Anonymous online reviews affecting Twin Cities eateries

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

They gripe about their server tacking the gratuity onto their bill, without realizing that the sum was actually the valet parking charge. They fault the pulled pork for being "too shredded," when, by definition, that's exactly what pulled pork is. They complain that the appetizer is too small—"a 3/4-inch diameter of food on a big plate, about 1/4 of what I would expect"—not recognizing the absurdity of such a large portion of foie gras. They air their criticisms to everyone on the internet, but rarely share them directly with the chef. These are the anonymous commenters on local restaurant review sites, message boards, and blogs: a source of both delight and ire to the local restaurant community.

Restaurants have long been subjected to professional critics—I dug up a New York Times review published in 1859. But increasingly restaurateurs find themselves being critiqued by anyone with an internet connection. Few other professions face such public scrutiny. You don't read many blogs that assess the efficiency of a particular computer programmer's code or the speed at which a certain farmer milks his cows. While service-industry workers certainly deal with their share of public feedback, the skills of hairdressers, tailors, and mechanics are perceived to be a bit more mysterious than those of chefs. How many people cut their own hair, sew their own clothes, or fix their own cars, compared to those who make their own dinner?

Thus an inordinate amount of online chatter—on blogs, message boards, and review sites—is devoted to restaurants. When I last checked the review site Yelp, it listed 130 reviews in Minneapolis's Beauty and Spas category, 225 in Nightlife, 476 in Shopping, and 898 in Restaurants. The commentary is by and large positive, and restaurants for the most part are grateful to have their praises sung further and faster than they would by word-of-mouth. Several restaurateurs I spoke with said they also appreciate critical but respectful online feedback as a tool to help them improve their business.

But negative anonymous reviews are murkier territory. Everyone is entitled to an opinion, certainly, and relaying one's experience with sub-par food and service can be a valuable warning to would-be diners. But many restaurateurs say they have received criticism they felt was false, unfair, or malicious—which they had little ability to correct or refute. They were deeply troubled to know that, with a cursory Google search, such messages could reach potential customers for the foreseeable future.

"Hopefully the people reading understand that the writer is ignorant."

Lenny Russo, chef-owner of the upscale Midwest-focused eatery Heartland, says that often the inaccuracies he sees in online comments are minor. A person might, for example, describe a meal at Heartland that included rice and pineapple salsa—two foods the restaurant doesn't serve. "Maybe it was wheat berries or barley, and it was squash that they thought was pineapple," Russo says. "Hopefully the people reading understand that the writer is ignorant."

But he has also seen broad mischaracterizations of his restaurant spread rapidly around cyberspace. He was particularly exasperated by one commenter who complained about Heartland's small portions: "I think I could have gotten more food walking around the taste testers at Sam's Club," she penned. "She didn't really understand what we were doing," Russo says.

Chef Russell Klein, who owns Meritage with his wife, Desta, recalls one incident in which a family brought along a baby who cried loudly throughout their leisurely meal. The adults made no effort to quiet the baby as it continued to disturb other guests' enjoyment of the restaurant's quaint, romantic ambiance. Looking out for the interests of other diners—some of whom had certainly paid for babysitters—Klein says Desta politely asked the woman if she'd like to take the baby out in the hallway to soothe it. The woman responded by making a scene about being "kicked out" and writing a rant that she posted on several restaurant-related sites.

I looked up the screed: "She was the meanest and rudest restaurant owner I had ever seen!" it reads. "A person who can not comprehend that a 10-month-old baby is not able to behave at 7 p.m. can no way make the rest of the customers happy." Although Desta did post a response, the original comment remains. "If somebody puts something out that's biased, unfair, or untrue," Klein says, "it lives forever."

Russo says he's learned to ignore criticism—he gets his fair share from the comments section of his blog on StarTribune.com—though he and other restaurateurs are especially sensitive to unfair comments about their customers or staff. Erica Christ, owner of the Black Forest, recalls one online commenter who complained that a server was flirting with diners at another table and described the server's appearance so specifically that she was easily identifiable. Elijah Goodwell, manager of the Birchwood Cafe, says he was particularly upset by disparaging remarks about two groups of valued customers: cyclists, who were described as "older flabby spandex-wearing bikers jockeying for first place like it was the friggin Tour de France," and kids, of which the commenter wrote: "OMG! Do they really have to eat out? Can't you leave them at home and throw them some kibble when you return?"

"'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."

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."

"No one wants to talk to anyone anymore. They want to hide behind a computer and say things."

Like it or not, social media and anonymous online chatter aren't going away. "We have to figure it out or we'll be left behind," Clayton says. "I'm not sure how we're going to communicate with twentysomethings otherwise. Young people depend more on each other than on a Target commercial to tell them where to shop."

Still, every restaurateur I spoke with wished that online commenters would first try to address their concerns in the moment. "That gives us the opportunity to make it better," says Goodwell. "We're human. We're going to make mistakes. But we really care that people have a good experience."

Mike Phillips, chef at the Craftsman, laments the tendency for dissatisfied customers to express their concerns online instead of in person. "No one wants to talk to anyone anymore," he says. "They want to hide behind a computer and say things." Phillips also encourages commenters to be aware of the power of their words—they can have an impact on a restaurant's bottom line. "A lot of people's jobs are at stake," he says.

Russo, too, says he can't understand why unsatisfied customers don't speak up. ("Maybe because I'm Italian and I'm from New Jersey," he says, "I'll tell anybody anything.") "I would have made an attempt to do a better job for you. I'm not going to charge you for something you didn't enjoy. Do they think the chef is going to come out and sock them in the eye?" Russo says he'll oblige a customer's wish, even if it goes against his recommendation. "Order steak well done?" he says. "That's wrong. But I'm doing it anyhow because that's the way you asked for it." Somewhat facetiously he adds, "You want me throw it on the ground and step on it?" (I dare somebody to hold him to that one.)

Like most new technologies, anonymous online comments can be both a blessing and a curse. Restaurant-goers may find them helpful in making dining decisions—as long as they know they're coming from a trustworthy source. And restaurateurs appreciate the increased feedback—with a few reservations. "It provides more publicity and more information for people," Klein acknowledges, "but it can be really frustrating to have people who don't know a whole lot about what we do evaluate us." He urges commenters to keep things in perspective. "There are also times that people can be downright mean and vicious, and you want to remind them, 'It's just dinner. Tomorrow it'll be shit—literally."

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