Restaurant reviews: how do they affect business today?

16 September, 2015 by
Danielle Bowling

Whether it's a write-up in the Good Food Guide, a mention on Broadsheet or a photo gallery on a food blog, restaurant reviews have completely transformed over the years. But what does this mean for foodservice operators?

“We’ve had everyone in, from bloggers, to the Sydney Morning Herald, to Time Out, Delicious Magazine, the Telegraph and Vogue Living. We’ve had people that think they’re reviewers but aren’t reviewers; we’ve had mums and dads come in thinking that they know better and can cook better. Shows like MasterChef and My Kitchen Rules don’t help because now everyone thinks they have an opinion. But it doesn’t matter, as long as you’re cooking well.”

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Nel. restaurant in Sydney’s Surry Hills opened with a flying start in March this year, and has been extremely busy from the get-go, says chef and owner Nelly Robinson (pictured below).

This is thanks to its quality Modern Australian food offering, professional service standards, and a series of very positive reviews penned by bloggers, journalists and restaurant reviewers.

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“I think we’ve been busy because we’ve brought something different to Sydney. But the reviews have helped, 100 percent – of course they have. But you’ve got to put something on the plate as well,” he says.

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A review can have an enormous impact on a new restaurant or caf, Robinson insists, arguing that if diners read something negative about a venue, whether it be lacklustre food, a poorly designed space or bad service, they simply wont come.

For nel. restaurant, earning positive reviews is simply an opportunity to get people in the door so they can then be surprised by the quality of the experience on offer, Robinson says. Ninety-eight percent of the reviews that the restaurant has received, whether it be in the form of a blog post, a more formal review by the Terry Duracks of the world, or an article on a food-focused website, have been positive, he assures Hospitality magazine.

As appreciative as he is of the kind words written about his business and his team, Robinson says reviewers are just like any other diner when it comes to their treatment at nel.

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“We treat every guest the same. Someone having a bottle of water and the degustation, and someone having matching wines, cocktails and the degustation, they all get treated the same. That’s the way I am … It doesn’t really matter [to me] because reviewers get treated exactly the same as any other patron. It makes no difference to me. I don’t get nervous, I don’t get scared. I’m very happy serving them, just like I am with Joe Blogs.”

Nel. restaurant is a client of restaurant reservation website, Dimmi, which asks diners that book through the platform and share feedback after their meal. This is then published on the Dimmi site and sent straight to one of the venue’s team members.

“I think there’s over six or seven million people that go on Dimmi, so it’s massive,” says Robinson. “If someone writes ‘I’ll definitely come back, it’s an amazing place.’ Well, if I read that, I’d go to that restaurant too.”

A balancing act
Fellow Surry Hills restaurant, Dragoncello, is also a client of Dimmi’s and chef Roy McVeigh says one of the key benefits of the service is that it allows restaurant operators to make changes to the business model if a number of reviewers share the same criticisms.

“We get customer reviews through Dimmi and we get scored with points. The more points you get, the further up the page you go on the website. And we’re doing quite well … so we’re one of the best restaurants that they’ve got in Surry Hills,” he says.

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“[When receiving reviews] we look for patterns and then you can tell if there’s a problem. You’ll see one person that might rate us as mediocre, while someone else will love it. But if there’s consistently something wrong, then we can assess it.”

But, as almost every chef will understand, some people just can’t be pleased.

“The real problem is that not all people get it. You do get really bad customers and they can have quite a negative impact on those sorts of things [reviews and rankings online]. Sometimes it doesn’t matter what you do; they’re not going to be happy.

“We had one lady that came in and she just hated everything. She went to about three or four different review sites. She just did not like our food, and it wasn’t just one dish, every single dish … You’re encouraged to respond to those reviews and say you’re sorry, but with this lady there was nothing I could say. We’d done everything we possibly could already. She had a really bad night and it had nothing to do with us,” says McVeigh.

Blogs and books
McVeigh (pictured below) insists that reviews have a “massive” impact on a restaurant’s livelihood, but says the way these reviews are influencing the foodservice industry is changing.

“Depending on which medium it is published in, it can have a bigger [or smaller] impact. And the way it is impacting people has changed. I remember years and years ago we all wanted to be in the newspaper and Gourmet Traveller, whereas now they don’t seem to have as big an impact as the bloggers.”

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Having said that, McVeigh sees the Good Food Guides as amongst the most important marketing tools for restaurants in Australia.

“There is still value in those traditional reviews … The Good Food Guide is the go-to place for people who want to book a restaurant. If you look at the numbers and where people go, it’s the one [reviewing platform] that everyone goes to. So it’s really important to get that review and get into the book because when someone’s going to go looking for a place, they’re going to go for the Guide, or they’ll go to Dimmi."

Shaun Quade, co-owner and chef at Lm, a fine diner in south Melbourne, agrees that traditional reviewing platforms aren’t what they used to be.

“Reviewers in the traditional sense, the big dailies and the Good Food Guides, are not quite as relevant as they used to be because of all the other platforms that people can read and look at. But from a business point of view, it still brings people in to have one, two, three hats or whatever.

“When you get written about, it does actually have a fairly big impact on how much the phone rings each day.”

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Getting your name out there
The best thing about reviews – good or bad – Quade says, is the exposure. And it’s not the actual review that matters; news articles, pictures on social media, colourful feature articles, they all help to spread the word.

“Things like Broadsheet for example, they don’t actually write reviews, it’s a news piece more often than not. And a lot of people read it. A lot of people read it who wouldn’t normally come to a place like this, so it’s good exposure for us,” he says.

Lm opened in July this year offering a tasting menu in the restaurant as well as an a la carte menu in the 40 seat ‘speakeasy’ bar. Quade says coverage from bloggers, reviewers and other food writers has helped potential diners to know what they can expect from a visit to the Conventry Street diner.

“It kind of lets people know that you’re here. They trust you more because they’ve seen your face and they’ve seen your name somewhere. We’re doing something a bit out of the ordinary which is a bit confronting for some people; they’re not quite sure what to expect when they come here. But the fact that they’ve read about you, for some reason that comforts them a little bit when they get here.

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“That’s the biggest thing we get out of any type of review or blog post,” says Quade.

The other key benefit of reviews is, as McVeigh explained, that they allow restaurateurs to make changes to the business, should a number of writers share the same feedback.

“If you read something [negative] once, it’s like ‘yeah, that’s just someone’s opinion’, but if you constantly read about something that everyone’s saying, it might be time to take notice. For example with us, we do a 16 course tasting menu and about 12 of those get matched with wine if you have the beverage pairing, so a lot of people have actually been saying that it’s too much alcohol, and we’ve taken that on-board.”

As valuable as this feedback is, Quade says the rise of social media and the proliferation of digital reviewing platforms has complicated the way restaurants are marketed in Australia.

“[Social media] has totally changed it. It’s put the review process on its head really, because everyone’s allowed an opinion, whether that’s good or bad.

“I think the big dailies don’t have as much relevance because people have so much access to other opinions. Even something like Urbanspoon (now Zomato), as much as I hate that site, people can jump on there and see other peoples’ opinions. And essentially, all one of those reviews in the Herald or the Age is is just one person’s opinion. Whether they’re more qualified than anyone else, well, I don’t think they are. It’s just someone’s opinion.”