Illustration by Pop Winson
Posts like this are ones no restaurateur ever wants to see: “Food Poisoning, Anyone?” splashed across your establishment’s Facebook page. You try to do the right thing and respond with concern. Ask if anyone actually got sick. “Well, no, BUT …” – and the whining continues.
Not every top you turn is going to be perfect. Restaurateurs know this. And they expect some flak when they’re not on their games. But even for Edmonton’s most consistently hailed restaurants, there are guests who don’t like a room from the moments they walk in – or from the moments they’re put on two-hour wait lists. One could be named in the top 10 new restaurants in the country and have a less-than-stellar rating on Urbanspoon.
Edmonton is a food-loving town with a robust community of social media darlings who love talking about how great it is to eat here. But there are trolls. There are vendettas. And there are sounding boards like Yelp, Google, TripAdvisor, OpenTable and Urbanspoon for all of them. Social media is now an essential (and sometimes harmful) part of the restaurant industry; tweets and photos allow chefs to interact with customers in immediate and interesting ways. But it’s the online reviews that take up a daunting amount of cyberspace.
“Your opinion is affected by how you grew up, what you grew up eating, if the server reminds you of someone who beat you up in high school. The smallest thing can trigger a negative or a positive response,” says Christian Mena, co-owner at Sabor, the upscale Portuguese joint nestled in the downtown core since 2008.
Opening around the same time that Urbanspoon went online, Sabor has seen the growth of social media and its effects on restaurants from the get-go. When he sees an unsavoury comment, like the TripAdvisor gem below, Mena has to sigh.
“Another disappointment in edmonton. I have served the shrimp with ammonia. No thanks. Left the room with the clothes that smelled of fish. Use good vacuum cleaners is too expensive?”
“It’s unfortunate, because 99 per cent of situations in a restaurant can be fixed at the table,” says Mena. Meaning: If the food’s not hot enough, tell the server. “Give me the opportunity to make everything perfect for you. I want to make you a regular customer; we want you to love it here.”
One memorably vile review came just three days after Sabor opened. Unlike a review by a trusted press source, or even by a person who uses their real name online, the curtain of Internet anonymity leaves room for particular cruelty.
“It’s one of the worst reviews I’ve ever seen in my life. It was scathing, it was mean, it was hurtful – and it’s talking about people, like our chef, who spend 16 hours a day here,” Mena says. “Anyone can just take five minutes and write the most awful thing and it’ll stay on there forever. There are no repercussions, there’s no recourse. It’s like punching someone in the face and instantly disappearing.”
Phil Wilson, a.k.a. @baconhound, is one of YEG’s trusty food bloggers. He regularly posts Yelp reviews, too.
“Online reviews, that’s a contentious issue for sure, because there’s an anonymity behind having a Yelp or an Urbanspoon account that kind of brings out the loudmouth in people,” Wilson says. “I totally get it when restaurants don’t like that, but I think maybe restaurants tend to underestimate to average person’s ability to filter through garbage reviews.”
In general, it’s pretty easy to tell which posts are more reflective of the reviewer than the food. “If your comment is that you don’t like this waitress, and that she’s a skank – which I did read in a review one time – how does that reflect on the restaurant?” he says. “The problem is that these all kind of add up. You get a few real dumb ones like that in there, then all you see is a three-star rating on the restaurant when it may actually be really good.”
As with anything requiring proper seasoning, when trawling through the online reviews, he offers the adage: “You just have to take them with a grain of salt.”
Sometimes an online allegation can be more serious – taken with a grain of salt or not. For instance: The “Food Poisoning, Anyone?” Facebook comment at the top is far too real for Rostizado co-owner Chris Sills.
Sills remembers the night that spurned the aforementioned post, which was early on in the restaurant’s tenancy at the Mercer building. He remembers that party waiting over two hours to be seated; he remembers them ordering a drink containing smoky mezcal, which they didn’t seem prepared for.
“I felt bad for them at the time,” he says. “Of course, after the defamation, it’s hard to feel bad for them anymore.” The poisoning accusation came from roast chicken that had pink colouring in the leg meat.
