The Devil is in the Details: Yelp and the effect of review sites on restaurants

yelling

Ask industry people about restaurant review sites like Yelp, Urbanspoon, Open Table and Chowhound and you will get seemingly disparate responses:

“Nothing but self-entitled hipsters pretending they know food…”

“A good way to measure yourself against the competition…”

“Management uses it to punish the staff…”

“Keeps restaurants on their toes…”

“Mess one small thing up on their meal and all of a sudden they write that everything sucked, that I was the worst server ever, that I should be fired…all for forgetting a refill…”

“Nothing but rabid frothing at the mouth…”

“Unscrupulous business that offers positive ratings for ad buys…”

Food writing, and in a larger sense, the work of restaurant critics, has been around a long time.  In fact, I read (kottke.org) where the first N.Y Times restaurant review was published January 1st, 1859.  It two parts, it detailed the directive from the Editor-in-Chief of that illustrious paper to an unnamed gentlemen to “go and dine”.  What then followed was a fairly positive review of the legendary Delmonico’s:

“Once you let Delmonico have your order…you are safe.  You may repose in peace up to the very moment when you sit down with your guests.  No nobleman of England–no Marquis of the ancienne noblesse–was better served or waited on in greater style than you will in a private room at Delmonico’s.  The lights will be brilliant, the waiters will be curled and perfumed and gloved, the dishes will be strictly en regle (“in order”) and the wines will come with the precision of clock-work that has been duly wound up.

“If you pay your money like a gentleman, you will be fed like a gentleman, and no mistake…the cookery will be superb, and the attendance will be good.  If you make the ordinary mistakes of an untraveled man, and call for dishes in unusual progression, the waiter will perhaps sneer almost imperceptibly, but he will go no further, if you don’t try his feelings too harshly, or put your knife into your mouth.”

Flash-forward, 185 years later, and this is where we have landed:

“I would rather pay $5 to chew on an old lady’s chin mole than eat this ever again.  A pure disgrace to a city that prides itself on pizza that doesn’t taste like a llama’s genitalia…”

“If you’ve been here, you probably have Hepatitis…”

“Just kneeling on the sidewalk outside and licking it will give you the same experience as eating there.  Well, ok, to be fair, the sidewalk will probably make you less sick…”

And this gem:

“The only thing this place has going for it…they sell condoms…”

These are all real Yelp comments.

That escalated quickly…

The Internet has enabled its users to become instant pundits, to allow for anonymous critiques of what we see, read and buy.  This is mostly positive as it allows us to quickly share information between friends and people whose opinions we respect.  This helps us decide to spend our time and money on this movie or that restaurant.

The dark side of this is when review sites are used as a sledgehammer on relatively innocent businesses and their employees.  Comments run the spectrum from character assassinations to outright lies.

There was a restaurant that recently began to add a “tax surcharge” to it’s customer’s bills due to the upcoming Obamacare rollout (as you know, businesses with more than 50 employees have to provide coverage).  So, one disgruntled patron started a campaign to attack the restaurant’s new policy asking everyone to leave a negative review and one-star rating on that restaurant’s Yelp page.

The tornado of abuse that followed was staggering.  People from all over the country, 95% of which had never even BEEN there were telling this guy what a piece of shit he was, that his food sucked and the service even worse.  Did he ask for it by playing a little political roulette with the surcharge?  Maybe…but here was a guy whose livelihood and that of his family AND his employees were dependent on that restaurant attracting customers.  I guess it stuns me how easily one can hide behind a keyboard and monitor and decide to wreak havoc.

Yelp, the most popular of restaurant/retail review sites, is scary in that respect.  They are facing multiple lawsuits from restaurants and others who claim that the review site bullies them into advertising through fraudulent bad reviews written by Yelp.  Even worse is the accusation that Yelp embarked on a Mafia-style “protection” racket: advertise with us and we will suppress negative reviews coming your way.  Don’t, and who knows what might get through.  Not surprisingly, a cottage industry has sprung up offering to “clean up” your online reputation and help scrub away bad reviews.  Check out such online sites as Revleap or YelpReputation to see what I mean.

A few days ago I was looking at Yelp doing some research for this piece and I noticed that most chain restaurants such as Cheesecake Factory or BJ’s have the same amount of stars for every location.  In other words, the Cheesecake Factory in Las Vegas has 3.5 stars, as does the one in Costa Mesa, CA and the ones in Dallas, Chicago, everywhere I looked.  They all have 3.5 stars.  Does this mean that CCF is so amazing in their operations that the experience is the exact same in every location? (Full disclosure:  I used to work for CCF.)

I think not.

I’ve operated restaurants for years and can tell you that the new location of a business that opened a month ago won’t have the same level of execution as one that’s been around 10 years, has seasoned staff and a regular clientele.  Does this mean that there is some collusion between the business and the review site?  I don’t know, but its something to think about. (I think they would collude to a higher rating than 3.5, but I digress.)

