Bloggers are not experienced/knowledgeable enough to give public opinions
Now there is a further question that is not quite as clear cut and that is what gives us the right to publish those opinions? Free speech is an easy get out, yeah sure everybody should be able to say whatever they want on the internet about whatever subject comes to mind. Within reason I would stand by that and that alone justifies our online ramblings but there is a plumper, fleshier reason than that. We should be able to publish our opinions because customers and potential customers want to hear our opinions, I believe that some people value our opinion for that very reason that some chefs say we shouldn't be allowed to blog: we aren't experts, we don't know everything, we are on the same level as the reader which makes our writings accessible for many, more so than the articles of some incredibly talented food writers. If people want to hear our opinions we should publish them, what right have chefs/owners to stop that communication between foodies? As a blog reader I would also say that I don't value blogs that don't write critical reviews, it devalues everything else they write and as a result I don't follow them. I would go as far as to say that bloggers have a responsibility to publish a negative review if they have a negative experience. At the same time in the chefs' defence I understand it must be incredibly frustrating when a blogger doesn't "get" something, misses the point of a dish and criticises it as 'wrong' when undeniably the chef knows the best way to prepare that plate of food. I do feel a little weird criticising the food of Simon Rogan or Ferran Adria because I'm pretty sure they know what they are doing.
Bloggers damage restaurants/livelihoods with their negative reviews
Negative blogger reviews are commonly referred to as 'harmful', it is frequently said that negative reviews can ruin a business overnight and therefore destroy the livelihood of all those employed at the restaurant. I'm willing to be proven wrong on this but I'm not aware of any restaurants been closed due to one bad review. I've really tried to find out as well, expending a significant portion of my Sunday leisure time rooting through restaurant reviews and news, but I'm yet to find a clear cut case. Negative reviews will have varying effects depending on who wrote them, how established the restaurant is and what the current mood around the restaurant is. Let's look at a couple of examples and my (non-expert) estimations of the impact...
- A restaurant run by a well respected and established chef has been open for 6 months, receiving universal praise from bloggers and food critics. It receives a negative review - Sod all effect, no one cares about one review in a sea of positivity especially when the chef already has a great reputation. This would in no way stop me visiting a restaurant and I don't know anyone who would be deterred.
- A new restaurant has been open one week, there have been no reviews or feedback and the owner/chef has no history in the area. It receives a negative review - This will probably knock a few potential guests and could knock a bit of wind out of the sails of the launch. As long as it is followed by positive reviews there will be no significant impact on the restaurant.
- A restaurant that has been well established for many years has been on a slide of public perception over the last year, negative comments from guests are easily found on Twitter, there have been a string of poor reviews from bloggers all reinforcing the same issues and nothing is being done to correct them. It receives a negative review from a well established blogger with a decent local readership - This could be the final nail in the coffin for a restaurant causing a significant loss of guests, unless something drastic is done to counter this review and the prevailing negative mood caused by poor food and bad service the restaurant will not last forever.
In summary I believe that a good restaurant will be unaffected by a single blogger's review. Restaurants that are not performing on the other hand will have issues that are compounded by bad blogger reviews. I don't believe that is the fault of the blogger, like I said before in these circumstances I feel it is a blogger's duty to point these establishments out. These days money is tight and I have felt that pain of spending money in a restaurant only to realise that it was a waste of cash because the owner, the chef and the staff couldn't give a toss about providing good service or food. I wish somebody had told me so I could have spent my wages in a good restaurant where people were passionate about delivering a great experience.
Let's also not forget that bloggers really don't have a huge audience, even the biggest bloggers will only have readers in the thousands unlike critics who will have readers in the hundreds of thousands. The maximum impact of a blogger is severely limited by this. I do believe that in London town the previously mentioned talented food writers probably do have the power to make a dent in somebody's business but not bloggers, we're talking about comparing giants with ants.
When I asked for examples of businesses damaged by reviews on Twitter I actually got a couple of examples where a bad review had turned a restaurant around. The owners sat down and addressed the issues that had been pointed out, worked hard to reverse popular opinion and are now sitting pretty as well regarded restaurants. One in particular is easily one of my favourite restaurants in Manchester, so hey it's not all bad news.
There is one slightly different scenario that we should consider...
- An established restaurant receives a negative review, the 'flame war' I described in the first paragraph plays out, all the bloggers who witness the comments from the chef/owner swear that they won't visit the restaurant and retweet any nasty comments they can get their hands on, all their followers have a negative view of the restaurant and it is less likely that the negative review will be followed quickly by a positive review as less bloggers will be paying a visit - Out of all the examples this is the worst outcome as the heat caused by the spat increases the readership and attention of the original review disseminating the negative message much further than it should have been, as a secondary impact word of mouth is overwhelmingly negative amongst those people who witnessed the fallout. This still won't have a huge impact but will reduce the number of visitors over a short period of time. This restaurant is not going out of business as we are still talking about a limited number of people involved.
When it comes to negative reviews from bloggers some chefs are their own worst enemies but I must say the majority of chefs/owners will take comments on board graciously or at worst not respond and I do understand that in some cases they have put their entire life (financially and otherwise) in to the establishment which is being criticised therefore it is understandable that they feel their security is being threatened.
