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What's the Cost of a Bad Restaurant Review?

Anonymous reviews on sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor can make or break a business. Some chefs, like Alfredo Fischioni of That's Amore, refuse to suffer criticism in silence.

“Any news is good news and there is no such thing as bad press.”

I’m speaking with Fred Kellermann, chef-owner of Elements Café in Haddon Heights. The topic is social media; specifically, customer-driven review sites such as Yelp and Trip Advisor.

If you’re unfamiliar, Yelp.com is a darn useful web directory service that can help you find a nearby business of any kind by proximity, address, phone number, and user review. TripAdvisor is similar, but provides a narrower focus from a traveler’s perspective.

Yelp also offers users the ability to rate a business between one star (poor) and five (exceptional) as well as to provide written comments.

In the restaurant industry, where written reviews and word-of-mouth recommendations are necessary evils, putting this power into such a concentrated—and anonymous—form has literally life-changing consequences.

Yelp has a filter that suppresses a small portion of reviews it analyzes as suspicious, but it can be circumvented with enough desire. The Internet is full of trolls, and someone with an agenda, even a direct competitor, can use it to draw blood.

'I used to care a lot'

I asked Kellermann, a vocal and visible chef-owner in the area whose own Elements Café was established before sites like Yelp and Trip Advisor, if web reviews affect his business.

“As an individual, I used to care a lot,” Kellermann told me in an e-mail. “But about a year to a year-and-a-half ago, I had a run-in with a customer that wasn’t even mine over an online review, and decided to not care anymore.

“If a customer doesn’t respect me enough to tell my server or myself that there is/was a problem, I don’t have any respect for them after they have written something online,” he wrote.

“Two years ago I would have fought tooth and nail. Today I would just ignore it.”

It's important to note that sites like Yelp weren’t designed to be used as weapons. Getting users to interact with your business online is a big piece of what drives it, and most content isn’t malicious. 

But even as Internet commenting has become more sophisticated, sites must monitor closely their content or risk losing credibility. Yelp says its filtering services are “not a perfect system,” and that legitimate reviews can be lost. 

Shouldn't we be able by now to determine whether a review is legitimate or trolling?

Negativity affects the bottom line

Until we can answer that question, the stakes have risen noticeably. Petty grievances and personal vendettas aired in the cloak of Internet anonymity might have all the lasting importance of a schoolyard rock fight, but in the grand scheme of things, small complaints can cost businesses big bucks.

According to a study conducted by two Berkeley economists, a simple half-star improvement on Yelp makes it 30-49 percent more likely that a restaurant will sell out its evening seats. In an industry where failure is guaranteed within three years for over 50% of restaurants, you’d better believe hitting capacity on a nightly basis is the difference between sinking and swiming.

When petty complaints hit you in the pocketbook, suddenly that schoolyard rock fight becomes a nuclear war. Recently, a Virginia woman was hit with a $750,000 SLAPP suit and ordered to alter a negative Yelp review of a contractor when her criticism proved false.

But for business owners who don’t want to involve the courts or look the other way, there’s always the option of taking matters into their own hands.

'Yelp accused me of posting my own articles'

When Alfredo Fischioni, chef-owner of That’s Amore in Collingswood, takes issue with TripAdvisor user complaints, he’ll reply in detail, often tongue-in-cheek, and with vigor. And he detests Yelp.

“Yelp accused me of posting my own articles,” he said. “To me it seems to be a bunch of unemployed people using Yelp. I never read them.”

Although he denies inventing user reviews of his restaurant, Fischioni does acknowledge some bitterness from the accusations. His name, or some form of it, also appears in a number of angry comments on Collingswood Patch, including on my review of his restaurant.

Fischioni also denies that he wrote these remarks, and said he can’t imagine why someone would pose as him online. He did not, however, deny responding to users’ complaints on TripAdvisor. These he wrote because he felt the need to defend himself and the reputation of his business.

It is worthwhile, however, to note that Chef Fischioni’s own review of his restaurant is the sole entry to have been removed from the Yelp page for That’s Amore. Another 67 reviews of his restaurant have been filtered by the system (i.e., tagged as “suspicious”); the site has allowed 22 to stand.

That’s a ratio noticeably skewed in the Collingswood restaurant scene, where most Yelp reviews exceed the number of those filtered (the lone exception is Little Louie’s BBQ, which has 21 reviews on Yelp versus 54 filtered).

In addition, That’s Amore reviews on TripAdvisor have skyrocketed since the virtual dustup between Fischioni and his detractors, with 13 positive reviews coming in less than a week after the negative posts. By comparison, it took 14 months for That’s Amore to receive 105 total reviews on the site. That’s an increase of 642%.

