After submitting a sample restaurant review to the newspaper where I’d recently begun writing book reviews, the editor assigned me a new job. I would be a restaurant reviewer. My first assignment was a place called Deuces Wild — a Harley bar. I was scared to death. Not because I was afraid to go there or afraid of what I might encounter, but because I’d never done a restaurant review before, and I knew nothing about Harleys. I felt like I was in over my head.
There was no one to tell me what to do. I studied the restaurant reviews of other newspapers and got the flavor for what information should be included and how a review should be structured. But I didn’t know that restaurant reviews were supposed to be anonymous. I walked in and told the hostess right away that I was there to write a review for the paper and asked to speak to the manager. He came to the table and actually sat down with me and my family. He told me all about the place and his vision for its future. He enthusiastically told me what was so alluring about riding Harleys. And he ordered us the best steaks and quesadillas we had over my entire 3-year stint of reviewing restaurants.
My editor loved the review. He didn’t change a word and it became my modus operandi to interview the managers or wait staff at every restaurant I reviewed. Sometimes I did so before we ordered. More often I did it after we ate. I liked being able to include the story behind the restaurant or specific dishes. It differentiated me from the pack and established me as a restaurant reviewer ñ not a food critic. Those are really two different things.
For the first year or so, I wrote 750-word articles and submitted my receipts for reimbursement (with a $35 food allowance cap) along with my stringer payment sheet. I was making $50 an article and the newspaper sent out a staff photographer to take beautiful color pictures of the food to accompany my articles. As the newspaper reformatted its entertainment section, my reviews were cut to 250 words. So was my payment rate. It dropped to $35, along with my food allowance. I found I spent most of those words capturing the ambience of the restaurant rather than going into detail about the food. After all, I was writing restaurant reviews, not food critiques.
Writing restaurant and book reviews for the newspaper led to other assignments. I’d established my voice and my professionalism. I found my niche in interviewing people. I later reviewed festivals and stage events, and wrote human interest features. I began interviewing people for magazines, too. What had started with a pitch to the newspaper and an assignment way out of my comfort zone became my first taste of journalistic success. And it was sweet!
Juliann Wetz’s work has been published in dozens of national and regional magazines such as Child Life, Boys’ Life, German Life, Dog Fancy, Daughters, Capper’s, Good Old Days, Writers Weekly, and others. In addition, she wrote weekly columns and features for the Cox News Group of southwestern Ohio from 2002-2007. Read more of her work on her blog: http://juliewetz-dailysnapshot.blogspot.com/