When was the last time you picked up a local newspaper and read a restaurant review before deciding on your next culinary adventure? We can hear the crickets. However, if the question was “When was the last time a post on Instagram or TikTok influenced where you ate or ordered takeout from?” a good number of people might say “last night.” Dish Miami gathered a group of writers, bloggers, influencers, and marketers to discuss the current state of the food media landscape in Miami. Included in our expert panel are Carlos Frías, food and dining Editor for the Miami Herald; Gio Gutierrez, founder of Chat Chow TV and The Real Havana Club brand ambassador; Sara Liss, freelance food and travel writer and author of Miami Cooks; Diandra Lamas, Yelp Miami Community Director; Virginia Gil, Time Out Miami Editor; and Geoffrey Anderson, co-founder of Miami Food Pug. Responses are related in no particular order; all are cut, pasted, and (mostly) unedited herein. Responses do not necessarily reflect the views of Dish Miami.
Gio Gutierrez: What’s the word limit for this answer?!?
Sara Liss: I think it’s in transition now, in light of the pandemic and the shifts in our industry. A bunch of high-profile magazines have closed or are in distress, salaries have been cut, there’s no budget for freelancers. Things have been in a downward spiral for a while. On the other hand, social media and influencers are doing better than ever. But are those considered the “media” now? They may perform the same function, but are vastly different beasts.
Virginia Gil: I think the media, right now, is all about feeding the beast: the readers bringing you traffic, the publicists sharing what seems an avalanche of news, and the struggling small businesses clamoring for coverage to stay afloat. It feels more like a fire drill than storytelling or journalism and that’s just a consequence of everything that’s happening in the world around us.
Geoffrey Anderson: The current food media landscape is dominated by social media and less so by traditional media. People are so attached to their phones that many people aren’t going to pick up a magazine or newspaper; it’s a lot easier to read or view something on a device that’s on our person 24/7. Even then, attention spans are so short that your content better be compelling and easily digestible. Hence, social media tends to have an edge in food coverage; it’s so in your face.
Carlos Frías: I think it has changed, with only a handful of exceptions like the New York Times reviews. People don’t read long reviews anymore and believe what they want to believe. They don’t read a review and change their mind about whether or not to go to a place. The Miami Herald focuses on good stories, adding to the texture of Miami and to the fabric of Miami culture. That’s legitimate. I spend the same amount of time writing about interesting places that people should go to, and that makes more sense to the reader than tearing a place apart.
SL: No, it’s still out there if you look for it. Plenty of great publications are still employing full-time food critics. And they exist on the blogger frontier, but lack the editorial oversight that has been the backbone of good food writing.
VG: I don’t think it’s a lost art as much as it’s fallen out of favor in our overly politically correct world. You’ll be crucified for saying/writing something constructive about a restaurant, which is unfortunate because what the hell happened to freedom of speech? On the flip side, you’re a jerk for knocking a business when it’s down and doing its best on fewer means. I see both sides of the argument, but still yearn for honesty—and no, I’m still not turning to Yelp for reviews.
GA: Yes, you don’t see long-form food writing anymore – especially not in South Florida. There’s an audience for it, but it doesn’t monetize as well as listicles and shorter content. Unfortunately, in these crazy times where publishers and businesses are focused on money-making content to stay afloat, it’s sort of fallen to the wayside.
SL: I think it matters to a certain (older) generation. Those who have grown up on social media aren’t really looking for critical food reviews; they’re interested in quick, pithy, oftentimes visual assessments of a place. I think they also like to put together a “collage” of reviews from different sources like Yelp, OpenTable, and Instagram rather than relying on one person’s impressions of a place.
VG: I think the purists, the generation who still subscribes to the New York Times, for instance, or the foodies who remember the great big critics by name, wish there was more of that still around.
GA: Yes and no. A picture is worth a thousand words, and a photo can be just as effective in telling a story and ultimately driving someone to visit your business. That said, a caption or blurb can only do so much, and there are some stories that need more than a thousand words to be told. There’s so much more behind a business than just a beautiful plate.
CF: With food writers, you know who is paying the person. I am paid by the subscribers. With influencers, a girl with pizza is the same as George Clooney with a watch. It has nothing to do with whether it’s good or not. That’s why news still matters.
GG: No, they all have a voice. Different voices, and different microphones, but still a voice.
VG: I do! But does the rest of the world? Nah. I get called an influencer more than a food writer or journalist and it’s frustrating. I’m not offended but I also don’t think my work should be lumped into a generic group as much as what an influencer does shouldn’t either.
GG: People bitched years ago about listicles and now it’s about the influencer, which is nothing more than a personality like celebrities (big and small) with a following; just like you had Cindy Crawford as a spokesperson for City Furniture back in the day. No difference.
SL: Writers who are contributing to publications have to adhere to certain editorial standards (some more rigorous than others). In the best-case scenario, this allows for content oversight and editorial guidance, and I can testify to the joys of actually having a great editor push you to do great (and better) work. Bloggers and influencers are only beholden to their audiences and themselves.