While the customers wailed loudly in the dining room about undercooked chicken, Sills’s staff tried to explain that the young Four Whistle Farm chickens that Rostizado uses aren’t washed in bleach solutions – like your typical grocery store chicken – and will often retain colour in the meat, even when fully cooked. Despite assurances that the temperature of each of Rostizado’s chickens is measured to the core before service, the party would have none of it, and went on a reviewing rampage.
“The restaurant is trying to dispute my review on yelp……..that’s a winning restaurant saying that the picture shows a fully cooked rotisserie chicken, if that is true why does he want the picture removed? No apology for the waitress’s attitude, the smelly glass….. the gross drink, etc”
Vitriol aside, reviews and ratings of Rostizado following the incident remain overwhelmingly positive, and Sills notes that online interactions do help it become a better business. Rostizado recently adjusted its gordita recipe after a particularly thoughtful review from a guest.
“The person didn’t bend over backwards to praise us, but they also didn’t slam us. It was a very constructive, somewhat eloquent review,” says Sills. “They talked about the room and how they liked it, and the service and how they liked it. But they didn’t like this dish, the gorditas.” The reviewer noted specifically that the corn flour cakes were quite hard, and the pork belly’s texture was chewy. Sills and his team had a meeting, re-tasted the gorditas, and saw the reviewer’s point.
“For the most part, those subjective, average diner reviews, I welcome them. Sometimes it gives you an opportunity to improve or to right a wrong. But putting too much stock in them is kind of like taking tax advice from a tennis pro.”
Online reviews aren’t always a bad thing – even when they’re negative. North 53 owner Kevin Cam found that the public’s online response gave him a read on the pulse of the foodie community, and he altered his approach accordingly. He noticed that, despite national accolades – like making the shortlist for enRoute’s annual best new eateries in Canada – the high-end restaurant’s hyper-local tasting menu hadn’t hooked Edmonton diners, who were not always in the mood for a pricey, three-hour dining experience. That was evident in the social media response seen by the restaurant, like the following from a diner posting on Urbanspoon as HeavyD:
“I was hoping this place would be great but after a realllllllly long 4.5 hr dinner I won’t be back. We had the tasting menu and it had some highlights but mostly really cold and under seasoned food. If you go, be prepared for a long long night and a big big bill.”
“People want to come in, grab a few small plates and cocktails, then be on their way. So the new menu at North 53 is more along the lines of that,” says Cam, who launched the restaurant’s new concept last November to a thunderous, trending response on Twitter and Instagram. Along with a change in head of the kitchen to Three Boars‘ former chef Filliep Lament, the focus at the new North 53 is more playful, less fussy – and open late.
“The response has been spectacular. We’re getting more guests in through the doors because the menu is that much more accessible and more approachable.”
Though a good online review can help, it often quickly gets lost amidst the influx of other posts. By contrast, Cam notes that just a day after CBC’s Twyla Campbell came in for dinner and gave a glowing radio review, North 53 was slammed with walk-ins. “That’s huge for us, because basically word-of-mouth is the best marketing that a restaurant can get.”
“I like to think of myself as a people-pleaser, and for a while I avoided looking at reviews because I wouldn’t know how to handle not being able to please every single person,” says chef-owner Rosario Caputo of Cibo Bistro. “I used to take it very personally when someone would be comparing us to other restaurants or talking about how they didn’t have a great experience here.” (The other restaurant Cibo is most often compared to is Corso 32. Not too shabby.)
Since opening Cibo three years ago, Caputo has learned to take the online fodder in stride, harnessing the power of social media’s immediacy for online preemptive strikes.
“It allows people to see what we’re doing on a day-to-day basis, whether we’re curing our own meats or making fresh burrata cheese or showing a fresh, feature pasta. We can just post it on Twitter or Instagram or Facebook and our followers see it right away.”
A good strategy: Tweet about fresh-off-the-plane truffles and watch those foodies flock in.
“We get to entice our guests. It gives us a closer connection.”