In a monthly series, menu trend analyst Nancy Kruse and NRN senior food editor Bret Thorn debate current trends in the restaurant industry. For this installment, they debate the merit of online reviews.
The dark side of online restaurant reviews
Kruse Company president Nancy Kruse says the new ReviewerCard institutionalizes outrageous customer behavior.
Bret, if I hadn’t known better, I’d have sworn that I was watching a Saturday Night Live parody. But in fact it was the real YouTube promotional pitch for the new ReviewerCard, a credit-card-like piece of black plastic that states “I Write Reviews.” The video suggests that simply by brandishing this card, which vaguely resembles American Express’ super-premium black Centurion card, its holders receive all kinds of free stuff. The restaurateur in the video, after actually kissing the hand of the card bearer, comps the entire meal. The diner earnestly assures us that it’s because the restaurateur “knew the power I had.” No, I’m not making this up.
ReviewerCard is the brainchild of a California entrepreneur who suffered what he perceived as mistreatment at the hands of — wait for it — a rude French waiter. Had the waiter only known that said diner happens to write lots and lots of reviews he’d have been “treated like Brad Pitt.” Seriously? To right this wrong and save himself from future humiliation, he invented the card. And he’s made it available to other frequent reviewers whom he feels deserve their own ReviewerCards with their promise of “A-list service” and all kinds of extortionate goodies. The tagline for the card is “Empowering Reviewers/Protecting Businesses.” With protection like this, who needs enemies?
I’m teetering between amusement and horror as I write this, Bret. Clearly we’re looking at the dark side of the whole citizen-reviewer craze that the dining digerati have embraced with both arms. There have been consistent complaints about self-important Yelpers making vague threats or satisfying personal grudges, and this card institutionalizes such egregious behavior. Don’t misunderstand me: I believe that at their best, online reviewers provide truly useful information to both fellow patrons and restaurant operators. But at their worst — and surely this must qualify as the worst — they embody a staggeringly misguided sense of entitlement.
This brings me to the question that I’d like to pose to you. I know that you’ve been a professional restaurant reviewer, which some view as an endangered species facing preemption by legions of regular folks armed with smartphones. Do you agree? Or do you think there is still a place in a wired world for expert food commentators, with or without a little black card?
Bret Thorn's response
The difference between amateur reviewers and professionals
The following is NRN senior food editor Bret Thorn’s response to Kruse Company president Nancy Kruse’s take on restaurant reviewer cards.
Nancy, a professional critic, ideally, is a consumer advocate whose responsibility is to let readers know what to expect from a restaurant. That requires actual investigative journalism — going into a restaurant, trying the food, observing the service and decor, noting what might please or irk his or her audience. To do that, you have to be treated like any other customer. Currying favor is antithetical to a fair review and is a disservice not only to the restaurant but, more importantly from the critic’s perspective, to the restaurant’s customers.
Declaring in a restaurant that you write reviews is basically telling the staff that you’re not a professional critic, but a loudmouth blowhard. Decent front-of-the-house workers will see you coming from a mile away anyway. Showing them a card just saves them the trouble of using their natural powers of observation.
Difficult customers no doubt have been around for longer than currency has been exchanged for goods and services. Yelp or no Yelp, dissatisfied diners have always shared their opinions with everyone they know, and restaurateurs disregard the opinions of their guests at their peril. That has always been the case.
But loudmouth blowhards’ money is just as green as anybody else’s. A restaurateur’s job is to make those blowhards’ experience enjoyable. If that means fawning over them, complimenting their good looks and expressing awe at their ability to type on a device that can be connected to the Internet, then so be it. Should those people get free meals? Absolutely not. But if a glass of wine or a cookie will make them feel special, then that’s a small price to pay.
To answer your question about whether the voices of professional reviewers will be drowned out by the shouting masses: I seriously doubt it. I doubt it more now than I did two or three years ago, when all of this social media stuff was much more murky to me than it is now. The sorts of customers who read random online reviews — and the last data I saw indicated that it’s a small minority — have figured out how to distinguish the rants of ignorant people, or those with grudges, or those with the delusion that they are clever writers, from thoughtful observers with intelligent things to say about the restaurants where they’ve eaten.
I believe professional critics will continue to have their place, and I hope they’ll be joined by thoughtful amateurs who blog and comment with ingenuity and integrity.
Nancy Kruse, president of the Kruse Company, is a menu trends analyst based in Atlanta and a regular contributor to Nation’s Restaurant News. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.