The flexible macaron Top 20 and why I’m off it

Many people have asked me why I’m not participating in the Melbourne Macaron competition, I’ve decided I have to write this article explaining my perspective. Despite my criticisms, please note that I do hope that event turns out to be fun and successful.


Was it poor execution or a cynical PR-thing? First, Twitterers noticed they were being followed by @eatmacarons, a new account that announced the impending revelation of the “top 20” Melbourne macaron establishments and a competition event in October. The account profile pointed to a website “coming soon”. No identification of who was behind the list or the event. Nix. Tantalising tweets went out, tweet-incentives too (free tickets). Still no uncloaking of the organisers.

To me, it smelled like yet another public relations game among the many now playing in the food-internet/blog-world. Managing to follow over 1000 people on Twitter in less than a month is seriously impressive. After some technical research, I discovered that this “Food Designer” was behind it.

On the Sunday before the public announcement of her list, I got a call. (I don’t think out-of-the-blue non-crisis business calls on a weekend are polite, but clearly, telling me I was on her Top 20 list was so urgent that calling was absolutely necessary.) At the same time an invitation letter and entry form for the October competition arrived by email.

The Top 20 list was interesting (and still is). As someone giggled to me, “are there that many good macaron makers in Melbourne?” How did the list come about? As far as I can divine, personal recommendations to the organisers. (And I know who nominated me – thank you.)

Less than 24 hours later another organiser called asking me to verify my participation in the competition (the closing date was still four days away).

The invitation letter described the event as a “student-run initiative”, but the signatory to the invitation was the “Food Designer” Linda Monique Kowalski. She didn’t identify her business or that she (presumably) isn’t a student in this initiative.

Eventually, the website revealed that “A team of 15 volunteers directed by creative consultant & fooddesigner, Linda Monique, aim to promote this petit four as the next cosmopolitan cupcake.” Oh yay. It was still oddly unclear why the students/volunteers were involved (revealed only after I enquired directly to be a Melbourne University student entrepreneurship initiative).

Pay-to-play, and don’t read the rules

The letter informed me that a participation fee for the competition was due by Friday. $220 thank you. This sort of thing might be common in PR/industry competitions, but no thanks.

Reading on, the short set of competition rules finished with clause 6:

“Additional rules to the competition my [sic] be implemented by the Melbourne Macaron team”.

I see. So one agrees to compete and they can do whatever they want with the competition? Amateur or dodgy?

The flexible Top 20

I declined. So did Café Vue, it would seem. Both our names vanished from the “top 20” list tout de suite. We were promptly replaced with backups. I’ve just noticed that Baker D. Chirico is now also gone, replaced by Brunetti. And OMG ROFL the organisers even went so far as to purge their earlier tweets naming us on their list.

The website Top 20 list at the start, and today.

The Twitter feed for @eatmacaron seems to have suffered a deletion. Where’s no. 4? It used to be Café Vue.

There’s something inherently dishonest (or amateurish) in creating and publishing a Top 20 and then editing it post hoc to suit your needs. And it’s just a tad optimistic to assume every nominee would leap at the opportunity to compete (with or without a fee). There was no explicit linkage of Top 20 status and any requirement for participation in the competition (usually you’d name your flexible Top 20 after all the entry forms are in, if that’s how you want to play it).

I continue to hope that the lack of transparency and other issues are more due to inexperience than part of some ill-conceived marketing game, and that it can be a fun event for the participants in the end. I can see the attraction for others who might want a boost in business and I wish them success if they compete.

Finally, so that there aren’t any misconceptions, I don’t mind not being part of the event – while it was nice to briefly have been on the list, I chose not to be involved for the reasons above and events since then seem, for me, to have further justified that decision.

17 thoughts on “The flexible macaron Top 20 and why I’m off it”

  1. Hi Duncan,

    Being meaning to say “Hello” for awhile (A biggg fan, love your love for macarons).

    Thank-you for this detailed investigative work. I totally agree with your analysis. For me so much time, effort & care goes into the baking & development of macarons that entering them into a competition (especially one as such) is like entering your own babies into a (questionable)beauty pageant to be judged. My babies will not become a vehicle for others to merely achieve a successful event.

    I also can see the attraction for others who might want to boost their business (I would like that too) but for me when it comes to food it’s never a case of “Even Bad Publicity is Good Publicity”, new macaron bakers & young businesses should tread carefully.

    Deeply concerned,I too wish them success.

  2. Wow! Diabolical and pretty grubby I say. It is certainly disingenous not to mention on the site that those who have made the top 20 paid to be on the list..

    As much as I love macarons, I’m thinking a boycott of the event is most certainly in order!

  3. Thanks for explaining – and the usual detective work. I do find it interesting that the list is still titled “Top 20 Nominated …”

    Seems as though it really is the “20 establishments who make macarons and paid $220 to be in this competition”.

    Hopefully the competition might educate some of Melbourne as to what a macaron really should be like,

    But otherwise, it’s a bit laughable and I’m surprised that the NGV is backing what appears to be an amateurish production.

  4. @Sweet.Petite: Wise words, certainly.

    @Emily: It’s probably fair to say that the competitors didn’t know they were paying to be on the list, but as essjayeats says above, the “nomination” idea is flawed if it is overridden by who pays to compete.

  5. I do tend toward the ‘Pollyanna’ view of the world, and this holds true of my opinion here, well it did until the clause suggesting the rules may be altered, after you’ve paid your money.

    It does read much more like a distinct lack of skill, forethought and even fairplay rather than a deliberate desire to deceive. Whatever it is though, it makes a great deal more sense to step away from the entry form than umm…donate such a significant amount of money to enter a ‘competition’ that may or may not be legit.