SL: A restaurant should take advantage of all these free platforms and tools to generate awareness. I think having a good mix of social media marketing and traditional media is the best strategy.
GA: Know your audience and really think about where you think your customers are coming from. Do you think a big driver will be word of mouth? Yelp might be something to consider, as well as a direct mail campaign or flyers and sandwich boards. If your budget is tight, there’s always social media like Instagram, which is the go-to for most restaurants.
CF: Every restaurant should make an effort to get their name out there. We (media) look for something interesting, unique.
GG: Some do, some don’t. It depends on the restaurant.
VG: Totally! Restaurants are a business and even the most successful ones need help.
GA: They do, especially in these nutty times where everyone is fighting for every last customer. If you think posting a photo occasionally on social media and having an intern run your account is enough, you’re in for a rude awakening.
CF: Go to a trusted source where you know who is paying their bill, and that has a record of doing things the right way. If it’s a blogger, look at the context.
GG: Consumers are cynical and smart. They know what’s an ad and what isn’t.
SL: If it’s important to consumers, they’ll take the time to understand where they are getting their information from. Paid social media advertising is usually obvious—or should be—with #sponsored posts being labeled as such.
Diandra Lamas: I feel the duty to decipher this is on the journalist/author/influencer. In our sphere of influence as “food media”—be it traditional or non-traditional—we are pretty aware of what is organic and what is sponsored in some way. However, the consumer looking for insight is not always as adept at spotting this as we, fortunately, have the privilege to be. In that sense, I think it’s important to showcase what has been offered for free, what is being paid for to be posted, what is just your own favorite thing organically, etc. The duty is on us to keep our followers, readers and community informed. And to that point, for influencers, it’s also a guideline from the FTC to disclose to consumers if they’re working with a brand. Transparency is key as we continue to experience crossover in the food media landscape.
VG: You’re asking people to think critically and that doesn’t always happen, ha. Though, I will say influencers should be more earnest in their endeavors and disclose when things are paid. Quid pro quo is kind of the norm these days for restaurants and it’s a shame. Journalists often don’t have budgets and only get to try something at a media dinner, which could blur the lines. But that doesn’t mean you should be dishonest or recommend somewhere you wouldn’t go to yourself.
GA: Well, for larger publications, you can safely assume that the writing is not sponsored unless otherwise noted. Everything else gets a little murkier: Social media accounts are supposed to disclose they’re getting paid, but often don’t; I think you just have to go off the account history. If someone is suddenly promoting a product that has nothing to do with their usual posts, you should be a little skeptical. That’s not to say the product can’t be good, though—for all we know, the person may truly believe in it.
CF: It’s more like, where should it be paid—ads, marketing, etc. should be paid for. But it’s not journalism. If you want to get in the news, do something newsworthy.
GG: Advertising is how you get free content. That’s the reality of it. You can boost a post. You can run a digital banner in Miami New Times. I can sponsor a full page in Saveur. We can publish an ad in the New York Times that looks native and created by their editorial team.
SL: This is tricky as everyone’s time is valuable and should be compensated as such. If a social media influencer requires payment for content, it’s up to the business owner to decide if it’s worth the investment for them. But traditional media should also be treated the same way. At this point, most freelance writers who contribute to traditional media are barely getting paid enough to cover the time and costs associated with covering a place. I think they should be compensated for their time as well. Again, it’s up to the business owner to decide what type of content they would like representing them and to invest in that person or medium.
VG: I’d say that’s at the discretion of the business owner, just be honest and transparent with the end consumer.
CF: Responsibility is not on the influencer, it’s on the consumer.
GG: Only if there’s a monetary exchange.
SL: If it’s a paid partnership, then yes.
GG: Huge. We eat with our eyes, no?
SL: Super important. Probably the best free tool out there for communication with your client base and audience.
DL: Today, restaurant owners have so many communication channels at their disposal to reach consumers. I think it’s so critical for restaurants to have an active social media strategy, especially right now. With new changes and guidelines being shared throughout the last year, restaurant owners have had to pivot and adapt so quickly. Being able to keep something like your Yelp business page up to date is one of the best ways a restaurant owner can keep their customers in the loop and aware of any operational changes. For example, adding info about outdoor dining and meal kit offerings to the health and safety measures a restaurant is taking.
VG: I’d say it depends on the restaurant but it’s how most people get up-to-date info these days. I’ll search a restaurant’s IG before checking their website because I know that’s easier to keep current.
GG: They should be a presence but act as themselves.
SL: I think chefs should focus on doing what they do best, which is cooking and managing their kitchens. Some chefs are able to balance all that responsibility with posting engaging content, but I don’t think it should be a requirement.
DL: I think this all comes down to what people feel comfortable with. However, I personally love following chefs and business owners on their personal pages. Why? It connects me with their brand. If you’re okay sharing your business life I think it’s a great way for people to get to know their fave places and the people behind them. It’s kind of like becoming a regular at a restaurant since you can see them every day. Sometimes, these days, digital connections are all people have. Ultimately, no one is a better advocate for your vision and your brand than yourself, so by all means share your story!