Does this mean something fishy is happening; that someone is planting artificial reviews to counterbalance the negativity?

Not necessarily. Yelp’s filtration system is flawed, and there’s nothing necessarily bizarre about community members jumping into the fray to defend a local business (or its owner) when the integrity of either is questioned. In my time at Patch, I’ve written exactly two negative articles reflecting poor experiences, and both were met with such backlash that the comment feeds had to be shut down. That speaks volumes.

But as Kellermann said, “Any news is good news and there is no such thing as bad press.”

Right? 

Michael Bruce Florist December 14, 2012 at 12:31 PM
At a busy restaurant my companion and I were seated in the back away from the line of view. 20 mins. later without further contact (our pre-chilled wine had turned warm) I dialed the restaurants main number and politely/nicely explained my situation, stressing I only wanted to be recognized by a waiter and remain a customer. After lodging the complaint, we had a wonderful meal and had great conversation with the owner, whose company we enjoyed at length. Great time, great night, win-win! There is a saying, "We don't see the world as it is, we see it as we are." I have always said that all of America should work retail (I consider a waiter as working "retail," too) for one week and our collective retail experience would improve immeasurably (walk a mile in my shoes) Here's to the service industry!
davidbdale December 14, 2012 at 01:09 PM
Dear Mr. Valiante. With all due respect, if you want to accuse someone of something, do it directly. After legitimately naming two denials made by Mr. Fischioni, you can't resist adding a third, completely manipulative denial: "He did not, however, deny responding to users’ complaints on TripAdvisor." What is the purpose of phrasing your claim this way? It's the equivalent of saying: "He does not deny answering his own phone." Several other ways your remarks are flavored with accusation; this is just the most obvious. Decide if you're a journalist reporting objectively on a trend, an editorialist with a clearly named position, or a restaurant reviewer. The awkward blend you're offering here is a bad meal that could cost you a star on Yelp. If I were Mr. Fischioni, I'd be furious.
David Valiante December 14, 2012 at 01:21 PM
I'm sorry your interpretation is that I was making accusations. I heard two sides of a story, spoke to both sides, and reported accordingly. I spoke to Mr. Fischioni and he couldn't have been more cooperative.
Porterincollingswood December 14, 2012 at 01:37 PM
Online customer ratings of restaurants have become useless. You don't know anything about the people posting - their tastes, motives, or their expectations when they dined there. That last one is the most important - remember with Knight's Bistro and the people who walked in expecting it to be upscale because the name? Despite all evidence to the contrary? Guess what...they were disappointed and trashed the place online. Essentially, the ripped the establishment because they made a mistake and didn't read the menu prior to entering. To me, as a prospective diner, those opinions have zero value. I only use Yelp or TA when I'm somewhere I don't know, and then I don't bother with the 1-star and 5-star reviews. Those are likely not credible.
Tom December 14, 2012 at 01:47 PM
Yelp is a joke but a serious one for small business. If I had to rate Yelp overall I would give it one star. It is wrought with people without a life and no understanding of common decency or business for that matter. That's followed by ethically challenged competitors and just plain mean people. The people with an axe to grind are not putting another business out of business but helping hard working employees look for employment elsewhere. That's good karma wouldn't you say?
Jasomm December 14, 2012 at 01:55 PM
I've been to every Italian place in Collingswood (except Zepoli) multiple times, And Thats Amore is easily my favorite. For what ever one opinion is worth... PS to Alfredo: Sorry for the bad luck, but please do something about the awning and wall. You are the landmark corner of the town, and keeping things maintained helps the whole town's image.
Jamie Blanchard December 14, 2012 at 02:10 PM
The thing about data is that it can be manipulated to tell many stories. Because a study group of businesses in a different area revealed some data is no surprise. Understand that's just one study. Were you to base your own business's lack of good ratings on yelp using that study as justification for a a crusade against sites like that well I'm not sure where to even really start other than: take a breath. Were it me I would evaluate if these claims are true with an honest evaluation of myself based upon factor not under any control of mine. To me I find that owners don't like hearing negative responses to their work and that's understandable because I don't either. Then again if someone points out that I'm false and I am; that's fine. If every owner thinks everyone is going to like their food that's going to be so detrimental to you. Also have you ever heard of this... don't argue with a crazy person because you won't be able to tell which one is the crazy one? The best response on yelp/anywhere digitally is to say either "thanks we'll look into it", "thanks for the praise", or to say nothing at all and don't try to be snarky. You can't control that conversation and if you engage in it people will come out in full force against you. Additionally people who see you doing that is even worse of a situation to be in. For example this: What's up with the yelp users are unemployed statement?
Tracy December 14, 2012 at 02:41 PM
