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Nisha Madhulika’s 10x12ft studio, on the first floor of her house in Noida, adjoining Delhi, is equipped with three studio lights and two video cameras. A tiled wall and a counter at one end of the room recreate her “kitchen”.
Madhulika invested about Rs.5 lakh in 2011 to set it up when she decided to post videos with her blog (Khanabanana.wordpress.com), which had been created by her son a few years earlier because she had a lot of free time. Now her days are a blur of shoots, website updates, and responses to comments. About 70,000-80,000 people across the world visit Madhulika’s studio kitchen daily, through YouTube, to learn how to “roast peanuts in the microwave” or “how to make pizza on tawa”, via Nishamadhulika.com and her YouTube channel.
Currently rated by Google India as one of the most popular food bloggers in the country, Madhulika receives a six-figure cheque from YouTube every month—her share of the revenue made from the advertisements that play before the five videos she releases every week. “The investment in the equipment has been well worth it,” she says.
She started by sharing recipes of the baby food she made, and went on to how she arranged nutritionally balanced yet attractive-looking lunch boxes. In 2013, she set up a YouTube channel, which now has 6,000 subscribers. She has 25,000 page views a day, with an increasing demand from north India that she speak in Hindi. She will soon add Hindi subtitles to her YouTube channel.
Doshi is unapologetic about wanting to monetize her blog and was one of the earliest adopters, in 2007, of Google’s AdSense, with advertisements placed on her blog to generate monthly revenue—she too has a six-figure income. Over time she was contacted by companies like KitchenAid, which needed her help to increase awareness of their brand. Doshi hosts recipe contests for her subscribers and gives away KitchenAid equipment. “I wasn’t paid for the association but it increased the number of my followers,” says Doshi.
The narratives of several well-recognized professional bloggers in the country follow a similar progression. “Food bloggers only follow technology bloggers and lifestyle (fashion and clothing) bloggers in popularity,” says Nirav Sanghavi of Blogadda.com, an Indian blog directory. “When we started in 2002 they were just 3% of the community, today they are 12%,” says Sanghavi, adding that while most bloggers are concentrated in the metros and big cities, each has a niche and, accordingly, a following.
Video resurrected the blogger
“Cooking is one of the top content categories on YouTube in India in the ‘how to’ category of content. More and more users are consuming video content on cooking. We have seen viewership increase four times for Indian food channels on YouTube over the last year,” says Gaurav Bhaskar, global communications and public affairs manager at Google India. Fifty per cent of this viewership comes from outside India, with the US leading, followed by the UK, Canada and UAE.
Madhulika, one of YouTube’s most famous Indian bloggers, moved to video much before the concept of YouTube channels became popular. “I had people writing in from across India asking me to move to video,” says Madhulika, who recorded her first video on a camcorder in 2011. “When you upload a video on YouTube we give you the option to monetize your video. Once you select that, we start showing ads on the video. And we split revenue that is generated with the content owner. The content owner gets a majority share and we retain part of the revenue,” says Bhaskar.
As more food bloggers get in front of the camera, the production people facilitating the move are not far behind. Spotlight Plan, a Bangalore-based company founded by former YouTube employee Kavita Shenoy, helps people with their video presence and is working with Iyer on their first project. Shenoy says, “Video is the next big thing and given that people can easily now view videos on their phones, it is the best way to communicate.” Shenoy and Iyer are creating a bank of videos for the latter’s YouTube channel.
“They are picky about small details like how my nails look,” says Iyer, amused by the work that’s going into the set-up. Iyer’s first video, “How to remove watermelon seeds”, released on 24 January, already has over 4,500 views. Spotlight Plan will help Iyer create, edit and plan her online video presence for a share of the revenue she makes.
“Food blogging as we knew it has another two years to hit its peak and then it will die,” forecasts Sid Khullar, founder and editor of Chef At Large, a collective of bloggers who review restaurants across India. He believes that only those bloggers who keep pace with technology and maintain a direct connect with their audiences will survive.
Food blogger Archana Doshi at a shoot at her Bangalore home
Bloggers are the new influencers of the food industry and restaurants and brands are catching on to the idea fast.
In May 2012, when Monkey Bar Bangalore invited this reporter to try its new breakfast menu, I found myself sharing a table with five food bloggers and one Bangalore-based journalist. As the dishes arrived, the bloggers quickly whisked out their cameras and started clicking. It was a good 10 minutes before anybody tasted the food. Once they did, the conversation was strictly about plating, and similar dishes they’d eaten across the world—alongside, of course, a steady commentary on the food they were eating. A very far cry from chefs in France who, according to the news agency AFP, have been rebelling against “food porn” pictures taken when dishes arrive at the table. The chefs say that the images being posted “take away the surprise” while robbing chefs of their “intellectual property”.
Some of the images from the Monkey Bar event appeared on Facebook and Twitter feeds later that day. Some posted detailed reviews a few days later. “There are no rules when dealing with food bloggers,” says Radhika Misra, who handles public relations for A.D. Singh’s restaurants, including the Olive Beach, Bangalore, and the Monkey Bars in Bangalore and Delhi. “You play it by ear because each blogger is different and if you give them what they want in the form of props for food shoots and access to a knowledgeable chef, you’ll see the most diverse and unpredictable coverage.”
