This month our blogger of the Month is Hannah from Love to Dine.
Tell us a little about yourself, who you are and what you blog about?
I’m 35 and I live in South Wales, having relocated 18 months ago from Bournemouth to live with my partner who has always lived in the area. My blog is a hobby. My ‘proper’ job, which I really enjoy, is as Head of Multi-Channel Communications for a building society. I only started this role a couple of months ago, but I’ve always worked in Financial Services marketing. I blog about restaurants, eating out and the occasional product review if it’s something I particularly like – and that I think would be of interest to my readers. Since I moved to South Wales, my blog has taken on more of a geographical focus on Cardiff and the surrounding area.
How long have you been blogging?
I started in May 2011, so just over 2 years.
Why did you start blogging and where did your site name come from?
I’ve always loved writing. As a teenager I had loads of penpals, and I’ve always been one for keeping in touch with people through the written word. My work has often involved copywriting too – sometimes because it’s been part of my role, and other times, just because I was considered good at it and was asked to do it! In recent years I began to like the idea of having a blog, but I lacked inspiration when it came to subject matter. I actually started blogging a few years ago before I started Love to Dine, but only got to about four posts before I ran out of ideas (the only one I can remember was about car boot sales!) – and it always felt a bit too self-indulgent just to be writing my own random observations on life and expecting people to be interested in what I had to say.
Going back about ten years or so, I spent a lot of time writing on a consumer review site and particularly enjoyed that kind of writing, as you have the foundation of something factual to write about, but can be creative through adding your own opinion, rather than having to craft something from a completely blank sheet of paper. After a weekend away a couple of years ago, I wrote a few Trip Advisor reviews and suddenly my ideal subject matter came to me and I adapted a couple of the reviews to publish on my own blog. I do eat out an awful lot (“all the time” as many of my friends would tell you – I’d tell you it’s on average 3 times a week) so I’m never short of material. It’s grown from there, although it’s fair to say that I leapt into blogging head first, knowing very little about how to do it well, so I’ve definitely learnt as I’ve gone along – and probably still have an awful lot more to learn.
In terms of the name, I probably should have given it more thought as it was a spur of the moment thing which I came up with in all of half an hour on the sofa in my old home in Bournemouth. I had my first couple of posts written and was itching to get started, so I needed a name! I toyed with a few ideas around living to eat, loving to eat and then settled on Love to Dine. I don’t think I’d change it, as it does explain in three words what the site is about, but it’s more by luck than judgement that I’ve ended up with something that works.
Your blog is mainly about restaurant reviews – what do you like to cook at home?
I love cooking and I think I can make most things taste good, but I don’t like fiddly dishes – partly because I lack the dexterity to present things nicely, so everything ends up looking ‘rustic’ at best, and partly because I never seem to have the time to dedicate to complex dishes. I cook every night, but with work and various other commitments I often don’t start cooking until after 8 in the evening, so unless I choose dishes that are fairly quick, we wouldn’t be sitting down to eat until 10 o’clock at night! I do always cook from scratch, though, and don’t like anything from a packet or a jar. I’d say my style is fairly traditional, hearty dishes: if people come for dinner I love making crowd-pleasers like a really good chilli, lasagne or fish pie. Taking a bit of extra time to choose good ingredients and not just open a jar makes such a difference. Those type of dishes are also great to put in the freezer for the occasions when I really don’t have the time to cook but still can’t bring myself to have convenience food in the freezer! I make a lot of different salads too, and will also just do a simple piece of fish or meat with a nice sauce and carefully chosen fresh veg which I’ll often add a twist to – like making a minted pea puree rather than just serving up peas! It’s the little touches, like knowing when to add a particular herb or spice, that bring dishes to life.
With all those lovely meals you eat how do you stay in shape?
My first answer to this is that I’m not in shape – at least not as much as I’d like to be, or used to be, but I do try – and it could be a lot worse! One of the reasons I don’t have much time to cook in the evenings is because I try to go to the gym as much as I can – my rule is that if I don’t have anything else planned for the evening (work or social commitments) I’ll try and go. I used to have boundless enthusiasm for the gym when I first started going in my early 20s, but now it’s a real effort, so I generally go to classes as it forces me to push myself and do a full hour, rather than a half-hearted whistle stop tour around the easier bits of equipment in the gym. I like Body Pump and Body Combat classes, especially with a good instructor, although when I say ‘like’, it’s all relative. If I’d been blessed with a naturally fast metabolism, I’d never exercise – it’s definitely a necessity rather than something I particularly enjoy. One of my other big passions, alongside food, is clothes (and shoes and handbags although they are not so weight dependent) – so exercise is the piece of the jigsaw that allows me to balance my enjoyment of both of them, rather than having to either starve myself or resort to wearing size 18 tents!
What do you feel you gain from blogging?
There have been a few things, actually, many of which I couldn’t possibly have anticipated when I started. The obvious one, which most people ask me about, is the ‘freebies’ – which are lovely, but it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that they bring immense value to the businesses offering them as well, and also place a responsibility upon the blogger, so I try not to focus too much on that when I’m asked this question. I certainly didn’t start the blog with a view to getting invited to restaurant launches and for complimentary meals – I didn’t even know that that sort of thing went on, and I’m in the fortunate position that I’m able to eat out a lot anyway, without free meals, so it’s a bonus more than anything else. If I get invited somewhere and really enjoy it, I tend to try and go back as a paying guest anyway.
More valuable to me are two other benefits. Firstly, when I moved to South Wales, I didn’t know many people and was commuting daily to Bristol, so didn’t have much time or opportunity to build a social life for myself in my new home. It was around that time that my blog really started to attract attention locally, though, so through that, I got out and about much more than I would have done otherwise, and met some great people into the bargain.
Secondly, developing the blog and using media like Twitter, Facebook and SEO to promote it has given me a massive opportunity to learn about those particular areas of marketing – much more so than I would have done through my day job alone. As a marketing professional, this has been absolutely invaluable, and I am now in a role where developing these areas is a fundamental part of my responsibilities. I know my experience with the blog helped me greatly in getting the role in the first place, and will be really useful to me now I am in the job.
Any tips for working with PRs?
I am probably fortunate in that the nature of my job means that I was au fait with working with PRs before I started doing so for the blog, so I don’t find it particularly difficult and I think I’ve built some reasonably good relationships with some of them in the local area. I like to think that they find me fairly easy to deal with as well, and fairly ‘PR-friendly’! I find it much more challenging when I’m dealing with a restaurant that doesn’t have a PR and I end up dealing directly with the owner or manager as it’s much more difficult then to give negative feedback without causing offence, particularly if you know they’ve tried really hard.
I think my main tip would be to really try and understand what the PR is looking for and be honest with yourself about whether you can offer this through your blog. As an example, there are certain types of restaurant review opportunities that I would turn down – fast food restaurants, for example, as they’re not something I enjoy visiting and as such I wouldn’t be able to write a review that was both totally positive and totally honest, so it wouldn’t be fair on me, the PR or my readers to say yes to that sort of thing. I’m also careful to manage PRs’ expectations in terms of the fact that this isn’t a my job, so I can’t always guarantee I’ll turn reviews around straight after a restaurant visit.
Many thanks to Hannah, you can follow her on twitter @lovetodineblog