Bloggers only write negative reviews to boost their own egos/they are jealous of chefs
Again I'll tell you about us as a starting point. The reason we blog is for our own amusement, we treat our blog as our personal diary and probably read it more than anybody else. At the same time it's a challenge, we are trying to become better writers and I'm not sure what we would do without this creative element in our life. One final unexpected benefit that we love is that through writing about food in Manchester we have met so many people that share our passion. For us ego has never really come in to it, we don't have millions of readers and we never write anything with the intention of increasing that readership, the only selfish reason we publish our posts is so that we can discuss them with other people, be they food consumers or food producers. Essentially I've got nothing to gain from a negative review.
I can't speak for other bloggers but I believe those that we have spoken with share a similar motivation to us. Negative reviews are a common discussion topic when bloggers get together but I am yet to meet a blogger who enjoys writing negative reviews, it's actually pretty torturous especially when you know a restaurant is trying but failing. I don't know a blogger that I would describe as negatively biased, I have read blogs that I find positively biased but they are not for me.
Sincere apologies to critics but I would doubt the motivations of critics more than bloggers and that's because their motivation is very different. Critics have deadlines, they have word counts, they have regular submissions and most importantly they have to write entertaining pieces every bloody time. Logically this means they are going to edge towards a polarised opinion rather than a middle of the road judgement. Nobody wants to read a 'meh' review from a great writer, popular critics are much more inclined to either love or hate a restaurant with a strong message attached to it. We have no such pressures.
If bloggers have an issue with a meal they should give details of this to the restaurant before they leave to allow them to make amends
I think it's a pretty well accepted fact that most people don't complain in restaurants, instead they walk out of the door unhappy, never return and tell their friends all about it. I'm one of those people, I've probably only ever complained in a restaurant a handful of times when I experienced the most extreme examples of bad service or crappy food. I'll tell you why I don't complain, it's because it's not a pleasurable experience. The best case scenario is that you are going to have a difficult conversation with a restaurant manager who will be apologetic and might give you some money off your bill, not a good experience. The worst case scenario is that you are going to have a difficult conversation with a waiter who doesn't want to fetch a manager, followed by a difficult conversation with a manager who doesn't give a shit and the quality of service and food will actually go down, a horrible, night ruining experience.
It isn't quite as simple when you are blogging a meal though. In regards to poor service, it's absolutely unacceptable and if a member of floor staff is consistently bad I'm going to put that in my review without complaining to a manager. The general manager is responsible for employing that person and the floor manager is responsible for managing that person, that's three people in a row that don't care about service or made a mistake. At that point it isn't my job to provide feedback. Of course I do draw attention to late food/drinks/bill and my unhappiness over poor service is written all over my face which should be picked up by any good waiter or waitress. In regards to poor food if there is a an obvious mishap like I get the wrong item I will of course send that back but if it's visibly poor food then again it's been cooked by a chef, sent by another chef and brought to the table by the waitress. This has passed by at least three people who didn't care whether or not I enjoy my food. Not my job to fix that. Why should I go to the trouble of giving you feedback on the day and making my experience even worse? At the end of the day I am still a customer who has paid to enjoy their meal and will not be financially benefited from writing a review, unlike a critic who I do think has more of a responsibility in this area.
So I'm only replicating what people do every day but of course instead of telling my friends I go on the internet and tell anyone who will read about it. I do understand the frustration this might cause chefs and owners but like I said it's not my job, sorry. That said on the flip side chefs get more feedback now than they ever have done as it's not only me who is more comfortable sharing their thoughts after the event. Everybody does it, as soon as they are out of reach of the perceived wrath of the restaurant floor staff they are straight on Twitter tweeting "disappointing meal @restaurant", instant feedback from someone who previously would have disappeared never to return and if handled properly can not only win that customer back but stop that negative feeling from going any further. Absolutely the same with blog posts, the restaurant gets its right to reply even if it is a little bit later than they would prefer. Again if handled properly they can win new customers instead of lose them.
So that's it for me. I think I've said enough regarding what I think about some chef's arguments. As you can see I'm pretty overwhelmingly in favour of bloggers posting negative reviews but it does come with quite a big caveat. Those reviews should be written in a responsible manner, now this is entirely subjective (and I am not talking about any particular reviews!) but for me this is what makes a responsible review...
- It's all true - it may sound silly but if any part of the review is made up or exaggerated then it isn't responsible, I don't think I've ever heard of this happening but its still worth pointing out.
- Criticism should be constructive where possible - A review shouldn't just be 50 different words for shit, there should be some justification as to the criticism.
- Serious complaints shouldn't be trivialised - This is one I'm probably guilty of and is a symptom of not liking to write negative reviews. We are talking about somebody's work that they might be very proud of, jokes are sometimes not the best way to deliver measured criticism.
- A blogger should be prepared to expand on their comments - It should be a dialogue and if a chef/owner has some specific questions about the experience the blogger had then they should be answered.
As I said at the beginning I'd love to hear other peoples' opinions on this, I realise that I'm not speaking for all bloggers here and at the same time I'm open to changing my opinion so please put your comments below and lets see if we can't spread a little bit of empathy and understanding.