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Log In, Let's Eat: How the new media landscape is transforming Ann Arbor's foodie culture

Photo Illustration by Daily Staff
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By Kayla Upadhyaya, Daily Arts Writer
Published December 7, 2011

Sitting down to enjoy a meal at one of the countless restaurants in Ann Arbor, one may not realize his or her dish choice may have been critiqued by a number of resources. Some Ann Arbor favorites have been placed in the spotlight, like last year when Krazy Jim’s Blimpy Burger and Tios Mexican Cafe were featured on Travel Channel’s “Man v. Food.” But there are so many food favorites offered in Ann Arbor that not every restaurant receives the attention it may deserve.

Luckily, professional opinions are becoming less important. The Internet has opened a whole new realm of food critique, making it possible for home chefs, students and people who simply love food to share their point of views and analyze restaurants just like the professionals.

Social media has significantly changed the way we get information on food and restaurants — whether it’s through a vast interconnected network of foodies on Yelp, an online service that gives everyday food lovers across the nation a voice, or through a food community more specific to the University like Wolverine CuiZine. A student-run project exploring food from all angles, Wolverine CuiZine allows students to give their take on recent food trends and Ann Arbor’s local resources. Individual food bloggers are also influencing the world of food reviewing, infusing their commentaries with personality and voice that professional critics may not be able to offer.

The Internet has made this “food democratization” possible by opening up accessibility and providing more personalized and informal platforms to read and write about the universal topic of food.

The people’s review

More and more restaurant windows boast bright red stickers expressing approval from Yelp, an online city guide that helps people find places to eat, shop and drink. Yelp has created a community of amateur reviewers who share their food opinions with others, and it has opened up dialogue between businesses and their customers.

Anyone can contribute reviews to Yelp and read the information or search for places to go. Though the site features reviews on a range of establishments, it focuses substantially on reviewing restaurants and places to eat.

Yelp differs from Zagat, a website born from the Zagat Survey, which was created in 1979 as a codified way to rate restaurants. Featuring a complex rating system based on a 30-point scale, Zagat is a tool for the gourmet glitterati. To access the actual Zagat scores by subcategory and read the detailed reviews in their entirety, those interested must become premium members, which is fairly expensive.

On the other hand, Yelp is a resource open to all. There are no paywalls or restrictions, just a free flow of information compiled in an easy-to-search database. In this way, Yelp is aligned to the idea that food reviewing should be open to all people interested in food, not just the culinary elite.

Zagat and Yelp highlight different types of restaurants. It’s difficult to find information on Zagat’s website and even the annual print edition of the Zagat Survey isn’t all that thorough.

Yelp covers more than 400 restaurants in the Ann Arbor area. The only Ann Arbor establishment featured in the 2011 edition of Zagat is Zingerman’s Delicatessen, and the blurb is merely a strung-together amalgamation of short quotes about the restaurant.

Annette Janik is the community manager for Yelp in the greater Metro Detroit area. She explained that her role is to introduce people to places in and around Metro Detroit, and getting them excited about businesses in their own backyards.

Janik said some people believe Yelp is a place where people go to rant about poor dining experiences or restaurants they don’t like, but the truth is quite the opposite. According to Janik, about 75 percent of the reviews on Yelp are positive. People enjoy writing about the places and foods that they like.

“I think people just really want to support their own and have a good time doing it,” Janik said.

“For the most part, everybody is just sort of sharing what they truly think,” she added. “They don’t maybe necessarily have the vocabulary that some critics have, but they’re truthful and they’re sharing what they like and what they don’t like.”

Brent Hegwood, the general manager of BTB Cantina and BTB Burrito, said he regularly checks Yelp reviews of his restaurants to see what customers are saying. He said he has responded to some Yelpers on the BTB Burrito page about complaints or concerns they had.

Hegwood explained that even though there are other resources giving customer feedback to restaurants, Yelp seems to be the most popular and widely used right now. That is why he feels it’s important for the management to be plugged into what is being said on Yelp.

“People seem to be doing a lot more now to express their opinions about the places that they like and what they don’t like,” Hegwood said. “So for someone that’s managing a restaurant, I obviously want to have a finger on the pulse of what is going on, what people are saying, so that we can make corrections if we need to or so that we can give the positive feedback to the people that work at BTB.”

Hegwood said BTB probably has a review posted on Yelp once a week or every other week. He recognized that Yelp has opened up dialogue between customers and restaurants, and thinks the prominence of this new dialogue is still growing.

“I don’t think it’s at the point where people are just immediately saying, ‘Oh, I went to your restaurant so I’m going to go on Yelp and write a review,’ ” Hegwood said. “It’s become more popular over the last couple years and it’s something that I monitor more often now than I did maybe two or three years ago.”

According to Hegwood, Yelp can only continue to inspire dialogue if restaurant management teams are willing to monitor the posts and respond when necessary, which is why he has been keeping tabs on BTB’s presence on Yelp.

By connecting customers and management, Yelp is helping to break down the barrier between creators and consumers. This culinary democratization is also found in other online food initiatives.

