They say the power of an empire may rest on how well it pleases its people. And in the growing domain of the country’s food scene, this is no less true where more and more satisfied diners-turned-writers are planting their geo-tagged flags in every restaurant in town, urging the rise of food empires by way of blogs.
In Manila alone, there are nearly a hundred food bloggers documenting the rise and fall of food fads and dispensing recipes like the new apostles of Martha Stewart. From Joel Binamira’s research paper-reliable posts in Market Manila to the notorious instant reviews given by anonymous Instagram account @masarapba, blogs and social media have become more potent and powerful than any well-written press release.
COMING OF AGE
“Word of mouth has always been associated with influencers and thought leaders,” says Amor Maclang, brand strategist and co-founder of marketing consulting agency Geiser Maclang. “Brands need to weave their own stories. It’s their responsibility to convey this to their public beyond just making good food. Because of the role of technology, there has never been a time in human history when our publics have demanded this level of transparency.”
In the mid-2000s, the blogging craze hit Manila and gave rise to names like Lori Baltazar of Dessert Comes First, Joey de Larrazabal-Blanco of 80 Breakfasts, Jin Perez of Jin Loves to Eat, and Anton Diaz of Our Awesome Planet. “When I started blogging,” recalls de Larrazabal-Blanco, “we didn’t really consider ourselves as ‘brands.’ I started as a hungry girl who loved cooking and loved sharing that passion through my blog.”
“The industry considers bloggers important but not as relevant as they used to be 10 years ago,” says Amor Maclang.
Early pioneers have, either deliberately or by chance, followed the usual arc of passion turning into a business venture. As more and more people jumped on the blogging bandwagon and Google Search hits became something of a yardstick for online influence, restaurants pounced on the ripe opportunity to call on bloggers and tap the power of word of mouth.
“There is an algorithm for positive reputation,” says Maclang, “and that is 17 to 18 positive for every negative. So, yes, there has to be a deliberate effort to get positive news coming out of your own real estate.”
PR companies then doled out invites, which not only promoted brands but also consequentially started the careers of some foodies-turned-writers in the metro. “I started food blogging back in 2008,” says food writer Chinkee Clemente-Koppe, who, not long after, started receiving invites to wine and spirits events at the Mandarin Oriental. “I suppose my posts were very alcohol-centric back then [laughs]. Soon after, [a local lifestyle website] contacted me to start contributing to them. That’s how my career as a writer truly began.”
CHANGING FOOD CHAIN
“The industry considers bloggers important but not as relevant as they used to be 10 years ago,” says Maclang of how the tides have turned since the first wave of food blogging in the ’90s. “Now, the public is gravitating more towards online influencers who genuinely live and breathe the lifestyle. The blogging sphere has developed a caste system, a hierarchy where those at the ‘bottom or starting out’ are ideal for SEO purposes and those at ‘the top of the food chain’ command the higher price tags (whether they be choice seats, junkets, or even their own endorsement deals).”
New players have naturally thrown themselves into the arena. And while pioneers like Baltazar (who was able to dole out her eponymous DCF cookbook) collaborate with food companies, curate food fairs, and host workshops, recognition (or at least publishing deals) for new food writers may not come as easily. Receiving freebies and invites (albeit less extravagant than those given to their more established counterparts) then pose as easy forms of validation—or at least serve as nice enticements to sustain their regular programming.
“If bloggers are there primarily for the money or the swag, forget it,” says Maclang.
“There really are people who are in it solely for the freebies,” says blogger Richie Zamora, known for the moniker The Pickiest Eater. “Some of my friends in the restaurant industry have shared with me their horror stories regarding bloggers,” he says, going on to mention instances of so-called bloggers gate-crashing events, making outrageous demands, and even defacing a restaurant’s logo and turning it into something vulgar, simply because gift certificates weren’t given out.
