The Democratization of Criticism

Back in the old days, there were two public voices of food criticism in Washington. She was Phyllis Richman of the Post and he was Robert Shoffner of the Washingtonian.

Shoffner immersed himself in Washington’s culinary history and wrote with real knowledge about our traditions and development.

Richman first wrote a food column for the Baltimore Jewish Times, then a restaurant column for the Washington Star, then for the Washingtonian and starting in 1976 for the Post.

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Richman was a pioneer of newspaper food criticism in America, of the generation of Craig Claiborne at the New York Times, Lois Dwan who wrote over three decades for the Los Angeles Times, and others.

Richman had a demanding role; much was expected of her and after a few years at the Post she had three jobs: Food editor, restaurant critic, and syndicated columnist.

What made her job particularly difficult, it seemed to me, was that before the era in which she and others were writing, food criticism had been thought of as “woman’s work.” But Richman considered herself – and was in fact a journalist. She was boxed in, however.   When, as she says, “Food was just food and family, it was acceptable for women to write about it. But when it became money and glamor, then it was men’s work.”

As true as that is, Richman’s voice became more powerful in the Washington food scene’s than anyone else’s had been. Many times I saw the reactions of restaurateurs who realized that she was sitting at one of their tables. They knew how powerful a review from her could be. Her review of Marvelous Market on a Sunday in October, 1990 brought 250 people to a line outside our door. The police came to see what was happening and busses paused to see the sight.

No one will ever be that powerful again.

From 1983 to 1988 Tom Sietsema, then a college student, was her assistant before he moved to Milwaukee to be food editor of the Journal, then to the San Francisco Chronicle to write about food, then to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer to write about food.  He returned to Washington in 2000.

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The demands now made on Sietsema are greater even than those that were made on Richman. He is of course first our restaurant critic and writes a restaurant review for the Post Magazine every week. As well he previews new restaurants in the Post’s Wednesday food section, writes periodic stories for the front section, hosts a weekly on-line chat, and wrote post cards from the road once a month that have now been replaced by major stories on the food scenes in other cities.

Yet in spite of it all he is far from being the only food voice in Washington. There is David Hagedorn of who writes for D.C. Modern Luxury and the Wall Street Journal, Don Rockwell who hosts a popular Web site, Tim Carmen of the Post, Todd Kliman and others at the Washingtonian Magazine, Prince of Petworth, Bright Young Thing, and occasionally Warren Rojas of Roll Call.

And above all – Zagat, the little red book (not to be confused with the sayings of Mao Tse-tung).

In 1978 I was working for the Boston Police Department and one evening Barney Frank, then in the state legislature, told me that our mutual friend from the National Student Association, Tim Zagat was going to create a restaurant guide.

Zagat during our student years had talked about ways of empowering consumers, aggregating them so that their opinions about many consumer goods could have more powerful effects. He had dreamed of rating restaurants, films and stores, airlines and others.

I was then an avid home cook and Craig Claiborne reader, a believer in expertise, and I said to Barney, “That’s an awful idea.   You don’t become a restaurant critic just by eating out.”

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Wow was I wrong! That is exactly what happened. People became critics. The little red book was successful in city after city. Hundreds of thousands of people bought it, responded to its surveys, and relied on it.

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But what empowered consumers even more was, of course, the Internet that gave a forum to everyone, anyone, and a forum of irresistible immediacy.

There are many, many professional Web sites like Eater.com and offshoots of publications like the Web sites of the Post and the Washingtonian. There are wonderful food sites like Serious Eats, personal Web sites, travel sites like Trip Advisor. And then – of course – there is Yelp.

Yelp is in a category of its own, getting 135 million visitors monthly who want to know about hair salons and dry cleaners. (Under the category “Best Prisons” the D.C. Jail gets one and half stars.)

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Even though it carries consumer ratings to great extremes, Yelp, it is said, has great power. A Harvard Business School study argued that a change in the number of stars given to a business affects its business volume by five to seven percent.

How can it be then that virtually no restaurateur – even those with the thinnest of skins – pays any attention whatever to Yelp. Most don’t bother to look at it.

Some have had bad experiences.   Some Yelpers, restaurant owners believe, use the threat of bad reviews to get favors. Some restaurateurs have been publically critical, even rebellious about Yelp. But most just ignore it.

One colleague told me, “I check Open Table almost hourly and check Trip Advisor at least weekly. I don’t regularly check Yelp as I can’t stand the pukes that actually “review” restaurants…”

Another:   “I don’t pay much attention to Yelp. Yelp is for people who have never stepped foot in a restaurant and yet they write about it. If someone walks into the restaurant and can’t get a table, they rate you zero.”

Some believe that Yelp biases its reviews based on who advertises on its site and who doesn’t. One said, “I really never looked at Yelp because it is falsified by competitors and by restaurants themselves who pay people to write good reviews for them. Plus if you do advertise with them they will keep the reviews with five stars stay on.”

Yelp vice president of corporate communications, Vince Solitto, firmly denied to public radio the accusations of extortion:   “…there is no amount of money that anyone can pay to manipulate Yelp reviews or move their placement. Yelp reviews are written by real consumers about real businesses, and they serve as a helpful resource for more than 50 million consumers each month.”

