Rammy Awards change judging process, but is this the right recipe for legitimacy?


A winning idea? Sweetwater Tavern ran this ad in Washingtonian in 1997, soliciting readers’ votes for a restaurant award.

Tens of thousands of people cast votes in the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington’s industry awards of 1997, back when they actually had to tear a ballot from a magazine, fill it out with a pen and mail it via that quaint 20th-century relic known as the U.S. Postal Service.

Their motivations may have been suspect.

That year, a full-page advertisement appeared next to the ballot in a Washingtonian magazine supplement dedicated to what was called the Restaurant Industry Awards Gala, the precursor to the Rammys. The ad was placed by Sweetwater Tavern, one of the nominees for best new restaurant. The language and imagery were blunt: Two nude models, one male and one female, floated in the middle of the page, emerald green towels strategically draped over their naughty bits.

“If you vote for Sweetwater Tavern for Best New Restaurant,” the ad copy promised, “we’ll run this ad next time without the towels.”

As if directed by the hand of God (or Bob Guccione), readers cast ballots for Sweetwater Tavern, which won its category. In victory, the brewpub defeated fellow upstarts Cafe Atlántico (when José Andrés led the kitchen), Lespinasse (a branch of the New York City original under chef Gray Kunz, a perennial four-star performer) and local outlets of Maggiano’s Little Italy and McCormick & Schmick’s, a pair of chains just beginning to draw up plans for U.S. domination.

“By this great ad campaign, they generated a lot of conversation and probably the win,” recalls Jodi Lehr, president of Santa Lucia Estate Coffee, who headed the committee for the gala. “Sweetwater Tavern was in Centreville, and I don’t think many people even knew where Centreville was.”

Sweetwater’s victory earned a short, snide line from The Washington Post, which noted that the pub’s “lobbying for votes would have made folks on Capitol Hill proud.” Publicly, the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Association maintained a straight face — it had to, because the awards are designed to celebrate the industry — but privately, executives and committee members knew they needed to make changes if they ever wanted to be taken as seriously as the James Beard Awards.

Behind the scenes, RAMW did make changes to the voting process, not to mention the categories up for vote. Corrections would occur almost annually as RAMW searched for ways to give the awards program the respect and cachet the restaurant association sought.

Today, 17 years after Sweetwater’s towel-teasing victory, RAMW believes it has finally designed a voting system that will dispel the doubts that have sometimes hung like a guillotine over the Rammy Awards: President Kathy Hollinger has pulled together an anonymous panel of 11 food writers, critics and editors from around the District, Maryland and Virginia who now select most of the nominees and pick the winners in the highest-profile categories. Their first crop of nominees was released Tuesday in a ceremony at the Hamilton.

Unlike in the recent past, these new judges do not deliberate together. They remain anonymous to the public and to one another; they vote privately, from the light of their own computer, in an expanded number of categories that include, among others, beer program of the year and “favorite fast bites.” The latter category can include food trucks, once a high-value target of RAMW’s lobbying efforts over vending regulations.

The goal, says Hollinger, is to avoid the pointed questions directed at RAMW in recent years: Could the previous Rammy judges, although anonymous to the public, still be swayed by one or two influential individuals within the group? Or, perhaps, by publicists who might have their ear?

“In the restaurant community, there was a lot of chatter” about the influence of particular judges or publicists, Hollinger says.

Some doubt that Hollinger’s system is superior to the previous one, but no one with RAMW seems to pine for the days when the industry awards were decided not only by the public but also by association members — including restaurant publicists.

The association began the awards gala in 1982 as a way to honor members and raise money for its mission to advocate for the hospitality industry. An awards gala committee typically has coordinated the event, sometimes in conjunction with another group, such as the Washington D.C. Convention and Visitors Association.

Although trying to imitate the Beard Awards, the Rammys traditionally have had a wider focus, passing out loftier awards for best fine-dining restaurant and best chef, for example, while also honoring those foot soldiers in the kitchen or dining room who keep a restaurant humming. The nominees for employee and manager of the year, among others, are interviewed by a separate subcommittee of industry experts, who then select a winner; it’s a process few members of the public know or care about.