Some businesses have gone in the opposite direction and begun to campaign for one-star reviews in the spirit of  “can’t-beat-‘em-so-we’ll-make-a-mockery-of-the-process!”. Check out Botto’s Italian Bistro in Richmond, CA.  The owner even offered 25% off a pizza purchase to anyone giving a negative review and one-star rating.

It worked.

Mud started being flung from all directions and Botto’s eventually got their single star. Now:  which of those reviews were fake and which actually listed valid complaints against food and/or service?  Who knows for sure, but thats the problem with review sites like Yelp.  There is little to no apparent accountability.  Anyone can go online and be an assassin.

I have first-hand experience with guests who have come into my restaurants, had a minor service glitch or seemingly innocuous food problem, only to go online that very night and write the most amazingly one-sided, arrogant and patronizing crap about the business and the staff.  One of them went something like this:

“They were too busy…” (It was on a Friday night around 7:30).

“I hated my dish…” (She had modified the dish almost to the point of being unrecognizable to the original).

“ I didn’t want to tell my server that I didn’t like the dish because I didn’t want to cause a scene…”   (Hey, its ok to OWN your experience and let us know that something is off.  Give us a chance to fix it!  Otherwise, you’re just whining…)

“The manager didn’t comp our entire bill…”  (This usually means the table wasn’t fully prepared for the menu prices.  This is a nice way of saying that some people go out of their way to try and get stuff for free at restaurants).  

“This was the worst meal ever…”  (No, it wasn’t.  But you’ll say that in order to have the guest services department of the company send you comp cards).

I had visited this table a few times that night, once because of the dish that she “hated” and another to follow up on the replacement dish.  At no point did she seem upset to the point of shrieking, which is how her review came across.  In fact we talked about being parents of boys and which football team we both followed. And I did comp her meals, both the one that she didn’t like and the replacement. But somehow, she felt it necessary to “teach us one” by writing such a poor review.

Some restaurants have responded by disciplining service staff for poor reviews. This can have a drastic impact on their income as servers are moved to smaller or lower-traffic stations in order to “teach them one”…in other words, punish them for the perceived infractions.  Tell that to single mother of three…

They say that even bad PR is still people talking about your business, and you can never have enough of that.  But when patrons tell falsehoods about their experience in order to receive free stuff OR pretend to have some strange power over the business, that publicity crosses the line, especially when others look at those reviews and make decisions on whether or not to spend their money there.  Restaurants have a big failure rate, especially in their first two years, and negative buzz about a place can have a deleterious effect on an already Herculean endeavor.

Enjoy.

Restaurant Term of the Day

“COUGAR WATER”

This is another name for Kendall Jackson Chardonnay, the many glasses of which are consumed by women over the age of 40 who may be on the hunt for fun and companionship.

Let’s use it in a sentence!

“Frank, do me a favor and grab me 4 extra bottles of Cougar Water out of the cooler.  Looks to get busy later”.

cougar

Dear Customer 11/4/2014

You’re the 45 year old man whose daughter date didn’t have her ID with her last night.  Hey, we all forget things at the house:  keys, wallet, dignity.  No worries.  But when you devolved into a total douche screaming at me about how she’s old enough and how you know the owner and how blahblahblah.  Sure, she looked “around” 21…but you can bet I won’t ever risk serving someone underage.  Nor will I allow my bartenders or servers to take that risk.  Threaten us all you want with unemployment or a plague of locusts…still not gonna happen.

Here’s some info for you, sir.  Section 25658(a)(b)(e) of the California Alcoholic Beverage Control Act states that “a minimum $1000 fine and 24 hours of community service” is the penalty for “a person who furnishes alcohol to a minor”.  It further states that if this minor consumes the alcohol and “causes great bodily injury or death to themselves or others, the furnisher faces a minimum 6-12 months in county jail and a $1000 fine”.

Yeah I see my employer being ok with holding on to my position for 6-12 months while I’m in jail after I let your giggle box on her teeter-totter heels drink Cosmos and then wrap “Daddy’s” Beemer around a 12-year old kid riding his bike home from a friend’s house.  I see my wife being ok with our financial status being shot to shit and having to take care of the kids by herself because I couldn’t say no to someone who couldn’t produce a valid ID to drink.

You know what?  Go out to the car and bring her ID back and I’ll buy your first round. It’s not in the car?  I’ll write you a rain check for those freebies for next time.  Meanwhile, go to the beer store, pick up some booze and take her back to your place, you old pimp you. Realize that in today’s world, there are rules and we have to follow them same as you.

kid drunkunderage-drinking-001

Looking Ahead

Since the start of my blog, I’ve been writing about my history in restaurants, often as a patron but more importantly as someone who has worked in the food industry for 25 years.  My goal has been to gain your confidence, loyal fan, in my opinions, perceptions and experience.

