Not an economic analysis of food trends

Thomas the Think Engine takes on an economic analysis of food trends and the growth in American barbecue in Melbourne, and it’s really quite wrong.

The whole city is suddenly buzzing with American cuisine – and just a few short years ago, that would have seemed like an oxymoron.

The reason is one restaurateurs almost grasp.

“Alabama-born, Dallas-raised Jeremy Sutphin, chef at Le Bon Ton, attributes it to adventure and awareness. ”I’ve been here eight years and the palates are searching for something different – and people are becoming more aware.” “

He’s right about that awareness. Australia’s knowledge of America is now a lot deeper and wider – we’ve now been to America enough that we’ve ventured beyond LA and New York.

He draws a link between travel to different countries and the perception of increased interest in their food. The problem is that the food trends that get written about in the Australian food press from Broadsheet to Epicure bear absolutely no relationship to how the vast majority of Australians eat in restaurants. They bear something of a relationship to how a minority of inner city urbanites eat in the short term, but even then, they’re a terrible guide. Claire from Melbourne Gastronome and I have had a running joke that every year since 2004 someone in Epicure has announced that this will be the year of Peruvian food, but that never happens. I’m still waiting for my plate of delicioso cuy con papas.

Actual food trends are long term and driven by a huge number of factors. If it was as easy as tracking overseas departures, I’d be rich after my investment in an L&P distribution deal. New Zealand is Australia’s biggest destination for short term departures but it’s still pretty tough to get a paua fritter in Melbourne. There probably is a link between Australian travel and interest in foreign food but it isn’t a sufficient condition for it to become popular in Australia.

Here’s a better representation of Australian restaurant trends in Google search data: searches in Australia for different national cuisines in the Restaurants category of Google.

Italian is still dominant with Thai breaking away from Indian and Chinese in mid-2005. Interest in American food has stayed relatively static with some growth in interest since 2011, but not nearly as much as the hype suggests.

For another confirmation of the difference in scale, Urbanspoon lists 1228 Italian restaurants in Melbourne and 131 American restaurants excluding McDonalds, Hungry Jacks, KFC, Subway and Pizza Hut (which should probably also go in the Italian column). Including the chain restaurants, there’s 233. American food is really quite marginal.

When food writers talk about food trends, they’re really talking about a game of cultural capital to distinguish themselves and their readers from others, rather than what most people eat or will be eating in the future. Food writers are talking about American food because it distinguishes them from the mass of people who still love a creamy carbonara and Hawaiian pizza from their local Italian joint. The easiest way to predict what food writers will call a trend next is to see which restaurants open within walking distance from their house or office.

Journalist in the streets, blogger in the sheets: Food journalists, food bloggers, food marketers.

It’s high time to reframe the food bloggers versus journalist debate.

Food blogging hasn’t been separate as a form of media from journalism since Conde Naste started food blogging in 2006. That’s the point that I argued that food blogging had died as a separate medium a few years ago. People like me who started as bloggers became journalists and got paid. Journalists tried their hand at blogging. Save for a few Luddites who write in the absence of the Internet, food blogging and journalism as practices have since been inextricably linked since the mid-00s.

The relative number of searches on Google for “food blog” is in decline. That peaked in 2010 which seems to suggest that for most readers, they’re just another form of web publishing, indistinguishable from any other online food media. If people are doing fewer specific searches for “food blog”, their relevance as a separate medium – one that readers value as something different from a newspaper or magazine website – is deteriorating. After just five years of corporate publishing, major publications are beginning to divest from food blogs.

Even though that shaky wall between food blogging and journalism as practices collapsed long ago, the debate about what divides food bloggers and food journalists as identities never ended because a third category of online food publisher grew: food marketers.

Food marketers write promotional copy on behalf of the food industry or to promote their personal brand in hope of remuneration from the industry. These are the people who attend the “make money with your blog” conferences, who are concerned with their brand; who want to build traffic to their blog to sell more of themselves. There is a fair degree of pride in the marketing work. They have media kits, show off successful collaborations with events and public relations agencies, ask for free meals, flights, hotels and airport transfers.

Much of the animosity between food bloggers and journalists is really between food marketers and journalists. Prior to the rise of food marketers, bloggers had little or no interest in getting paid; journalists drew a living wage. The decline of paid food writing work coincided with the willingness of food marketers to fill the content hole for next to nothing. Where being a journalist was a calling and a profession, being a food marketer was an aspirational lifestyle.

Like most marketing, food marketing is about an almost relentless positivity, happy words bleeding into the soft-focus cake shots; never eating a bad meal. Journalism is about truth and writing things that somebody doesn’t want to see printed, to paraphrase William Randolph Hearst’s maxim. It’s not to say that journalists have a monopoly on objectivity. The view from that particular tower is often the view from nowhere.

The big divide is around ethics. Journalists generally subscribe to an externally enforced code of ethics; marketers don’t because it could limit the size of their market or how they receive remuneration. Where journalism had a wall between editorial and advertising, food marketers are editorial and advertising. Food marketers also became the mould into which journalists are increasingly pressed, with the new demand to write “native advertising” alongside editorial work; and the idea that journalists themselves should be a brand.

The animosity between the remaining food bloggers and food marketers is that blogging seemed like more fun when there was no pressure for a success that was defined by traffic or cash or free meals; and that somehow food marketers are to blame for the cultural shift. Or at least, the expectation now on food bloggers from the rest of society is that they are all food marketers rather than a different sort of unique practice.

When food blogs stopped being food blogs

According to the data: 2010.

Or at least, that’s when interest in them began to plateau as a search term on Google and it’s probably a good marker of when they stopped growing as a medium in their own right and simply became part of the regular food media ecosystem where supply of food media well and truly outstripped demand. What hasn’t ever peaked is the nostalgia for the past era of food blogging where blogs were more fun, a nostalgia that started to coalesce around 2005. From Amateur Gourmet, today, commenting that food blogging is over:

Don’t believe that’s happening? Consider this: Eater.com, one of the most significant food blogs in existence, just hired three full-time restaurant critics. Meanwhile, the most popular recipe blogs are looking more and more like magazines. Can you really detect a difference between the imagery and presentation on blogs like Smitten Kitchen and 101 Cookbooks from the imagery you find in Martha Stewart Living or, more aptly, Bon Appetit?

As food blogs grow more and more professional, I’m left with a feeling of nostalgia for the “anything goes” era of blogging. That looseness, that scruffiness, was why food blogs were such an appealing alternative to more traditional media.

Vice is Hip Generator

You know that moment when you begin to suspect that a Twitter parody account is run by an algorithm? Maybe the Vice-like Twitter account @vice_is_hip is a bot, but just in case that it wasn’t, I built a bot to replace it. I present to you @vice_is_bot, generating an article for Vice every hour, on the hour.

Want to pitch something to Vice for yourself? You should write:

Why Shonen Knife tried to kill plastic bags

Press reload for increasingly realistic ideas.