Does hype ruin the restaurant experience?
To make it in today’s modern restaurant scene, you have to know how to play "The Game."
It’s ever-evolving, a game that revolves around that single word that can make or break you: hype.
You know what I’m talking about, of course.
When savvy entrepreneurs open a new restaurant, you can immediately detect the pattern right before it happens: PR practitioners will be engaged and they will, in turn, engage and invite people to come and taste their creations. You go to the restaurant, almost always run into members of the food media, and ever increasingly, a strange phenomenon known as “social media influencers.” (I only say “strange phenomenon,” because they appeared out of the blue, and they’re certainly not from the food circles, so I’m not quite sure why they’re there.)
The food media will partake of the spread and the more astute, discerning ones will zero in on the stand-out dishes (there’s always that superstar dish or two, a necessity, in my opinion; rare are the establishments who’ve managed to knock it all out of the park) and form opinions in their head about how everything fits in the scheme of things. Some of the influencers may get it, and some may just come along for the ride, enjoying the moment, eating and taking pretty flat lays and selfies. Sometimes more selfies. Nevertheless, all this content will be tossed into space, for all to peruse in their respective channels.
Depending on how good the PR people manage everything, this is the beginning of the hype, and subsequently, The Game. The chefs and owners have to ride the wave, and bring it on by meeting that hype head on. (To be honest, the chefs and restaurateurs become part of the their own machinery—the first steps of The Game.) The better the PR people, the louder the food media and influencer pool, the more intense the hype. If you get too good at it, you can reach supernova proportions, of which there will be consequent reactions. Anybody for a Cronut?
And that’s where the problems can begin, or on the flipside when the heights of success are reached. “Hype is a double-edged sword,” says veteran chef, food consultant, and restaurateur Him Uy de Baron. “You need it in today’s scene but too much of it and you set the expectations too high. Then someone will order one dish that doesn't meet it then the whole restaurant becomes a disappointment.” Batter up.
One cannot disagree with that these days. Food has become more than just a recreational pastime—it’s become an obsession, with people proudly proclaiming their love for food, short of tattooing “Foodie” on their left breast. To make things even more complicated, social media has given everyone a voice: food and other meaty conversation points such as (shudder) politics suddenly gained an army of experts on the topic, all eager to voice opinions that—depending on who it comes from—can help make, break, or shape you. Hopefully more of the former.
Social media is undoubtedly a vital cog to remain in The Game. “It made hype extra intense versus, say, a decade ago when it was literally word of mouth,” opines Bea Acosta of Click The City. “Word of mouth came from people you knew. On social media, it could come from anybody.”
Indeed the source is also a key factor. Is that source making like a car salesman, reaching out to you with pictures that launched a thousand dishes because all he wants to do is sell you that plate of truffle-infused, squid-ink-coated, salted-egg, matcha-sprinkled Cronut foie gras burger? Or is he genuinely espousing the virtues of this long-researched and tweaked dish, laced with much flavor and depth? Who do you believe in? That's tough. Some are so good at it, they can make you eat your weight in mediocrity and still believe it’s the next big thing because they said so.
Don’t get me wrong. Hype is, in all forms, a blessing for the restaurateur. “One should feel very fortunate when hype happens,” gracefully said by cupcake entrepreneur Sonja Ocampo, her eponymous franchise a product of such level of attention. But how do you sift through all noise in our consciousness? “When you’re exposed to all this media, some things blur and look the same,” chimes in Acosta,” then eventually you 'feel' which ones are more real."
For the restaurant, be they fledglings or battle-scarred veterans—best, though, to manage it all, don't you think? Don’t make so much noise that people think you’re the greatest thing since..well, since Cronuts. Because if you catch someone on an off day (and we all have these), that is if you slightly overcook your pasta, or under-season your burger, or make your short ribs too short, you wont hear the end of it. That is the sad reality. Do restaurants have to live up to the hype? I’d like to think the main purpose of restaurants are to cook their asses off, satisfy to the best of their abilities, and serve their customers with grace.
How do you get not let the hype rule? How do you get The Game back to normal levels? The truth of the matter is that you can borrow a page from how it was done back in the day, when our parents and our parents went out. If a place piques your curiosity, then dress up, take some buddies, drive over, open the door, and…