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    How Online Media is Changing the Way Restaurants Do Business

    by Kathleen Culliton
    October 2010

    Some call prostitution the oldest profession, but it’s almost certain that as soon as man stood upright and got a chance to take a look at the world, he began thinking about how much better he could have done it. Critics work as writers, television personalities, or your mother, to provide an outsider’s perspective that can either motivate creativity or bring it to a screeching halt. And now that there’s the Internet, the old axiom is truer than ever: everyone is a critic.

    When this new wave of online criticism personally affected a good chef friend of StarChefs.com Editor-in-Chief Antoinette Bruno, she was inspired to take the conversation off the World Wide Web and into the International Chefs Congress. On September 21st, chefs Marcus Samuelsson of the Townhouse Restaurant Group and Tony Susi of Olives New York, joined online food writers Ed Levine of SeriousEats.com and Francis Lam of Salon.com at the panel discussion "How New Media Can Make or Break a Restaurant."

    Ed Levine practically jumped out of his chair to take hold of the microphone first. Levine’s a staunch supporter of online criticism; he makes his living at it on SeriousEats.com—one of the most popular websites for New York food criticism out there. Levine declared of the Internet that “the genie is out of the bottle.” He approves. According to Levine, the Internet takes the power out of the hands of PR executives who once chose which restaurants would be reviewed, and when. Today diners can explore and critique for themselves. The quality of online criticism can range from terrible to fantastic, Levine conceded, but the same may be said of the professional review.

    Prompted by Levine's declarative statements, Bruno invited Chef Tony Susi, whose experiences inspired the New Media panel, to tell his story. When Chef Susi’s restaurant Sage in Boston moved to a new upscale location it received a stellar Boston Globe review. Aggravated by the revamp, Yelpers went on the attack. Criticism on the site snow-balled, with the messages becoming surprisingly contradictory; some said Sage was too noisy and crowded, others that it was too empty; some said the food was a novelty but the service abhorrent, others that the food was abhorrent and the service was pitch-perfect; either the problem was the lack of ambiance, or the problem was the high price. The site was not informative: the only thing the Yelpers seem to have agreed upon was that Sage shouldn’t be in business. And after two years, it wasn’t. At the panel Susi maintained that the Yelpers didn’t cause Sage to shut down, but they certainly didn’t help.

    At this point Salon.com’s food editor Francis Lam provided insight into the unfathomable mind of the Yelper; “Comments [posted online] are a product of a world where you are in a constant state of road rage.” His point was coupled with a spot-on imitation of a furious driver on the West Side Highway. When the laughter subsided, Lam discussed how cathartic it can be to vent online after a bad night dining out, and how difficult it is to imagine those remarks having a consequence. When a chef in the audience shared his story of convincing an unsatisfied Yelper to retract his post, Lam nodded emphatically. He believes that there are sites that allow for intelligent and reasonable discourse, that they can be found on the Internet, and they can make an impact.

    Finally, Marcus Samuelsson took it upon himself to represent the one voice that wasn’t present on the panel, the diner. Samuelsson expressed excitement that culinary culture is becoming accessible to everyone; according to Samuelsson, it’s the Internet that makes that kind of accessibility possible. Samuelsson admitted that bad reviews could be detrimental to his business, but the new flux of food criticism proves that people are paying attention. After decades of microwave dinners and drive-thru joints, “food,” Samuelsson declared “is becoming an American thing.”

    The tone of the panel was positive. Both chefs and critics expressed their excitement to see where the Internet will take the restaurant industry next. They talked about tactics for managing one’s image online, which included defense against hostile critics and new ways to reach out to the dining community.

    Unfortunately when the time came to conclude the seminar, there seemed so much more to say. So we’re going to keep the conversation going. Please become a fan of StarChefs.com on Facebook, follow Bruno on Twitter, and Foursquare so that you can tell us all about the tactics and techniques that make social media work for you.