And the Winner is . . .

And the Winner is . . .

Chefs & Experts

And the Winner is . . .

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Two million people a day can’t be all wrong.

They are obviously looking for something to help them choose. Even for the evening meal, they want to make sure their money is well spent. And, for a vacation trip—well, the restaurant choices can make or break the mood.

So, they turn to online reviews. You can find reviews from local newspapers and magazines, from other websites, even from The Food Channel. After all, if we like a place, we like to talk about it, too. Yelp, though, is a pretty big voice in the review industry. It is international in scope, user-generated, and isn’t just for restaurants anymore. You can review churches, auto mechanics, and more, and you can do it online or with their mobile app.

I went into the debate between Luther Lowe, Manager of Local Business Outreach for Yelp, and Stefan Richter, a Top Chef contestant and owner of several restaurants, with an open mind. While I like restaurant reviews, I’ve never been a fan of the anonymity. And, I believe that if you have a problem, you should point it out while you are in the restaurant and the owner/manager still has a chance to do something about it.

But I came out of the debate with Lowe’s words ringing in my ears: ““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.”

The winner of the debate is clearly, to me, on the side of open reviews. It’s too late to turn back from social media, or from this type of sharing online. Sure, it could be better, but the restaurant managers need to stop wasting time lamenting the reviews, and start interacting and responding to the reviews.

This is a foreign world to many restaurateurs, and I totally sympathize with that. They are, after all, running a restaurant. We need them to plan menus, order food, cook the food, serve it creatively, and clean up our mess. That’s what we want. And, now, we are asking them to spend time on social network sites, developing online social graces when they have no training for it.

The restaurant owner has a choice. Many choose to ignore the online world out there and devote their time to creating great food that keeps their clientele coming back, regardless of what anyone says. Others are choosing to interact, seeing it as a new form of advertising that has people talking about them. As an editor of mine used to say, “I don’t care what they say about me, as long as they spell my name right.”

One of my co-workers relates the story of being at a newly-opened restaurant when the owner stopped by their table. The group of twenty-somethings were all on their smart phones. The owner said, “Are you writing a review?” They said no, they were tweeting, or on Facebook, or texting a friend . . . but that they might before the evening was over. He replied, “Thank you. Good or bad, we’ll take them.”

Here is an owner who knows the reviews are coming, is watching what’s being said, and knows it’s essentially free advertising. He also knows, if he’s as smart as I think he is, that people read the reviews and figure they will check the place out for themselves—particularly if there is an engaged owner active online. That, after all, is a good sign that the restaurant is accommodating and has a stake in making sure your experience is noteworthy.

In the world ahead, I happen to think the restaurateur who gets involved in what’s being said about his or her restaurant will win.

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