“Hotels and restaurants will roll out the VIP treatment, which can give bloggers a false sense of celebrity. However, when they start believing that all these invitations are coming in simply because the establishments want [these writers] to honor them with [their] presence, and not to help spread the word about the brand, [bloggers] might need a reality check. Maclang puts it bluntly, “If bloggers are there primarily for the money or the swag, forget it.”
EVERYONE’S A CRITIC
In the confused scenario of all bloggers coming under the guise of well-meaning and discriminating diners, authenticity (or at least a credible semblance of it) is a term reserved only for an indefinable few. Bloggers have over the years suggested the impression of being paid to write what they write, while on the other side of the spectrum are writers dishing out bad reviews either to aspire to the elusive mark of authenticity or to genuinely and cockily establish the superiority of their palate.
Chefs and restaurateurs, such as chef Mikel Zaguirre who opened a new Locavore branch along with other restaurant concepts this year, lament the swarm of diners bashing their establishments online while keeping their mouths shyly shut in the face of waiters. “How do restaurants know what’s wrong when diners just rant online?” Zaguirre says in another interview.
“If you must say something negative, always be constructive,” says Clemente-Koppe. “Don’t just say nasty things for the sake of being labeled as ‘honest’ and ‘reliable.’ If you’re not constructive, then you’re just an asshole.”
In the boiler room of social media, micro-blogging formats like Snapchat and Instagram allow more and more people to dispense their half-baked two-cents online. Take for instance, the rise of @masarapba, whose apparent anonymity contributes to his or her own notoriety (although a few clicks on Instagram and chat apps would suggest it’s more likely a “her”).
“If you must say something negative, always be constructive,” says Clemente-Koppe. “Dont just say nasty things for the sake of being labeled as ‘honest’ and ‘reliable.’ If youre not constructive, then you’re just an asshole.”
“I actually really enjoy the posts of @masarapba,” says Zamora. “I find the writing hilarious and fresh. The photography obviously isn’t the best, but it’s real, which I feel is the crux of the concept’s appeal: It’s like the everyman’s point-of-view.” Popular among the younger markets, micro-blogging has provided a medium where everyone appears to be a critic—and with the spoiled reputation of bloggers making a name for themselves in the name of comps and added discounts, anonymity has become its own allure.
“The biggest differences from when I started are the emergence of review apps and websites and the rise of Instagram,” says Zamora. “With these two tools becoming more and more popular, it in a way empowers people to become a critic, and let their opinion be heard.” It might be an overstatement to say that Instagram posts and app reviews have become to blogs what digital media was once to print, yet while more audiences turn to influencers who live and breathe the lifestyle, technology finds a way for more foodies to intrude seamlessly into people’s lives.
THE LONG RUN
“Anonymity doesn’t necessarily equate to credibility in this day and age of trolling,” says Maclang. Notwithstanding the bad rep reinforced by freebie-hunting bloggers, and diners masquerading as pretentious critics, blogging retains its purpose and its own charisma. “It’s still very much instrumental to the growth of a restaurant,” says Zamora, “because getting as much content on the web is vital to marketing your brand. As far as I know, Instagram posts don’t come out on Google, and, depending on how many people you follow, you can disappear from Instagram within hours.”
It might be an overstatement to say that Instagram posts and app reviews have become to blogs what digital media was once to print, yet while more audiences turn to influencers who live and breathe the lifestyle, technology finds a way for more foodies to intrude seamlessly into people’s lives.
In the crowded and erratic field of food blogging, writers not only promote a brand, but help create it. “Engage relevant stakeholders in the industry or be a thought leader yourself—you love food? Why not do a series on public markets?” suggests Maclang.
Beyond SEO purposes, blogs allow restaurants to gain more buzz from posts that tell a story, and make readers feel less like they’re simply going through a food directory than that they belong to a real community of diners. “Food is fun, and once upon a time, before it became a crowded field, blogging was, too,” says de Larrazabal-Blanco. “It still can be.”