Restaurant critics dish out advice for operators
Three of the country’s most recognised food media professionals took to the stage at a recent hospitality conference, providing insight into how venues are rated and what operators can do to get noticed.
Gourmet Traveller’s chief restaurant critic and deputy editor Pat Nourse, Fairfax’s National Good Food Guides editor, Myffy Rigby, and Broadsheet Sydney editor Georgia Booth took part in Dimmi’s Hospo Game Changers industry conference on 30 January.
Chaired by Restaurant Marketing’s Grant Lewers, the ‘Critic Reviews’ session delved into the impact a review can have on an establishment’s reputation and its bottom line, and the consensus amongst panelists was that yes, a review – whether it’s good or bad – can certainly affect patronage, but it’s not the sole reason why people are – or are not – frequenting your venue.
“You need to give your customers more credit, because [people] who are going to restaurants are very, very engaged. They’ll read more than one publication; they’ll read more than one review; they’ll see what their friends are saying about that restaurant. They’re not going to go once on a recommendation, and if it’s not quite as good as they thought, never go back again,” said Booth. “I think they’ll take a survey of what everyone is saying about it and see for themselves. If 80 percent of people are saying it’s a really good restaurant I think they will go back and give the restaurant the benefit of the doubt.”
Nourse agreed, adding that operators need to understand that media coverage can’t save or kill a business.
Pat Nourse, Dimmi founder Stevan Premutico, Myffy Rigby and Georgia Booth.
“I get a really specific email from chefs and restaurateurs and I can usually tell what it’s going to be about because it’s sent at 2am on a Sunday. What the email says, and it varies in flavour and tone, is ‘you haven’t done anything for us’ or ‘you’ve wronged us, you’ve driven us out of business,’” he said. “The thing that concerns me about that email is that there is an assumption that a good review or good press is some sort of magic bullet. It’s not. Everyone in this room knows about really well reviewed restaurants that have been run by well intentioned, smart people who have potentially done great food but have crashed and burnt. And we all know restaurants that have been sub-review level, that keep on keeping on, that are raking in the cash doing – frankly – pretty shitty food.
“A great review is not a cure for a shoddy business. Hats and stars are nice to have but they won’t solve your problems.”
Rigby went on to warn operators not to place too much value in reviews, or to build or adjust their business model according to what they see in the headlines.
“Creating restaurants with the hope of getting a star or getting a hat is equally scary,” she said. “I get emails like that. They say ‘we went out, we read the Good Food Guide and we shaped what we thought this restaurant should be off the back of those reviews, and we were hoping to get a hat, or three hats.’ Don’t build a restaurant with the hope of getting a hat; build a restaurant with the hope of filling it with people who are going to enjoy your food and have a nice time.”
What reviewers look for when assessing a restaurant
When discussing the fairness of reviewing a venue just days or weeks after launching, both Nourse and Rigby said that if you’re open for business, you’re eligible for review.
“If your doors are open and you’re taking people’s money, you’re fair game,” said Rigby.
Image: Eat Drink + be Kerry
But that doesn’t mean the slightest of hiccups will see your score plummet, they insisted. It’s all about structure, systems and professionalism, Nourse said.
“What I would be looking for is evidence of systems, evidence of quality. Every restaurant in Sydney has a bad day. I’ve reviewed every three hat restaurant in Sydney 10, 15, 20, 30 times and I’ve seen every one of those restaurants have a fail day,” he said. “I know that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re bad restaurants, but what I’m looking for is evidence that if the air conditioning isn’t working, what are they doing about it? What are they saying? … What if everything is too salty? What if everything is under-seasoned? What if I get a clear sense that whoever’s running this kitchen doesn’t bother to taste their food, or whoever’s running this kitchen hasn’t actually tasted the produce when it’s come in? Do they care? Are they paying attention? Is this somewhere where a Gourmet Traveller [reader] want to spend their money?”
Negative reviews aren’t published flippantly either. Rigby said the Good Food Guide team is extremely diligent in ensuring that if a venue has earned a lacklustre score, it’s a fair and genuine representation of the offering.
“We have a senior panel and we meet every couple of months. We look at the state of play, we look at the scores, we sit down and we discuss where we’ve been, how the scores are tracking. If there’s been a huge discrepancy in terms of what one person has experienced compared to another, then we do go and take a second look, and sometimes a third if it’s 100 percent necessary.”
Advice for long-standing venues
At the end of the session, an audience member asked the panel how long-standing venues can get media attention, especially in this day and age when so much focus is on the latest and greatest new opening?
The reality of the situation, sadly, is that new venues get the most air time.
Gourmet Traveller’s 2017 New Restaurant of the Year, Restaurant Hubert. Image: Jugernauts
“It’s not a priority for anyone on this panel to write about your restaurant when you’ve been open for 10 years. I’d love to tell you otherwise, but what are you more interested in hearing about as a punter: the new, cool thing, or the restaurant that’s been open for 10 years?” Nourse said.
“[You can] change the menu, do something new, do something cool but generally, if you’re talking to the news media, we are looking for news. And I’m not saying that to be offensive. Being in business for 10 years means you’ve got customers who love you and you’ve done really well, but on the flipside you’re not the new sexy thing that people want to read about. And that’s tough. If you can think of new ways in which we can cover you then we’re on-board; we want to do that. But it’s not our job to think of that.”
While Broadsheet Sydney doesn’t publish reviews, its coverage of the city’s hospitality sector is very well regarded amongst consumers and its editor Georgia Booth reiterated Nourse’s comments, advising business operators to come up with a unique story to tell and make sure it’s picked up by the media.
“It sounds harsh but we’re not actually here to service restaurants. We’re not a platform to service you, we’re a platform to service our audience, so we’re not just going to help you out because it’s good for you. We need to think about what our audience wants to read,” she said.
“If you’ve been around for 10 years and you can write me an email that tells me why I should bring you in front of our audience again – if you have a really compelling story or you’re doing something really interesting and maybe you’ve been missed by the media, I’ll definitely take a look at that. But you really need to convince me that I should look at it.”