Why I Hate TripAdvisor, Part 1: Joanne Kates, El Rey and Criticism
How do other people live? People who have real jobs. People who work in offices and cubicles – who sit down to make a living. People who wear nice clothes and decidedly unsensible shoes. People who eat breakfast at breakfasttime, lunch at lunchtime and dinner at dinnertime. People who have date nights and PTA meetings. People who watch their favourite TV show and then fall asleep to the 11 o’clock news. How do they get everything done? How do they sleep, eat, have sex, do laundry, work, hang out with friends, get haircuts, exercise, read books, watch piano recitals, take vacations, see movies, go dancing – and still find time for social media? Did the days get longer? Are there more days in the week? Do people sleep less now? Do they skip meals? Does Alexa read the bedtime stories to the kids? Is there maidservice?
I thought technology was supposed to simplify things. Make life easier. Leisure time used to be just that; until it needed to be documented, shared, judged by others. Solitary and private experiences aren’t real anymore. Nothing happens unless other people see it. Social media is the existentialist’s proof of life. Raison d’etre. I post therefore I am. Selfie for the soul.
A business, a blog and a personal life (ha!) means that I have three Facebook accounts (I used to have four), three Instagram accounts, three Twitter accounts, five email addresses (more, actually, but I can’t remember the passcodes), three telephone numbers, hundreds of passwords, Snapchat, and this blog. There are 38 magazines downloaded to my iPad, I have three books on hold at the library and a bigger stack on my bedside table, and my cell phone has dozens of text threads on the go. It’s too much. I can’t keep up. The centre cannot hold. And still. On top of this, and in addition to just, life, I have to respond to all those fucking TripAdvisor, Yelp and Google reviews.
In the early days of social media, when Yelp and TripAdvisor (and dozens of other, long since departed restaurant review sites) were just starting out, restaurateurs didn’t pay them much attention. “Who cares what ‘torontofoodie69’ has to say about my restaurant?” we thought to ourselves. Today, a restaurateur who fails to respond to a user-generated review loses a marketing opportunity and ignores TripAdvisor at her peril. Most of the time, my responses to reviews are variations of “thank you very much for your kind comments”. But even just dreaming up new and interesting ways to say “thank you” is exhausting and time-consuming.
Responding to customer reviews of our restaurant, even the positive ones, can take a little or a lot of time. First, there’s the scanning of the all those review sites to determine what’s new and what needs managing. If a review is positive, I try to recall who that customer was so that I can remember them the next time they come in. There’s also the time spent thinking of synonyms for “thank you” or “our pleasure” that don’t involve foreign languages or deep dives into etymology. Then there’s the time spent composing the response. Finally, there’s the logging on to the review site, the actual posting, and then waiting for confirmation.
If the review is negative, there’s a lot more that goes into my process. First, I have to get over my hurt and my instinct to lash out like a cornered honey badger defending her baby. I then try to remember that customer to determine if there is any truth to the complaint. Often I am able to recall the complainant in great detail. Why? Because I have a sixth sense about who is going to lodge a complaint. I often take detailed notes, at the time, of someone who appears to be a troublemaker so that I can respond appropriately should the need arise. I have been known to keep copies of the reservation book, order chits, bills, and credit card receipts in order to document, in an evidentiary fashion, the real truth of what went down with a difficult customer (it’s the lawyer in me).
If I am unable to recall the complainant myself, I will discuss the negative review with my staff. I ask if they remember the person and, if so, what their version of the events is. I actually investigate whether there is not only truth, but also accuracy, completeness and detail in the complaint. Sometimes there really is something we can and should fix, and I am grateful that the review alerted me to a problem. Mind you, I still fervently wish that anyone with a complaint just tell me, rather than the universe.
After I have the facts straight, I usually spend a day or so thinking about how to respond to the complaint and another day composing my reply. Sometimes I am just incensed by a complaint that is flat out untrue or manufactured. In such a case there is no cooling off period, and cooler heads than mine do not prevail; I will go ape shit on that reviewer. To be clear, by “ape shit” I don’t mean some shit-slinging Yahoo, I still mean responsible adult; just responsible adult with a skewer. Once my reply has been composed, reviewed and edited, then I run it by my husband for his approval. If all goes well, my reply is posted. You see, unlike many reviewers – who appear to compose in a rage, late at night, still half-drunk from dinner – I think my responses are measured, reasonable, truthful, and crafted after much investigation and deliberation. The process takes a lot of time. Time that I might otherwise have spent sleeping, watching a movie or going out for dinner like other people find the space to do.
