By Brenda from The Whet Palette
Everyone’s a food critic nowadays. Restaurants have no choice than to deal with reviews of their establishments every day. Gone are the days when a newspaper's review solely influenced a restaurant's success or failure. Print still carries some significant weight, but there are more practical ways to learn about a restaurant. Today, within minutes, diners can easily cross-reference a review with other outlets. It seems a new restaurant or food-centric app/blog emerges daily. Social media rules, laws, and etiquette are still evolving.
While food-related content rules the blogosphere and Instagram, Trip Advisor and Yelp remain the most used and controversial. Diners share their opinions online, create a stir, and often send restaurants scrambling. A closer look at Yelp's motto tells you all you need to know about the everyday food critic: Real People, Real Reviews. Just as in real life, people can be great and others...not so much. Creating an online account takes seconds. On Trip Advisor, users can delete their reviews, but not edit them once posted. Users on Yelp have greater control of their content; it's fairly simple to edit, update, and delete posts. Questionable information sneaks in on both. When deciphering a review's origin and authenticity, a look at the user's profile -or lack of an established one- can be key. No matter what side of the fence you are on, here are some simplified and useful DOS and DON'TS social media tips to keep in mind.
So you want to review a restaurant…
DO lead with kindness. If possible, visit a restaurant several times before writing about them. Remember, mistakes happen. Give a business an opportunity to rectify a situation on the spot. Once the moment passes, not much can be done. Provide as many relevant details as possible in your writing. Be mindful of your words; no one likes a spiteful keyboard warrior. Would you phrase the story the same way to the owner, if in person?
DON'T threaten a restaurant with a bad review based on your online status (Yelp Elite, blog owner, etc.) For those not in the know, local businesses (with the help of a Yelp Community Manager) host monthly events, for anyone with a valid Yelp account (real name and photo required). Yelp Elite Squad members attend additional, more exclusive gatherings. The Elite selection process details remain confidential. Considered trustworthy brand ambassadors, those annually rewarded with the coveted status actively participate within the community. The problem? Some Yelpers take their online ranking way too seriously. They've been known to announce it upon reserving at a restaurant or threaten businesses with a bad review if things are not up to their liking. Seriously, don't be that person, no one cares. And it can backfire. If you push your luck, you might get the South Park 'Yelper Special'...and you don't want that. On the other hand, some bloggers write solely for the benefit of receiving complimentary dinner invitations. Although not all online writers behave this way, a few bad apples do taint the merit of those who take great pride in providing thorough, worthwhile reviews. Be the good apple.
DON'T accept rewards in exchange for positive write-ups. It’s a conflict of interest and there’s no way around it. If a restaurant reaches out to you with an offer, you should decline.
DON'T sacrifice the food for the sake of a photo. Clear, well-composed photos add credibility and variety to reviews. Do it, but get to eating as soon as possible. If it takes longer than ten seconds to photograph a single dish, you need to rethink your strategy. Please do not rearrange furniture, stand on chairs, or excessively use your flash for the money shot. The food! Remember? It's getting cold and you've now annoyed the diners around you. Don’t.
DO keep an eye out for fraudulent accounts and reviews. Use your access to a review site for the greater good. Report and flag anything that seems suspect or malicious. DO enjoy the process. When used correctly and positively, providing useful information about a business can prove beneficial for all. If you are planning a trip, researching businesses, and sharing information, technology perks come in handy: create custom lists, add bookmarks, upload photos, and keep reviews organized online.
So your restaurant got reviewed…
DO stop blaming the reviews. As a restaurateur, your energy is better spent providing top notch quality service and food. At the end of the day, if 100 random reviewers criticize the soggy pizza crust, trust they did not all come together to make it up. Use your resources to improve the recipe, and move on. Someone will always complain about prices, hate their server, and talk about leaving hungry. Even with some extreme reviews mixed in, ratings on Trip Advisor and Yelp are on par with each other. Michelin-rated restaurants ultimately fare well on both review sites too. Focus on the big picture and not the few skewed opinions.
DON'T bicker with reviewers, even if they deserve the scolding. Read this and repeat after me, YOU WILL NEVER PLEASE EVERYONE. Angry chefs often make headlines when taking on unfair (or downright mean-spirited) reviewers. More often than not, a level-headed reply works best. Unless there's a personal accusation involved that needs to be legally addressed, an apology or a thank you will go a long way. Keep it simple.
DO embrace the free publicity, but also invest in a Social Media Manager. There's a reason #foodporn and Instagram are more popular than ever. Diners flock to restaurants now just to try a dish they saw photographed online. Invest in a social media manager to, at a minimum, streamline the trilogy: Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Retweet and regram great photos, thank someone for their positive comments and answer online questions in a timely manner. Visually attractive accounts and personalized interaction with your followers will pay off.
DON'T buy reviews. Places like Craigslist often list paid-reviewer opportunities. Too often, businesses advertise rewards in exchange for positive reviews. Usually, moderators or other members spot and flag these write-ups. Yelp has a mysterious algorithm in place that attempts to catch those trolling their site. Understandably so, restaurant owners feel cheated when misleading and damaging reviews remain posted. Contact the review site in question, as many times as it takes, to report suspicious activity on your account.
DO provide smart lighting solutions, if possible. Your food will be photographed and end up somewhere online, even if you advise against it on the menu or website. Not everyone is blessed with talented photo skills. Well-lit spaces provide the most flattering shots. Why not help the situation? You want your final product to be Instagram worthy. Purposeful lighting should always be incorporated into a restaurant's interior design, but it's often overlooked.
DO train your staff to be social media savvy. It's easy to spot the diners who participate online; they usually reserve via OpenTable (probably ranked as an OpenTable VIP), and snap photos all night. It doesn't mean you have to roll out the red carpet for each one. It does mean you've been given fair warning and are now on magnified display. How will you choose to be seen? Is this really the time to deliver a messily plated dish? Some restaurants turn the tables and keep detailed logs on diners: a practice that can come in handy if a dispute arises. More importantly, if you keep tabs on your guests' preferences, then you can use the information to your advantage during future visits. Which table do they usually request? Do they have a wine preference? A favorite dessert? Fail to prepare, prepare to fail.
Reviewers and reviewees will not always see eye to eye. Praise the good and be considerate when discussing shortcomings. Thoughtfulness never goes out of style.