When’s the last time you went to a new restaurant in town without scoping out its online reviews first? Not the ones journalists write; those from your friends. Chances are you’ve written a few yourself.
These online reviews have become the bane of many a restaurateur’s existences. I get it. Running an Airbnb, I live and die by reviews, and wait anxiously to see how guests rate us after every stay at our property in Old Louisville. When it stresses me out, I thank my stars (pun intended) I’m not in the restaurant business, where it can be brutal.
Across the country, restaurant owners have gone to some lengths to deal with what they bill as unfair practices by websites like Yelp, and often bitter reviewers. My personal favorite is the pizzeria owner who decided if you can’t beat them join them, and started offering discounts to anyone who’d give him a one-star Yelp review.
Here in Louisville, some absolute train wrecks have played out on screens when online reviews go wrong, either from angry diners or equally livid restaurant staff. But instead of focusing on the bad, I was interested in how a couple of local places handle their reviews with a different spin.
And the prize for best karma has got to go to Lindsey Ofcacek. Formerly the general manager of 610 Magnolia, now its wine director as well as director of the LEE initiative, she started a great practice when she was at Decca, 812 E. Market St., and handled review response.
She realized she wasn’t typically writing reviews herself, and that was an a-ha moment for how she viewed review culture.
“When I see a negative review, it reminds me I can do something positive.”
So she started writing a useful review for another local small business every time she had to respond to a bad one. She tends to avoid Yelp, so often it’s “going on their Facebook page, and say, ‘Oh your staff is always smiling,’ or ‘You’re awesome, and I noticed, thank you.’”
On these (admittedly rare) occasions when 610 Magnolia gets a negative review, she views it as a chance to investigate what happened and to talk with staff about how they might use the feedback to make a needed change.
Anne Shadle, longtime manager of Mayan Cafe, 813 E. Market St., does the same. She responds to every single review on all of the major platforms, including Yelp and TripAdvisor.
“My thought is it’s a mirror for your business and if you have a weak point (customers are) going to talk about it,” she said. “Maybe you don’t want to hear that but you probably should. If one person says something negative about a dish, there are probably a dozen more who don’t use those sites which may feel the same thing.”
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While there will always be the people you can’t please (and I admit I had to roll my eyes at some of the “complaints” I saw on both these restaurants’ review pages), Shadle especially takes note of the four-star reviews.
“They will share positive things, and then one thing like it was too noisy in the dining room, and those are the things that I’m like, ‘That’s a critical piece of information,’ and I use it. To me, it’s my lifeline to the public.”
But not all restaurants are looking at or addressing their online reviews, Shadle said.
“They don’t want to hear the customers’ voices. They don’t want to hear the truth because they’re not trying to get better.”
Many online reviews are not meant as constructive criticism. And both pros I spoke with took (rightful) issue with that.
“I talk to every single customer,” Ofcacek said. “You can tell me, I asked. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth. If you had a bad experience and you want to change things, you should have the common decency to tell me to my face.”
So why not say something at the restaurant? Shadle chalks it up to the inability to handle conflict.
“Most people haven’t had that many opportunities to practice with conflict. … They don’t know how to have that conversation. This sort of thing allows them not to handle it in person. ‘Talking to someone’s face makes me nervous. I’m going to do it in a more cowardly way.’ If you want to be wanted the restaurant to resolve the issue, you will do it there,” she said.