VG: Sure! The more platforms you have to get your content out, the better. You’re touting your product and there’s nothing wrong with that.
CF: I have come around with influencers. There is just a clear line between influencers as ads and as independent. Influencers are selling themselves as a brand. If a restaurant likes an influencer, sure why not? But I would have more respect for someone who comes in with a solid marketing plan, letting them know exactly what they can expect from the relationship.
GG: I think [the influencers] came more into the forefront of discussion as they promoted home-grown business as they got more love than they would with a traditional channel.
VG: I’ve become more jaded but also have way more empathy for the community after getting to know a few. At the end of that, it’s a job and they’re all trying to do their best. I think if you’re transparent and honest with your audience, it’s all gravy.
GA: Yeah, it’s been disheartening to hear from restaurant owners that influencers are still asking for free food when everyone is struggling. On that note, influencers are still important as traditional media has been hit hard due to the lack of advertising resulting from the pandemic. Magazines and newspapers are contracting or shutting down altogether, so people are getting their news and recommendations from social.
CF: We are listening to experts – influencers are not working in the interest of the public. They are just trying to sell you a watch.
SL: Since many traditional media sources have been floundering or cutting back in light of the pandemic, it seems influencer marketing has gotten stronger since influencers are still out there covering things, posting about new products and promotions, and generally being the information source people need.
VG: I think now more than ever because traditional media is saturated with news of the world imploding. People are also doom scrolling more so your new pop-up or the cool homemade cake will get better traction on social media.
GA: As a restaurant, I wouldn’t throw money at influencers right now unless there’s a trackable ROI (return on investment). Make sure your collaboration results in something trackable like a coupon code or something, so you can see if there was truly any benefit. Don’t just throw money blindly at someone to come to your restaurant and post; think the whole process through.
CF: Every major food writer is still doing takeout and delivery. This is journalism; how they are acting, what they are doing, and documenting the experience. I am not willing to risk my life (or anyone else’s) to eat out. It’s ok to support local restaurants with takeout.
GG: Miami is the New York South.
SL: More innovative promotions, like cooking at home kits or “drive-thru” tasting events. Outdoor dining is here to stay and better digital apps for ordering and delivery.
DL: I think COVID-19 has changed people’s connection to local businesses for the better. Because of the pandemic and how it has impacted the local business landscape, people are trying to be more connected to business owners, their story, their staff and support them more than ever before. The future, to me, is expecting more from traditional media, influencers, and big brands (like Yelp) to act as a resource for the consumer. How are we providing real stories? How are we giving information on how people can support diverse businesses all over town? And how can we help to build a sense of community?
VG: I stopped making predictions in 2020, ha.
GA: More takeout-friendly menus. While it seems that things are on the mend, many people still won’t feel comfortable dining out for a while. Carryout is no longer an afterthought for many restaurants—it’s something that deserves just as much attention. You’re also going to see a lot of transplants in Florida, which is starting with the recent influx of restaurants from New York. Florida has fought to stay open during the pandemic, and restaurateurs are rushing to come down and take advantage.
GG: So far, we have Morimoto’s Momosan, Cote, Freehold, Carbone, Uchi, and more imports popping up and I’m personally excited to see the variety.
SL: Unfortunately, I think the places that don’t have strong digital marketing may falter unless they have a strong local community supporting them. I think food media will become more about social media presence rather than long-form stories or posts.
GA: Instead of those brown boxes commonly used for takeout, you’re going to see places put more care into how they package items, especially since people will be taking photos. There will also be a rise in digital publications, as traditional publishers cut costs by eliminating paper, postage, and other expenses. In terms of new construction and restaurant design, you’re going to see a bigger focus on outdoor dining, too.
GG: In regards to COVID-19, other cities’ media landscape is all about how they survive the challenges, government funding plans, etc and Miami is writing about all the new restaurants opening up.
SL: I think other cities invest more in their media outlets and are rewarded with high-quality food coverage. Sometimes it seems like Miami chases the hype without caring about the depth of coverage and content and, thus, we sow what we reap. If we support superficial coverage, then we get superficial coverage.
VG: I think there’s less interest in humanitarian efforts or cool movements that help people and communities. We’re still impressed with new and shiny and mostly flashy. The opening of Carbone took off way more than news of pop-up fridges or any fundraising campaign did.
GG: I think we are creating our own food landscape that’s unique to us and just like Miami, there’s nothing wrong with that.
SL: I think we are easily in the same league as LA, Philadelphia, and Boston, but we lack quality outlets to display this talent. If business owners want their places to be showcased with quality coverage, then they need to understand they are part of an ecosystem whereby supporting media outlets they respect will benefit them.
VG: Honestly, none. I think we need to be more introspective and carve out a singular identity. I speak from personal experience working on a team made up of people from NY, Chicago, and LA. What took off there did not take off here.
Do you think critical food writing is dead and gone in a world where influencers lead the way? We’d love to hear your opinion: Comment below or shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo credit: Ruben Cabrera