Interview | Wednesday, 08 October 2008

Definitive(ly) not a restaurant critic

The Definitively Good Guide Co. Managing Director Lisa Grech would not single out a restaurant and assess it. She’d let the public do that for her. But after almost ten years in the field, she knows a great deal about the restaurant industry in Malta. In this interview with David Darmanin, she talks about perception and objectivity.

After toying with the idea of moving away from public relations and marketing in London about ten years ago, Lisa Grech came to Malta to see whether she would settle here. Once here, she was obviously itching, so she decided to start working on an idea that is very reminiscent of how restaurant guides are approached in the UK: objectively.
Grech is not a restaurant critic, and she doesn’t like to be confused with one. The guide she publishes is based on the results of a questionnaire submitted by the public every year.
Other locally produced restaurant guides on the other hand will really and truly guide the reader to those places with the healthiest advertising budgets, irrespective of the quality they offer.
The guide Grech publishes does not rubbish any of the restaurants it features, it simply includes the best 150 graded on ambience, service and food – and ignores the rest which do not qualify. The restaurant with highest overall grades receives the best restaurant award, while other qualifiers are nominated for a series of other awards ranging from the “Best Toilet Award” to “Best Value for Money” or “Best Maltese Food”.
“We distribute our questionnaires in other publications, such as magazines issued with Sunday newspapers. Once completed questionnaires are sent back, we only accept those that contain details of the respondent, since all users must be registered. We then send the results abroad for data analysis and answers are properly vetted in order to maintain objectivity. We are very vigilant on discrepancies,” she said. “There could be a significant amount of cheating, but we have the systems in place to avoid this from happening. We are resolute that if we lose our objectivity then we might as well become another advert-based restaurant publication.”
Needless to mention, there will still be an element of accusations of bias from the aggrieved restaurateurs. But at least she has her replies at the ready in case any such allegations are made.
“We have had cases of restaurant owners complaining because they thought they deserved better ratings, but I don’t get threatened individually. Advertisers do not control my content and I don’t accept any freebies,” she emphasised.
But once she knows who’s going in the book, restaurants are approached to see whether or not they would like to advertise.
“It is up to them to accept or refuse advertising in the guide, but once they’re in, they’re in. The guide listing is free.”
It would be interesting to see what she thinks of restaurant critics in Malta.
“I think restaurant critics are needed on the island, but they have a separate role. They also have to be careful not to be biased. Of course there are some good ones and there are some bad ones.”
Out of some 100,000 questionnaires distributed, Grech receives about a thousand back, which is quite significant, bearing in mind that people have to go through the hassle of completing the form and mail it back.
“Besides, we have a database of about 4,000 to 5,000 registered users on our database and this is always on the increase. It is from information gathered from people on our lists that restaurants enter. For all I know, I could personally not like a particular restaurant, but it would still go in based on the results,” she said.
Aren’t there too many restaurants in Malta?
“Yes,” she quickly answered. “I think there are too many for the island to sustain. It’s obvious when you see all these restaurants opening, closing and changing hands.”
And yet many others are still under the same ownership, holding on to a menu that hasn’t been changed in twenty years, but they’re still hanging. And most of them are in a shambles.
“This book helps raise the standard, thus encouraging restaurateurs to invest,” she said. “We have promoted the décor aspect, for example, and I think we contributed in the change there suddenly was in the way outlets are designed now. There was a time when restaurants all looked like worn out trattorias, with green and white tablecloths, plastic flowers and a picture of the Etna. But many have now invested, perhaps a little too much in décor, to the detriment of service – which hasn’t seen enough improvement.”
Clients have also become savvier it seems.
“Trends have changed, and I think customers have become much more knowledgeable on food, wine and service in general. I think we have also helped in making this happen. But yes, people have generally become more discerning. At the end of the day, they’re paying good money, so one should expect it.”
Grech has an obvious passion for the local restaurant industry. Besides the production and marketing costs involved in the book itself, big money is pumped into the annual gala award ceremony, which she called “the restaurant Oscars in Malta”.
With the business model she’s adopted, she will have to give a miss to a good number of attractive advertising offers. One wonders whether she could actually make money out of this project.
“We don’t make huge amounts, but enough to cover costs,” she admitted. “The MTA, Marsovin and HSBC sponsorships have obviously kept us going financially, and that is how we manage to remain objective.”
Lisa Grech’s surname is Maltese, and so is her father. But that’s about it. Other than that she’s British, and also stereotypically non-flexible on her basic principles. Now as admirable as that may be, has she managed to align with all the segments of the local business community after ten years? Has she ever had problems resulting from cultural differences in the way we do business here?
“Business is business,” she said. “It’s the same everywhere. I’m so ingrained into it now that I almost forgot how it was in England, but I think it works pretty much the same way everywhere around the world.”
Grech is now thinking of expanding. She is currently working on a coffee-table publication featuring a “visual feast” of the top twenty restaurants featured in the guide over the years, as seen from photographer Kurt Arrigo’s eyes, so watch out.


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08 October 2008

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