed to traditional food critics.

Boss does not present himself as a restaurant critic, but as a teller of people's stories.

"When we started doing the Behind the Menu thing, I liked the idea of raconteur because I didn't want to pass myself off as a journalist or a food writer," he explained.

"It's not that I think I'm a bad writer, it's just that I didn't really feel like I had the qualifications, and it just seemed pretentious. So I went [with] raconteur because it is, after all, the French term for storyteller and that's really what I wanted to do," he said. Instead of conducting unbiased critiques of the restaurants and other food-centric businesses profiled on Behind the Menu, "we tell their stories," Boss said. "Bloggers are not journalists," said the man who worked as a business journalist in Silicon Valley before entering the public relations field and founding Boss Communications in Boise in 1995.

While formal credentials may be nebulous, ethical guidelines are available for food journalists and bloggers alike on Web sites like the Association of Food Journalists and Blog With Integrity. As a food journalist and blogger, Hand adheres to both codes of ethics.

He started his life as a food journalist while living in Southern California and writing for a variety of newspapers and national publications. Hand was approached by a local NPR radio producer to turn one of his pieces into a radio broadcast. It was then that he started learning the ins and outs of independent radio production, which, when he returned to his home state of Idaho, turned into a monthly NPR broadcast called Edible Idaho.

"When I first pitched my idea to NPR about doing a monthly radio show about food in Idaho, they asked me, 'How many stories can you do before you run out?'"

After four years of broadcasting, Edible Idaho needed a Web site to contain the flurry of podcasts and written articles Hand generated. Recent topics on the issue-driven show include animal welfare on local farms, butchery classes for conscientious carnivores and a feature about a Web site called Idaho's Bounty that connects local farmers, ranchers and dairymen with consumers seeking to break their link with the country's industrial food chain.

Launched in September 2009, the Edible Idaho Web site soon expanded to include the new Northwest Food News site, where the focus is on food and agricultural issues in Idaho, Washington, Oregon and Montana, and content contributions come from other writers and independent radio producers located in the Northwest.

And while both Hand and Boss share their opinions about food in the Boise area online, they have very different approaches to it. Hand stands by the journalistic standard of not accepting any form of payment or gift for what he writes, Boss actively recruits sponsors from the businesses he writes about to help financially support his Web site.

Boss' blog features podcast interviews with local chefs, restaurateurs and other movers in Treasure Valley's foodie realm that include bakers, ranchers and purveyors of locally produced specialty foods. In exchange for exposure Boss asks some of the businesses he profiles to make a "contribution" to keep the site running.

"A lot of times it'll be just popping our heads in a place, introducing ourselves and saying, 'Hey, do you mind if we take a picture? We can send it out to our followers, tell a little bit about you.' And then at some point we'll circle back and say, 'Hey, if you believe in what we're doing can we count on you for some kind of support?'"

Of the 189 "favorite pages" listed on Behind the Menu's Facebook page, "Less than a dozen are sponsors at this time," Boss said. "But we're expecting that will grow.

"We have a tremendous mix of culinary businesses in our area that are not just restaurants," Boss said.

"Talk a walk down Bannock Street in downtown Boise: you have City Peanut Company, the Chocolat Bar and Pottery Gourmet Kitchen," he said, describing a mere sliver of Boise's interesting and diverse culinary culture. "People in Boise are tremendous boosters of our local food scene—like Chamber of Commerce ambassadors. The advent of social media and the blogosphere allow people to do what used to be done by word of mouth."

The idea of accepting payment for blog content is still being debated, but, according to the Federal Trade Commission, it's fine, as long as the arrangement is fully disclosed.

Last December, the government issued its Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising. While bloggers aren't the only group targeted, they are included in a clear set of guidelines about disclosure:

"When there is a connection between the endorser and the seller of an advertised product that might materially affect the weight or credibility of an endorsement (i.e. the connection is not reasonably expected by the audience) such connection must be fully disclosed."

Like Boss, Jess Flynn is also in the PR biz. The owner of Red Sky Public Relations got into food blogging because, "I talked a lot about food on Twitter and some blogger in California who has a travel blog site said, 'You seem to really know your stuff about food in Boise. Would you write a blog post for me?' That's why I started. I wrote that blog post about my favorite breakfast stops in Boise."

Flynn started her IdahoFoodies blog (idahofoodies.posterous.com) to "share info about the places that I love, the people I love and the types of food that I like."

"If you read the blog, you'll see that half the time I don't know what I'm doing. Cooking--I'll include that in there. I don't have an ego about admitting what I don't understand."

Flynn makes a point of not profiling her PR clients on her blog, but said if she were to ever mention a client, she would make a disclosure of the business relationship.

"I believe in transparency in who you are and all that. If somebody sent me something or I got it free from a client, I would disclose that," said the former television producer.

Regardless of the finer points of how they do it, the proliferation of food-oriented blogs in the Treasure Valley says a lot about how much residents care about the topic.

"The stories we tell are about people who have a passion that's rooted in who they are, where they're from, their family relationships. And they are trying to get that out there and share it. And I wanted to tell these stories," Boss said.

"To me, social media was the perfect platform for doing that."