Monday Chat: The Truth Behind Free Restaurant Meals for Bloggers

Little Big Burger in Austin

Little Big Burger in Austin

Another Monday, another Monday chat!

I’m having so much fun writing these posts for y’all. They’re a little more personal and more vulnerable than my typical food posts, and it’s a refreshing break from the regular grind of content creation. I hope you’re enjoying them, too! Here’s a peek back at some of the other posts I’ve written in my Monday chat series:

Weight Gain, Food Blogging, and Body Image

What I Eat In A Day (Home Edition)

3 Tips To Deal With Instagram Jealousy

Today I’m going to chat a little bit about the reality of free restaurant meals for bloggers. If you follow my instagram account or any other Austin foodies on instagram, I think you might find this interesting! I’ll share a very real #bts take on what those free meals mean.

Sour Duck Market is now open!

I’ll start with a little background so you know where I’m coming from:

We all have that imaginary line we want to cross that says “I’VE MADE IT!” Whatever your profession, you probably have that one thing that you want to accomplish that might not mean much to others, and it might not make you any money, but it defines “success” to you.

When I started my Austin restaurant blog, my imaginary line that I wanted to cross was receiving free restaurant meals. That seemed like it would be the COOLEST. THING. EVER. Free food?? Yes please.

It happened about 2 months later, which proved to me that it was the wrong way to define success. Friends: it is SO easy to get free restaurant meals. Of course it is! The restaurants provide the food and service (two relatively inexpensive things, compared to the cost of paid advertisements), and the food influencer shares photos of their food with tens of thousands of people.

In the past few years, I’ve had lots of restaurant meals comped for me. A few years into my blogging journey, I’ve stopped accepting many of the restaurant invitations. In fact, the longer I blog, the fewer free restaurant meals I accept and the more I pay for everything on my own.

The Truth Behind Free Restaurant Meals For Bloggers:

the truth behind free restaurant meals for bloggers

1. There’s ALWAYS a hidden agenda. Duh. The restaurant doesn’t want to just give me free food – they want me to share photos on instagram! If they invite me in for free food, they’re expecting some social media coverage. The only problem is that sometimes I don’t like the food, and I don’t want to share food I didn’t like on instagram because I’m ultimately doing this do help y’all find good food to eat in Austin.

(Now, even if I don’t like the food, I try not to say negative things about a restaurant on Instagram, because I’m not attempting to hurt anyone; if I didn’t like it, I just refrain from sharing it at all.)

The problem with not sharing photos of free food is that I might hurt the relationship I have with a particular restaurant group, chef, or PR firm. I have to tread carefully, and all for what…a free burger? Usually not worth it.

2. Restaurants tastings take so much time! Haha, the 2016 version of myself would be perplexed by this statement. I’ve since realized that restaurant tastings take 2-3 hours out of my afternoon, and I could go to that same place anonymously and pay for my food and be finished in 30 minutes. Usually, the cost of the food is not worth 2 hours of my time.

3. Free meals are not the same thing as getting paid. Again, something that my newbie blogger-version of myself wouldn’t understand! Free food is fun, but it doesn’t pay the bills.

4. I always leave a tip for the server, and that can add up. This probably sounds silly, but hear me out: when a restaurant comps my meal, they often bring out way more food than I would typically order. It’s easy for a 20% tip to be $20-30, and if I’m not careful, that could add up to $150 in monthly tip money that I have to deduct from my restaurant budget, all spent on food I didn’t necessarily want to try in the first place. I’d rather forgo that restaurant visit (if it’s one I don’t care about) and use that $20 in tips to try out a BBQ restaurant from my bucket list.

