It was the food fight of the year. The tall, wavy-haired young marketing genius vs. the wiry, shaved-headed young chef. Both technically-savvy. Both heavily invested in the food business. Both opinionated.
In this corner, Luther Lowe, Manager of Local Business Outreach for the popular ratings powerhouse, Yelp.
And, in that corner, Stefan Richter (photo, right), the Finnish chef who was a runner-up on the fifth season of Top Chef, and owner of Stefan’s European Catering, Stefan's at L.A. Farm, and Stefan’s Steakhouse (in Finland).
In the audience? Restaurant owners and operators who have a definite stake in the game. These are the people whose very livelihood can be impacted by a negative or positive review of their restaurant, and those online ratings can be important to attracting new customers. How popular is Yelp? The site this week passed a significant milestone: its 20 Millionth review was posted.
The drama was all part of the great debate showcased at the National Restaurant Association’s session: Are Online Reviews a Good or Bad Thing? Moderated by Atlantic senior editor Corby Kummer, it was billed as a discussion about how restaurants’ online presence can either help, or hinder, their business. It was the first time Yelp has put itself out there in this way, particularly with a chef with opinions that are, to say the least, colorful.
Lowe (photo, right) took the first shot when we talked even before the debate. Although his demeanor was gentle, he was firm and knowledgeable, very sure of his company’s position in the world and ready to educate those willing to get with the program.
“Restaurants are still uncomfortable with the idea that your experience is out there for the world to read,” he charged. “This debate is not about, ‘Here’s how you do Yelp.’ Yelp is a provocateur.” He added, “Whether they like it or not, the genie is out of the bottle. Fifty-three million people a month use the site to figure out where to eat.”
Lowe basically stated three positions. 1) That gathering many opinions was stronger than listening to one, saying, “The whole reason someone is going to Yelp is that the consensus is more powerful than one writer or critic;” and, 2) That the local residents can guide others better than anyone else, explaining, “How do you find a great restaurant online? The ones who know that are locals;” and, 3) People these days go online to figure out where to eat, and that restaurants should take advantage of it, adding, “It’s a great way for a restaurant to manage your overall reputation.”
Richter also gave us his position prior to the debate, visibly showing disdain for the social media trend. “People,” he implored. “Go back to basics, instead of all these funky things!”
During the debate he continued in the same vein: “Have I read reviews on Yelp? Yes. Have I gotten my panties in a twist? Yes. I’ve had sleepless nights over how I was going to be reviewed. Everyone is a food critic now. Even someone who has no clue how the business works.”
Here then, is the blow-by-blow:
Richter: A critique about my service or my food is ok, but as soon as you get personal with me . . .
Moderator: These are personal remarks made by complete strangers.
Richter: I cook, I give service, I sell you wine. I can tell when I’m in Finland; reviews go down because Stefan wasn’t cooking. I kiss butt for a living – that’s my job. 220 dinners a night. You order steak and frites for $22 and a glass of wine for $8. You order it rare and it comes medium rare. Shut up and eat it. It’s 2011 and the economy’s not that great. Make frickin’ reservations; have frickin’ respect. Forty reservations but 160 walk-ins, and you expect someone to be good? If someone has a problem, I would love the chance to explain. People feel entitled these days because they watch the Food Network and think they know food.
Moderator: People are being really mean on Yelp. It’s like a hit and run because it’s anonymous. Anonymity is a loaded gun and it lets people take as many shots as they want.
Lowe: Stefan is colorful, he’s angry and to me he represents the owner who is encountering the world of user-generated content. You can’t look at your business listing like it's a stock ticker. At the end of the day, his restaurant has an average four star rating on Yelp. His is an outstanding restaurant. I understand that this creates emotional pain, but the consumer looks at this differently than the owner.
Moderator: What is Yelp doing to protect business owners from what they consider unfair reviews, or drive-by reviews, or even reviews from the competitor—you know, the shady business owner who puts friends up to do the reviews?
Richter: That’s why it doesn’t work!
Lowe: I disagree that it’s anonymous. Photos and names are used. Yelp is as much a tech company as an online review site. We are trying to ensure it has quality content. Yelp is in the business of providing trustworthy content for users. And we offer tools to help at Biz.yelp.com.
Richter (advising the restaurant owners in the audience): So, suck it up for a little bit; as you do more good food, your ratings will climb. But I will never privately respond to someone.
Lowe: It’s not responding to the individual review as much as you are preparing the next customer to come in.
Richter: My restaurant has been open two years; it has 300 reviews, out of 2100 meals a week—200,000 meals so far.
Moderator: You have to be a frequent reviewer for it to show up, right?
Lowe: One to ten percent like to share and create. The rest like to consume the content. [Editor's note: You can read more about what Yelp calls "the 1/9/90 rule."]
Audience member #1: Well, there are a lot of prolific writers who are eyeball deep in s---!
Richter: Resist the urge to respond; it’s only going to escalate it.
Lowe: If you have 1700 people reading about your site, why would you not take advantage of it? Use the tools to reputation-manage. The most important metric is: how many people are looking at my business page?
Richter: Here is the only thing I support Yelp in: I can see when I’m getting lazy.
Moderator: It’s universal; the people that complain are more vocal.
Lowe: But, only 15% of reviews on the site are negative. Yelp provides a fairly accurate description.
Audience member #2: People are brave behind a keyboard. I walk around the restaurant and no one says a thing.
Richter: It’s true. People don’t complain in the restaurant, when I can fix it, but when they go home, the claws come out.
Lowe: It’s no different than the old word-of-mouth; it’s just that, now, word-of-mouth lives online. We know that the challenge of user-generated is the inaccuracies. You can go to firstname.lastname@example.org and ask for a review by Customer Support. But, remember, 75% of the restaurants are four star. [Editor's note: Yelp's Customer Support team will determine if a post goes against its Terms of Service; if it does, they will take action, but they do not actually edit reviews. Business owners can add information to their own listings and can respond publicly to reviews to give their perspective or corrections.]
Audience Member #3: Our goal is to get people in the restaurant, and we can’t fix it after they leave.
Richter: We just need accuracy; a review doesn’t have to be positive.
And the debate winner is...(view our verdict)
It’s an on-going debate, and, as in all opinions, your own experience will influence how you see the issue. Are you a restaurant owner who loves . . . or hates . . . online reviews? Are you a person who regularly eats out and uses reviews to choose where to go? Are you a contributor to Yelp or other review sites? Let us know if you have an opinion to add to the mix.
Also, see Yelp's blog posts on how to handle online reviews.