Even though I spent two decades reviewing New York restaurants anonymously, every so often I would get recognized. So I’m familiar with that look of terror when chefs and restaurateurs think a critic is about to pounce. After all, what could be worse for a new restaurant than a bad review?
Even generally positive reviews can be smug. Remember, reviewers—whether they’re from small towns or big cities—make their living by being critical, and the public loves a slap delivered in the middle of a caress. But what can you as the chef or owner do about a bad review?
First, here’s what you should not do: write an angry letter to the editor, lash out via social media or publicly ban the critic from the restaurant—all of which backfire by highlighting the bad review. For example, one Brooklyn, N.Y., restaurant posted a negative piece of mine in its window, obliterating the negative remarks with a felt-tip pen. This only served to suggest the large number of things that must be wrong with the place. So what should you do instead?
Take a deep breath. Then, read the review more carefully. Savor the positive. If the reviewer says your chicken breast was mushy and flavorless, chances are he also notes that the hanger steak was perfectly cooked and attractively plated. You can pull the good quotes and use them on your website.
Make a checklist. Create an objective analysis of the review—itemizing the negative aspects—and see if there’s any truth to the complaints. Some owners pay consultants thousands of dollars to assess their operations. Consider the bad review free advice from an outside expert.
Love-bomb the critic. Write a polite thank you note for the review and promise to take the advice to heart. This will be totally disarming. Many restaurateurs—if they respond at all—opt for a hate note, which too often ends up getting published.
Worry more about your repeat customers. Diners dedicated to hitting all the new places first will probably not become repeat customers. Intensify your efforts to recruit loyal customers. Offer complimentary items during off-peak hours, or institute a loyalty program that rewards repeat customers with modest discounts, special tables, freebies, secret chef’s dishes or priority reservations.
Consider removing the problematic dishes. Or modifying them, at least temporarily. Anyone who has read the review and then examines the menu will realize you’ve taken the criticism to heart and made positive changes. Note that this doesn’t involve reworking the entire menu or concept—that’s raising the flag of defeat.
As hard as it is to accept, much can be gained from bad reviews. Use them as an opportunity to analyze your strengths and weaknesses, so you can make a total success of your new place. Good luck!
Robert Sietsema was a longtime restaurant critic at the Village Voice, wrote for Gourmet, garnered two James Beard nominations and published four books about restaurant criticism.