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.