When the food turned sour…

The other evening I was invited to attend an intimate dinner at an exclusive underground restaurant called Sotto Terra hosted by Food Network chef George Duran and Supermarket Guru Phillip Lempert.  We were promised a delicious Italian 4-course meal and scintillating conversation on the latest food trends with other foodies.  I was salivating at the thought of this meal and it was long due for a date night with my husband.  He doesn’t often partake in my Blogger perks but he was definitely interested in this one.

Even more exciting was that I was allowed to offer this same amazing experience to one of my readers and their guest.  My excitement was palpable.  I was tweeting away, getting my friends to share and spread the news.  When it was time to draw the winner, I was pleasantly surprised to see the entrant and winner (out of 119 entries) was none other than my children’s pediatrician and his wife (who is a loyal Mom Confessionals reader)!

When I congratulated my winner and gave her the details, I promised it was going to be an amazing night and they could acknowledge my husband and I or simply enjoy the meal between the two of them.  I myself couldn’t wait for what promised to be a delicious meal.  You see, life’s been a little rough these days for my family.  My mother was recently diagnosed with cancer and I was desperately trying to study for my NCLEX, it was hard to find a balance between being supportive to the woman who gave me life and studying for an exam that would change the course of our future for my family.  On Monday of this past week, I took my exam and the night before this dinner, I found out that I had passed — I was now and RN!  My entire family had worked, supported me in my pursuit and it had finally paid off!  A huge weight had lifted off my shoulders and finally allowed me to fully focus on my mother and her needs.  I felt this dinner was going to be our brief moment to celebrate.  My husband was excited.  It’s not often that we take the time out sans children to just enjoy each other.  I think we both really needed this.

The night of this exclusive dinner at Sotto Terra came.  Despite the 4 hour chaos of trying to finding my sister at JFK after her plane landed but was not heard from, who flew home to be with our mother.  I got home a half hour before I had to leave for dinner.  I got dressed as quick as I could, let the kids reintroduce themselves to their Aunt who they hadn’t seen in months.  I found my cleanest pressed pants and fancy top, put on a little make up even remembering to put on my earrings for a little sparkle.  I was suppose to pick up my husband at 5:00pm but as I was running late, he graciously told me he would simply meet me downtown, allowing me not to have to detour through midtown and its traffic knowing being late is one of my biggest pet peeves.  I got into the city and parked by 5:50pm.  I couldn’t believe that I made it on time but couldn’t wait to get this dinner started.

I already knew this dinner was going to be hosted in a private brownstone and was thrilled to greet my guests right at the front door.  We ooohed and aaaaahed at the decorations and set up.  The wife was so excited to meet chef George Duran.  I obviously hadn’t done my research on him, but knowing he was from the Food Network was all the validation I needed.  I was sure we were in for a treat.  I even drank a glass of sangria for the first time in years.  I am typically not a drinker but this was a night of celebration.  I sat and chatted with my guests and my husband.  They told me how excited they were for this dinner.  How they had gotten a sitter to watch their 4 children and he even left his practice early to make this dinner his wife was so eager for.  She was a huge George Duran fan.  She couldn’t believe that he was actually here with us!

We noshed on delicious endive salad bites.  The mood in the air was light and cheerful.  Moments later we descended down into the dining area.  More oooohs and aaaaahs erupted.  Lots of pictures were taken.  For those who know me, I’m not an adventurous eater.  I love my basics and usually will never veer off my favorites but this was an experience and I was going for it.  I didn’t snub one dish.  I drank up the Watermelon and Cucumber Gazpacho shots.  Chowed down on the Strawberry Arugula Salad with Honey Balsamic Vinaigrette.  Devoured the Herbed Cheesy Garlic Bread.  I was a little disappointed that the main course was simply Lasagna but I was sure that we were in for a treat at the hands of chef George Duran.  When it came out, it was nothing spectacular, it was good, I wasn’t wowed like I was with the other dishes but it was good.  I cleansed my palate on a Mojito Granita shot, there seemed to be a lot of alcohol consumption on my part, well a lot for someone who never drinks.  I obsessed over the Razzleberry Pie a la mode and then the bomb dropped.

Our entire meal was a SHAM!  We were unwilling participants in a bait-and-switch for Marie Callender’s new frozen three cheese lasagna and there were cameras watching our reactions.  I’ve got a sense of humor so I was okay with it and I had been enjoying myself up until that point, but I could tell that the rest of the participants were not.  Everyone feigned weak shock and faked approval of the frozen meal.  My guests were eager to leave all of a sudden and refused to sign the release.  I felt awful!  The conversation had fallen to an awkward silence as our hosts tried to fill in the empty air.  When suggested we move the conversation back upstairs, everyone took themselves upstairs and out the door, include myself, my husband and our guests.  I must have been still somewhat hopeful when my guest asked me so is Sotto Terra real or not?  I said I thought it still might be a project that chef George and Phil were working on.  I realize how stupid and gullible I must have sounded later.

