Some Restaurants Embrace Bloggers While Others Fear the Snark

Posted on October 17, 2007

The Wall Street Journal had an interesting article last week about food bloggers and social sites like Yelp.com where people can post reviews of restaurants and local business. The WSJ said some restaurants were feeding bloggers for free. Some restaurant owners also took matters into their own hands and simply wrote positive reviews of their own restaurants under fake names.
As online food sites become increasingly influential in the restaurant business, chefs and owners are plying bloggers with free meals to get good write-ups. Some are also posting favorable reviews about themselves on popular Web sites or becoming Internet scribes.

Among those using the tactics are some of the biggest names in the business. Terrance Brennan, co-owner and chef of New York's Artisanal Bistro and Picholine, hosted a cheese class for bloggers last year, waiving the usual $75-a-person fee. Bill Telepan, chef and co-owner of Telepan in New York, donated a $200, four-course meal to one influential blogger's online contest. And in Washington, the Park Hyatt's Blue Duck Tavern says it invited a customer back for a free Father's Day meal after she posted a negative comment on the Washington Post's Web site. (In a follow-up post, the diner wrote, "We will definitely return to Blue Duck Tavern," not mentioning that she had been invited free.)
Chefs at some restaurants are finding it beneficial to have bloggers give feedback on dishes.
Chefs say there's another upside to getting chummy with bloggers: advice on improving the food. In San Francisco, Chef Robbie Lewis of Bacar restaurant says he considers Ms. Gagliardi, of Tablehopper, "a friend" at this point. After hosting her at a "friends and family dinner" -- a meal to try out new dishes on close associates about a month after starting as the executive chef at the restaurant -- Mr. Lewis took her advice. He changed the way he plated a roasted baby leek dish, so it was easier for diners to get a taste of poached egg and sauce with each bite.

"I can't get feedback from other critics before publication," says Mr. Lewis. Ms. Gagliardi didn't write a subsequent review, but frequently mentions events at Bacar on her site.

It's relatively easy for restaurants to ingratiate themselves to key food bloggers. Publicists across the industry say they now include bloggers and food Web site forum hosts on their media lists, and regularly invite them to opening parties, free meals and other events.
What helps some restaurants may be too much for smaller establishments and cafes to handle. Screenwerk blogs that a cafe in Oakland, California called Rooz Cafe does not appreciate "Yelpers" - reviewers from the Yelp.com website and has posted a sign that says "No Yelpers."
What I was told, in a nutshell, is that the caf´┐Ż staff has encountered a stream of would-be critics "with attitude," predisposed to take issue with or be critical of the business. Whether or not this is a correct perception, there are many more outlets (Yelp being only one) for customers and consumers to voice opinions about businesses on the Internet. And there's little most of these businesses can do about it, for better or for worse.

The staff said to me rhetorically, "If you've got a problem with something, you should tell us first rather than going online and posting." They also expressed the view that amateur reviewers, in this case from Yelp, were not making distinctions between local coffee houses and large corporate outlets like Starbucks. They were, the cafe staff argued, being "snarky" for entertainment reasons or to impress the Yelp community but not being respectful or mindful of the potential impact their reviews might have on a small businesses.
The reviews for Rooz can be found here and they seem to only be increasing thanks to the "No Yelpers" sign. There's even a couple Soup Nazi references in there. The cafe actually has four out of five stars after 226 reviews. That's pretty good but it's those isolated snarky ones Rooz doesn't like.