Anonymous online reviews affecting Twin Cities eateries

Heartland's Lenny Russo says some of it "borders on libel"

"'Fine' in Minnesotan means 'it sucks.'"

The anonymity granted to bloggers and commenters who write under pseudonyms does have advantages to face-to-face conversation. If someone isn't comfortable with confrontation, Duplex chef Andrew Smith points out, anonymous complaints may be more authentic and direct than those made in person. "'Fine' in Minnesotan means 'it sucks,'" he notes.

But anonymity also means not having to take responsibility for one's words. Opinions need not be justified with knowledge. "You can say whatever you want on a blog and you don't have to research or fact-check or have to be qualified to offer an opinion," Russo says. "Some of it borders on libel." Anonymous critiques also tend to be harsher than bylined comments. Anna Christoforides, owner of Gardens of Salonica, says that she's seen far too much of such internet bullying. Her husband/co-owner has been referred to as a "soup Nazi" and "freaky" on local restaurant comment forums. "The public seems to have lost all of its sense of decorum and diplomacy," she says. Klein concurs: "The viciousness that people display online that they wouldn't say in person is pretty disturbing, actually."

Heartland's Lenny Russo will gladly tell amateur critics what they're eating, like this barley risotto with chicken
Jana Freiband
Heartland's Lenny Russo will gladly tell amateur critics what they're eating, like this barley risotto with chicken

Anonymous comment forums can also foster smear campaigns. "If somebody had a bone to pick with you for whatever reason, they could go online and say some nasty things about your business." Klein says. He wonders if the animosity of former colleagues at W.A. Frost may have prompted some to write negative reviews of Meritage. Goodwell says it's harder for him to trust online comments, not knowing the commenter's agenda, and describes the situation's inherent imbalance. "They have less to lose than we do," he says. "Their reputation isn't involved."

Worst of all, online disputes may be moving off computer screens and manifesting themselves in physically destructive acts. Earlier this fall, Heidi's chef-owner Stewart Woodman published some unflattering remarks about another local chef on his blog, Shefzilla.com, and shortly thereafter his restaurant was egged. The timing and narrow target of the vandalism suggested it may have been retaliatory.

Smith notes that the rise of the "entry-level foodism thing" has shifted the way food is perceived in our culture. "Interest in food has increased astronomically, so you have people who are really into it but don't really know that much about it," he says. He compares the tirades of the notoriously temperamental television celebrichef Gordon Ramsey to those of online commenters. "Those folks who are the chefs on TV actually have a background in cooking and knowledge to compel their rants," he says. "Some of the people don't have the background of knowledge but do try to copy the attitude."

"...any more interaction with them would just be dangerous."

So how do restaurateurs respond to comments they feel are out of line? "If they attack me personally in a vicious way, I don't respond," Russo says. "For the most part people read that stuff and they don't give it a second thought." On some sites, responding to a comment will move it to the forefront of a discussion; if left alone, comments tend to migrate to less noticeable placement over time. "If you respond, you inject life into it, and the person is probably enjoying your response," Russo adds.

Parasole, the restaurant group that owns Manny's, Chino Latino, and Salut, among others, has jumped into social media with more enthusiasm than any other local restaurateur. (Even founder Phil Roberts, who is in his 70s, has taken to Twittering.) Each of the company's restaurants has one youthful staffer devoted to updating its Facebook page and monitoring online commentary. Kip Clayton, who handles the company's business development, says that he has occasionally responded to online complaints on behalf of the company. For example, when commenters griped about the long lines and ticket times at Burger Jones, he explained that the restaurant was receiving three times the traffic they anticipated and were struggling to keep up. (Even for experienced restaurant owners like Parasole, some aspects of the business can be hard to predict.)

Still, it's nearly impossible for restaurateurs to respond online and not have their remarks seem defensive. Lisa Edevold, co-owner of Tiger Sushi, discovered the challenges of counteracting negative online comments when a few loyal customers mentioned that they had seen some not-so-positive reviews of Tiger on Yelp and offered to submit their own reviews to balance them out.

Shortly after the loyal customers posted their reviews, several were removed. Looking into the situation, Edevold found a discussion on the site among hard-core Yelpers who accused Tiger of posting "fraudulent" reviews, because several had been written by first-time Yelpers. (Determining authentic reviews isn't Yelp's only business challenge. The company recently came under fire for allegations that its sales reps were offering to make negative reviews less prominent for businesses who advertised with Yelp, as well as accusations that employees were posting negative reviews about businesses that didn't advertise.)

"Now when people tell me they love my restaurant and ask what they can do to get the word out, I tell them to stay away from Yelp, because they don't seem to welcome newcomers to their site," Evevold says. "We just stopped all Yelp activity after I read that, thinking that any more interaction with them would just be dangerous."

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