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A food critic’s power in the Internet age

Sam Harnett Jan 6, 2015
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A food critic’s power in the Internet age

Sam Harnett Jan 6, 2015
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Local restaurant reviewer Leslie Brenner has ruffled the feathers of a chef and some restaurateurs in Dallas. She’s been attacked on Twitter and Facebook, and some restaurants are not cooperating for reviews.

In an era of online reviews and food bloggers, does it really matter what one critic writes in a newspaper? More than you might think.  The Internet has changed how reviews impact the business of restaurants and how professional critics do their jobs.

A great place to see that transformation is at the crossroads of tech and dining in San Francisco.

Matt Straus has a classic restaurant story. He started at a local McDonald’s and worked his way into San Francisco’s fine dining scene. After 23 years, he finally opened his own place, The Heirloom Café. Then a year later, it happened: the bad review.

If you’ve seen the movie “Chef,” where Jon Favreau makes mincemeat out of a critic, you are familiar with the fantasy response to getting panned.

What went down in real life with Matt Straus was much less funny, and far more depressing. 

Straus thought he would be ruined. “It was though somebody had announced that we were the ‘Emperor with no clothes,’” he says. “It was devastating.” 

But, instead of going out of business, Straus actually saw a bump in business when his regular customers came out to support him. “Many of them came up to me and said, ‘Wow, that was a crazy review,'” Straus says.

The Heirloom Café was already regarded as a restaurant worth visiting. It had some good write-ups and positive comments from diners on sites like OpenTable. Plus, it had a four out of five-star rating on Yelp. Online reviews affect business more than a critic’s opinion, Mat Schuster, who co-owns Canela Bistro Bar, a Spanish restaurant in San Francisco.

Yelp reviews are one of the most popular ways new customers discover his restaurant, Schuster says. He takes his Yelp ratings so seriously he uses them to reward his staff. The ratings determine bonuses for managers and the sous chef, and if servers are mentioned in a five-star review, Schuster says he gives them a $25 gift card.

Studies at UC Berkeley and Harvard University show that increasing the average Yelp rating by even half a star can have a big impact on business. 

But old-style critics still matter. Heather Irwin, a food writer and blogger in California wine country, says a review in a local paper can put a new restaurant on the map before online ratings accumulate. Plus, it makes a nice trophy. “Even though it might sound a little old fashion,” Irwin says, “the restaurants really like to have that plaque with the restaurant review from the newspaper posted in their lobby.” 

If a review does not go a restaurant’s way, it’s another story. Brenner, the dining critic at the Dallas Morning News, managed to make a chef and local restaurateurs so furious that they are trying to compromise the integrity of  her reviews by refusing to let her pay. Why? Because, Brenner says, “they’re not happy with the star-rating system.” 

The newspaper has used the same star system for decades but that may soon change, Brenner says, as food critics adapt to compete with with the abundant and alluring food coverage online — the host of blogs that can feature sexy photos of artisanal cocktails, chi-chi barbecue and celebrity chefs. 

Some reviewers, like Brenner, are even giving up their sacred anonymity. Critics used to hide their identities so they could secretly review restaurants. That is harder to pull off these days with social media and smartphones. 

There is an upside having a more public persona – it gives critics an opportunity to build their own star power. 

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