Steve DiMillo, whose family owns DiMillo’s Restaurant on Portland’s waterfront, can still recite in detail the negative reviews posted about the restaurant on social media sites such as Yelp and TripAdvisor.

There was the group of “hammered” guests who arrived drunk, picked fights with other diners, and then, as they were being kicked out, threatened: “You’d better hope you don’t need a heart transplant.” (Turns out they were all transplant doctors from Massachusetts.) One of them went online later, claiming they had been treated unfairly because DiMillo’s refused to serve them more drinks.

Then there was the online reviewer who proclaimed to the world that the restaurant doesn’t like children because other parties without kids were seated first. “We have a kids’ menu,” DiMillo said. “We love kids. I’m one of nine kids. Kids are our next customers.” The situation had nothing to do with age, he said – the restaurant just didn’t have a table big enough for the aggrieved party at the time.

Such baseless criticisms can be frustrating, but DiMillo doesn’t let them get to him. He doesn’t think people choose a restaurant based on a single review.

Other Portland-area restaurateurs and chefs share his outlook. When a negative review gets posted, yes, it hurts, but they consider social media criticism something they have to pay attention to, or at least put up with. It is, as several chefs put it, “a necessary evil.”

Negative reviews on social media may damage their overall star ratings on these sites, these restaurateurs say, but they don’t necessarily affect their bottom lines. Bad reviews can, however, crush the confidence of people who work in an industry where the primary goal is to make customers happy. While many restaurateurs feel they must respond, whether it’s to make things right or to defend their staff, others choose to ignore reviews.

TRACKING REVIEWS

Most of the people interviewed for this story read their restaurant’s social media reviews at least occasionally. While Cara Stadler, chef-owner of Tao Yuan in Brunswick and Lio and Bao Bao Dumpling House in Portland, says she doesn’t like online reviews, “I’m also very aware that I need to accept the reality of them.”

“I read them because I’m curious what people have to say,” she said.

When social media review sites first became popular, Rebecca Charles, owner of Pearl Kennebunk Beach and Spat Oyster Cellar, regularly checked the reviews for her New York City restaurant. (Her Maine restaurants weren’t open at the time.) She’s proud of the food she puts out, and wanted to know the reactions to it, both good and bad. Occasionally, a review was helpful, pointing out an issue at the restaurant that needed addressing.

Then, she said, “like a lot of other restaurant owners, I went through a period of real disgust because … the abuse of the sites can have extraordinarily negative consequences. I think we all feel like we’re doing our best to contribute something very good, and take it very personally when it goes awry for some reason.”

Charles now has a manager trained in customer service who keeps track of the reviews and, if necessary, responds to them, whether it’s to correct misinformation or simply thank reviewers for expressing their opinions.

“I had to stop looking at them because it was affecting how I was doing my job, and not in a good way,” Charles said. “It was making me question things that I knew I was right about.”

Examples? Sometimes a reviewer will complain about a dish being too salty. Charles said she’s very careful about how much salt she puts in her food – in part because at age 66, she has to worry about salt content herself. It’s also frustrating, she said, when a reviewer misidentifies the ingredients in a dish, or the cooking method used to make it.

Jay Villani, owner of Salvage BBQ, Local 188 and Black Cow, all in Portland, ignores social media altogether, responding only to people who reach out directly to his restaurants with a complaint.

“I pay no attention to them,” he said. “I don’t have the time to get sucked into that vortex. Especially with certain platforms like Yelp. All people do on Yelp is bitch.”

Frederic Eliot, head chef at Scales, says the site he pays the most attention to is Open Table because the restaurant uses their software for reservations. If someone leaves a review there, at least he knows that they actually ate at the restaurant.

A recent survey by Womply, a reputation management firm, found that when it comes to leaving online restaurant reviews, Maine actually has one of the kindest consumer bases in the country, ranking second only to Montana. A review of data from Yelp, Google Reviews, TripAdvisor and other sites showed that just over 83 percent of online reviews left for restaurants in Portland are positive and the average for Maine is 83.7 percent, compared to the national average of 79.9 percent. Still, when that negative review hits a single restaurant, owners don’t care about averages.

THE COMEBACK

While no one we spoke with could directly correlate a bad online customer review with their bottom line, negative reviews can bring down a restaurant’s overall star rating on a particular site. A restaurant can have 50 great reviews, Charles notes, and just a couple of bad ones “really pull your rating down.”

A spokeswoman for Yelp said that may be true when a restaurant is brand new. Yelp business ratings, she said, are based on the average star rating a business gets, so negative reviews early on could bring down a restaurant’s overall ranking. But over time, as the restaurant accumulates more reviews, she said, this issue tends to “level out.”

Those rankings are why some restaurants make a point of responding to bad reviews online. Clark Frasier, co-owner of MC Perkins Cove, says he and partner Mark Gaier always review the circumstances of the complaint, and “if it’s an issue, then we definitely try to address it.”

Frasier said he thinks people have become more sophisticated about social media. When it was new, a lot of people took customer reviews very seriously, as if they all came straight from the New York Times’ restaurant critic, he said. Now, the public doesn’t necessarily take individual comments at face value; they look at the comments section as a whole and try to figure out the consensus on a restaurant when deciding where to spend their dining dollars.

“Gradually, people have learned to read more comments and see if the prose is purple or reasoned, and if the comments make sense or if someone just obviously had too much to drink and became belligerent,” Frasier said. “Because there is essentially no accountability on these sites in terms of fact checking.”

