March 3, 2021

In the past, a visit from a food critic caused restaurants to go into a frenzied panic. But now, there is Yelp. And there is social media.

It’s a restaurant’s worst nightmare: Anyone with a phone or computer can now be a critic…and restaurants need to be prepared.

Professional food critics operate according to a Code of Ethics from The Association of Food Journalists. And while their reviews are weightier than the typical Yelp review, they at least strive to provide a fair and balanced review. Professionals usually visit an establishment several times in order to get a well-rounded experience and try a variety of dishes.

Amateur critics, on the other hand, may have a variety of intentions—sometimes nefarious. Even well-meaning guests may visit your restaurant on a bad day—or in a bad mood!—and not appreciate the consequences of posting negative comments.

Multiple hands holding phones taking photos of plated food
The answer is to run your restaurant as if you were receiving a food critic each and every day.

You also need to have a plan for how to react to poor reviews and foster good relationships online. Here’s a quick plan for dealing with food critics of all varieties:

1. Always Be Ready

Since everyone who dines at your establishment can write a review, post a comment, or might have their own blog, you need to be ready at all times.

Constant vigilance and preparedness separates the great from the mediocre restaurants. Let the possibility that a food critic could enter your restaurant at any moment serve as extra motivation for great business operations.

Keep Your Restaurant Clean

Critics will be the first to point out a restaurant that isn’t up to sparkling standards. Especially during COVID-19 times, restaurants should strive to make their cleaning routines open and obvious to the public. Use server-side work to rotate cleaning of all areas in the restaurants.

Waiter cleaning table with disinfectant spray and microfiber cloth in cafe

Make Sure Staff are Fully Trained

Having well-trained hosts and servers goes a long way in creating a positive experience for guests. Provide a handbook with information about the restaurant’s history and philosophy. Test trainees on their restaurant and menu knowledge. Ensure that new team members follow and learn from experienced leaders until they are fully ready to take on their roles.

Create a Menu that Your Kitchen can Competently and Consistently Make

Large or complex menus can hinder this ability. When customers know that they can dine at your restaurant and be served the same delicious meals each and every visit, they will tell their friends, return often, and post positive reviews.

Woman reading menu in cafe, closeup

Put Information on Your Website

Professional food critics and bloggers are often interested in telling an in-depth story about your restaurant, so put your restaurant’s history and origins of recipes on your website. The easier you make this information to find, the more likely they are to share the stories you want the public to know.

Jax Fish House website timeline

Jax Fish House in Boulder, Colorado, provides a timeline of their history and a link to press and awards they have received, making it easy for reviewers to write positive things about them.

2. Provide Great Service

Great service goes a long way to making a guest’s experience enjoyable. Since each and every guest might be a critic, they should be treated as such.

Friendly and Well-trained Hosts

Nobody wants to show up to a restaurant and wait for several minutes without being greeted. Always have someone at the host stand offering a warm welcome and providing accurate wait times.

Greet Tables in a Timely Manner

The rule of thumb is to greet tables within 2-3 minutes of being seated.

Diverse friends sitting in restaurant placing order talking with waitress

Offer Suggestions of the Most Well-loved Dishes

Servers should be able to offer crowd-pleasing suggestions for each menu area (appetizer, cocktails and wine, main dishes, and dessert), as well as meet dietary restrictions.

Be Available But Do Not Hover or Interrupt

Most of us have had an overly attentive server and know they can be as disruptive to a meal as one who can never be found. Good servers know the appropriate timing of checking on tables, and make themselves seen throughout the meal in case they are needed.

Communicate and Immediately Solve if Anything Goes Wrong

Restaurants are not infallible. Orders will be forgotten, entered incorrectly, not cooked well, or dropped. The best defense in these situations is to inform the customer immediately, let them know the next steps, and offer a remedy.

3. Handle Bad Reviews as a Learning Experience

Even if you consistently offer exemplary service and flawless food in an immaculately clean restaurant, poor reviews will happen. Anything less than five stars, or any bit of negativity, can be difficult to swallow. How you handle these is just as important as the steps you took to avoid them.

Take Time to Recognize and Celebrate the Praise

When you live in fear of bad reviews, you can miss the opportunities of the good ones. Positive reviews provide helpful information on what guests love about your restaurant. Reading them to your staff or visibly posting them can boost team morale.

Give an Honest Assessment of Any Criticism

Rather than go into defensive mode when a negative review comes in, try to read it without emotion attached. Does the writer make valid points? Are there issues pointed out that could be areas for improvement? Many chefs will have managers read the reviews and only bring legitimate concerns to the chefs.

Respond to All Reviews

Opinions vary on this subject, but overall, the consensus is that it is best to engage especially on Facebook and apps like OpenTable. Many think twice about paying Yelp for the privilege of being able to respond. Thanking people who post positive views helps build community and engagement on your platforms. For negative reviews, this Lightspeed article, The Right Way to Respond to Bad Reviews, offers six helpful steps for responding.

4. Do Not Negotiate with Food “Elites”

In an article from Spoon University, a reviewer is quoted saying, “I’m a Yelp Elite. If you don’t give me my meal for free, I’ll write a bad review about your restaurant.” Wow! How do you respond to impossible requests like these?

Providing Free Meals in Exchange for Good Reviews Sets a Bad Precedent

In fact, it is clearly stated several times in the food critic’s Code of Ethics as being an abuse of position. While you can offer something small like a free dessert, or bring out a sampling of something, comping entire meals should be avoided.

Don’t be Tempted to Enter into a War of Words

There are people out there, with a lot of time on their hands, who enjoy getting a rise out of business owners. They will never be satisfied or happy with their experience and are often looking for a fight. After you have posted your thoughtful response, you can stop engaging. Nothing positive will come from further trying to defend your position.

Build Relationships

Unlike food critics who are dedicated to providing unbiased opinions, amateurs do not need to play by those rules. You can work to build relationships with frequent posters and even invite popular bloggers to your establishment. You can also encourage your best customers to become critics and post positive reviews.

Smiling black woman taking photos of her food in a cafe
If you strive to maintain a clean restaurant, consistently serve quality food, and provide excellent service, you will set yourself up for positive customer reviews.

You’ll always get criticism—sometimes fairly, and sometimes unfairly. No matter what, it’s always best to look at criticisms for what they are: one person’s opinion…and respond appropriately. And when the criticisms are warranted, use those to make your establishment even better…and thank the reviewer for their assistance!

Interested in learning more about how you can operate a restaurant that is always ready for a food critic? A degree in Food & Beverage Operations from Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts provides a broad overview of the concepts and skills that can assist you in building a consistently 5-star-rated restaurant.

To learn more about an associate’s degree or diploma from Escoffier, contact us today!

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This article was originally published on February 15, 2016, and has been updated.