Drama. Tom Sietsema branched out from his typical restaurant reviews and decided to review eight of the city's catering companies (just in time for the holidays). The reviews ranged from positive to poor, and at least two of the featured companies have written letters to the editor complaining about the results.
Sietsema hired eight different caterers to cater a fake engagement dinner at his home. He used the same budget and said that one guest was vegetarian.
The caterers ranked the best included Susan Gage (A rating) and Federal City (B+). Companies like Occasions (C) and Windows (C-) fared worse. The Occasions experience suffered from "overcooked fish" and frost-bitten raspberry ice cream, according to Sietsema. He had this to say about Windows: "Does Popeyes deliver, hon?."
Representatives from both Windows and Occasions wrote letters to the editor to The Washington Post, challenging the way the reviews were conducted. The letters (which were forwarded to Eater's tipline) criticized Sietsema for favoring catering companies he'd used in the past, and not giving the companies more than one chance to perform (he traditionally visits restaurants at least three times before a review is published). "Mr. Sietsema should have acknowledged his personal preferences," wrote Occasions CEO Mark Michael. This goes right to the issue of ethics. I would expect this from a third-tier news organization, not The Washington Post."
Occasions Letter to the Editor
Eater reached out to Sietsema, who responded to the criticism from the caterers via email.
I put a lot of thought into how to conduct my catering assessments and ran my ideas past a neutral expert in the field before making my first call. I tried to be as fair as possible by using the same script with each business, the same budget, the same location, etc. – and doing so anonymously.
I do not have "personal" caterers. While I’ve used Federal City and Susan Gage before, the events I hired them for took place years and years ago and in a home other than where I now live or another venue. My phone number has changed since then, too. Bottom line: I’m pretty sure no one knew they were coming to my house on the night of the event.
At least from a consumer’s standpoint, caterers are different from restaurants. Given the investment, a customer would probably recommend a caterer based on a single experience. Throughout the story, I tried to be as transparent as possible about how I was reviewing the different businesses (which included phone and email exchanges, not just the dinners).
The Washington Post's package also included a column on whether hiring a caterer is worth it, as well as caterer hiring tips.
Update: Sietsema also addressed the topic and concerns in his chat today. "Their reactions ranged from 'Can't wait to read it!' and 'How'd we do?' to worried silence on the other end of the phone," when Sietsema told them the review was coming, he said.