Easy as ABC
We had ourselves a bit of a dustup here in the Arizona food community yesterday, and I feel compelled to post about it, first because it touches on a range of interesting issues, and second because there’s a discussion that should be had here and
Phoenix lacks an LTH-style board where this can really be discussed intelligently and in-depth by anybody who’s interested. <-- Not anymore!
For those who are not in Phoenix, or for those who might have missed it, there was a very public spat on Yelp involving Amy’s Baking Company and a rather prolific and respected local food blogger/poster. I won’t repost the exchange in its entirety because it’s lengthy, but it can all be found at yesterday’s Chow Bella post on the subject. The quick summary is that Joel L., a fellow who writes about food an awful lot, had an awful experience at Amy’s Baking Company both in terms of food and service. After posting an obviously frustrated and angry review on Yelp (a rarity for Joel), Amy herself posted a response that was... colorful. It involved straight name-calling, accusations of working for the competition, overblown defense of the food... it really just needs to be read. Chow Bella picked it up, and what followed was the usual side-picking and grandstanding. But as I say, this whole situation touches on a number of important issues in very interesting ways.
First off, in the interest of full disclosure, I know Joel. He’s a friend. He was one of the food folks who was incredibly kind to welcome me to Phoenix with open arms, he’s always given the impression that he knows his stuff, and he’s an enthusiastic booster of the local restaurant scene and a champion of underappreciated places, which I love. All-around good guy who knows his food, evidenced by the fact that when everything blew up, he issued one final firm but classy response, walked away from the ABC controversy, and attempted to make something positive of the situation by turning the conversation to restaurants that “get” social media. And, you know, I write a food blog. So that’s where I’m coming from.
That said, you didn’t have to be a friend of Joel’s or an amateur food writer to be shocked by Amy’s response. With a couple of exceptions, assessments thereof ranged from amazing to unconscionable to just plain stupid, with even most of the sympathetic ears conceding that it was way out of line. But Amy’s response and the ensuing fracas raised a couple of different issues.
First, there’s the issue of factual inaccuracy in online reviews. Though most of the people following this story aren’t in the position to know Joel as I do, he doesn’t make things up when he writes about restaurants. We all bring our own perceptions to the table, particularly when it comes to relaying contentious situations, but what Joel posted was an attempt to accurately convey a bad restaurant experience. I suspect part of the problem was that Amy took some of his speculation a statements of fact. Now, I speculate a lot. If a dish didn’t work, I’ll take a guess as to what might’ve happened in the kitchen to cause that. And I try to make it clear that this is speculation on my part because I’m not in the kitchen and I don’t know. And while reading Joel’s post, I never thought he was actually suggesting Amy uses store-bought dough for her pizza, but that’s how she read it, and that would explain in some part, I think, the strength of her reaction. I think it telling that Joel’s characterization of the service he received has gone largely unchallenged. Of course, the wise move for any restaurateur when reading a post that misidentifies an ingredient or a preparation method or some such would be to issue a polite correction. After all, regardless of how it was prepared, it doesn’t change the fact that Joel thought the pizza was lousy – the most important part that’s strictly a matter of opinion not subject to factual scrutiny (despite Amy’s insistence that her pizzas are empirically “amazing”). You have to search pretty hard to find somebody who doesn’t think this was a botched response.
More interesting to me, however, is that it has once again raised the issue of the propriety of online criticism, particularly when it comes to negative reviews. www.azvibe.com, via twitter (I don’t know who you actually are... drop me a line and I’ll update!), suggested that Joel shouldn’t have been posting something negative after one visit, and that Michele Laudig shouldn’t have bumped the conflict on Chow Bella, suggesting that they have the power to make or break a business and should be more careful about what and how they write. And while I appreciate the sensitivity and thought in those remarks, I think the issue is a non-starter for the simple reason that it was Amy who chose to elevate this spat in a very intentionally public and vocal way. Without the response, it’s a one-star review on Yelp. Few restaurants don’t have them (you can’t please everybody). And whether you feel Joel’s post was correct and/or appropriate, it was background noise that Amy intentionally elevated to a very public spat. The suggestion that Laudig started a “witch hunt” is, I think, way out of line, and one that would upset me more if the accompanying comments weren’t, as I say, measured and thoughtful. But even if you feel that Amy’s response doesn’t figure into the equation when considering the propriety of the Chow Bella post, I think the notion that Joel should not have posted after one visit and that Laudig shouldn’t have propagated the story is wrong for one simple reason. It’s an old media response to a new media world.
