I favor restaurants that use fresh, local products, in season, and prepare them with respect and skill. Last year I found just such a gem, serving fresh, expertly-prepared, local seafood at bargain prices. I boosted it in every way I could, featuring it in my column, mentioning it on radio and TV and recommending it to everyone I know. Did this place become an overnight success? No. It closed shortly after it's first anniversary--victim of a very bad location.
The moral to the story is this: restaurant reviews are just one small part of the overall picture. Whether restaurants live or die is really the result of a thousand daily business decisions made by the owners. Chose a good location, serve food that customers want at prices they will pay, in an atmosphere they find comfortable, and you'll succeed even if Ruth Reichel herself stands outside your door waving a sign that says "This place sucks!" Mess up, and even the most powerful food critic can't save you.
People who read newspapers tend to be intelligent and well-educated. They read to gather information and to consider the viewpoints of others. They do not swallow whole the opinions of newspaper critics and columnists, but rather, add them to information they may have gathered from friends, co-workers, television and magazines. A critic who is honest, ethical, and opinionated does much more of a service to readers and to the food service community than do writers of what amount to advertorials. Readers soon get a "feel" for how they align with an outspoken critic's opinion. When reading my own reviews, some readers say "I always agree with her opinion, so I probably wouldn't like this place either." Other readers will say ""I always disagree with this idiot. Since she hates it, I'll bet I will love it!" Either way, a number of them will go to that restaurant just to see how their opinion compares with mine. Restaurant reviews, just like movie and theater reviews, are not science. They're the subjective opinion of one person. Our intelligent readers recognize this, and act accordingly.
It seems to me that some critics are intent on finding something wrong with an operation and have a really malicious attitude towards our industry. They set themselves up as paragons of knowledge when in actual fact they are really trying to build up readership in their gossip column style reviews. The newbie in our industry doesn't stand a chance when one of these vultures descends on them with their sword and shield, holier than thou attitude...shame on you Mr. Critic! The best ones I've read have always mentioned that they would like to give a future review down the road after the opening bugs and jitters have been worked out.
To all in our industry...don't slash your wrists if you run afoul of one of these negative type critics...why not post some large media ads challenging the critic to a rematch (you might as well spend the money now before your place is empty.) and besides...think of the word of mouth advertising benefits you could receive over this challenged rematch...Good luck...
I enjoyed the Point/Counterpoint on Restaurant Reviews in the most recent issue.
As a former restaurant reviewer and newspaper editor, it's obvious whose side I agree with. But that's not why I'm writing. I want to pass along a few media relations pointers to those of you who get either good or bad reviews.
1. If you take issue with anything in the review, consider writing a letter to the editor or an opinion column. If it's a column, send your photo with it. Try to stick to the facts (even though the reviewer didn't).
2. If there are factual errors in the review and you don't want to write a letter or a column, at the very least, call and ask for a correction. This is important. If you don't correct the error, you stand the chance of having it appear again if another reporter uses the review as background material for another story.
3. After a bad review, resist the temptation to pull your advertising to "get back at" the newspaper. It can hurt you in the long run and do much more damage than a bad review. Besides, restaurants usually are not major advertisers so you won't have a drastic impact on the newspaper's advertising revenue. If problems need solving, solve them. Then ask the reviewer to come back again in 4 to 6 months.
4. To offset a bad review, consider an advertising campaign with testimonials from famous local celebrities. After getting a less-than-favorable review, a restaurant in Milwaukee asked one of the most well-known women in the city to appear in paid ads.
5. If you receive a good review, use sentences from the review as testimonials in your paid advertising, on signs in the window, and elsewhere throughout the restaurant. Photocopy good reviews and make them available to customers who want something to read while they're waiting for dinner. Reprint the review on paper placemates.
6. Frame and post favorable reviews on the wall where customers can see them and reprint them at 150 percent. It's impossible for many customers to read regular-size type in a room with subdued lighting.
7. If you recognize a food reviewer in your restaurant, do not give them a hard time or order them to leave. Instead, politely ask them if they will call you before the review is printed and "fact check" information, such as types of ingredients and how the food was prepared.
You'll find more publicity tips at my web site at http://www.publicityhound.com.
Joan Stewart, Media Relations Speaker, Trainer, Consultant
Fortunately, Cent' Anni has always received kind words from all of the Philadelphia food critics. But that still doesn't change the fundamental unfairness of the fact that one person can jeopardize the life savings of another simply by expressing their opinion. One of the local reviewers here had a great philosophy about reviews, if it couldn't be positive, it didn't get written. If a place really is bad, word of mouth will kill it soon enough. Often, though, one can read a negative review and sense that there is some sort of personal vendetta going on. Not every restaurant is for every customer, for a reviewer with absolutely nothing at stake financially to be able to destroy another's business is exactly like a hacker introducing a virus into a corporation's computer system, it's malicious vandalism and should be prohibited.
Reviewing restaurants is an imperfect art. Two people can go to the same restaurant on the same night and have two different experiences. They sit at different tables, have different waiters and the kitchen can be "in the weeds" when one person orders and running smoothly when the other person orders. As a restaurant reviewer I voice my opinion concerning the food, ambiance and service when writing a review and tell about my experiences when visiting a restaurant. Of course, I visit a restaurant two or three times before writing a review and taste as many menu items as possible.
Readers should find reviewers that they usually agree with and follow their advice. OR--they should find reviewers that they don't agree with and avoid the restaurants these reviewers like.
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