I believe that is true. Yet Yelp called me the other day. That’s not unusual. The company calls restaurateurs all the time to solicit advertising. This time I made notes during the call:

“Eun is not here,” I said, “she went to a meeting. This is Mark Furstenberg. May I help you?”

“I called to go over your options for advertising.”

“I’m sorry. We don’t advertise.”

“Well Eun said that she was interested and I want to discuss the various options.”

“No,” I said, “I don’t think Eun told you that. I appreciate your calling but we aren’t interested in advertising.”

“Why not?”
“We just don’t do it.”

“So you don’t want to build your business and do better in the winter months because you could if you advertise.” We have many programs…” On and on.

“Thank you for calling but we’re not going to advertise.”

“You realize Yelp is giving you a lot of free advertising by reporting what your customers say about you. And in the last week alone we have given location information and directions to 68 people.”

“And I appreciate that but we are not going to advertise.”

“You don’t want to be on Yelp?”

“Are you telling me that if we don’t advertise we’ll drop off Yelp”?

“We’re giving you a lot of free advertising by letting people see who you are and where you are.”

“And I appreciate that. But I just don’t advertise. I haven’t ever advertised.”

“Are you saying that you don’t want to be on Yelp”?

“Again, you’re telling me that if we don’t advertise you’re going to drop us from Yelp?”

“I don’t even know who you are. I called to speak to Eun.”

“Then you ought to do some homework before calling.   Now, I want to get off the phone and go back to work.”

He hung up.

I was almost from birth a sucker for the hard sell. I bought atomic rings advertised on the radio.  I saved cereal boxtops to get secret codes advertised on radio.  I remember listening on the radio to the creator of Charles Antell Formula No. 9, also the creator of the thirty-minute commercial. He pitched lanolin, “Did you ever see a bald sheep?”

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I dutifully sent my money through the mail although I can’t imagine now why in 1949, at the age of eleven, I was concerned about baldness.

Perhaps that is why since the age of eleven the hard sell has been unpleasant to me and I always rebeI against it. But perhaps it is effective for Yelp whose its name alone is unpleasant to me although it certainly does justify the hard sell.

But I have other issues to raise in this essay.

If chefs and restaurateurs don’t respect Yelp where do we get our information about our customers’ experiences? Those who use Open Table, the service that allows diners to reserve tables on its on-line site and also carries reviews, is respected. “These are the people who actually dine here,” a friend said to me, “They are sharing their experiences.”

Many of my colleagues pay attention to Trip Advisor. For all of us, what are most powerful are oral comments, letters and emails.   When a customer bothers to complain about food or service I – and I think everyone else in the food business – pay attention. We know that it takes a certain amount of courage to complain directly and in person. We know that it takes a certain amount of industry to write a letter, even an email. And we learn from complaints.

Our responses to them depend on how thin-skinned we are and how firmly we feel about the issue being complained about. I mean that if a customers says to me that our coffee is not hot enough when it’s served, I want to know that and correct it. If they say that they don’t like our coffee I pay attention to the number of people who say that. If they say that our coffee is too strong, I am interested but believe I should be the final voice.

There are now so many voices and if food criticism has been democratized it has also become amateurized. That is not a bad thing but it means I must rely on my own taste.   If I try to respond to every customer complaint by making changes I get lost. I hope that doesn’t sound arrogant but truthfully if I didn’t trust my taste I would not make foods.

It is nonetheless a good thing that customers have so many ways to express their opinions.   It is really wonderful that customers are paying so much attention to what they eat and are so knowledgeable about food and interested in it. But because the Internet has increased so much the volume of customer comments we who make food have to be selective about which media we pay attention to.

Nearly all my friends in the food-making business do that and virtually all of them exclude Yelp from their attentions.

 

 

 

 

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7 thoughts on “The Democratization of Criticism

  1. Brilliantly put, Mark. I have been following you for a while and always find your insights in your blog to be spot on with so many of my own experiences. Our small bakery is in Los Alamos, CA (in the Santa Ynez Valley wine country north of Santa Barbara). If you’re ever in the area, I hope you have the chance to stop in for a visit, a pastry and cup of coffee.

    Sincerely,

    Bob Oswaks Bob’s Well Bread

    http://www.Bob’s Well Bread.com Bob@BobsWellBread.com

    >

  2. Do you remember the cartoon ad with Herschel bernardi’s voice ? It was Charlie the tuna who wanted to have good taste. The reality was he was a well informed creature who still smelled like a fish. The moral is everyone thinks she/he has good taste, but usually are just a little fishy

    >

  3. As one who never reads yelp, and doesn’t reserve through Open Table because this Mark blog is replete with food and democracy which is what I care about. How to be thoughtful and deliberative ranks high with me. How to break the curia of experts who intimidate others from voicing their views ranks high as well. Exposing Yelp is a bonus. Mark navigated it all perfectly

  4. Pingback: Last Night’s Leftovers: Pho Edition |

  5. I once wrote a negative comment on Yelp – which reviews comments before posting them — and my comment was not posted. Since then, I don’t trust Yelp reviews.

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