After a month-long hiatus, I have decided to end my food review series ‘The Southsea Food Tour’.
Last March, I began writing honest and in-depth food reviews. I wanted to show Portsmouth in a new light and to make a name for myself in the city. Since then, I have written over 40 reviews (almost one a week) and encouraged friends and strangers to eat at a wide range of local eateries, new and old. I’ve been told my reviews have helped people to decide where to host their birthday dinners, as well as where to go to eat out with friends, families and loved ones.
I write my reviews as a ‘secret shopper’, so I do not inform the eaterie in advance that I will be visiting. This is to avoid any ‘special treatment’ from restaurant owners that might affect my experience, and to give me the confidence to review each venue honestly.
I always order a range of food – from sides and mains to desserts – to provide the reader with a more detailed opinion. This kind of dedication to local food does not come cheap: I have spent over £500 on my reviews in the last year alone,which as a freelancer, comes out of my own pocket.
This is one of two main reasons that led me to end my reviews: I simply cannot afford it. While some have suggested approaching venues in advance for a free lunch (or a dinner, for that matter, or breakfast) this would compromise the independence of the review. As a critic, I worry that if a venue is expecting me, their service will be different. In addition, if a venue waives the cost of my meal, I also fear they would expect only a positive review.
But even if this was an option I was prepared to take, I have good reason to think that most local cafes and restaurants would not support it. And that leads me onto my second reason for discontinuing the Southsea Food Tour.
Over the last year, I have sent my reviews to every establishment I’ve reviewed. When I write a positive review, I contact the restaurant or cafe in question and ask them for their opinion and to share it. It’s a quid pro quo, as another foodie, Hannibal Lecter, might say. I give them a great review, help them attract more customers and they give me exposure. Simple.
Well, no, not quite.
Out of the 40 reviews I have written, only 5 eateries ever shared one, just over 10%. The others either said they would share it and didn’t or just ignored me. Over time, I have to admit this demotivated me greatly. A quick share may mean nothing to a cafe or restaurant, but to me it means much more: helping me to build a local readership and make my mark as a writer in Portsmouth.
When I started writing, I hoped to network and develop freelance work for myself in the city. By working on the Southsea Food Tour I hoped to build paid work: commissioned reviews, copy writing, even some advertorial for local websites. If that happened, it didn’t matter how much money I sunk into The Southsea Food Tour, I would make it back in time. It hasn’t quite worked like that.
Instead I’ve come to feel that many Southsea businesses simply are not interested in supporting upcoming local freelancers. Although the slogan to ‘support local’ is a common enough refrain, what it often seems to mean is ‘support me and my friends’; preaching community ethics but not following them.
A recent experience of mine illustrates this. I wrote a review that – quite rightly, in my view – sang the praises of a local eaterie I’d absolutely loved. When I posted it on social media, sharing it with the venue, they replied . I asked if they could share it, but they didn’t. Instead, they copied an extract of the review and posted it without linking to my website or Facebook.
I was hurt, but I ignored it. Perhaps the business just didn’t share positive reviews on social media. But two weeks later, the same venue promoted and shared another review from a blogger who is already established locally.
This was when I decided to quit. I had tried but was getting nowhere and after many experiences like this one, I can’t help but think it’s simply because I’m not established in Portsmouth. I’ve been writing for years now, I’ve had my work published in many places locally, from Strong Island to S&C, and further afield in publications like the London Magazine. I have won awards and competitions for my writing, so I don’t think it’s a lack of talent, ability or the quality of my writing.
I’m stopping the Southsea Food Tour, but I am not giving up on writing. Instead, I’m heading in a new direction. I’m in my second year of my degree and plan to focus on my studies more, but I’m also going to pursue my ambition to become a travel writer.
In the meantime, I will still be available for the freelance work I love, including social media management, organising and delivering events, and designing merchandise like our brand new S&C Write Don’t Fight t-shirts. Shameless plug: you can contact me here at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And if you’ve enjoyed the Southsea Food Tour, and the many other pieces I write locally or further afield, you can support me on via Patreon page here. If I can generate a small income to support it, and if there is local demand, The Southsea Food Tour will return. I’ve always loved writing it.
But, right now, I have no motivation to continue to the end of the line. I’m switching trains and hoping for a better, more supportive destination. Maybe I’ll see you there!
Photography by Emily Priest.