Option 2: Blame the customer and vent your own frustrations
While restaurateurs who complain about bad reviews probably think it's much easier for those with near-perfect ratings, it turns out that universal acclaim is not without its drawbacks. Want proof? You can find it in the middle of long stretch of open highway in California. Here, acclaim seems more like a curse.
Out along the 395 in little Big Pine, California, valley-set and bracketed by mountains, sits a huge ruddy yellow barbecue on an 8ft trailer, so conspicuous you can see it from the road. It's the eponymous grill of the Copper Top BBQ -- modest highway eatery, father-son affair, and The Best Restaurant in the United States of America.
The distinction is no mere personal whim. It was decided by you: by popular vote. Yelp announced last January, with customary fanfare, that it had rigorously studied its archive of user ratings to determine the hundred best-reviewed restaurants in the site's history from across the entire country -- "from food trucks to fine dining," as its press release put it. There are more than 600,000 restaurants in America. Copper Top emerged as No. 1. Suddenly, instantly, this unassuming family enterprise was launched from roadside obscurity into the stratosphere of culinary superstardom.
Critics both professional and amateur were surprised to learn that so seemingly inconsequential an establishment had received such an honor. So were the establishment's owners. "We had no idea," says Matthew Otten, manager of Copper Top and son of Hank, its founder and head chef. "We knew that our ratings on Yelp were good -- I think we had maybe one bad review out of 250. It was constant positivity. But we're just a small town. We thought there's got to be other restaurants out there doing way better than us. We didn't think much of it." Until a Big Pine local rushed to Copper Top one morning with breaking news. "We were No. 1 in America. It really took us by surprise."
Before their unlikely triumph, the Ottens maintained the kind of steady if unspectacular business one might expect of a well-liked small-town barbecue joint. "We were pretty popular around here," Otten remembers. "It wasn't crazy, but it was paying the bills." Then came the award.
"It just exploded. It went through the roof. We had people lined up down the street. We had nowhere near enough food -- for months." Of course every restaurateur dreams of being inundated with eager diners. But for an operation of this scale it isn't necessarily enviable. "We got a lot of business… more business than we could handle. There were so many people all day; we'd sell out by 2 o'clock. And we're selling barbecue. What we have is what we have."
Humble places have an unspoken advantage when it comes to reception. It's a matter of expectations. People are happy to praise a low-profile restaurant all the more for its lack of renown. But being designated the best restaurant in the country tends to provoke the opposite kind of reaction. People are merciless.
The surge of diners that descended on Copper Top after its Yelp victory could no longer be pleasantly surprised or even mildly awed; their experience either confirmed the title of No. 1 restaurant or contradicted it, making even the slightest error an infraction of unforgivable magnitude. Not enough napkins? Too-tangy sauce? Fine, ordinarily. But best implies a degree of perfection Yelpers swiftly identified as, in this case, unattained. It was like Copper Top suddenly found itself in the ring with Per Se.
Otten had in fact been warned that this would happen. Shortly after the award was announced he received a call from the restaurant that last held the title. "They called me and said to watch out: there's a target on us now." They were right. "We still had just as many good reviews," he says, "but we had all the people attacking us. That was difficult to adjust to, because I'm just trying to make a living here. My dad and I, we're working our butts off. And they're saying these horrible things."
Indeed. One user declared, "Everyone including the owner and Yelp should be ashamed of themselves for listing this restaurant so highly." Another wrote, "I couldn't say anything good about the meal. It was beyond comprehension that that Yelp gave such a high rating to this restaurant." They go on like that: "Don't waste your money or time… unprofessional and disgusting." "I don't know how this place became supposably #1 because that's a joke" [sic]. "Way overhyped by Yelpers." "Waste of time and money."
To hear Otten tell it, there was nothing short of a conspiracy to dethrone him: "I had businesses all over the place leaving fake one-star reviews. Just to bring us down. The business across the street started talking trash about us to the locals, saying horrible things, saying that we can't cook. People were calling us derogatory names. It got bad." (Some of the Yelp reviews really do get personal: "Don't listen to Matthew," one user wrote. "He is a loser.")
"I had this lady come up with a notepad in her hand," says Otten. "She said, 'Why do you think you deserve to be No. 1? Because I don't think you do!' I'm like, whoa! What the heck? We got that all the time: this place is not No. 1 and here's why." The Ottens weren't accustomed to such ruthless scrutiny. "We were just a quaint little barbecue joint. Just my dad and I. But because of that award people look for things to tear you down with."
Otten wasn't blessed with Seymour's zen calm. The deluge of negativity got to him. And so he started fighting back. "I went on the defensive for a bit," he admits, sounding a note of regret. Some of Otten's more colorful replies are still on Yelp -- and they're not pretty. "Please do us a favor and don't come back, we don't need your drama." "Take a chill pill and grow up." "Feel free to leave your review up and show the world just how knuckleheaded you are." Or, my personal favorite: "Please contact me if there is a real problem that I can fix, otherwise, please enjoy the obscurity that you are so accustomed to."
In recent months, Otten's responses -- even to the most censorious remarks and unfair one-star reviews -- are levelheaded and judicious. "I'm sorry we weren't able to feed you some great BBQ that day," he informed an angry Yelper annoyed that Copper Top had run out of food. "I'm sorry if your recent experience felt less than excellent in any way," he wrote to another, "and I hope you'll give us another chance soon." What accounts for Otten's newfound sense of diplomacy? "I just thought, I can't do this," he says. "All this does is make me look bad." Now, "I just write nice replies and if they seem biased I try to let it go."