Amid some sad restaurant closings and a lot of dining deals, the Pittsburgh food community continues to flourish. Nowhere is that more clear than on the Internet in the proliferation of local food blogs. As the number of local blogs gets larger, food bloggers get more serious, finding new ways to stand out. Some are even hoping to turn a hobby into a job.
When Mike Beatty, 28, of Squirrel Hill started the Foodburgh blog (www.foodburgh.com) in February, he hoped to draw attention to some of the small, independent Pittsburgh restaurants that typically don't get much play on the Internet. For him the food blog is just a hobby, and he certainly didn't expect that its growing popularity would come with free hot dogs (from Franktuary) and baby-back ribs (from PD's Pub).
He recognized that getting freebies, even inexpensive ones, could compromise the nature of his reviews. But after some soul-searching (detailed, of course on his blog), he decided that the benefit of the experiences -- meeting the owners, talking to them about their food-- merited the trade-off. He's also meticulous about reporting to his readers when he gets anything comped.
This arrangement is part of a growing marketing trend. Freebies for bloggers, including expensive trips, restaurant meals or cooking equipment, are actually an inexpensive way for restaurants and manufacturers to get publicity. Sometimes there's an explicit requirement for a write-up, but often there are no obvious strings attached.
These arrangements are becoming so common that when the Federal Trade Commission started revising its "Guidelines Involving Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising" last year, it added blogs, message boards and street teams.
One explanation for Mr. Beatty's quick, if still modest, success is that he found a niche and filled it. Most bloggers write about cooking and baking rather than restaurants. That disparity makes sense. Not only is it much cheaper to cook at home than it is to eat out at most restaurants, it's also easier to use your personality and cooking style to give your blog a unique spin. It's also a bit easier to give recipe-based blogs instant visual appeal with gorgeous food photos.
"No one wants to go to a food blog and look at a picture that's less than appetizing," said Michelle Norris, 29, of West Deer, who started the Brown Eyed Baker blog in February 2007 (www.browneyedbaker.com).
"I probably take anywhere from 30 to 40 pictures of each dish that winds up on my blog," said Ms. Norris, who's learned to take food photos through trial and error.
That work pays off in food that looks beautiful and delicious. Ms. Norris is so good at taking pictures of cookies, a frequent subject, you will find yourself wanting to pick one up and take a bite.
For Ms. Norris, the blog is not only a place to chronicle recipes, it's also a record of how much her culinary skills have grown.
Jesse Sharrard, 31, of Greenfield already has a food-related day job as a chef demonstrator for his culinary alma mater, Pennsylvania Culinary Institute. His blog, Corduroy Orange, provides a place for him to hone his writing skills and build a platform, in hopes of acquiring paid work as a food writer. In its three years, the blog has brought him some success, including a gig writing regularly for the local magazine Table.
The blog is also a place for Mr. Sharrard to pursue his passion for culinary education. He has 24 entries on how to use your knife like a pro and 13 on cooking with cast iron. He also offers a culinary advice column, where readers can e-mail him questions.
Food blogs don't need to be local. After all, part of the fun is forging connections across cities and continents. But it's equally fascinating to get new perspectives on your own backyard, get cooking ideas for local, seasonal foods or learn about an undiscovered local restaurant.
And, there's the possibility that you'll run into a favorite local blogger at the grocery store, a cocktail bar or a food event. Want to meet Jesse Sharrard of Corduroy Orange? He'll be giving a cooking demonstration at the Slow Food table at Farmers@Firehouse in the Strip District on Saturday. Check back at www.corduroyorange.com for more details.
China Millman can be reached at 412-263-1198 or firstname.lastname@example.org . Follow China on Twitter at http://twitter.com/chinamillman.