Once upon a time, when managing your restaurant’s public persona, you had to consider professional journalists and people talking to one other. That was it! The local food critic and word of mouth. If you were lucky enough to be considered by The New York Times, Ruth Reichl would show up in elaborate disguises, to get a “real dining experience,” and back offices were plastered with her photo and the “faces” of the critics who came after. You found out after the fact. A fact-checker would call and you just had to hope you were on your game that night.
Now every restaurant everywhere has to worry about bad reviews. Take-out only pomme frites? Dog-friendly dive bar? Michelin-starred Thai fusion laboratory? It doesn’t matter; the word-of-mouth is now Yelped for the world to see. For better or worse, reviewing businesses has been democratized. And as much as it pains most business owners to admit, online reviews are an important tool. Good reviews do inspire people to try your business. But the flip side is bad reviews are even more likely to discourage people from giving you a shot.
Do we all wish there was a touch more accountability? Yes. Would it be nice if normal people jotted down a few choice words after a perfectly pleasant experience? Even more yes. But reviews tend to be from the very happy and from the very upset. The pandemic has only exacerbated this. People angry at literally everything are taking to the internet to blast already-struggling restaurants.
As the predator evolves, so does the prey. These days, at least, it’s getting easier to track your online review and handle your reputation management. A plethora of software companies have popped up to manage your top review sites. Services such as Reputation.com, Grade.us, Birdeye, and Podium offer “review sentiment analysis” — if you ever uploaded a photo to Hot or Not, you know this drill. Other services, such as Yext, offer “intelligent review response” that will help you head off disaster in case someone does traipse into your Tripadvisor or Google reviews to cause a scene. These services cost anywhere from $30 to $200 a month, and all of them will also help you get more reviews, for what that’s worth.
For now, though, let’s DIY this thing. Someone has wandered onto Facebook or Instagram or Yelp or Expedia to leave a piece of their mind about your restaurant for everyone to see, and it ain’t pretty. What now?
First off, don’t panic. Also, don’t freeze — yes, you should respond! Data have shown that when businesses reply to negative reviews, their average review score improves over time. Responses online, just as in real life, seem to change the temperature in the room and bring customers to the side of the business. Ultimately this is a chance for some solid restaurant marketing in action. So here are some tactics to consider as you roll up your sleeves to decide your next move.
When you toil to feed people and make them happy, it’s easy to get defensive at a snotty review. Find a way to vent that steam away from the keyboard. Then approach the reviewer with poise and serenity. Even if their complaint is, in your mind, unjustified, you know you have an unhappy customer on your hands. At least they did the courtesy of letting you know what went wrong (even if they also told the rest of humanity). In a sense, they’ve done you the favor of giving you a chance to put things right.
This may not be where your heart is, but it’s probably what the complainer (and other people reading the review) want to see. The customer is not always right, but for the sake of your business, let contrition be your guide. A simple “I’m so sorry you had a bad experience,” shaded with specific details about the event, may do the trick: “Terribly sorry you had to wait for your table — we know your time is valuable and strive to respect it.” You may be tempted to include an excuse. Don't.
So the second coming of Leo Tolstoy just left a thousand-word treatise under a one-star review. Don’t fall into the trap of addressing every grievance. “Terribly sorry you had to wait for your table — we know your time is valuable and strive to respect it,” shouldn’t turn into “Terribly sorry you had to wait for your table, people were sitting at their tables for a really long time after they finished their dessert and really at the end of the day, reservations are just guesses and it usually turns out fine but that night there were several people that just wouldn’t leave and you don’t want them to be unhappy cause we asked them to leave and we know your time is valuable and strive to respect it, but really, is it our fault? We did our best to seat you but again, it’s not a perfect science and were you really in a hurry? Cause you didn’t order for like 30 minutes after you sat down and that causes the back up, you know? And your food came out but then you ate really slowly!” Think short and sweet. Depending on the complaint, this may be the perfect time to move to the next step.
Get some privacy. Suggest they email the restaurant, or you personally, because you would love for them to come back and you can personally ensure their reservation is honored in a timely fashion. This doesn’t have to make them a permanent VIP, but a note in your reservation system can make sure everyone knows to keep an extra eye if they come back. The comp culture of pre-pandemic dining needed to be brought down a peg. But the game is still hospitality, and lots of people are happy when they feel special, comps or not. When a customer knows the owner or manager is directly involved, they will at the very least feel noticed.
Now, these tips all assume the reviewer is reasonable. If the review is absolutely absurd, most review platforms will let you flag it. The customer is not always right. Sometimes they need to be reminded that servers aren’t servants.
Depending on your brand, your clientele, and your humor, you might be able to get away with deploying a flamethrower. This is not recommended for most cases. In fact, straight up: Don’t do this. If you feel like maybe you should, don’t. But if you really want to…
This has to drip humor. Have a quippy bartender? Let them write it. The art to this is to dismiss the foundation of the complaint, make future customers laugh, and correct any absurdities. Think: “Sir, this is a Wendy’s.” Abandon earnestness. Do not flirt with nuance. As soon as you get defensive, it goes from funny to sad and sad is bad. Aim for “We didn’t seat you at 7pm ‘cause you showed up at 7:30, high as a kite, ½ those gummies next time, Cheech! k, thx.” For inspiration (or, let’s be honest, vicarious catharsis) check out some great restaurant clapbacks. Then be polite.
Whether you opt for keep-it-classy or burn-it-down, your approach should show you care about your work and about the people who keep you in business.