Posted in Consumer, Food Systems on Nov 02, 2018

You only need to take a brief look at social media to see the rise in the number of people who claim expertise. In any topic. Take #foodie – nearly 105 million posts; that is, in nearly 105,000,000 cases people have tagged an image with a hashtag that classifies them as someone as sees themselves as a ‘foodie’.

It is easy to scoff at the sheer volume of people who rate themselves as experts, but let’s take a moment to look at what it might actually mean. If it is just self-classification of someone with an interest in a topic then this is a good thing. Interest in the topic of food is something that we must actively promote because, arguably, it is disinterest in food systems that has caused modern food issues; including the rising rates of obesity and non-communicable diseases such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, a Foodie is someone “who loves food and is very interested in different types of food”, the words gastronome or gourmet could be used to describe the same person. Foodie is not a term that is embraced by all. In a 2016 article in the Washington Post, Roberto A Ferdman writes with disdain that a foodie is not a compliment, it is a descriptor, a lazy way for someone to describe an interest in food (and, after all who isn’t interested in food at some point… each day?). It would appear that the term is the chef equivalent of fingernails down a blackboard. Ferdman goes on to say that chefs hate the term, by using it people feign knowledge that they don’t have, and everyone becomes a critic. In the no-holds-barred article Ferdman points out the ultimate irony – by using the term “foodie” you can’t actually be one, specifically: " ‘foodie’, which many have hopefully gleaned by this point, boils down to a simple truth: You can’t possibly call yourself a ‘foodie’ if you’re actually a ‘foodie’. There is a great irony in describing yourself as a food insider in a way no actual food insider ever would”.

Joe Pompeo, in an article in the Observer in 2009 takes his contempt for the enthusiastic food expert even further, describing how the watercooler conversation that was about sex or sport has now become about food, observing the rise in the “ubiquitous Facebook updates and tweets about subscribers’ most recent meals…The requisite iPhone pic before a certain kind of diner—let’s call him a foodiot—ravages his plate.” Foodiot definitely doesn’t quite have the same self-classification attraction about it.

Ferdman argued that the widespread use of the word had also resulted in it becoming meaningless. Never-the-less, the term has not gone away, nor has our interest in critiquing the food world from our own perspectives. While the industry may not like the use of the term, it does usefully describe a behaviour that impacts the industry. Specifically, the rise of restaurant and café reviews, by diners (or foodies, if you like) who may or may not be food experts. This is a significant development in how consumers influence the food ecosystem. Prior to self-report of experiences, we were at the mercy of council health rating systems, word of mouth and folklore. The folklore has certainly been amplified through social media with little or no recourse for owners of food premises (there is a rather wonderful exception to this, a café in Christchurch NZ that proudly publishes their worst TripAdvisor reviews on their menu, allowing customers to make their own decision about food and service).

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In a small experiment, we decided to put the official ratings (which actually have very little to do with food quality or service) alongside Yelp reviews. Selecting the Auckland restaurants and the Auckland City Council as a pilot study site we found very little of interest, to be honest. The city council is charged with making sure food premises meet a basic standard for food production. That standard is the letter that we see on display in any food premise. It has nothing to do with whether the eggs are truly free range but is focused on food safety: does the premise meet the basic requirements for safe food production; predominantly, it is a paper-trail. It attempts to safeguard your safety (note: no official system can do that on a day-to-day basis) it does not safeguard your experience.

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So, to get an understanding of dining experience we matched Yelp reviews to restaurants (not an easy job given the high rate of turnover of food establishments). As is relatively predictable we found no relationship between the rating of the city council and the diners’ experiences. There are some caveats here. Firstly, the City Council ratings are highly skewed – that is, most are “A” some are “B”, with very few fitting into the lower categories. Second, the two measures were measuring different things (the classic apple versus orange scenario), while we were interested to see if there was a statistical relationship we were not expecting to see one. It was a sort-of ‘testing the null hypothesis’ situation. What we were particularly interested in was how do Yelp reviews measure and reflect a café/restaurant experience and could we draw conclusions based on these data? This is a work in progress as we are now investigating data science methods that look at patterns to understand what customers are now looking for. While this type of work has been done before, it is something that becomes rapidly out-dated (not just because of the turnover in restaurants) but because of the way in which we report our experiences and how much the expectations of us ‘Foodiots” change.



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