  6. It sounds like an event publicity stunt and the organiser definitely has pushed its limits. As far as promotion goes, anyone could just do about anything but their integrity could be questionable. I too, love macarons, and it is quite a pity to see the art of macarons being exploited this way.

    Like you said, a few have pulled out of the ‘competition’ after some investigation. It all looks like a conspiracy hehe!

    I understand why you don’t want to part-take now. You wouldn’t need a competition to tell Melbourne/ yourself that you bake one of the best ones in town anyway.

    Hah, go La Tropezienne! They’d be my top favourite in the current list as of 14th Sept hehe. I haven’t tried Noisette but heard they are quite good? I guess, bigger restaurants wouldn’t mind paying $220 just to get their names out in the world of macarons, we shall see what happens on the day itself.

  7. Hi Duncan,
    I read the article about the competition and thought it very odd that the ‘top 20’ had already been chosen.
    Why don’t we go to paris and do the same thing….yeah that would really work!
    Hope you have pre-ordering very ‘soonish’.

  8. Duncan,

    This is marketing. You pay $220, you get on a list and get promoted alongside everyone else. If you don’t think it’s worth it, don’t pay the money and don’t get promoted. Every competition works this way: agricultural shows (Melbourne Show, Sydney Show, etc), sponsored competitions like the Callebaut Easter Egg, nearly every competition out there is paid entry. Trade shows are paid entry. How do you think they’re able to cover their costs and ensure a sustainable business?

    Here’s the thing though: it’s not about winning or losing. It’s about getting your name on the list next to all those other names. It’s about recognition – for yourself, as well as for the industry as a whole. Competitions legitimise the industry, educate the public, and (in this case) promote good eating.

    At a very basic level, competitions are a pooling of marketing resources. The $220 entry fee – a very small amount of money, really – gets entrants lots of publicity. The amount of ink/screen-time one can buy for $220 is fairly small – but $4400 (20 x $220) can buy a lot more for everyone together. And the fact that it’s a competition means it’s “news”: they’ll probably get mention in Epicure and other media outlets for free (or, a bit of money to a PR person).

    And really – these people will gross $4400 maximum for their troubles. Once their costs are taken care of, I’d be surprised if they’ve actually made *any* money. It’s not like they’re getting rich here. I can think of a lot of easier ways to make $4400. Granted, they may have other motives as well, but money – at least directly – sure isn’t one of them.

    Your example of Café Vue. They feel that, for whatever reason, they don’t need it, probably because they have enough customers as it is – or they might want to appear aloof, distancing themselves from this whole, completely overblown, macaron mania. I don’t know your motivations, but for whatever reason, you seem to believe that $220 is too much money for what they’re offering. That’s your call. Me? I think it’s cheap.

    Modifying the Twitter stream, removing items from the website? Of course. These people didn’t pay, therefore they will not be shown alongside everyone else. It’s not quite kosher with Twitter’s culture, but this is basic marketing 101.

    If they don’t seem very well organised, it’s probably because this is their first year doing it. I suspect they’re not being paid (how could they possibly, with only $4400 coming in?) They’re amateurs, learning as they go, much like you.

    Disclosure: I’m not involved in this competition, either as an organiser or an entrant, but I am involved peripherally in the food industry.

    [I’m cross-posting this to my blog as well].

  9. @jurgen: While marketing works this way, broadly, your claim that this particular event is no different from a trade show or, say, Show competitions is incorrect: both of those permit you to choose whether you wish to participate in any way. Candidates come from a broad field, not a hand-picked list which is published and then revised. Most marketing strategies don’t involve the embarrassing incompetence of making public the candidate field before ensuring the candidates want to be in on the game.

    Further, the Top 20 list was not on the face of it linked in any way to participation, so parties who chose not to participate were not fully availed of process or implications of any decision.

    And while you can infer income from the competition fees, neither of us are privy to information about any background financing.

  10. I’m a big fan of macarons…and know a thing or two about good macarons….I’m also baking macarons for friends and work regularly…just for fun and self-satisfaction when my little babies come out of the oven nice and pretty and are enjoyed by people around me…I just love to share this macarons experience to people.

    I was so excited when I saw the PR about this Macaron Day…I’ve tried three from the top 20, Noisette, Ganache and [NAME OF ESTABLISHMENT REMOVED]. So far, I think this Macaron Day is a joke!!! Well, I’m not sure if this is because Melbourne’s macaron is a joke. But I guess both are. Out of the three, Ganache is the worst, appalling, to say the least. [NAME OF ESTABLISHMENT REMOVED] is quite average, not bad, but not good either.

    Reading your column now makes me understand the nature of this competition bettter. Thanks, Duncan.

    I think I won’t be bothered to try other places in top 20 anymore…better keep my money on the almond meal & chocolate for my own macarons.

    [Duncan’s editorial note: Mention of one establishment in Melbourne (edited out above) has been banned on this site for a long time due to the number of self-promoting comments left by them (a PR technique known as “shilling”). This ban applies to all mentions of the establishment on Syrup & Tang, even by genuine commenters such as the person above.]

  11. Hi MadAboutMAcs. You make a good point about how people can be baking great macarons at home. Someone made a similar point in the comments on The Age article too. And answering questions from The Age, I wrote that “I’m sure there are many talented home cooks out there who have had success in making macarons in their own kitchens, which makes the very patchy performance of some trained pastry chefs so disappointing.” Alas, that point didn’t get into the story, but we all know there are people doing great stuff in their homes and for friends.

  12. Have a look at the list. There is now only 19 listed for their top 20!?!? I sent the organizers an email questioning this, but no-one has of yet got back to me. How rather odd

  13. I got a few emails from bloggers letting me know that one of my pictures (my two toned macaron) was being used on the site without my permission. I asked them about it and they responded that the designer who did the site did not tell them about it. Finally, the picture was removed…

Comments are closed.