The first thing out of my husband’s mouth was waste of time and I was reduced to tears.  Not only had I been duped but now my husband was mad at me and my guests/pediatrician must of thought of me terribly.  Its even crossed my mind that I may need to find a new pediatrician, I was that embarrassed.  My only comfort was as we left, his wife said to me, Thank God he at least cooked the rest of the meal.  But that also hinted at the major disappointment.

Always trying to think positive, I still felt I learned a lot that night.  I learned about Community Supported Agriculture – CSA’s and how to be an informed consumer of seafood through an iPhone app called Seafood Watch.  But I was gently reminded this morning that this was an example of PR agencies undervaluing bloggers and their lack of care for my online reputation.  I was set up to promote this event to my readers and as such, when I’m excited I love to share.  I put my name out there based on the information I received from them and got burned in a big way.  If only I had took the time to check my twitter feed while taking my mom to Sloan Kettering and picking my sister up from the airport, I might have caught the warnings but I had to be offline to put my family first.

I want to deeply apologize to my winner and her husband, my children’s beloved pediatrician.  They were expecting an amazing meal and a true experience at the hands of famous Food Network chef they were fans of and were left with a really foul taste in their mouths.  I too was completely surprised and I promise you, had I known, I would not have encouraged you to sacrifice your valuable time and money only to be tricked.  I am profoundly embarrassed and hope that you will accept my sincerest apologies.

About Suzanne Chan

Suzanne is student, daughter, wife, (labor & delivery) certified registered nurse, certified lactation counselor, friend, entrepreneur and blogger – but the job she's most proud of is mother… She shares her journey on this blog and The Disney Files. Read more about her here.

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  • Bekki

    I’ve been reading about this since a few foodie friends of mine posted links to main articles, and then clicking through to food blogs.

    I have to say, I don’t think the bloggers are upset because they were maybe tricked into liking frozen food. They were brought there under the pretense of having a gourmet meal (which MC’s frozen lasagna apparently is nothing near, and yes, the entree does constitute the majority of a meal IMHO) and an open and engaging discussion regarding food – CSAs, processed versus natural, food concerns and issues (such as “to be organic or not to be”). Instead, they got meals that many of them would have preferred not to have (filled with sodium, chemicals, etc.), engaged in a very guided and focused pseudo-discussion, and (as one upside) apparently got to network in person with other food bloggers.

    This was a very poorly thought out marketing scheme, aimed more at using the names of those who went to promote at best a mediocre product (I’ve yet to hear one complimentary thing regarding the lasagna) rather than recognizing the wisdom and insight the group gathered could offer. Those who put this down as “poor bumhurt bloggers” and people obsessed with “first world problems” do not understand.

    These bloggers make it a part of their routine to try and impart food news and information to their readers, typically looking for healthy and nutritionally sound options, rather than reverting to “meh, frozen food is okay” as a constant refrain. There is a level of trust built between bloggers and their readers, and to draw in the readers with a giveaway based on inaccurate information not only damages the PR and main company’s image, it also damages the bond between blogger and reader.

    It’s disappointing that those who have built a reputation as a reliable source have been duped into shilling for a company they don’t really support (via the reader contests). It’s even more disappointing that so many don’t understand the deeper trust issues that will develop out of this.

  • Lucretia

    Sorry to reply so much in your comments – it seems as though the NYT article has stirred up this conversation again. A little surprised to see trolls showing up. Didn’t know they read parenting or food blogs… or the NYT for that matter.

    Just a reminder that your readers (and your pediatrician!) are aware that you were not a part of the deception. You trusted that things were on the up & up. So did your husband and your pediatrician.

    There is nothing worse than having a “surprise” turn out not to be a good surprise. For either the recipient or the one who arranges it. But it’s clear that this situation didn’t end up the way anyone would really have liked it to – from the participants, to the brand, to the agency. Hopefully it will serve as a cautionary tale in the future.

    As a side note? I’m so hooked on your blog now. :)

    • Suzanne

      Hi Everyone! and especially Lucretia! Your support has been overwhelming. Thank you for all your kind words and thoughts. No one could have been more surprised by today’s NY Times piece and I actually just laid eyes on the printed piece now. I had already long moved on from this but I can see this topic is very important to many. I hope that I didn’t come off as someone trying to shame the PR company. This attention has been overwhelming. I didn’t write this for attention, my audience has always been considerably small, but for lesson that everybody’s time is valuable and to respect a person as you would want them to for you. Even if you share the view that bloggers aren’t real media, respect our time. I try very hard to respect everyone for who they are and what they say. I am not bothered by some of the negative comments. They have a right to their opinion and I appreciate them as much as my supporters and loyal readers. I hope to continue to provide content worthy of your time.

