[16 May 2007]
CHICAGO - In Edward Ho’s opinion, Kaze Sushi in Chicago’s Roscoe Village neighborhood serves up the best sushi in town. So he didn’t just tell his friends about it - the self-proclaimed “sushi addict” posted a review of the restaurant on Yelp.com.
Adding his two cents on the customer review and social networking site has become a pastime of the 28-year-old information-technology worker. His Web site is at www.kazesushi.com.
And, as an example of how critical online restaurant research is for many diners, Ho usually doesn’t try out a new place before hitting the Web. For him, that often means browsing customer feedback and searching for a restaurant’s own site on Google.
In the restaurant business, word-of-mouth publicity has always been crucial; it’s just that now, with the growth of online customer reviews, diners’ opinions aren’t restrained to their circle of friends, said Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of research for the National Restaurant Association. The Web has created a larger audience for amateur reviewers.
“Word of mouth continues to be the most important source of information to typical American consumers,” he said. “How that word of mouth transpires has changed substantially in the past few years.”
According to the association’s 2006 research, 35 percent of adults said they used the Internet to find information about a restaurant they hadn’t visited before, while 13 percent had in 1999.
While the statistics don’t specify what sites, exactly, customers are looking at in their research, the popularity of Web sites that allow for customer feedback on restaurants seems to be registering even more on diners’ radars.
Maurice Darwish, owner of Mezze Restaurant & Bar in Oakland, Calif., said that over the past two years he has noticed a dramatic increase in the number of customers who say they learned about his restaurant online, often drawn by favorable customer reviews.
And as society depends more and more on the Internet for research, restaurants in turn will need to pay more attention to customer buzz in cyberspace, Darwish said. Even now, he said, a number of bad reviews “could really break a place.”
Citysearch and Yelp are a few of the multi-city sites that allow customers to opine on restaurants, as well as other services. Citysearch, which has been accepting customer reviews since 2001, acquired another customer review site, InsiderPages.com, last month, said Citysearch spokeswoman Brandi Willard.
Dinesite.com and Local.Yahoo.com also offer customer feedback areas. Chowhound.com offers a discussion board format for users to talk about local cuisine.
Perhaps one of the better known sources of restaurant information, Zagat Survey, launched a free online feedback function on its site, Zagat.com, in August, Michael Mahle, manager of corporate communications for Zagat Survey, said in an e-mail interview.
Visitors must subscribe to get the information that is available in the company’s guidebooks, but can rant and rave in the free online reviews and discussion boards.
“It makes Zagat.com a place that is much more than simply a place to get restaurant reviews, but also a community of sorts,” he said. The hope is that the free aspects of the Web site will entice more customers to subscribe for the paid content, he added.
Michael Solomon, visiting professor of marketing at the Haub School of Business at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, expects continued growth in online consumer reviews - although there is a “potential fly in the ointment,” he said in an e-mail interview.
“That is the ability of reviewees to slant the reviews by strategically placing their own employees or paid shills in the audience,” he said. “If this pernicious trend can be brought under control, our restaurant choices truly can benefit from the power of crowds.”
At a psychological level, people are motivated to write these online views because the pieces tend to validate their opinions - “and perhaps assumed expertise as `foodies,’” he said.
According to Ho, it was a “bit of boredom mixed with curiosity” that compelled him to take a crack at writing critiques of restaurants online. Yelp does not pay him, although he has been invited as a guest to local restaurant parties sponsored by the site.
At the same time, Ho has become familiar enough with reviewers to know whose opinions to trust - often identifying more with them than professional reviewers. If he has a taste for Korean barbecue, for example, he knows exactly which local to seek out for advice.
The comments also can inspire restaurants to improve, said Stephanie Ichinose, spokeswoman for Yelp. She knows of at least one restaurant owner who takes customer reviews into staff meetings.
Even a large chain like California Pizza Kitchen - which has a customer feedback hotline and an area on its Web site to submit feedback - checks in on some of the customer review sites from time to time, said Sarah Grover, senior vice president of marketing for CPK.
“You can drive yourself crazy if you read everything that someone posts on every Web site and blog,” Grover said. “We do monitor what people are saying about us ... but it’s nearly impossible to follow up and deal with every comment.”
But some restaurants, likely smaller businesses worried about building a good reputation, take each negative review very seriously, Ichinose said.
“Even if a business has four and a half stars and 60 reviews, the one or two negative (reviews) seem to stand out to them,” she said. She thinks that readers, however, are savvy enough to read a negative review in context.
Yelp has a separate page designed to answer questions and give advice to business owners who are dealing with positive or negative feedback, Ichinose said.
Citysearch has a response tool that allows businesses to respond online to user reviews, Willard said. Darwish, the owner of Mezze, recently used the function to respond to a review and was grateful for the opportunity to give his side of the story.
“What you find is people can be very ruthless if they have one bad experience,” he said. People who use customer reviews need to remember that a restaurant could have had an off night when the reviewer ate at the establishment, he added.
And sometimes a slew of good reviews cause problems as well, as Tai Kim, owner of Scoops in Los Angeles, has found.
Kim’s ice cream shop has been reviewed by the Los Angeles Times and received a mention on National Public Radio, he said. The unusual flavors he makes - including “Brown Bread,” a vanilla-based ice cream combined with caramel and bits of Grape Nuts cereal - attracts many to his shop.
Yet core customers have been locals who promote the shop through traditional word of mouth, Kim said. A number of Yelp reviews posted this year made traffic increase at his store - so much so that he was spending significantly less time with customers and running out of ice cream, he said. He even tried to have the favorable words removed.
“I sent an e-mail to them to say take them (the reviews) off,” he said, although the site wouldn’t oblige. Since then, he has hired extra help to manage the additional traffic.