According to Yelp, its form of fact checking is its recommendation software, which evaluates reviews to try to weed out suspect reviews – the least useful and least reliable ones. The software flags reviews that appear to be biased – including positive reviews that may have been “solicited” by the restaurant owner – and may move them to a section that gives that review less weight. The company recommends about 71 percent of submitted reviews, according to a Yelp spokeswoman, and only those are factored into a restaurant’s overall star rating.

Both users and business owners, she said, can report content if they think something fishy is going on. (Content is also flagged for hate speech.) And when a restaurant is swamped by a tsunami of news coverage, as Marcy’s Diner and the former Grace restaurant in Portland were several years ago, the company may post a consumer alert to warn that reviews may not be based on the firsthand experience of diners, but on public gripes about the business that have nothing to do with the food. Sometimes they link to the news stories causing the temporary spike in negative reviews.

Whether this actually happened in the cases of Marcy’s Diner and Grace is unclear. Anne Rutherford, who owned Grace at the time and still owns Foreside Tavern in Falmouth, banned owners of assault weapons from her restaurants after a massacre at a gay nightclub in June 2016; her ban got widespread media coverage. When bad reviews of Grace started to appear online shortly after, she said, managers at the review sites did nothing to clarify the situation “even when some reviews were ridiculous.” Rutherford says she was told by Yelp there was no way to prove the negative reviews were related to her stance on gun control.

(Really? A handful of old reviews on Yelp mention Rutherford’s stance on gun control and don’t appear to be based on a first-hand dining experience. Corky F. from Fargo, North Dakota, for example, wrote: “This loony toons has banned those that support the second amendment. I wouldn’t feel safe in this establishment. Furthermore from what I’ve read the food is overpriced & not worth the money.”)

“It affected ratings terribly,” Rutherford said.

Jesse Bania, manager of Solo Italiano in Portland, will respond to online comments that are particularly nasty, or on the other hand, very positive. He also replies when something specific went wrong that he can address.

At times, Bania feels he has to “go in and defend ourselves.” In one case, the restaurant posted on Facebook that on a particular date it would be selling a special Champagne by the glass. A party came in a week early to taste the wine. They blamed the restaurant for their mistake, and then bad-mouthed their server “in a really kind of nasty way,” Bania said. “I have a right to stand up for my staff.”

Other times, Bania said, complaints require a more nuanced response. One diner, he recalled, gave the restaurant a negative review because they didn’t get bread until halfway through the meal. But when the bread arrives at Solo Italiano can depend on what the party has ordered, Bania explained in his response. “We don’t put down bread if the first course is a pizza,” he said.

JOE BLOW VS. THE PROS

Customer reviews can sting more than reviews from professional restaurant critics. While a negative review from a professional “still is very upsetting,” Frasier said, he feels it carries more authority than online reviews. “Obviously, someone who spends a lot of time dining out, eating and studying food, I give that a lot more weight,” he said.

Professional reviewers, Charles added, at least have some “compassion and understanding that they wield a lot of power.”

“The difference between real restaurant critics and a Joe Blow is the restaurant critic, in the best of all possible worlds, has real information about food and the industry,” Charles said, “and an understanding that’s going to allow them to give a review that, while it may be somewhat subjective, is based on a good overview and is going to be instructive.”

All of this after-dinner anger could be avoided, restaurateurs say, if diners would simply lodge their complaints while they are at the restaurant, instead of silently fuming and venting their feelings online later. While Stadler cares about getting negative reviews, she doesn’t respond to them directly because she thinks that “if you wanted an answer, you would have spoken to a manager.”

Stadler recalls a recent case in which a regular at Tao Yuan had a rare bad experience, and instead of talking to the manager “she just wrote a nasty review.” Stadler said the incident occurred on a night when the restaurant was so understaffed her own mother (who is a co-owner) was working the floor.

“Had you taken two seconds of your time to express your feelings,” she said, “we probably would have comped a dish or given something for free.”

Frasier said customers will eat their meal, pay the bill and seem to be satisfied, then leave and write a review that says they’re upset they didn’t get seated at the right table, or something was wrong with their order.

“I would much prefer to have someone say ‘My steak is overcooked, I’d like it redone,’ or ‘I’d like a different seat. I’ll wait,’ ” he said. “Give management a chance to address it. And don’t be shy. If you say something and nothing is addressed and nothing is changed, then obviously you have the perfect right to say something on social media.””

QUID PRO QUO

One tactic most restaurants refuse to recognize is threats – when customers threaten to post a bad review online if they don’t get free food, for example. “We’ve been threatened with ‘We’re going to ruin you,’ ” Frasier said.

It’s particularly galling when someone asks for a dish to be comped after they’ve eaten most of it, Stadler said. “I’m not going to give you something for free because you ate 80 percent of it,” she said.

Villani says when he feels threatened, “I just say ‘OK, give us a bad review. There are plenty of other restaurants in town you can go to.’ ”

Charles says her staff has heard such threats “many times, both here and in New York.” On the night its large dining room opened, Charles’ Kennebunk restaurant ran out of bread. It was an honest miscalculation, she says – she hadn’t expected such a big crowd. Most people would be understanding of the circumstances, but one man did not take it well and made a scene. Then he went home and started typing. And typing.

“This guy wrote about it forever,” Charles said, “and they were vitriolic reviews. It was actually kind of scary.”

As Frasier puts it, “Some people are nuts.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.