An education in fine cuisine

Another Internet-based community centered around food has evolved within the University: Wolverine CuiZine. This food blog covers a variety of food-related topics during the academic year and publishes one print publication every spring.

LSA junior Kay Feker, editor in chief of Wolverine CuiZine, made a point to distinguish Wolverine CuiZine from professional food criticism. Wolverine CuiZine welcomes writers of all interests, and contributors do not necessarily need culinary backgrounds.

“Obviously, the people who write for Wolverine CuiZine are people who live to eat rather than eat to live,” Feker said. “So we’re kind of trying to share that with the community and get people interested in what they’re putting into their bodies, or making it easier for them to be interested.”

“Even if you aren’t interested in cooking yourself, most people are attracted to food in some way, shape or form,” she added.

There are obvious differences between professional food critics and amateur student writers. Feker said there are pros and cons to both perspectives. The professionals have more expertise, but can sometimes seem patronizing, whereas publications such as Wolverine CuiZine have more freedom and can be less formal.

“I feel like a lot of the stuff is very technical or shooting to talk about a much more complex palate,” Feker said of professional restaurant reviews. “I feel like food blogging is more fun, and I think the main thing is that it’s not exclusive.”

The writers of Wolverine CuiZine are students just like their readers. Feker said they are all interested in sparking a dialogue about food and events in the Ann Arbor area, such as the emergence of new restaurants and new food fads.

“None of us have a culinary degree,” Feker said. “We’re interested in food, you’re probably interested in food, so we’ll share what we know and you can give us feedback, and hopefully that will either spark interest or (you’ll) tell us we’re wrong.”

According to Feker, the blog has a vast diversity of coverage and therefore is broken into three sections. In one section, columnists write weekly on topics of their choice. For example, writers who studied abroad over the summer decided to base their series on the cuisine of the area where they studied.

A “Food in the Media” section explores recent food fads and trends, such as upcoming chefs and movements like the “food truck revolution,” which has been morphing the concept of food trucks toward a more gourmet experience.

The final section of Wolverine CuiZine is called “Local Flavor,” and Feker described it as the section that directly involves the University and Ann Arbor. This section includes local food reviews, information about local produce and farmers and food reviews from other cities that students venture to, like Chicago.

“I think a lot of students don’t necessarily realize how many great food establishments or local sources we have in Ann Arbor, so a lot of our writing has to do with exposing students to what we have immediately at hand,” Feker said. “You don’t have to travel far to get what you’re missing from home, or you don’t have to break the bank to get something to make your dinner.”

Unlike most professional food reviewing, Wolverine CuiZine also seeks to educate. Feker said two key goals of Wolverine CuiZine are exposing students to local resources and providing food education. The blog features information on options for people with specific allergies and food needs, with a special focus on showing people what they can eat versus what their restrictions are.

Feker mentioned that there are even more food resources that have surfaced, thanks to the Internet. Aside from the fact that restaurants are using more social media tools such as Twitter and Facebook, personal food blogs have taken off.

“Food blogs are becoming so popular,” she said. “So now, for home chefs — people who don’t necessarily have any cooking background but enjoy food — it’s just such an accessible way for them to learn about both the nutritional aspects and how to play with recipes in a very easy and approachable manner.”

A personal palate

LSA senior Amie Hsu runs a personal food blog, The Hungry Beluga, in her free time. She started the blog during her sophomore year as a way to keep in touch with one of her friends who left to study abroad in Australia. When she realized her blog focused mainly on the things she was eating, she decided to turn it into a food blog. Her most ambitious objective is to try to eat at every restaurant in Ann Arbor. She has already made significant progress, and the blog displays a running list of the places she has and hasn't visited.

“I’ve always enjoyed food and I really like educating people about the different types of food available in Ann Arbor,” Hsu said.

Hsu said her father used to own a restaurant, so she has always had a passion for food. She uses her blog to fuel her passion and share it with others.

“I think food blogging is a way to show just how much you love and appreciate food,” Hsu explained.

Hsu said she thinks there are many different types of food blogs: Some teach how to cook, some feature reviews and some just feature photography of food. The last type of food blog is considered by many food junkies as “food porn," intended for people who simply want to look at food and appreciate its aesthetics. Foodporndaily.com and foodgawker.com are two popular examples that post pictures of all different kinds of foods with links to other culinary websites.

Hsu explained the link between the different kinds of food bloggers and professional culinary critics by saying that they share a love for food. However, she said she feels her blog offers a more personal perspective than reviews done by expert food connoisseurs, with an Ann Arbor perspective of food.

And Ann Arbor has a lot to offer in the food world. The new media landscape of Yelp, Wolverine CuiZine and personal food blogs such as The Hungry Beluga have revolutionized the way restaurants, foodies or casual customers interact with food and culinary critique.

Janik, Feker and Hsu all echoed the sentiment that food unifies people. Whether it’s by exploring recent fads in the food industry or expanding the accessibility of food reviewing, the Internet is strengthening the connection between us and the food we eat.

With something as universal as food, it only makes sense that the ever-accessible Internet plays a crucial role in moving the culinary world away from elitism to more of a people’s movement. And now, not knowing where to eat is a problem that can be easily solved.


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