      All the Best,
      Suzanne

    • Stephica

      Just wanted to chime in and say that I think the majority of the trolls are from The Consumerist. It’s a decent blog but largely full of sub-par and largely ignorant commentators. Very YouTube comments section.

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  • http://www.rahchachow.blogspot.com Tracy

    I worked in the PR agency business for 10+ years and, I’m baffled by what this company was thinking. I try to envision the meetings where this was thought up, presented and approved by lots and lots of people. Then I wonder about their selection of bloggers, particularly those who stay away from processed food. Maybe they think that bloggers who say that they are PR/Media friendly are fair game for anything? Something to consider…

    At any rate, sorry you had a disappointing night. Your embarrassment is palpable. I cannot believe your husband and pediatrician would fault you for the situation.

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  • Soo-lee

    Oh as if you could tell the difference by taste.

  • steve

    Something makes me think you actually enjoyed it and couldnt tell the difference. Id bet good money that you are more upset that you were “duped” than the fact you actually lied and probably enjoyed but then said you didnt just to spite ConAgra. Of course you are going to say otherwise and that you “always suspected something” but lets be honest. you enjoyed it and had they not told you the difference you would have raved on how delicious it was. get real foodies. what a waste of internet space. for the matter actually, who makes a career out of eating food and critisizing it? no wonder america is fat.

  • Maxine Clark

    American corporations – integrity and honesty. They do not go together.

  • http://www.dontmesswithmama.com Tracey @ Don’t Mess with Mama

    I’m so sorry. This is awful. I can’t believe they did that. The worst PR stunt. I’m sure your pediatrician will be understanding. There’s no way you would have known. Don’t beat yourself up about it. ConAgra is awful!

  • steve

    people need to stop blaming ConAgra. it was a legitimate thing…you got caught in a lie stop trying to spin it.

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  • http://food.lizsteinberg.com Liz

    You’ve highlighted exactly what is wrong with this kind of fraud. ConAgra deserves all the criticism it’s getting. Meanwhile, I think you should just delete all these trolls, because it looks like they’re copy-pasting the exact same thing onto every blog post criticizing this event. Not legitimate feedback, to say the least.

    • Sean

      It actually is legitimate feedback to all of the supposed “expert bloggers”. I think the big lie is in all of the foodie bloggers who make outrageous claims and then get caught not being able to either distinguish homemade from packaged or not being willing to actually criticize in public. “I didn’t want to say anything bad”; you’re supposedly a critic, if the food was bad you were supposed to say so. Claiming to have known at the time but being too polite to point it out is code talk for ” I had no clue it was packaged food and now I’m embarrased”.

  • Duaine

    you “el cheap “Os”really need to get a life !
    You only went because it was a “FREE MEAL” and thats what you got.
    You should be happy your not eating slop out of dumptser like 10% of unemployed Americans today.

  • Quynh

    Imagine you’re invited to a free meal with some lasagna as the main course. You take a few bites, go “This is tasty” and proceed to chow away. At the end of the meal, with cameras rolling, the hosts of the meal go “Surprise! There was human meat in that lasagna! You said it was tasty, right?”

    But hey, free meal, and this is a first world problem so bloggers don’t have a right to be upset since there’s people starving in the world, right?

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  • Sean

    Whine much? You were offered a meal and served a meal. I guess your opinion doesn’t mean as much as you thought it might.

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  • Mark

    Your righteous indignation is amusing. You’re a blogger. Creating a login and password doesn’t make you a “food expert”. Get over yourself.

  • Chris

    Jaysus. Food bloggers will cry about anything, won’t they? You blog about food. Big whoop.

    You went for a Food Network chef and you got Marie Callendar’s. Sounds like you got what you went for.

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  • Cristina

    I admire your restraint in how you’ve reacted to being tricked, having your time wasted, and being humiliated in front of your guests. Good for you for speaking up, and preventing others from being tricked in the same way. Clearly previous commenters have all the time in the world to waste, and don’t care at all what they eat.
    Here’s a link to NYT coverage on this, via Food52:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/07/business/media/when-bloggers-dont-follow-the-script-to-conagras-chagrin.html

  • Sam Young

    You seem to be a pretentious shallow person trying to be a somebody. The only SHAM was that you opened your big mouth about how important you are and now you are trying to back peddle for all of the things you said. Since your are a self described foodie you know what “Eating Crow” means. Bon Appetit

  • http://dragonmamma-dragoncave.blogspot.com/ Dragonmamma/Naomi

    Wow, I’m astounded at the stupidity and callousness of some of the previous commenters. Taste aside, most food bloggers are concerned with the actual quality of food: Lack of additives, excess sodium, how the meat was raised, etc. Suppose somebody had an allergy to additives? (Which the bloggers could reasonably assume to be absent from a chef-prepared meal.) The organizers of the event owe you all a huge apology plus a big night on the town at a really nice restaurant.

