Running a WordPress Food Review Blog

Shabari offers fruit to Rama & Lakshmana at the Matanga ashram

Food is the new art, because it is an art most of us can truly enjoy consuming. So, it isn’t surprising that food culture and the need to eat and experience new flavours and cuisines is a very popular interest throughout the world’s urban centres. Like movies before it, it is fast becoming that common interest that a large number of people get to share and identify with. It was inevitable that as the interest grew, more people would want to talk about it. Food related sites and blogs are ever growing in popularity, and food and restaurant review blogs are a large part of that movement.

Esther Tseng gave a presentation at WordCamp L.A. 2010 titled Food Blogging in WordPress. It was a good introduction to the field, with tips and insights into how best to go about it from someone who has been food blogging for a while. The video of her presentation is below to be watched (audio quality is quite bad). My notes and links to related and resources follow, for those who prefer text, and to read my own additions.

Food Blogging in WordPress

by Esther Tseng
42 minutes

Who has a food blog? A raise of hands.
[one hand raised in camera view]

Who’s interested in starting a food blog?
[no hands]

Who likes food?
[all hands quickly raise. Laughter]

Food blogging platform options

What were other options. Lot of food blogs are on Blogger, they’re also on WordPress, they’re on countless other platforms, Movable Type. Truth be told, the reason I picked WordPress was that I was dating a WordPress developer at the time.
[loud laughter]

There truly are an infinite number of options for a platform to host your food blog. Every manner or online service or self-hosted software which allows you to create and manage a web presence can potentially be used to run a food blog. Big online communities such as Blogger, WordPress.com, Posterous, and maybe even Tumblr are great places to run a food blog if ease-of-use and zero-investment is the key feature you’re looking for.

If you’re serious about blogging, a self-hosted blog is best. Things like Movable Type, Drupal, Pivot, Textpattern and others are options, but WordPress is always a forerunner in this choice, for its rapid development, its easy usage, and its huge user and developer community.

Why Food Blogging?

  • You love food.
  • You love dining out (restaurant blogging) or cooking (recepie blogging).
  • You love to take pictures of food.
  • You love to write – for yourself and/or others.

    I actually have a friend who had an experiment where he only wrote about food without any pictures. He thought food blogs are getting too reliant on pictures. Like, Bam! Picture, and then description and analysis. But I think that has its own audience.

  • Your city is a great place to eat.

    And I think Los Angeles is a great place for food, to start a food blog. There is a wealth of restaurants. They’re also shutting down and new ones are always cropping up. We’re all very conscientious about what we eat, where we get them, where they’re sourced from. So LA is a great place.

    Most larger cities have growing and vibrant food cultures that make them good places to be if you are considering blogging about food. The mix of populations and cultures, both local and international, make for interesting culinary influences, experiences and juxtapositions. So the place you live can play a large part in your interest and ability to have interesting things to say about food.

Only in L.A.: Food paparazzi

by Leslie Miller

Bloggers and blogs mentioned:

Food Blogging is Hot

Food is the new hot blogging topic. A number of factors, including people’s ability to voice their opinions online with ease, the ubiquity of digital cameras in devices, and things like interactive mapping technologies, have resulted in this online food frenzy. Here is a list of major food-related media portals launched over the last few years. The launch dates are in brackets:

Eater have been around the longest and they cover everything about the food and restaurant community. They started as Eater New York and then went on to become Eater National and cover other cities. The LA Times food section also became a blog, and more recently LA Squid Ink, Gribstreet, Huffington Post and CNN have joined in with their offerings. Depending on what they cover, these sites area great source of local, national, and international food news, with enough similar sites existing outside the US as well. The momentum of online food journalism and commentary is growing rapidly.

You want to make money from blogging

Don’t blog, food blog, because you plan on making money. Let’s be honest.
[laughter]
Might be obvious to some but not everyone. I actually … maybe it’s the next step for you, you’re definitely more advanced than I am, if you make money and make a living off food blogging, cause I don’t. I’m working 9 to 5. So props to you, I definitely want to talk to you.
[laughter]