As much as I dislike a negative review of our restaurant, responding to one can be a lot of fun. I still thank the writer for his/her comments, but most of my response takes the position that if you have a complaint, it just makes better sense to tell me – at the time, at the restaurant, when I can fix it – rather than tell a bunch of strangers who don’t care and can’t help. The whole point of TripAdvisor and the like is too grandstand-y, self-absorbed, and passive-aggressive for my liking. I can really go to town on the complaints; my response might be triple or even quadruple the length of the original complaint. I mostly use the space to educate, to explain why things happen the way they do. I try very hard to be helpful rather than flippant. Sometimes I deliver some bitter medicine like I do in this blog, but I try to temper it with some humour because, as everyone knows, “a little bit of sugar makes the medicine go down”. I used to worry that my responses were dangerous and could possibly jeopardize our business. I’m over it. Many times, a guest at our restaurant tells me they came in for dinner precisely because of my responses to negative reviews. They think the responses are hilarious. Phew!
But before social media, back when we were all troglodytes, the only restaurant reviews that counted – or existed, for that matter – were those written by established critics and printed in big league publications. In Toronto, there are four major newspapers and each employed a restaurant critic. Since most critics would make dinner reservations under a pseudonym and dine in disguise, a restaurateur wouldn’t know a review was coming out until the fact checker called, or the photographer got in touch to book a shoot. You knew there would be a good review if the photographer took snaps of the chef, cross-armed and smug-looking, or proffering a signature dish. And if the photographer only took shots of the dining room, yikes, you knew a bad review was on the way.
For almost four decades, the ne plus ultra of Canadian restaurant critics was Joanne Kates. Her column in The Globe & Mail, Canada’s most prestigious newspaper, was a must read for anyone who ate. So, everyone. Kates’ power was so awesome that her imprimatur meant a restaurant’s reservation line might ring off the hook for weeks, months, and even years afterwards. If Kates gave the thumbs down, well, a restaurateur might as well just lock the door before the landlord did. Kates wasn’t perfect and I didn’t always agree with her. And she could maintain a grudge against some restaurateurs or a boner for certain chefs that was beyond logic, or at least my understanding. Nevertheless, Kates was an institution, long outlasting most of the restaurants she wrote about.
But as go telephones and taking reservations, so goes the restaurant critic; all relics of the past. Now every diner can post restaurant reviews on TripAdvisor, Yelp and Google. Notwithstanding that most of these so-called critics don’t know what criticism means (no, it doesn’t mean talking shit about something), can’t put two coherent sentences together, have zero credibility, little knowledge, and display no familiarity with journalistic ethics, the power yielded by the amateur critic is terrifying to today’s restaurateur. Maybe Joanne Kates dined incognito, taking surreptitious notes while sampling a menu, but I see “critics” now visit once, order a single dish, take a photo, eat a few bites, and then post to Yelp or Instagram right in front of me. Talk about media chill. How about social media chill?
I don’t know if Kates retired from her gig at The Globe or was shoved, but the fact remains that none of our major newspapers have a restaurant critic anymore. It’s partly due to the accessibility of “foodie” culture (and, yes, I mean that disparagingly): of pop-up patronage, celebrity-defined success, Ritalin-inducing attention spans, and winging it openings and fly-by-night closings. Mostly though, it’s social media that’s to blame for the dearth of proper restaurant critics, as well as the death of newspapers themselves. Everyone’s an expert now based on even less trustworthy information. Kates still writes reviews, but now her platform is a community newspaper, and instead of sharing the pages with award-winning fellow journalists, Kates is shouldering for space with reports of road closures and neighbourhood break-ins. Kates’s columns are still a must-read, however, at least for fogeys like me who think she writes well, and is infinitely more qualified and knowledgeable than most of the knobs on TripAdvisor.