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  • Revealed

    That was quite revealing! You and the rest of your “chemical” fearing naturalistas have been exposed for the frauds that you are. Take a basic science class sometime and stop whining about imaginary problems. No one can take you seriously after this.. I bet the cameras show you loving every piece of that lasagna!

    • Amanda

      There’s a reason why people read labels: the fact that you can’t tell by taste that a dinner is loaded with preservatives doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

  • Erin

    I second Dragonmamma/Naomi. Thank you for sharing this story and please don’t listen to the negative comments. As far as I’m concerned, your anger is more than justified.

  • Muriel

    This is the epitome of first world problems. Seriously, I mean sure its underhanded, but cry more. If you don’t want your frozen cheesy food give it to me. I’m poor and wouldn’t mind a free meal occasionally. Your husband is also a dweeb for getting mad at you. I would have gotten mad at him for putting the blame on me. I hate that. It’s obnoxious.

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  • ohpuhleeze

    I guess your influential list of 21 blog readers and 17 subscribers will be so influential over this stupid whiny post. Shame shame to you as there are many many hungry people in the world. I think we need a real life I Am Legend scenerio to have people be grateful for what they have.

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  • John Blaze

    Wow, what a whiny ungrateful b*tch! It was all in good fun and you complain that your food wasn’t some 5 star experience and that the pediatrician was sad? Here’s an idea, look into and see the faces of the millions of starving kids and families in other countries, and then wonder how awful and gut wrenching your ignorant 1st world problems are. Instead of blogging about free food you were served, do something to help the people in the world who are in REAL distress. Silly ass useless excuse for a human being… you ma’am, are what’s wrong with this world.

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  • Recsession Hits Hard

    The vehemency to this story seemed quite appalling. Then I had to wonder if it was also calculated. These hateful commentators are clearly not usual readers. Since you were indeed set up from the beginning, I propose these comments to be the final steps to the company’s set-up: fake commentators to discredit your reveal. The point is you were duped and made complicit in furthering the deception. Your outrage is well placed. Thank-you for having the courage to tell your story and expose the tactics used.
    I know it’s difficult, but pity these shells of a person who’s job is more distasteful than porn.

  • http://www.christophercina.com Christopher Cina

    Personally, I’ve always had an issue with bloggers who critique ‘free’ meals, how is it possible to stay truly unbiased, most all of the bloggers I’m aware of say they have nothing but their ethics and reputation. In a case like this, you can’t have both.

    As far as admiring a Food Network chef, it’s all about big business, corporate branding and money, you’d be well served to read a cookbook rather than watch the endless infomercials on the Food Channel.

    Lastly, the 3rd course on the menu you posted (photo above) lists ‘seasoned beef’ as a component, no chef in his right mind would ever put ‘seasoned beef’ on a high end menu, didn’t this all get covered with the Taco Bell fiasco?

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  • Amanda

    Holy wow, those are some comments.

    I think that maybe a savvy person could have read between the lines — whenever an industry invites you to learn about trends from stars, you can safely assume you’re signing up to sit through a marketing pitch.

    Still, I’d be livid, especially if I invited someone I respect to join me. It isn’t pompous to be embarrassed that you were duped into inviting friends to a marketing stunt. The comment above that calls you “a pretentious shallow person trying to be a somebody” almost nails it, too: that is exactly what stings about it. That’s about how I’d feel anyway, like I was just revealed as a rube. I think it stinks.

    • http://www.yahoo.com/ Hester

      I’m quite pleased with the infrmoaotin in this one. TY!

  • Susan

    I’m stunned by some of the comments on this post. Clearly written by the agency trolls who concocted this event. No one who understands food blogs would ever utter such ignorant nonsense.

    Any decent food stylist can make crappy food look good. The fact that they manipulated your politeness and courtesy to the host shows the agency and Marie Callendar foods up for what they really are – another deceptive mega-corp production owned by Con-Agra.

  • Dave

    I detect no whining here. The blogger was invited to a dinner and asked to bring friends. They were not informed that this was a blinded experiment. They were effectively experimented on without prior consent. What was done was rude. To conflate her complaint with starvation in the world is asinine.

  • http://www.theblogfrog.com Erik

    Bait and Switch. Surprising that a brand and agency of their respective calibers would ‘use’ a food blogger in this manner. Blogger relations are a two way street–its a dialogue. That’s the value. Bloggers have followings because they are good at publishing content. They keep their followings because their readers trust them. Any brand that wants to engage a blogger’s readers through the blogger must understand trust. The readers trust the blogger. The brand wants the benefit of that trust to be transferred to their brand through the blogger ‘introducing’ the readers to the brand. Yet the entire premise was fake–tough to build trust upon that

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