The unpredictability could have its downside as well, says Preeti Kumar, who has promoted cookbooks published by Westland Ltd. “Anybody can write a blog, so one has to be very careful as to who one invites to a launch or a blogger’s table. Food can be technical and requires knowledge. Public relations people need to do some thorough homework before putting a group of bloggers together,” she says.
“Bloggers like what they do and there is no reason why they shouldn’t make money out of something they excel at,” says Sameer Malkani of the Food Bloggers Association, India (Fbai), a central point of resource and connection for the food-blogging community. In fact Malkani, in the nine months of Fbai’s existence, has started liaising with brands that want to place advertisements directly on the sites of popular bloggers.
“And there is scope and a spot for everybody,” says Insia Lacewalla, founder of Small Fry Co., which organizes pop-up stores for food, jewellery, etc, at events. A shining example of the opportunity is Patel who, within nine months of being online, is already known better by her blog name, Bawibride. Patel has a small but loyal readership that pushed her to start a Parsi-food catering business.
“It’s a crowded space with people who even become famous because their Instagram feeds have large followings,” says Sanghavi.
Blogadda’s Sanghavi has couriered cooking oil to bloggers across the country for review while Fbai has worked with restaurants and PR agencies to help them reach bloggers across the country and also shipped ready-to-eat mixes to food writers on their database. “They have no obligation to say positive things or, for that matter, write anything at all,” says Malkani. “They add a lot of detail to their reviews and blogs are well archived, unlike newspapers articles which are irrelevant the day after,” says Sanghavi.
While most well-known bloggers have advertisements on their blogs, the revenue generated is not significant. Monika Manchanda, who has no formal training as a patisserie chef, has her blog Sinamontales.wordpress.com to thank for her flourishing baking business and Karmakar (who has a full-time job as a market researcher) makes some money from his food walks in Mumbai. “I quit my job as an IT professional to write about food and make food, I won’t say I make as much money, but the trade-off is that I enjoy it and create my own deadlines,” says Manchanda, who also writes food-related articles for several magazines when she is not making batches of strawberry balsamic pepper preserve or creating twists during Diwali with dessert options like rasmalai cheesecake.
At Iyer’s Zesty Salads weekday class at her home in Bangalore, one of the participants announces, “This changed my life.” Thirteen women jot notes furiously as Iyer chops and tosses new combinations. “Get a julienne shaver,” she advises participants, who stand up to get a closer view of the gizmo. Notes are exchanged on where to buy it. The classes (she also conducts a baking class), writing projects for magazines and newspapers (Iyer is a contributor to Mint) make up a large part of her monthly income.
The new critique
Delhi-based Pawan Soni, who runs a bloggers’ collective called Indianfoodfreaks.com, accepts that it is not uncommon for bloggers to be paid money or be given incentives to write positive reviews. This trend, not more than a year old, bothers many like Karmakar, who started his blog with the aim of writing restaurant reviews. “Many blogs are now increasingly starting to look like advertorials, they are just a canvas for promotional activities,” says Karmakar.
“But even if the blogger just wants to write an honest review, the public relations teams will go to great lengths to scuttle it,” says Soni, recalling one run-in he had in February 2013. “If the hotel attempted to create a symphony that evening, then the notes must have been in the ultrasonic range, beyond our ordinary human senses,” read a line of a review by R.K. Geetha, Soni’s colleague, of a wine-pairing event conducted in a posh hotel, on his website.
“They saw that our expressions weren’t too positive and accosted my colleague and me on our way out with a brief on what we should write, along with a gift hamper,” says Soni who, miffed with the whole incident, proceeded to publish another blog titled “Top Ten Mistakes of a PR Professional” the same week. Soni has never been invited to the hotel again.
But there are also those who admit that sometimes they have been too critical because they feared they would be perceived as having been influenced by the restaurant’s theatrics. Khullar, who was once known for his scathing reviews, agrees that one can also be pressured by the fact that a free meal has been had.
“Restaurant reviews don’t fit into my larger picture. My users are people who are learning to cook,” says Doshi, who rarely does reviews.
“I get an average of 10 emails a week to do reviews. I don’t have the time and won’t subject my body to eating out every day,” says Iyer, who has even been sent cartons of buttermilk for review. “What can I say about buttermilk!” she says. This view is echoed by Manchanda, who picks and chooses the restaurants she would like to review and feels her views will matter more if the space has some amount of baked items.
Besides, not all public relation agencies have a good hold on how to strategize their coverage on the blogosphere. PR agencies say, most of them go simply by the number of page views or ratings on Klout.com, a website and mobile app that uses social media analytics to rank users according to online social influence, or Elexa.com, which provides commercial Web traffic data, to decide who they want to contact for coverage. This is done with little understanding of each blogger’s reader profile.
While agencies struggle to understand the mechanics of this industry, the numbers are only growing. And though presently it may seem that quantity is trumping quality, the food industry, far from writing off bloggers, is latching on.
Anirban Sen contributed to this story.