This isn’t a “Rah Rah New Media!” post. I simply wish to make the point that the way people consume criticism has changed, and the rules along with it. Though her response was vastly overblown (paranoid is the operative word here), Amy embodies the fear of countless restaurant owners. And really, that fear must be terrible. People’s livelihoods are on the line, they’re scared that a bad online writeup is going to sink them, they’re angered when they feel that those who are writing are unfair or don’t know what they’re talking about, and I understand and sympathize with that fear and anger. But there are a few critical factors they need to understand:
Negative Reviews From Non-Professionals Are Not A New Phenomenon
Diners did not start talking about restaurants with the advent of the internet. Long before the web existed, people would routinely visit restaurants, have a single meal, and then tell everybody about it. It was called word-of-mouth (quaint, eh?), and it went from person to person without the benefit of transparency or the opportunity for correction. People have always talked about restaurants. It’s just that restaurateurs are now seeing it for the first time. And while it may be jarring or difficult to read, and is sometimes misinformed or mean-spirited, it’s important to remember that this is not new. What’s new is restaurants’ ability to see and react to this criticism, and for a poorly-informed opinion to be refuted by a number of others. This is a good thing, and it leads me to item two:
Online Criticisms Do Not Exist In A Vacuum
Many restaurateurs get bent out of shape by a bad online review. And that’s completely understandable. But unlike word-of-mouth or a traditional media review, a post on Yelp or Chowhound is bracketed by context. LOTS of context. You can’t please everybody. No matter how wonderful your restaurant is, some customers will leave dissatisfied. Everybody makes mistakes, and everybody has a bad night... except for maybe Thomas Keller (that’s a joke). Bad reviews are not just inescapable, they’re normal. What matters is the body of online commentary. If you run a great restaurant and some idiot who doesn’t know what he’s talking about slams you, it doesn’t matter because 20 other people will be lined up to talk about how that guy is wrong and your restaurant is wonderful. What’s more, what about all of the unwarranted five-star reviews from folks who will proclaim everything yummo provided it looks pretty and doesn’t contain broken glass? It goes both ways. The fact is that when you have the large sample of feedback that the internet provides, these outliers are statistical aberrations. Online reviews aren’t absolute, they’re data points. Some of them deviate from the mean more than others. Which brings us to item three:
The Online Dining Public Understands All Of This
We understand that there will be a range of views. We understand that somebody who posts a bad review might have caught a bad plate or had a bad day or have no idea what he’s talking about. We understand that these posts aren’t perfectly objective, are almost always highly personal and rarely come from a broad base of experience with the restaurant. But while a traditional newspaper or magazine critic would visit two or three or four times to provide that broad base of experience, internet criticism provides that second visit, and the third visit, and the fifth visit, and the 27th visit, and the 131st visit. It’s just that they’re all done by different people. It's 2010 and the "It's on the internet so it must be true!" era is long gone. We’re perfectly capable of examining a body of information, reading critically and parsing that information ourselves.
None of which is to suggest that people who post online -- be it via comment, blog or review site – are in any way excused from the basic tenets of common decency and honesty. It behooves us to be as honest and as accurate as possible in what we write and, perhaps more importantly, how much experience with the restaurant in question informs our opinions. But applying the rules of traditional media restaurant reviews to new media is like trying to operate the NFL by the rules that were in place in the 1930s. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with those rules, it’s just that the game has changed. If a diner goes and has a bad experience, even if it was an isolated event, that bad experience happened. Other posts may provide context or illuminate it as such, but why should that bad experience be negated simply because it wasn’t the norm? If it really is a rarity, then other posts and comments will refute that experience. If it isn’t, others will back it up. And this new world of online criticism affords restaurants the amazing opportunity to see that feedback in real time and address it, both internally and publicly, rather than dying a slow death wondering why nobody comes back.
It also isn’t to suggest that there isn’t still a very important role for traditional restaurant critics, though I think their role is changing. These days, I think they’re less valuable as reviewers. It was always the case that a high-falutin’ restaurant critic wouldn’t necessarily reflect the tastes of the once-a-month dining public. But if Yelp (as much as I dislike Yelp) can provide the average person a better sense of whether he’ll like a particular restaurant, there’s no substitute for the experienced critic as an educator, and that’s where I hope more traditional critics will shift their focus.
But that last is a bit of a tangent. Circling back, what we saw yesterday is one of the uglier examples of growing pains in the internet era. But I think the important thing is that they’re growing pains, and as more restaurateurs come to understand the benefits of online criticism and see that the same system that gives them nightmares can also give them cover, I hope we’ll see fewer situations like the one we saw yesterday. The bottom line is that when every diner could be a reviewer, it’s a scary thing. But all that’s going to happen is that the online discourse will, as the number of reviews grow, capture an increasingly accurate snapshot of what the public really thinks of a restaurant. In this manner, the only restaurants that should fear the internet are bad restaurants. Or perhaps horribly misunderstood restaurants. But that’s all a matter of opinion.