Real-world preparations for your restaurant review post

  • Research the background of the restaurant, their philosophy, the chef, the menu. (or not)
    It is good idea to do some research on the story behind the restaurant you are going to review. How it started, when, what was the idea or concept behind it, all of these will help you add colour and context to your review, and also in avoiding misreported facts. You could do this before you go to the restaurant, but it can sway your dining experience. So, it may be best to visit the restaurant with a clear and open mind, and find out the details later.
  • Dine or attend your event.
    You might be visiting the restaurant as a regular patron, or in some cases during a media event organised by the restaurant to get their name out there. A growing trend is the organisation of culinary extravaganzas. These are food events, usually involving multiple restaurants and chefs who serve food and present their cooking to an interested audience and media persons. A small food festival of sorts.
  • Sit at the better lit table for pictures.
    A well lit table or location at the event or restaurant will give you better photographs, plain and simple. Food photography does not work well with flash, so it is best avoided. Not only is the flash an irritant to the other diners, but it also results in washed-out images with none of the colours of the food getting their due. So, if you’re going to be taking pictures of food at restaurants with varying levels of light, it’s a good idea to get the best low-light capable camera you can.
  • Observe service, atmosphere, food temp.
    Make your observations and mental notes when at the place. It is easy to concentrate only on the food and forget to notice your surroundings, the staff or the quality of service. As a reviewer and writer, such details are important to create a complete picture of the dining experience.
  • Talk with fellow diners.
    Dining is often best with the right company, and the same goes for dining as a food blogger. Companions with an interest in food are ideal because they will understand your need to take photographs, and are also a great resource to discuss the meal with. This will help to formulate your thoughts on the food and remember them better for when you need to write.

Writing your restaurant review post

  • Title your post “correctly”
    It’s always tempting to come up with clever titles for posts, but it is rarely useful to the reader. As a minimum, have the name of the restaurant or event in the title. The title is one of the most important elements of the post and helps it show up in search engines if chosen wisely. This is just basic SEO.
  • Use context
    This is where the research you did about the restaurant and the chef comes in handy. The details about the background and influences of the chef can really help add context to your review and make it a more interesting and well-rounded article to read.
  • Use photos
    Many people browse food blogs just to see the photos. Things like Tasteline.com owe a large part of their popularity to the image-heavy way of navigating through their material. As far as possible, always include photos. Food is an experience that has an effect on all our senses, and the more of those senses you can stimulate in your post, the more affecting it will be. A title photo right on top of the post is a great way to entice people to read further.
  • How did it measure up to your expectations?
    Even if you tried to stay away from too much information before visiting a restaurant, you always have expectations about a place. This could be from the recommendations you received or just from the vibe you get about the place from when you heard or read about it before. How the dining experience compared with the expectations is an important aspect of your post which you shouldn’t miss out.
  • What is your theme? That is your thesis?
    Like any good essay or structured piece of writing, it is very useful for your food blog post to have a central theme. What do you want to convey about this restaurant or event through your review? That single thought, that thesis, will help you formulate and edit your post down to the most essential and effective parts.
  • Disclose if meal was comped
    If you are visiting a restaurant or an event where you are not paying for the food you eat, it is a good idea to make mention of this in your post in some way. While you are not always bound to do so, unless you are a PR or publicity company, it prevents the possibility of any claims of bias or unethical practices.
  • Select categories, append tags to your post
    Selecting categories and tags is an important aspect for the continued usefulness and organisation of your blog. Categories are often decided well in advance, when you are setting up your blog, depending on what major element you wanted to organise the posts on. Important information like location, cuisine or price-point can be inserted using either tags or categories. This helps with search traffic.
  • Use plugins
    Plugins can be used to add many useful extras to your food blog. It’s useful to have a developer or a technically savvy person to ask about the best plugins or best solutions to do various things. Fellow bloggers can also be a good source of tips and suggestions.

    A plugin like MapPress can be used to insert a Google map of the location, which can be an invaluable feature for people wishing to visit a restaurant. Media objects like Google maps can add a lot to a page’s loading time, so it’s best to put the maps after the break in your post (the <!--more--> tag). This way multiple maps in multiple posts do not have to be loaded at the same time on a main blog listing page.

  • Proofread
    Check your facts, check your grammar. Double-check your spellings. People do not appreciate their names being misspelt, and food fans will not take you seriously with wrongly spelt names of dishes or food ingredients.

Extra tips for the food blogger

  • Familiarize yourself with a camera
    You don’t want to be hunting for settings in the middle of a dimly-lit restaurant, so learn all the options of your camera well. Getting a good camera for the job is also an important consideration, the main requirements being low light performance and a macro (close-up) mode. Either get a good low-light capable point-and-shoot or learn how to use a DSLR. DSLRs have great low-light performance, but they are very bulky and obtrusive, carrying them in a handbag or pocket is impossible. A high quality compact camera with a wide aperture lens is a good alternative and has many conveniences. Options like the Canon S95 and the continuing models of that series fit the bill perfectly.
  • Don’t use flash so you don’t disrupt other diners
    Using the flash on food is not a good idea, but using a flash in a restaurant has the added disadvantage of calling a lot of attention and irritating other diners. Avoid it at all costs.
  • Start eating quickly; letting food get cold is rude to the chef
    While photography and getting the perfect shot of everything can take time, remember the reason you’re there, to eat. Get to the food as quickly as you can because to do otherwise is rude to the chef and staff. Keep your photographic explorations to the required minimum at the table.
  • Learn HTML
    The user-friendliness of WYSIWYG editors in blogging software like WordPress has increased many fold over the past decade, but if you’re serious about blogging, it still helps to be able to throw in pieces of HTML code on occasion, to get things to look exactly the way you want them to. It’s also good to know some basic HTML to create clean code in posts, rather than depending completely on the WYSIWYG editor’s sometimes erratic behaviour. There are plenty of places to learn HTML online, W3Schools is a good place to start.