I have to agree, the reviews on these sites are so "all-over the place" that I just don't care. I ask my friends, whose opinion I trust. Sidebar to all of this...I once read an interview with a well-known Philadelphia restauranteur. I think it was Georges Perrier, but I am not certain. Anyway...his point was that when he dines out, the first thing that he does is to go into the men's room to see the cleanliness of the room. He judges that if the men's room is a mess, likely the kitchen is too. So, I have applied this to many of Collingswood's restaurants and sad to say, most fail badly. Can we actually get the owners to walk into (on a daily and repeated basis) their own toilet facilities that the public sees EVERY DAY and decide if the conditions are up to par (and would they accept those conditions if they were dining out in someone else's restaurant)? Let's raise the bar a little bit, please.
Matt Skoufalos (Editor) December 14, 2012 at 05:00 PM
I find that the same thing happens to me sometimes on reviews of unknown or unfamiliar products on Amazon, porter. For example, earlier this year, I couldn't for the life of me find a suitable review that would let me understand a couple of physical details about any of several varieties of iPad covers (I was looking for something that was sort of rugged and had a keyboard) and ended up buying something I wasn't happy with. If I had been in a store, I could have handled a few of them and made more of a tactile impression. The most frustrating thing about it was that not being able to physically "experience" the product made me reliant, to more than a comfortable degree, upon product reviews of anonymous folks who may or may not be sock-puppeting for a corporation or marketing group. The thing that was most annoying was how much time I allowed that analysis to take, and how even after all of it, I still bought the wrong damned thing. I grant that meals are far more subjective and sometimes even more personal thing for some folks, so I can't imagine feeling this way about a dining-out experience where you can't really send the purchase back.
Matt Skoufalos (Editor) December 14, 2012 at 05:10 PM
David, I'll wear some of that as the editor of this piece as well. I can see your perspective, but I will add that from the comments on some of these sites and ours, Mr. Fischioni has an electronic paper trail that could benefit from the opportunity of some explanation, especially when he takes responsibility for some of the comments that bear his name and not others. I disagree, however, with your idea that David's reporting here cannot be both objective and yielding a perspective. Objectivity does not mean that you look at the details of your reporting and don't make a conclusion; it means that you present the information you gather in a balanced way and offer opportunity for fair comment from your sources. I've no doubt that if Mr. Fischioni were furious he would be perfectly capable of saying so.
ABE KARETNY December 15, 2012 at 01:34 AM
Speaking on behalf of Little Louies.. I agree with the above people.. Yelp is for the most part a joke.. There were several blatant lies told in reviews and untruths that at one point Gerald, the owner, signed up an account just to call these people out.. Like Chef Kellerman said, after a while it was not even worth the time to combat these stories people make up... One woman in particular claimed to have been charged an arm and a leg and called the 16oz soda a rip off for her kids (even though it is free refills and Gerald was gracious enough to allow this woman to bring in chicken mcnuggets for her kids to eat there.. She was in general mad because she had a groupon and wanted to use it for take out, which is clearly stated that it was not an option.. She failed to mention any of this in her "review" but touted a phony total of her bill which was not even close to reality. Its kind of a passive aggressive way to tell a restaurant how your experience is.. Ask to speak to a manager/owner.. Offer constructive criticism....
Mark Infantado December 15, 2012 at 02:32 PM
Abe, Casona had a guy create an account on Yelp to give us a 1 star bad review because we wouldn't let him use "two" coupons at the same table. The coupon clearly states "one per table." His review stated "don't try and use a coupon on a Saturday night." When you try to comment as the owner of the establishment on Yelp it must be reviewed by their team before it's posted. I've never been able to post a comment on a bad review. .
gary farriongton December 15, 2012 at 06:05 PM
TA has what are know as Destination Experts, so you would think they may live in the area or stay many months at a time, I know DE's that come to Myrtle Beach once a year and always in the winter only and that makes them an Expert how? I have many cases showing that TA reviews are a fraud and that they remove any negative post's about the way they operate or make mention of what to watch out for, off the site. And just because a reviewer has made many posts does not mean they are leigt, there are a few Companies out there that promote they will supply a business with good reviews from established reviewers for a price.
Mark December 15, 2012 at 09:54 PM
Mad because your an unemployed yelper?
Bob December 18, 2012 at 03:43 AM
I am not surprised that Mr. Fischioni dislikes Yelp but has nothing negative to say about Trip Advisor considering Yelp (which does have a filter to weed out fake reviews) rates That's Amore as # 8 relative to other Collingswood restaurants and Trip Advisor (which apparently does not have any mechanism to filter out fake "one and done" reviews) rates That's Amore as # 1 relative to other Collingswood restaurants.

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