Here’s my reality: the longer I blog, the more and more food I pay for out of pocket. (I’m not going to share my annual restaurant budget, but 2018 was pretty ridiculous…) I’ve started saying no to more and more free restaurant meals, because I know that the cost of paying for the meals is an investment in this blog. The more authentic experiences I have in Austin, the better this blog becomes.

the truth behind free restaurant meals for bloggers

I love the experience of dining at a restaurant, and when I show up to a media tasting as a food blogger, I don’t always get to experience that. Now, I do get to enjoy some other unique things, like chatting with the chef, being shown a behind-the-scenes look into the kitchen, and getting multiple servings of the same entree brought out so I can photograph one, and eat the other one while it’s hot. But none of that is a realistic restaurant experience for the average diner, so I don’t think it’s a realistic way for me to give my opinion of a restaurant.

For instance: when I was at Bar Peached a few weeks ago, I was invited in with a handful of big-name food instagrammers. We had the entire restaurant to ourselves, and we got to photograph and taste about 10 cocktails and 10 dishes. It was so much fun to chat with Eric Silverstein, photograph the beautiful restaurant, and taste as many dishes as I wanted to. It’s how I got all of these gorgeous photos for my blog post.

Bar Peached in Austin Texas

But I made sure to go back and visit the restaurant again within the week as a paying customer, because I wanted to be sure I loved it just as much during regular business hours. (I did, btw!) My husband went with one of his buddies shortly after, too; I always love getting Nate’s opinion on a restaurant, as well.

I still say yes to some restaurant visits.  (I’m not anti-free food or anything!) Here are some examples:

The instances when I will say yes to free restaurant food:

1. When it’s a new restaurant from a restaurant group I already know and trust. I love the New Waterloo restaurants, so I’ll always say yes to an invitation from them. I adore Peached Tortilla, so I quickly said yes to Bar Peached’s invitation to a media event. There are certain places that I feel good about, so I’ll say yes to those invitations.

il brutto austin brunch

2. When it’s an older restaurant that has a great reputation. I’m not a New York Times restaurant critic, y’all. Ha! I trust the opinions of older, wiser, and more reputable foodies who write for publications like Bon Apetit and Food & Wine. If a restaurant I haven’t tried invites me in, and it already has glowing reviews from the Big Dogs, I’ll most likely say yes.

3. When it’s a second meal from a restaurant I already love. If I already love a restaurant’s dinner and they invite me in for a new brunch service, I’ll often say yes.

4. When it’s a new small business in town that needs help. I always love supporting new small businesses, so when a brand new food truck invites me in to try their food, I know they want to show it off, tell me all about it, and make sure they prepare it as beautifully as possible for a photo. I make sure to thoroughly research the restaurant to make sure it’s something that at least looks like it has potential, and then I’ll often say yes. Not always, though…

Does that all make sense? I’m trying to be very real and transparent with y’all! I adore the Austin restaurant scene and I want to support the chefs, but I mostly care about my blog readers, and I value your trust more than anyone else’s.

Feel free to leave a comment if you have any questions!





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5 years ago

Thank you for sharing this, Kelsey! I always am so envious of your frequent visits to restaurants that look out of this world, but I really appreciate your transparency here and your willingness to not take advantage of what could be a very easy system to manipulate. Love reading your blog! Keep up the good work.

5 years ago

Thanks Kelsey. You have always treated the industry with so much love and reapect. As a chef I have always loved and adored what you do for us.

5 years ago

Here’s an idea: you could let the owner know ahead of time that you’ll only share positive thoughts on IG; if you aren’t thrilled with the meal, you won’t bad-talk them, but you aren’t going to share it on social media at all. Also, why does a free meal take so much longer than a paid meal?

Greg Nelson
3 years ago

That is so smart to go back as a paying customer to make sure your review can be trusted.

2 years ago

Bloggers, including yours truly, love to eat at restaurants but most of us can’t afford to eat out at restaurants every night. So, we search for free restaurant meals online. But is this really the right choice? Personally, I’d rather go out and spend my own money on good food than eat at a restaurant I don’t love. But others, including other bloggers, have been scammed online for great deals.

Banana Leaf
1 year ago

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