A new era of food publishing has changed the way restaurants market themselves. Sam Twyford-Moore tunes in to the digital age.
The role that new media and publicity play in the success and lifespans of restaurants is increasingly clear as the digital era continues to come of age. The accessibility and approachability of online media also means that any number of restaurants are able to get their foot in the door in a way that might have been near impossible in the age of traditional media. What does this mean now and how can we get more than a foot in the door?
The rise of Broadsheet and publications, both online and print—including Time Out and The Urban List—has seen a new, youth-focused media voice grow in prominence in the industry. The power of these publications to build awareness of a new restaurant is significant. The Guardian cleverly documented this new kingmaker power in a piece by journo Brigid Delaney titled ‘The Broadsheet Effect’. Delaney ultimately got Broadsheet’s founder Nick Shelton on the record saying, “We don’t have a [food] critic. The philosophy is that we only write about what we like. If there’s a restaurant we don’t like, we don’t write about it.”
Broadsheet’s ‘nice policy’ is a good thing for the restaurant industry, of course. But it also means your restaurant needs to be of a high quality to receive any attention in the first place. Tim Fisher is the editorial director of the online publication and comes from a background in surfing magazines and as a teacher at RMIT University. His recruitment clearly speaks to the lifestyle approach of the magazine—no critical function, but also committing to cover more than just food, taking in arts and entertainment coverage, too.
This coverage will likely receive more priority as the website undergoes a significant national expansion—moving to Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide in one quick swoop, hiring three new city-based editors. The national expansion is rapid, but it speaks to the reach Broadsheet now has, and the money it has to invest in greater and wider coverage.
When Fisher sends writers and photographers to particular restaurants and cafes, there is thought behind the commissioning act. “I’m looking for somewhere that gets the basics right, that understands its customers go out to be with people, not just to eat food.” He goes on to explain, “Ronnie Di Stasio [owner of Melbourne’s Café Di Stasio] put it well when he said a good restaurant needs a good wine list, ice, lemon, good food, and waiters who know what they’re doing.”
Fisher is quick to call Kettle Black the best example of the Broadsheet effect in Melbourne – and it’s his favourite café to boot. Located in South Melbourne, the expansive space quickly chews up both an outdoor coffee service cart and an indoor kitchen. There’s a lived-in quality to its use of space, but it’s also more pristine than any house you’ve ever seen. The food is solid—we have a translucent trout fillet with seaweed and poached eggs, as well as a crayfish roll (nodding its head to the lobster variety), firm white medallions on an ash-dusted roll—and the coffee is perfect. The place would undoubtedly be buzzing without Broadsheet’s tick of approval, but people come from out of town to find the place thanks to the coverage.
Coverage in Broadsheet isn’t just a one-off prospect. Although the editorial team is “much smaller than anyone imagines”, Fisher is quick to suggest a return visit, when warranted, is attempted. “We’re in constant conversation with people across the city and the industry, and we’re experiencing as much as we can. If a restaurant is doing something genuinely interesting, or different, or is having a moment for any particular reason, we assume our audience will want to know about it, and we’ll want to tell them.”
The old style of food criticism is still out there. The Good Food Guide [run by Fairfax] and Time Out still run their awards listings and reviews, create a hierarchy of winners and losers. But digital media flattens this vertical, decentralising the authority with anonymous critics. Bloggers are passionate obsessives first and foremost, and amateur in the true sense of the word. And there is a new wave coming of next generation media—the second wave of online, as such—and it may prove even more effective for restaurants and cafes than the first.
Vice recently expanded its scope to establish a food-based sub-website, Munchies. Primarily producing short articles and video-based content, the site is leading the way in innovating coverage of restaurants and helping build the profile of new young chefs, including Eddie Huang. In Australia, Vice has just launched its first version of ‘Chef’s Night Out’ featuring Andrew McConnell of Cutler & Co. In the video, McConnell and a team of sous chefs hit the town—this is the standard format of ‘Chef’s Night Out’ and its become a bit of a cult classic online, as well as serving as a great way to discover the industry insider’s favourite joints in any given city. It’s culinary tourism guide video par excellence. McConnell is in good form in the video, loosening with the booze and acting a guide for several Melbourne institutions both new and old.
Earlier this year, on a much larger scale, Attica’s Ben Shewry was featured in the Netflix documentary series Chef’s Table, a lavish documentary project profiling chefs from around the world, all with remarkable backstories and deeply creative visions.
This level of coverage isn’t achievable for everyone—but, if all else fails, you can always create your own media. ACME’s head chef Mitchell Orr hosts The Mitchen, a podcast produced in Sydney that is gaining a cult following online and is helping communicate ACME’s unique food ethos. The accessibility of the form—easily downloaded on iTunes for free—is a perfect avenue for building audience for the restaurant.
The personality of the chef is certainly key to building a successful restaurant business; but no cult has ever formed around someone waiting for followers to just come and in this competitive era, you can’t wait and let the food speak for itself. The ultimate key to success seems to be this though: people want to talk about food, but in order to do so you need to help them to do so—plainly, every restaurant needs a strong story to sell to the media and customers alike. The food alone won’t do it for you. New media will help—digital magazines like Broadsheet or homemade podcasts can only create so much buzz—and so it really comes down to you in the end.