CIVIC CENTER — Nearly 150 food bloggers descended upon Santa Monica for the International Food Bloggers Conference 2011, three days of eating, drinking, networking and building companionship within a tight-knit community that rarely, if ever, gets closer than video chat.
For some, blogs are a hobby, something pursued to kill a free hour and feel more productive than turning on Food Network for a rerun of “Chopped.”
They showed up to the Doubletree Friday afternoon for a kickoff to a conference that cost a cool $350 to attend.
These bloggers tended to be mostly female, above the age of 30 and already ahead of the game in their “real jobs,” which almost all avoided speaking about.
Instead, they came armed with Twitter handles, Facebook pages, Google analytics for their websites and homemade business cards that consolidated all of that information into a 3.5 by 2-inch snapshot.
Some were new to the game, like Santa Monica-resident Emily Baker, author, chef-de-cuisine and photographer for her blog “A Gilt Nutmeg.”
“A Gilt Nutmeg,” the name plucked from a Shakespeare play, is now a five-month-old project for the professional webpage designer, and represents an evolution in her writing and cooking.
“It’s the first time I’ve put myself out there,” Baker said. “I work building websites, but never for myself.”
The conference also provides outlets for the experienced, who have less to take away from the lessons on Search Engine Optimization, or SEO, and more to give back in terms of knowledge and services.
Andrew Wilder, writer of the popular “Eating Rules” blog, received an enthusiastic greeting from at least one fellow-foodie when she dropped to her knees on the cold tile of the Doubletree Hotel foyer to kow-tow to him.
Wilder had the grace to blush.
His blog focuses on three rules for eating healthfully — use whole grains, eliminate high fructose corn syrup and never eat hydrogenated oils.
He also acts as a curator during his “October Unprocessed” event, where people sign a pledge to avoid all processed foods during the month of October. He got 3,000 signatories this year, and several of the contributing writers for the month were also at the conference.
“There’s always something to learn,” Wilder said, “but it’s also about seeing friends.”
Beyond providing a place for food bloggers to mingle, IFBC became an event which provided a much-needed sense of legitimacy and professionalism to a group of people that dedicate much of their free time to a product which can quickly turn from a labor of love to a thankless task.
Foodista.com, a food blog and event coordinator, partnered with organizer and tour guide service Zephyr Adventures to line up speakers, events and, most importantly, food, for the attendees.
This is the third such conference, and represents a return to the West Coast after 2010’s venture in New Orleans, said Allan Wright, owner of Zephyr Adventures.
Zephyr expanded its reach from tours to include first a wine blogging conference in 2008, the food blogging conference in 2009 and, most recently, a beer blogging conference, which took place in Portland this year.
There are a number of challenges inherent to putting on something like IFBC, particularly as it enters its fourth incarnation with, to a large degree, the same attendees coming each year.
“The Food Blogger Conference is evolving very quickly since it began in 2009,” Wright said. “Then, it was a blogger-to-blogger thing, where they spoke about what they were doing and how to be successful. Now, we’re moving more toward experts.
“You can’t just keep talking about how to integrate videos into blogs,” Wright said.
Keeping the curriculum fresh is one thing — Zephyr and Foodista pursue feedback with pitbull-like tenacity to make sure their conferences meet the needs of food blogging constituents — but finding local establishments willing to host the conferences is a whole other matter.
“The hard part is before we ever get here,” Wright said.
This year, the conference brought in wine vendors like Vinergia, which took interested foodies on a tour of various regions of Spain while local Italian restaurant Locanda del Lago played off the sparkling wine with a delicate marinated trout with vegetables doused in vinegar and juniper berries.
The tastings and conversation were followed by a barrage of small plates provided by local purveyors and restaurants to satiate the bloggers’ appetites before a talk by preeminent food critic Jonathan Gold of LA Weekly.
Try explaining to a hotel that you’d like to put on a conference that provides its own food, alcohol and chefs, and you’ll see why the Food Blogger Conference can be a challenge to house, Wright said.
“We ask for unique things,” he said.
Add to that Santa Monica’s arduous permitting process — one to serve wine, one for each food truck, for the use of the Samohi parking lot, etc. — and you’ve got an event that takes a great deal of time, patience and flexibility to put together.
The location was worth it, Wright said.
“We thought about Los Angeles, but we like Santa Monica. It’s more our vibe,” Wright said. “Community is what this conference is about.”
The next IFBC will be held in Portland in 2012 on Aug. 24 through 26.