Other resources when formulating your post

  • Restaurant website (menus, chef background, philosophy)
  • Flickr photo management
    Credit the source if it’s not your photo. Many on Flickr allow you to use their photos as long as they are credited. It’s best to ask before using an image, because they often have preferences as to how they want to be credited.
  • Google Maps (location, hours)
  • Thesaurus
    A thesaurus is a useful tool in keeping your language varied. It really is a must to find synonyms for words like delicious, colourful, and vibrant, rather than overuse them. But, it is also easy to go overboard and use obscure words to mean something simple. Be reasonable an keep things understandable for those without a handy thesaurus to check on.
  • Yelp
    Yelp can be a good source of reviews and comments about restaurants and food. It is a large community and tends to have a mass mentality. So it might be best to not let it flavour your views too much in advance.

Promoting your blog

  • Tweet your blog post
  • Link on Facebook
  • RSS feed button
  • Sociable: Stumbleupon, Reddit, etc.
  • Set up a newsletter

How to increase your footprint

  • Learn by doing: Keep writing, keep posting
    e*star LA currently maintains a one post per day, Monday to Friday schedule. It took a year of once or twice per week postings to really gather momentum. Writing more makes you better and also increases attention to the blog.
  • Set regular posting goals (1x/month, week, day)
    Be regular. Start small and grow the posting frequency as it becomes more manageable. People need to know when to expect or how often to expect new content on your RSS feed or other subscription medium. It makes you a more reliable and important source of information.
  • Get exposure
    Get caught up in food blogging community and make friends with food bloggers. Your name gets around. PR companies are interested now, because so many print publications are going out of business that they’re turning to food blogs for exposure. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship. Join Twitter and participate. That’s a big one.

Questions and tips

Restaurant etiquette

When do you tell the restaurant you’re reviewing it?
Some people like to wave the Yelp! card or the blogger card when they go to a restaurant, but that could lead to special treatment. If you want a balanced view of the place, it’s usually best to go like any regular patron eating at the restaurant.

Do they ask or object if you’re taking pictures?
You can be discrete, and it’s getting more and more common to see a camera at a restaurant, so it’s not as much of a problem. Cameras are so much more common now, that you are just one of the crowd.

Looking for traffic

Food portals and media sites like Eater, LAist and LA Weekly Squid Ink will list bloggers that cover the same area or link and credit them when mentioning related information. This can be a big source of traffic and attention.

Other good places are things like Foodbuzz which many love for the community aspect of it. There are good places to be seen and recognised for what you’re doing.

Promoting your blog on Facebook

Create a Facebook page for your site, and then send people from the Facebook page to your blog. Everyone is now on Facebook, so that is the way to go. Don’t import blog posts as Facebook notes because you don’t get people to click over to the blog. The blog should always be the centre of attention.

I used to import by blog posts into my Facebook as notes. You do not want to do that because you don’t get the click to your blog. So, I use a plugin called NetworkedBlogs, or something like that. Puts an annoying frame on the top, but what’re you going to do?

You can use the NetworkedBlogs App, which links to new blog posts on your Facebook page, but it does put a frame around the page when people click to it. NetworkedBlogs is more of a blog directory and social platform of its own. If you don’t want any of that and just need feed management in Facebook, you can also use RSS Graffiti which is frame-free and can be used to setup complex rules for feed import of your blog and also of your Twitter account, if you need that. Facebook can be a big generator of traffic.

Earning money from your blog

Advertising is the most straigh forward way of making some money off your blog, once it has a decent level of traffic. Google Adsense ads are easy to setup, but can pay very little depending on the specifics of your site and traffic. If you sell ad space on your site it is best to be selective about the content of the ads so as to not degrade the reader’s experience.

There are also related opportunities that can come up from running a food blog. Freelance photography for restaurants or PR firms, for example, can be a lucrative option once you get known for your images.

the presenter

Esther Tseng

Esther Tseng - food bloggerEsther, referred to as e*star, works with money by day and cats by night. And food. And cocktails. And music. And nightlife. And fashion. Let’s say Los Angeles events, food and fun, shall we? Get a live feed of all this craziness through her Twitter. Hailing from suburban Milwaukee, Wisconsin, she is a Midwestern girl at heart having sought the bright city lights of Los Angeles for about the past fourteen years.

She blogs about food at e*star LA.