Kates may be writing for a less distinguished publication now, but she can still kick the shit. Last year Kates reviewed a newly-opened restaurant called El Rey, owned by one of the Toronto restaurant industry’s darlings: Grant van Gameren. (You’ve met van Gameren on this blog before; he is a one-time business partner of Jen Agg, whom I wrote about here.) Kates’ review of El Rey was not very favourable. In fact, in Kates’ glory days, such a review might well have meant a death sentence. Kates had nothing very nice to say about the clientele, the food, the staff, the management, or the ownership, but she did manage a couple of lukewarm compliments regarding the décor and the drinks. Nevertheless, Kates’ review pretty much decapitates El Rey. (You can read it here.)
The reason I bring this up is because someone responded to Kates’ review, and it was the response that was just wrong on so many levels. If Kates’ review deserved a response (and that’s begging the question as far as I’m concerned), it should have been written by the owner, van Gameren. Instead, the response, entitled “When Dinosaurs Roam” (ouch!), was penned by one of the owner’s suppliers. That’s just weird. It’s like telling the schoolyard bully, “my daddy can beat your daddy”, and then getting your daddy to do just that. I don’t know if van Gameren was behind it, or if he was subsequently appalled that his colleague came to his aid. I do know that if a friend, colleague, family member or customer advised me that they were going to respond to a negative review of my business, or if they asked my permission to do so, I would plead with them not to. I’m a grown-up and I’ll fight my own fights, thank you very much. And, because I’m a grown-up, I’ll decide for myself whether something is even worth a fight in the first place.
The letter writer, Dali Bikich, was outrageously rude. If one of my customers wrote a TripAdvisor review of my restaurant along the lines of Kates’ review of El Rey, I wouldn’t dream of responding (publicly) to it like he did. For starters, he refers to Kates as “Joanne” throughout, which is just plain dismissive and ill-mannered. He acknowledges Kates’ “prominence”, but then resorts to a series of insults. Kates’ intent was to cast “aspersions”, and her critique was “shameful”, “misguided” and an “abject disservice”, requiring her to be “called out and held to account”. She is “not a bull, but a dinosaur in a china shop”. Her “rant” is a “cheap shot”, and “unqualified” rather than “considered”. Notwithstanding that Bikich acknowledges that Kates is “entitled to her opinion”, he then pronounces that those very same opinions are “unwarranted”, lack “a modicum of grace”, and are factually incorrect. And this is all in just the first three paragraphs! He goes on to imply that Kates is not “relevant”, and that she “can’t keep up” with “cutting edge” restaurants because she is “old-school”. Bikich makes the accusation that Kates’ criticism of El Rey amounts to “belittling the culture of an entire state in Mexico”. (WTF?) He then dismisses Kates as an “uptown sophisticate”, and suggests that because Kates’ is blind to van Gameren’s “magic touch”, trying to please her would be a “waste” of van Gameren’s talents. And finally, he concludes by telling/threatening Kates that she needn’t bother showing up at another new restaurant in the neighbourhood because it’s not for her either. (You can read the full letter here, just keep scolling to the end.)
To be clear, I defend the right to defend your restaurant; I do that on TripAdvisor, as need be, when responding to a negative review. But I try to be helpful, not hurtful to either the reader or my business. And I don’t delegate.
I don’t know Joanne Kates. I have never met her, I don’t know where she lives, and I don’t know what she looks like. Full disclosure: she came to our restaurant in its early days and wrote a positive review, but that does not make her my friend. I get the irony that I am responding to a response to a restaurant review. I get that Kates is a grown-up; that she can fight her own fights and doesn’t need my help. But my intention is not to criticize the criticism of the critic. My intention is to demonstrate what restaurateurs are up against on TripAdvisor nowadays. I don’t worry so much about the negative reviews we receive on TripAdvisor; you can’t please everyone all the time. I worry about the ones that are, like Bikrich’s letter, mean, vindictive, insulting, ignorant, hurtful, inappropriate, and spiteful. Folks, it’s just not nice to be not nice.
Kates may be entirely wrong about El Rey or she may be completely right; I don’t know because I have never been there. I do know that some of the best meals I have eaten in Toronto have been cooked by van Gameren. I’m less inclined to go to El Rey, not because of Kates’ criticism, but because of Bikich’s response to it. Like Kates, I’m guessing I wouldn’t be welcome there either.