Now I am moving on to the next phase of this blog.  While I will still bore you with anecdotes and episodes from the past, I will also begin to write about current events, industry changes, trends and movements.  You might get a story about something that happened last night.  There may be a link to another blog or source that I respect. You will definitely get some of my impressions on customer interactions.

Maybe there is a question about restaurants/food/chefs/etc that you’ve always wanted to ask.  There is a greater than zero chance that I have a story that will help answer your question, one that will help enlighten and inform.  Maybe entertain as well.  Ask away.

Enjoy.  And here we go.

fork and knife

Pizza Guy

pizza hat

The white ‘78 Dodge Aspen with the blue Landau top is humming along I-15 on a warm summer night.  Windows are rolled down while on the radio, “Frampton Comes Alive” is playing for the 17th time today on a worn cassette.  On the passenger seat next to me is a red “hot bag” with a logo declaring “New York City Pizza!” to all who cared.  A piece of notebook paper is carefully taped to the storage console between the seats, offering directions to my next two stops.

The year was 1986.  I am a pizza delivery guy.

New York City Pizza was a small venture located in North Las Vegas, about a mile from my house. You could enter the place through doors on either side of a big bay window in front.  Once inside, pinball machines greeted you on the left while a row of four-top tables and red banquette booths spread out in front of and to the right of you.  An open kitchen lined the back wall, the scent of pizza sauce and baking dough wafting throughout.  Tchotchke hung on the walls and from the low ceiling.

I’d answered an ad in the local paper for a delivery guy, this being years before Internet career sites made it easy to job-surf in your underwear.  I dressed up in my best pair of jeans and button down shirt.

NYC Pizza was owned by a guy who’d been a former DJ in Vegas. At that time he’d worked under the moniker  “Jefferson Stone”. A tall bearded man, he chuckled when I reacted to his name.

“Holy crap, are you serious?!” I proclaimed when I met him.  I had spent several years hearing this guy’s voice over the area FM rock station a decade before.  This was like meeting royalty for a 20 year old raised when actual DJ’s spun actual records.

He said he had come up with the name at a funeral, where he glanced the guestbook and noticed someone with the name Jefferson Stone was in attendance.

“That’s kinda dirty…don’t you think?”, I asked.

“Yeah, but its not like I tried to pick up on the widow,” he responded matter-of-factly.

Good point.

The day I started he took me around the place, showing me the pizza oven, the table where the pizzas were created, the walk-in coolers, etc. Steve, the second-in-command of the joint, stretched pizza dough while watching us.  One wall was filled ceiling to floor with a giant laminated map of the Las Vegas valley.  A light film of King Arthur flour covered every horizontal surface.

I filled out the requisite new hire paperwork. Then Jeff led me to the giant map wall.

“This is it” he said…

“This is what?”, I asked.

“This is how you map out your deliveries.”

Ok.

For those of a certain age, Google Maps was 25 years in the future from this point in the story.  There was no Siri or other virtual assistant to help us along the way.  We used Rand McNally maps, Thomas Guides and AAA Trip-Tics to find our way on the roads.  My task from that day forward was to get the address and main cross streets of my destination, then look it up on the big map using the index (“A-4” or “G-6”) located on the left side.  I would then write down turn-by-turn directions to the delivery spot.

I don’t remember my first night at work but I do remember a few highlights of my time at NYC Pizza.

There was our “Monster” pizza which was essentially two large pizzas merged into one giant pie.  In order to transport the Monster, we had to tape two large pizza boxes together, into which we slid the 5-pound beast.  This crazy thing was a favorite among college kids/frat boys and always garnered an extra tip.

There was the cadre of fellow delivery drivers the names of which escape me, but whose faces I remember like yesterday. Between deliveries we were like cabbies at a taxi stand, relaxing under the summer moon sharing, cokes and stories and lies, waiting for the shout of an upcoming job.

There was the time I delivered a large pepperoni to a trailer park in the Northwest part of town.  My knocking on the cheap aluminum frame door resulted in a young guy with a white sheet wrapped around his waist…and nothing else.  20 feet behind this guy was a bed with a lone female figure sitting up against the headboard, waving “Hi!”, the sheets pulled over her breasts but revealing her naked shoulders.  Hendrix blared over hidden speakers.

“Thanks for the pizza…hey man you wanna come in for a beer?”, he asked hazily.

“No I’m good but thanks.”

“Ok, another time dude!”.

To this day I don’t know what would’ve happened had I taken him up on his invitation.  Maybe gone in, had a few beers and left.  Maybe taken part in a devil’s threesome with his girl.  Maybe ended up in his bathtub, packed in ice and missing a kidney. All in all probably made the wisest choice in leaving.

NYC Pizza was a fun place to work for a college kid at that time.  Driving around town, listening to the radio and getting easy tips truly had no equal at that point in my life.  Jefferson has since sold the place and its now a battered taqueria in a neighborhood that has seen better days.  I hope that everyone from that time has moved on to great things as they showed me a lot of camaraderie and love, the spirit of which I try to bring to any business I run.