They do care about the big prizes. For years, before independent judges got involved, the five nominees for each of the major awards were selected by the gala committee, which narrowed down recommendations submitted by RAMW members and the general public. That committee could include 20 or more people, all members of the restaurant association; they might be restaurateurs, sommeliers, publicists or anyone else in the hospitality industry.

“It wasn’t the greatest way to do this, to be honest with you,” says Gus DiMillo, vice chairman of the RAMW board and a former chairman of the Rammy gala committee. “You had to make sure that PR people weren’t picking their own clients.”

Once the gala committee chose the nominees, they occasionally selected some winners and the public would vote on the rest, usually through a media sponsor such as The Post or Washington City Paper, which would publish the ballot. Public voting went online in the early 2000s, creating its own problems. In 2001, eCiti Cafe, a cavernous place under chef Jamie Stachowski that catered to the moneyed dot.com set in Tysons Corner, set up a computer and asked patrons to give it their vote. The ploy work: eCiti beat TenPenh, Butterfield 9, the Caucus Room and Oceanaire for best new restaurant.

RAMW would try to establish rules or processes to limit ballot stuffing or bias — such as creating an online system to limit votes to one per browser cookie — but by 2004, then-president Lynne Breaux decided to scrap much of the old approach. She created a mostly media-oriented judging panel that would meet over the course of several months to debate the nominees and winners. Sometimes the panelists would even dine together at a potential restaurant-nominee to evaluate the food and service.

“This was a quantum leap in the evolution of the judging process, laying the groundwork for this year’s changes,” e-mailed Breaux, who stepped down as president last year.

The judges in Breaux’s system were required to sign confidentiality agreements, which some panelists still honor today, even though they’re no longer judges. Which means they would talk only anonymously about their time as Rammy arbiters. Just one, former Washington Post food critic Phyllis Richman, spoke on the record.

Her recollections dovetail with the memories of those who preferred to remain anonymous: The five people I spoke to, including Richman, say the panel took time and care in selecting the nominees and winners in categories such as pastry chef of the year and rising culinary star. (There were and still remain categories in which the winners are decided by the public, such as “gathering place.”) The judges say they scrupulously maintained their anonymity, even from publicists.

Breaux would often lead the discussion during meetings, several say, but she never injected her opinions into the deliberations. Nor did any other member of the panel have undue influence.

“I guess there were a couple [judges] who didn’t seem to have much authority, but that was because . . . they didn’t warrant authority,” says Richman. “You could sway the panel with a good argument. I didn’t find anybody powerful without a reason.”

Judges had frustrations, of course, during their time under Breaux, which ran from 2004 to 2013. Richman and others would lobby RAMW to open the awards to non-members (to mirror the Beard Awards), but the organization remained steadfast in limiting the Rammys to the nearly 850 businesses that pay dues. Those members support the association, RAMW argues, often forking out thousands for tickets to the awards gala, which raises between $100,000 to $150,000 annually for the trade group. The association therefore should be celebrating its own.

Whatever the frustrations and limitations of the previous judges, a number of them think their deliberation process was superior to the current format, in which judges vote privately without debate. Discussion, a few former panelists say, could reveal important information about a judge: When was the last time they actually dined at a restaurant? Did they go during a sponsored media dinner or on their own? Have they eaten at the restaurant at all?

One judge, in fact, decided to quit the panel because of the new format. “I just felt that kind of group give-and-take was too valuable not to maintain in some form,” the former panelist says.

Perhaps the takeaway here is that no awards process comes without critics. Even as Breaux brought more legitimacy to the judging process during her tenure at RAMW, she and her panel regularly found themselves under attack for their process and, sometimes, their picks. It’s just the nature of the game.

Back in 1997, the public, too, learned it won’t always be rewarded for picking winners. Sweetwater Tavern never did place that second advertisement, the one without the towels.

Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires ingesting more calories than a draft horse.
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