This week the Golden Gate Restaurant Association held their 3rd annual Industry Conference, a two-day event including hot-button issues such as diversity and immigration; labor laws unique to the Bay Area; strategies to grow a business, and more.
OpenTable hosted a panel in which we brought together industry leaders to discuss ratings and reviews, and how both affect their restaurants’ performance. Chris Seidell, our Director of Analysis & Growth moderated a discussion with four esteemed San Francisco restaurateurs: Jay Bordeleau, owner of Maven and Mr.Tipple’s; Aaron London, owner of AL’s Place; Richie Nakano, partner of IDK Restaurant Group; and Scott Rodrick, Owner of M.Y. China. We learned a few things about the state of reviews today and took their pulse on how much those stars really do matter — more below.
Diners are choosing their restaurants based on peer-to-peer (not critic) reviews.
It’s no surprise that these days, diners look to their peers for restaurant recommendations. With so many channels for diners to discover restaurants, feedback (both the good and the bad) has never been easier to come by. Though still influential, publications’ critical reviews are no longer the main source of restaurant discovery for diners.
Before Bon Appetit named AL’s Place the Best New Restaurant in the country in 2015, Chef London was able to work on cultivating one-on-one relationships with his diners and take his time building those connections. After the announcement, the crowds started flocking:
“Overnight we became very busy, and and things were moving nonstop. We were so grateful for the rave reviews, but logistically, it was tough. It made it hard to focus on the food. It was great to be so busy, and it was also encouraging for the staff, but there was definitely a lot of pressure to keep up with the demand.” And sometimes big reviews come with big expectations: “Some people were expecting to come in and see angels flying on the ceiling, sprinkling amuse dust down on them.”
To avoid negative reviews, catch the diner before they leave the restaurant.
How to do that exactly? “Have eyes on everything. Focus on quality. Engage with diners one on one whenever you can,” says Nakano “If you see someone reading reviews and dish recommendations on their phone at the table, they’re probably going to be leaving a review later. Do your best to give them the best treatment you can.”
If you can’t catch them before they head out, don’t fret. The experience of the restaurant always has room for improvement after it’s over. “You have to engage with your guests online,” says Rodrick, “Whoever is responding needs to have a sincere voice that represents the voice of the restaurant.”
Additionally, use technology to aggregate reviews: “Look for trends and repeat keywords in negative reviews, and take action.” says Rodrick. Use sites like Keyhole, Mention, and BuzzSumo to track the blind spots you may have about your restaurant’s food and service.
Social media and photography go hand in hand with reviews.
Bordeleau summed up the general consensus from the panel that day: “They may be letting their food get cold, but they’re doing free marketing for your restaurant.”
In a separate panel from the day, we heard from Jason Alonzo of ‘Aina, a new Hawaiian eatery in Dogpatch. He even went so far as to make sure his restaurant was Instagram ready. “I initially wanted to do these light wood tables, but ultimately chose the darker wood because it allowed the plates [and food] to really stand out in pictures.”
There’s still plenty of opportunity to improve the process.
Chef London believes that more anonymous reviews would yield more accurate representations of the restaurant. When a known critic comes in to dine, things start to get a little unrealistic: “All of a sudden all of the tables around that critic are getting gifted foie gras.”
Nakano wishes that the reviews would be refreshed and/or removed after a certain time period: “Reviews from three years ago don’t represent the current state of the restaurant.”
The panelists also called for making it easier to close the loop on a diner’s review and ensure that they understand the restaurant heard their feedback and plans to something about it. Not all platforms allow for restaurants to see which diner made that comment about the mushy pasta or the server who never came back to check on them after dropping their menus. While OpenTable’s verified reviews let you see the diner’s information, including when and where they dined, that’s not always an option. When it’s not, restaurateurs have to act intuitively, making assumptions and reaching out to guests proactively to invite them back in for another visit — and a chance to make it right.