Jim Berman, Foodable Industry Expert
Digital natives are just not that into playing by the rules. Rather, they (we!) are more relaxed, more demanding, and much more vocal. And that can be exciting. New, emerging flavors are thrilling. Intriguing concepts on the dining forefront can be intoxicating. The untucked, starch-free spontaneity of the dining public can also turn restaurant experiences into spectacles as fast as “send” is pressed. The voice of the Millennials, Gen Xers, and, yes, even you Boomers, is blistering loud on social media. Twitter bites outrageous customer service into succinct, 140-character tweets. Pictures of great food and awful misses blanket Instagram. And lengthy dining room horror stories go out to all of your Facebook friends. Then there is Yelp.
Critical reviews of products and services should offer insight of expectations, value, quality, and experience. Reviews should be grounded in fact, objectivity, and knowledge. Except when they aren’t. Feedback = good. Critical review = possibly good. Continual blabbering mounded with inaccuracies = most definitely not okay. Yelp can be the platform that forces a restaurant operator to take an honest look at the product set for customers’ consumption: Is service amazing or ho-hum? Is the food repeat-visit-worthy or melancholy? Is the restaurant space a shining light in a dreary world or a dim bulb? Chefs, cooks, servers, bartenders, managers, and owners need to glean input in order to strengthen their brand. What is great? What needs help?
Much like Justin Bieber’s music, nobody wants to admit to listening to Yelp, but somebody must, because both are certainly popular. And, not surprisingly, the operators are all ears. Chef Omar Zahirovic, one of the more visible social media personalities of True Cooks fame, said of using the platform, “Yelp is important. Even though it is a cesspool of self-proclaimed food critics, we can read between the lines and see how the consumer is thinking and what their expectations of the dining experience are. We who work in the hospitality industry have access via social media to hear from our diners outside of the restaurant. Unfortunately, if the reviews are not satisfactory, it could drive traffic away from your front door. The truth is, consumers’ ideas of dining expectations and experiences have not changed with the creation of Yelp; it’s just a platform for consumers to communicate with the food establishment. Yelp gives us means of understanding those we feed and helps progress since we can’t please all people all the time...and it also gives us a good laugh every now and then.”
Look at the bottom of a receipt from most chain operations and inevitably there is an invitation to share an opinion. That opinion must be really valuable because the promise of a weekly $5,000 drawing, dessert discount, or free mozzarella sticks rides along with the request to spend a few minutes online or entering text on a phone.
So why the warring factions of pro-Yelpers versus, well, the rest of us? “I use it myself as a directory — to find locations, hours of operation. Same goes for why my businesses are listed — a lot of people use it just for that. I read it sometimes, but usually it just makes me mad so I try to avoid it. Even the good reviews sometimes misrepresent my business,” said Jeff Osaka, chef/owner of Denver’s Osaka Ramen.
Three-time James Beard Award nominee Hari Cameron, chef/owner at (a)Muse and Grandpa (MAC) in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, said, “In this digital age, a lot people are Yelping,” he added, “but people who know us aren’t Yelping. Cooking is a subjective craft. For every negative, there are so many customers that enjoyed [their experience.]” Cameron admitted, “Nobody is bulletproof; it’s an imperfect trade and it gives every person the potential to hurt business.” What about skewed opinions? He laughed, “Two drunk people might be like, ‘Oh, I’m gonna get them!’ because now there are more tough people hiding behind their computers.” Even when things all go right, there are just some scenarios that can’t be fixed. “It’s a rainy day, the kid’s screaming, they stub their toe, whatever. We can’t fix the day. Now it’s their reality and they take to Yelp.”
What about responding to slams and off-kilter reviews? Osaka said, “When I had my other restaurant, I used to respond, but most of the responses I received in return were very defensive, so I stopped.” Cameron added, “We don’t respond; then you have to respond to both good and bad,” adding, “my conversations with guests in the dining room give us feedback.”
Matthew Wayland, executive chef of Texas’s Canyon of the Eagles, said, “If I get the same criticism many times, I look into the issue. Sometimes it is people just wanting to vent because they have an unhappy life; sometimes it is people who think they know about food because they watch the Food Network. As with all things, reviews, comment cards, etcetera, there may be some truths behind what people have to say and, for the most part, it is taken as it should be.”
Remember when restaurant dress codes existed? Or when people actually made reservations when they had, say, a party of 16 before just walking in? The slower pace of dining — and life’s subtle nuances — have been kicked into warp speed. One review per week in the dining section of the Post Gazette is a mark of antiquity. Instead, the fast food flow over social media is the standard. Negotiate with Yelpers or not, the forum is a tool, good or bad, effectively distorted. It is an app that is part of digital dining. Remember, disasters make fodder for the news and reviews.
“Pay no mind to taunts or advances,” sings Dave Matthews. Use the platform for feedback? Yes, if it can filter out, say, the rants of impaired typers. Fire back to jaded diners? Not so much. Spare the taunting.