Bad Grades

A look into the face of online reviews in a mid-sized city.

Jonathan Hill Illustration

Here's the scenario: You are sitting in a restaurant and your food has just been delivered. You are pissed off. The service was bad. You asked for no mayo. Your burger was bleeding more than you’d like.

It isn’t a unique situation, but how you’re now able to handle it is. Yelp and Urbanspoon are two websites that allow anyone with Internet access to review and rate restaurants and other businesses and, since you can be anonymous, people can be brutal and business-owners can attack competitors. Yelp the more popular of the two, attracting, as of late 2010, 39 million individual visitors a month has gained national attention, with reports of angry business owners actually hunting down harsh reviewers. (One woman, initially featured in an Inc. article about Yelp and later referenced in a New York Times piece, actually wound up arrested for battery after showing up at a reviewer’s home.)

Business owners are suing critical reviewers. There are now even companies that specialize in writing either positive or negative reviews for a small fee one, Mechanical Turk, pays its employees about 25 cents for these services. (Although Yelp has filtering tools to sort out the scammers, it’s not fool-proof.)

Restaurants in Spokane don’t get as many comments on the two sites as do eateries in larger cites, but we found that they’re no strangers to the drama reported elsewhere.

We looked through hundreds of listings on Yelp and Urbanspoon to find which restaurants in Spokane had some nasty reviews, then went to pay them a visit. We wanted to find out how online reviews are shaping our local landscape and how businesses are managing a public conversation over which they have so little control.

Longhorn BBQ
1.5 stars from Yelp; 50% from Urbanspoon

Urbanspoon reviewer Chris Gatewood said, “I don’t know how this place has been open so many years. The food is flat out atrocious. The worse excuse for a BBQ restaurant I’ve eaten in the United States. Any person in Spokane that tells you this cesspool is good has never eaten BBQ anywhere else.”

Longhorn BBQ opened in 1956, and many of its customers have been coming in since then, says Erin Miller, general manager of the Longhorn in Airway Heights. The restaurant features a host of barbecue items, a signature sweet sauce, and a ranch atmosphere.

For a place that’s been successful for over 50 years, the negative reviews are somewhat surprising. As an occasional Yelp reviewer herself, Miller has read what people have to say about Longhorn. She tries to keep it in perspective. Miller says some of them she chuckles at, but some throw her off. Misinformation is often rampant, as are misconceptions about how restaurants work.

“Some people get mad if their steak takes 20 minutes, but a well-done steak takes 20 minutes,” says Miller. “They’re so quick to judge. Even at home, in order to get the best product possible, it does take time.”

She believes most people have enough common sense to glean the legitimate reviews from the duds. And if someone has a bad experience in her restaurant, all she wants is for them to say something.

“If something isn’t right,” says Miller, “we like to fix it right away.”

Winger Bros. Restaurant and Brewhouse
2 stars from Yelp; 34% from Urbanspoon
Yelp reviewer Stephanie W. said, “I will not be back and would rather have some Tyson hot wings from the frozen aisle at the grocery store then [sic.] eat here again!”

The Winger Bros. Restaurant and Brewhouse is an experiment, says Utah-based Eric Slaymaker, who co-owns the chain with his brother Scott. This particular restaurant is the first of their restaurant-and-brewhouse fusion. It sits by the Spokane Valley Mall in a shiny new building and features an array of classic Winger’s wings. So far, it’s not doing so great in the online forum. Slaymaker is worried.

“As a business owner, it’s frustrating,” he says, “because you have very little control over it.”

Slaymaker says all feedback can be useful, and he listens to it even though he can’t respond directly. But he says that in the restaurant industry, you’ve got to be realistic you have to think about every move you make.

“You never want to make a major change because one person says something,” he says. “You want to pay attention to it, but you want to make sure there’s a consensus.”

But for all the helpful feedback he can glean from the comments, the consequences of harsh online reviews still reverberate with him at the end of the day.

“Sometimes it’s great; sometimes it just eats away at you.”

Steam Plant Bar and Grill
2.5 stars on Yelp!; 74% Urbanspoon
Yelp reviewer Alexis F. said, “What a waste of an awesome space! Such a cool location but the food is so bad that I can’t stomach going back.”

A year and a half ago, a woman expressed interest in booking her mother’s birthday at the Steam Plant, says general manager Tim Denniston, but she retracted it when she saw a bad online review. The restaurant was able to convince her to come in and try their food, and she wound up booking the party there after all. Denniston knows they were lucky “You don’t get that opportunity a lot of the time.”

Denniston says he actively reads the reviews. The Steam Plant is even considering purchasing special software that helps monitor reviews. But beyond being aware of their existence, there’s not much else he thinks they can do.

“I have a really hard time with online reviews. A lot of them don’t allow you a way to react to the review,” says Denniston. “A lot of the time they don’t give us an opportunity to fix the problem.”

He says he knows why people don’t just say something in person, while they’re still eating (which is how most restaurants would prefer to get feedback). They’re afraid of that urban legend of wait staff spitting in the food of anyone who complains. “It doesn’t happen,” he says.

Denniston points to problems with online reviews. He’s seen comments in which prices were overshot by $3 to $4, or in which reviewers critiqued items that weren’t even on the menu. What’s more frustrating, he says, is that there are no repercussions for spreading harmful and incorrect information. And again, there’s nothing else he can do but try to reply to those who do contact him directly that, he says, is the most important part.

Until then, he’s just got the software. He hopes it will

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