Food & Whine

In the age of social media, everybody’s a critic. And for restaurateurs, online reviews are changing the very way they do business.



Illustration by Daniel Guidera

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Last spring, “Jason C.” of Rockville wrote a review on Yelp about MoCo’s Founding Farmers, giving the Potomac restaurant three stars.

“In sum, this is a place that tries to make you FEEL like you’ve come into a cozy little barn where you receive farm produce,” he wrote. “The décor, the chairs, the clothing the servers wear, and the mailbox with a little red flag that houses your check at the end of the meal all add to that experience, but there is one major fail[ure]. …The food is so-so.”

In June, and again in December, Jason updated his review, giving the restaurant five stars both times and raving about the exemplary service and improved food. His postings explained how, after his first review, the restaurant invited him back, on the house, to give the place another shot. Now it’s his go-to spot for important business meals.

“They turned a negative experience into something incredibly positive,” Jason says.

In the old days, the rule of thumb was that if a diner had a good experience at a restaurant, he’d mention it to one friend. If it was bad, he’d tell 10 people. Today, social media enables diners like Jason to broadcast their restaurant experiences to a potential audience of millions. 

On OpenTable, more than 15 million comments have been posted since the online restaurant reservation service started a review program in 2008. Nationwide, diners currently contribute more than 400,000 reviews each month.

How do restaurants react to this constant input? In a number of ways.

Some, like Carole Robert, chef-owner of Annie’s Bistro Francais in Bethesda, just glance at comments every month or so, preferring to focus on the customers they can interact with personally. 

Others, like Francis Namin, owner of Bethesda’s Food Wine & Co., follow online comments and bring them up at staff meetings. But they believe as he does that paying too much attention to social media can distract from the real focus. 

“As a restaurant, you have to deliver quality service and food,” Namin says. “It’s my experience in your establishment that’s going to make me come back or not.” 

There are plenty of other chefs and restaurateurs, though, who monitor, mine and respond to social media regularly in order to lure back customers like Jason—often changing their food and policies, making decisions about marketing and personnel, and comparing themselves to competitors in the process.

Social media “has radically reshaped the entire business, whether restaurants fully realize it or not,” says Kristin Muhlner, CEO of newBrandAnalytics, a Washington, D.C., company that aggregates guest comments from social networks and review and blog sites. Diners now have access to a wealth of information, drastically changing loyalties, she says. As a result, “restaurants not only have to lean in and figure out what people are saying about them, but develop strategies in response.”

The owners of MoCo’s Founding Farmers, which has a restaurant in Foggy Bottom as well as Farmers Fishers Bakers in Washington Harbour, are definitely listening. The restaurant group has several managers and hospitality coordinators who monitor guest feedback daily on the restaurants’ websites. An additional “guest relations specialist” checks comments about the restaurants on sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Urbanspoon, Yelp, OpenTable, Pinterest and Foursquare. The specialist responds via email to every mention on Yelp, OpenTable and the restaurants’ own websites—whether it was positive or negative—and sometimes, as in Jason’s case, invites a diner back on the house.

“The majority of the time, we can recapture the guests and recover the situation,” says Jennifer Motruk Loy, who handles marketing and public relations for the restaurant group known as The Farm. But “we don’t want people to think if they complain, they’ll get a free meal—we examine each [comment] on a case-by-case basis. And we don’t demand: ‘We want you to post again.’ ”

Others keeping close tabs on comments include sweetgreen, Nando’s Peri-Peri, Five Guys, Jaleo, Elevation Burger, The Capital Grille and Potbelly, all of which use newBrandAnalytics to do so. Restaurateurs receive a daily dashboard with information such as the most critical reviews (so they can respond immediately); a “theme cloud” with keywords that identify important problems or sentiments; and performance analyses of each location in the chain. They can also receive information about competitors.

Nic Jammet, one of sweetgreen’s owners, says that although the local chain has a director of digital marketing, the newBrandAnalytics information helps him dissect the incoming comments. And the chain’s 16 locations see each other’s results.

Every week, Geoff Tracy, who owns four Chef Geoff’s restaurants as well as Lia’s in Chevy Chase, has his staff calculate the restaurants’ average scores for food and service on OpenTable and distribute the results to management and staff at each restaurant. “You can compare the restaurants, and the restaurants compete with each other,” Tracy says. The data is also used as part of a larger report card to determine staff bonuses, he says.

Companywide, Geoff Tracy’s restaurants field and respond to as many as 200 comments a week. Tracy keeps up with the data but stopped reading individual postings five or six years ago. “It’s so personal to me,” he says. The feedback “either totally excited me or really hurt me. I couldn’t get through the rest of the day.” 

That’s why Robert of Annie’s doesn’t keep close tabs either. “You have to detach yourself, because you cannot take these comments personally,” she says. “Everyone thinks they are a food critic.” 

Paola Gonzalez, a Silver Spring resident who works at the American Psychological Association in Washington, D.C., doesn’t necessarily think she’s a food critic. 

“It’s like a little hobby,” Gonzalez says of her postings on Yelp, where she is a member of the site’s “Elite Squad,” reviewers who contribute frequent, high-quality blurbs and are fêted at Yelp parties at local restaurants. (Reviews of the events appear on a special Yelp page, though squad members are free to return and write regular reviews.) 

“Since I can remember, I always went to different restaurants,” Gonzalez says. “All my friends would ask me where they should go eat.”

Like other frequent reviewers, Gonzalez sometimes receives offers of gift certificates or other restaurant come-ons. (Yelp advises reviewers to always divulge whether they have received free food.) After posting a negative review about her experience at Bethesda’s Boloco, she received an offer from the chain for a free meal. She accepted, but didn’t update her review afterward. “It was the same,” she says. “The only time I’ll change my review is if I had a completely different experience.” 

That did happen after she wrote a somewhat critical review of Relic, the now-defunct bar and restaurant that was located on Fairmont Avenue in Bethesda. The manager sent her a $50 gift certificate, “and every time I went back, they treated me like a VIP,” she says. 

A subsequent five-star review was glowing.

It pays for restaurateurs to be “star conscious.” A 2012 University of California-Berkeley study showed that just a half-star rating increase on Yelp translated into a 49 percent greater chance that a restaurant would fill up during peak dining hours. And a 2011 Harvard Business School study of restaurants in the state of Washington found that each additional star on Yelp translated to a 5 percent to 9 percent increase in an individual restaurant’s revenue.

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