WINE and FOOD 2013 – The era of anonymous reviews leads to frustration and …
When you’re up at 2am six days a week and facing a punch list that includes baking loaves of breads by the dozens, rolls and scones by the score, plus quiches, brownies and cookies by the batchload – then prepping fixings for the hundred-plus sandwiches you’ll sell come lunch time – what people say about you on the Internet might not be at the top of the list of things to worry about.
And that’s why, last year, it took a couple of weeks and a few “WTF?” phone calls from friends before Ana-Melissa Garcia, co-owner of the Bakery Station in Salinas, realized she had been royally dissed on the online review portal Yelp.com. The San Francisco-based service allows anyone who creates an account to write a review and then rate almost any business on a “star” system, with five being the best and one being the worst.
In Garcia’s case, it wasn’t a disgruntled customer who went after her; it was a disgruntled ex-roommate who had been evicted by the landlord from an apartment Garcia shared with her fiance and two other people.
The criticism was harsh, unfair and deeply personal. Oh, and it was also untrue. The commenter, meanwhile, made no effort to disguise her identity – a click on her Yelp profile showed the ex-roomie’s picture.
“It was beautifully written, though,” Garcia says now, with an ironic grin. “It said the owner seems like she’s stoned all the time, that the owner is aloof, that her hair is messy and the decor of the restaurant was tacky like a grandma’s kitchen.
“She wasn’t attacking the food, she was attacking me,” Garcia says. “It made me feel naked, like everyone was judging me. And the more I thought about it, the more it pissed me off.”
But as bad – and creatively inaccurate – as the rant was, what came next might have been worse. After weeks of phone calls and emails trying to get Yelp to take down what amounted to a personal attack, Yelp tried to sell her advertising.
“I tried every which way I could to get it taken down. Emails, phone calls, I even sent them the rental agreement all the roommates signed. They said, ‘Well, it’s really not affecting your stars or your rating,’” Garcia says. “And then they started calling. I said ‘Wait, are you calling to resolve my issue?’ They said they’d resolve the issue and then tried to sell me an advertising package.”
The review disappeared about 90 days later. Garcia never bought any Yelp ads, and her rating has held steady at four stars for a while now. While no Yelp representative outright offered to make the negative comment disappear in exchange for a purchase, the experience left her feeling wary. “Yelp seemed to think they had developed a positive relationship with me or something,” Garcia says.
Yelp did not respond to request for comment.
Welcome to the era of the online attack‚ where anyone can say anything about anybody, consequences (and truth) be damned. There are consistent and classy Yelp reviewers including Monterey’s Shiho Fukushima (see story, p. 38), who now writes for the Weekly, whose vivid descriptions and thoughtful comments provide a service. It’s the unfair negative stuff that can drag business and morale down.
Cuisine may vary from place to place, but one thing shared by most restaurants in the county is that, at one point, they’ve been on the receiving end of misplaced online rage.
“Online commenting? It’s our favorite subject around here,” says il vecchio owner Carl Alasko. He’s fresh off a weekend in which a pair of customers – who had to wait 25 minutes for a table instead of the promised 10 on Saturday night – threatened to eviscerate the Pacific Grove trattoria on Yelp unless their entire meal was comped. (Alasko, recovering from knee surgery, had already left for the night when the incident happened. He says the newish host acquiesced to the demand.) “I would have been happy to give them a free glass of wine or a dessert, but this was extortion,” Alasko says.
While a one-star review complaining about a wait despite a reservation appeared on the restaurant’s Yelp page, the anonymous reviewer “j.s.” claims he and his wife left and ate elsewhere. Il vecchio, like Bakery Station, is holding steady at an overall four stars on Yelp.
“If someone says our server was inattentive, or the food was cold, that’s a valid complaint, or at least it sounds valid. But the really stupid, vitriolic ones you see pop up, you think, ‘Oh my God, there is something wrong with this person,’” Alasko says. “And the crazy ones tip themselves off. There’s a fundamental animosity there.”
That animosity has revealed itself in some strange ways since il vecchio opened in 2011. Alasko’s staff, for example, has been called racist by a few anonymous Yelp and Trip Advisor commenters claiming they were refused service because of the color of their skin. Those types of comments used to bug him, but now they mostly roll off his back.
Carmel restaurateur Rich Pepe, owner of Little Napoli, Vesuvio, Peppoli and Carmel Bakery, says Yelp has been far more blatant in its attempts to get him to buy advertising in exchange for moving or removing negative reviews. Several years ago, when a Yelp commenter said one of Pepe’s servers seemed like she was on drugs (and left enough identifying information so the server knew she was being talked about), Pepe called Yelp and asked them to take it down.
“Here she is, this young woman with two young kids, and I told them, ‘She’s going to have a nervous breakdown over this, you have to take it down,’” Pepe recounts. “They said, ‘Well, if you buy a level of sponsorship you could have more influence over what’s said, but we’re not going to take it down.’”
Customers who want to pay compliments tend to do it face to face, and so do many of the ones who have something negative to say. If a customer makes a legitimate complaint during a meal, it’s addressed at the time.
It’s given Pepe the freedom to avoid Yelp or other forums where people are allowed to anonymously attack.
“I personally try to ignore it,” Pepe says. “It’s like a root canal.”