A bad review is not the end of the world

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I often get asked what effect a bad media review has on a restaurant. After 26 years watching both the media and the restaurant industry in my region, my observations may prove interesting.

Let’s consider the reviews we see in our newspapers. When I first entered the industry many years ago, it was very rare to see a negative review of a restaurant. The prevailing attitude of the journalists and their editors seemed to be that they would write about good experiences and simply pass over the not so good. Those were the days — a kinder, more benevolent world perhaps?

Over the ensuing years, fierce competition between the newspapers themselves and the new electronic media has altered the ratio between objective and sensational content. It’s all about readership and subscribers in the battle for survival, and the quest for entertaining reading has driven editors to seek-out and favour journalists who write punchier material. As a result we see a lot more critical reviews than we used to. Some reviewers even seem to specialise in sinking the slipper into hapless restaurateurs.

In considering the ultimate effect of a bad review it is worth starting by considering who wrote it. Most of our mainstream reviewers have been doing it for some years and have become very knowledgeable about their subject, and diligent about their fact checking.  There are others who have perhaps recently graduated from court reporting or some other equally thrilling activity, and are revelling in the hedonism and power that comes from being a big fish in a small, food-orientated pond. The latter can be a problem.

Ultimately, a restaurant review is one person’s perception; and often the jaded perception of someone who eats out so often that all the joy is gone and they’d rather not be there. Having dined with a number of journalists while they are writing a review, I would have to say that they rarely approach the experience in the same mindset as the other customers — who are mostly out for a good night out and are not ‘working’ like the journo.

Next, they are experiencing a brief moment in time, a snapshot of that restaurant. Unfortunately, restaurants are not static and what you’ll get at say 7.30pm when they’ve been slammed, and what you’ll get at 8.45pm when the crisis has passed can be radically different. The particular staff that are on that shift can also make or break the experience. You could have heaven one night and hell the next, just because of the different personalities and attitudes on shift.

So, the reviewer’s experience may or may not be representative of the normal performance of the place; and they are experiencing it through the filter of their personal preferences, attitudes, mood, and in some cases fog of intoxication. It is one person’s perception, but this person has unusual power; they can communicate their opinions to many others via their media voice, and many readers assume this is the voice of an expert.

I have seen some extremely vitriolic reviews over the years, occasionally deserved, but more often than not a reflection of a jaundiced state of mind at the time. My first experience with a scorched earth review was many years ago and I assumed it would be the death knell of the place, but it wasn’t. Sure, some customers commented, others may have temporarily altered their allegiances, but what really surprised me was the surge of sympathy bookings from regular diners who had read the review and disagreed. Within a week the public at large had forgotten all about it.

The real negative effect was the damage to the morale of the owner and staff, who were equally devastated. A number of restaurateurs have told me that this bruising to morale can last for quite a while, long after the review has been forgotten by the public. We often run training courses for chefs and key restaurant staff on Tuesdays, when many of the influential reviews are published. I see, first hand, the angst that is suffered by hard working staff who read a critical review, and who desperately want to be proud of what they are doing.

When I think about it, it’s not really fair. How many other occupations have this kind of scrutiny? I can only think of two others: the arts and politics. Journalists do get critiqued to a minor degree on the ABC’s Media Watch, and it is gratifying to see the wounded reaction of those caught-out with shoddy work, but food reviewers seldom receive much attention. There should be more of it.

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