Will Blog for (Free) Food?

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It must be an interesting time to own a restaurant. On the one hand you're pummeled by a shrinking economy and rising food costs. On the other hand you're assailed by a growing number of (mostly uncredentialed) food bloggers ready to pounce on even the slightest misstep and proclaim your restaurant an unmitigated failure.

Even a few years ago food bloggers wouldn't have registered a blip on a restaurateur's radar. But a funny thing happened on the way to making a dinner reservation. People started reading even the most obscure food blogs to find out where and what to eat. So what's a restaurant owner to do?

Sauté Bistro is a new restaurant in Houston. On December 4th, 2008, owners Connie and Kevin Lacobie did something that no other restaurant in Houston had ever done before. They placed an announcement on their website inviting all Houston food bloggers to their restaurant for a private tasting dinner (which I attended). And on top of that, the dinner would be gratis. As in FREE.

That collective groan you just heard came from the world's professional food journalists. Yes, writing a "review" in exchange for a comped meal or other compensation is a very slippery slope. But that's a subject for another blog post.

So were Sauté's owners brilliant or foolish for doing this?

Some say foolish because they must figuratively prostrate themselves before a potentially unruly group of local food bloggers.

Some say brilliant because for the cost of a dinner they are getting feedback and publicity from the people most knowledgeable about the Houston food scene (note that at no time did the owners explicitly request anything in return for the free dinner).

Of course that publicity may be unflattering, and once it's out on the Internet, there's no taking it back.

At the very least, Sauté's owners should be commended for engaging Houston's food bloggers for the purpose of publicizing their restaurant and getting feedback to help make their restaurant better, and ultimately successful. Because at the end of the day, the oldest rule in advertising still applies: the only bad publicity is no publicity.

---J.C. Reid

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