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Online review extortion scheme targets the restaurant industry at an unsteady time

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Brian Williams is the general manager at Terrapin.

Brian Williams is the general manager at Terrapin, a restaurant in Virginia Beach. He said he tries not to read restaurant reviews too often and addresses any questions that come up about once a month. Paul Bibeau

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Kim Alter owns the restaurant Nightbird in San Francisco. One morning in July, she checked her email and found a polite extortion demand. The message said: “We’ve already put one-star reviews up and we will continue to do so until you pay us. We’re really sorry. We know this is illegal. Thank you.”

The scammers said they wanted $75 in gift cards.

Alter posted about the threat online. Other restaurants that had received similar threats responded quickly, she said. She found that restaurants from New York, Chicago and places in Texas were also targeted.

Emily Williams Knight, president and CEO of the Texas Restaurant Association, said blackmailers hit dozens of restaurants in Houston alone.

“Houston seemed to, from our perspective, get hit first and the hardest,” she said.

She said her organization worked with the victims to kill the sham reviews, but it took days to get them taken down and, in the meantime, more popped up.

Review extortion isn’t new to the hospitality industry. Industry blogs have discussed the phenomenon for years. But this particular scam comes at a touchy time for the restaurant industry with inflation squeezing profits and high staff turnover.

“If you’re a manager, you’re continually hiring people to replace the people who are quitting, because they could find higher paying jobs elsewhere,” said Bob McNab, an economist at Old Dominion University.

Short staffing could mean longer wait times, colder mozzarella sticks and more bad reviews.

Big chains had media budgets to tell their own stories and the influence necessary to get fake reviews removed, McNab said. But the situation is much more tenuous for mom-and-pop establishments.

“It’s a David versus Goliath problem,” he said. “Except you’re David without any stones.”

Brian Williams, general manager of Terrapin Restaurant in Virginia Beach, feels the pressure in the industry right now as much as anyone.

Just before a Friday dinner rush, he walked past the kitchen and through the dining area as staff swept and chopped onions. He ticked off challenges and possible disasters: Supply chain snags could deprive him of just the right wine. A Wi-Fi crash could kill his credit card machine.

The latest online review scheme did not target Terrapin, but Williams said he had his share of shady reviews.

“That hasn’t happened in quite a few years,” he said. “But it does happen.”

As he talked about the power of reviews, Williams sounded bit like an anxious playwright dealing with critics after opening night.

“I try not to read them too often,” he said. “I try to go back and read through them. And, you know, I feel like you can get caught up in those things a little too much, and that kind of takes away from running the restaurant.”

Williams said he tries to address the reviews about once a month. He focuses on the long-term quality of his restaurant and tries not to obsess. But he has a message for customers:

“We’d rather fix it right then and there,” he said. “Make it right and have you leave happy.”

When he goes home, Williams said he tries to unplug from the pressures of managing a restaurant during all the disruptions that have come with the pandemic.

“I do some woodworking,” he said. “I have a garden, that’s my kind of quiet time because I problem-solve all day here really.”

He listens to music. And he does not look at his phone.

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