WHY LET RESTAURANT CRITICS DEFINE US?

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There was a point in time when people relinquished their decision making to outside services and individuals. Deciding on a movie, automobile, record, school, bank or restaurant suddenly became someone else’s responsibility. Siskel and Ebert told us what movies to watch, Robert Parker not only decides which wines we should drink, but even how the vintner will build the character of their wines. We look to amazon not just for ease of ordering, but also the product ratings from consumers. The U.S. News and World Report rating of colleges drives young students to certain institutions, and Consumer Reports waves a flag for everything from automobiles to toasters.

In 1926, the Michelin Guide began to rate restaurants based on a set of criteria designed to recognize quality of service, product, and ambience. Shortly afterward, AAA and Mobil Guide followed suit in the United States. As travelers contemplated the routes they would use from point A to point B, they now had professional recommendations for lodging and food. In recent years the role of many professional critics has been replaced by social media, giving anyone the ability to give two thumbs up or down for products and services. As much as many producers feel the impact of these formal and informal critiques, none are more petrified than restaurateurs.

Looking in a mirror, we should ask ourselves: “Why have we allowed this to happen.” As restaurateurs and chefs sweat the details of standards defined by stars and diamonds, managers react to mixed reviews on Yelp, Trip Advisor, and Chowhound. Owners spend tens of thousands of dollars on upgrading china and glassware, linen, chairs and ambient lighting. Restaurants hire sommeliers and build wine cellars with an enormous breadth of vintages and chateaus that may never be sold, but add “credibility” to lists and draw recognition from Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast.   To gain a star or diamond is a trigger to build aggressive marketing campaigns and prepare for huge swings in customer volume. Losing a star or diamond can drive chefs and restaurateurs to look for the closest 10th floor-building ledge.

Customers have, for some reason, wiped their hands of deciding where to dine based on the joy of trying something new or self assessment of a restaurant’s menu, to viewing how many points the operation has been awarded by anonymous reviewers (who might, in some cases even be competitors trying to stack the deck). A restaurant in NYC receiving an added star from the New York Times food critic might find their business increase by 50%, or more overnight, while losing that recognition could actually put them out of business. What is most distressing is that these reactions are based on a single persons opinion, at a single point in time. A negative review might be true and could very well be the result of the restaurant team being totally on or off of their game, or it could simply be a result of the critic not being in the right frame of mind to view the world through a positive lens.

Last week, the Michelin Guide released the 2015 star ratings for restaurants in the United States. New York City, in particular, was a focal point since it is the center of the food universe. Some familiar restaurants gained a star or stayed true to 2014’s rating, while a handful of others lost a place. No doubt there were evaluator reasons for these decisions, however, in the process, they put undue pressure on great restaurants whether they are honored by a rise in status or disappointed by a downgrade. Under the guise of providing a service for the consumer, these evaluators rarely present themselves as helpful to the restaurant, they are, instead, the power to be feared. In many cases, the realization of a change in status is simultaneous to its release to the public. The restaurant finds itself the center of the target without an opportunity to make corrections, prepare for the onslaught of new business, or the loss of previous fans.

There is certainly a need for standards and a relationship of standards to price point, yet when we (restaurants) relegate commitment to standards to an outside group or individual, we lose our personal identity and passion for doing things right because it is right to do.

Customers who succumb to the critique of others are similar to those who were relegated to praising the Emperor’s new clothes. It is so easy to jump in line behind everyone else and nod our heads in agreement with the lead ducks interpretation of “great”, it is always that much more difficult to form our own opinions through experience.

As a diner, there are few experiences more gratifying than finding a restaurant that is off the radar, but committed to excellence. It is, after all, not the facility, china or flatware that make an outstanding food experience, it is well prepared food by caring, passionate cooks and served with real care by staff members who are truly interested in making a customer happy.

There is certainly a value to having someone or some group outside of the organization, recognize and praise the work that a restaurant does. The sense of “wining” can unify and stimulate a team, but why can’t this same feeling come from internal recognition by the owner, operator, chef, or supervisor? A cook’s greatest feeling of accomplishment comes from the recognition of his or her peers, a clean plate from the dining room and that rare occasion when a guest sends a message, “That was the best meal I have experienced in a long time.” Do we need stars, diamonds and positive reviews on Trip Advisor to feel appreciated? Would customers still clamor to make reservations if Michelin or AAA offered a negative review?

Operating a restaurant is damn hard. Although there certainly are restaurants that operate on the edge of disaster, there are thousands of others, staffed with competent, passionate and caring employees who give their all to producing and serving great food. Malicious reviews and customers who are easily swayed by individual assessments, sometimes without merit, do nothing to benefit the restaurant or the guest. Restaurants need to stay on their game out of a commitment to doing things well rather than fear of turning off a critic.

There are recent examples of restaurant chefs in France who have relinquished their stars in favor of simply doing things well. They are letting their reputation speak for itself. This might be naïve, but it is refreshing. Society has opened the floodgates and it is not likely that evaluative organizations and restaurant critics will go away. We must understand them and use their value as part of our marketing methods, and learn to recover when their observations are not so kind. Social Media has put the customer in the driver’s seat. This is, to a large degree, exactly how it should be. At some point, technology will be able to screen out those volatile comments that are not helpful, and ensure that comments are not competitive maliciousness. Until then, we will simply need to pay attention, change when it makes sense, apologize if need be, but never let an outside critique define us and remove what sets us apart.

**NOTE:  The comments in this article reflect the opinion of the author and not necessarily all who appear in the photograph.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericaventures.com

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