Thursday December 07, 2017

How this man tricked TripAdvisor into listing his shed as London's No. 1-rated restaurant

Oobah Bulter shows off his shed and garden — which were briefly rated the No. 1 London restaurant on TripAdvisor.

Oobah Bulter shows off his shed and garden — which were briefly rated the No. 1 London restaurant on TripAdvisor. (Theo McInnes/Vice)

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Story transcript

People around the world have called Oobah Butler begging to book a reservation at his trendy London restaurant, The Shed at Dulwich. 

"People were trying to blackmail me to get tables," Butler told As It Happens guest host Jim Brown. "There were TV executives trying to get in contact with me, all kinds of people."

There's just one problem. No such restaurant exists.

'It kind of just came to me when I sat one day eating toast in the place that I live, which is a shed.' — Oobah Butler, pretend restaurant owner 

The Shed at Dulwich — which was briefly the top-rated London restaurant on the review site TripAdvisor — is actually just a shed that Butler lives in.

"This is how far the housing crisis has gone," he said with a laugh. "It's not even cheap."

He was sitting in his tiny, overpriced home last spring when the idea for the elaborate hoax, which he wrote about for Vice News, struck him. 

"It kind of just came to me when I sat one day eating toast in the place that I live, which is a shed."

No. 1

A non-existent restaurant was briefly the No. 1 rated restaurant of 18,092 in all of London, U.K. (TripAdviser)

The London writer has some experience with TripAdvisor deception. His first paid writing gig was to pen fake reviews for restaurants — which is against the review site's rules.

He likens the job to the famous scene in the sci-fi movie The Matrix, when the lead character learns he lives in a false reality by taking a red pill. 

"All of a sudden, now everything is like the false reality," he recalls. 

He began crafting his own false reality by registering The Shed at Dulwich on TripAdvisor, describing it as a small, appointment-only destination for foodies.

He got everyone he knows to write incredible, five-star reviews, praising the homemade food and cozy atmosphere, and of course, talking about how hard it is to get a table.

fake reviews

This is a sampling of some of the totally fake reviews that propelled the totally fake restaurant to the No. 1 spot on TripAdvisor in London. (TripAdvisor)

He also built a website, which described The Shed as "London's best kept secret."

"It's all about mystique," Butler said. 

Food photography 

Butler filled the site with beautiful pictures showcasing the fake restaurant's fake food.

A fudge brownie topped with whipped cream was really a painted urinal cake with a dollop of shaving cream.

fake food

This mouth-watering dessert from The Shed At Dulwich is actually a urinal cake and shaving foam. (Chris Bethell/Vice)

A hunk of bacon next to a fried egg is actually a close-up of Butler's foot.

"I wanted people to be drooling over my foot, literally."

fake meat

A fried egg resting on a succulent cut of meat — or is it? (Chris Bethell/Vice)

footham

'I wanted people to be drooling over my foot, literally,' says fake restauranteur Oobah Butler. (Chris Bethell/Vice)

Pretty soon the fake restaurateur starting getting calls from would-be customers seeking reservations.

He told them The Shed was all booked up for the foreseeable future.

That just made people want to eat there more.

"People stated applying for jobs at my non-existent restaurant, you know?" he said. "A PR agency wants to represent my non-existent restaurant. All this stuff, it got way out of hand."

'State-of-the-art technology'

Finally, on Nov. 1, seven months after Butler began his ruse, The Shed at Dulwich became the No. 1 London restaurant on TripAdvisor.

Asked for comment, a TripAdvisor spokesperson told As It Happens:

"It is important to note that generally the only people who create fake restaurant listings are journalists in misguided attempts to test us. As there is no incentive for anyone in the real world to create a fake restaurant, this is not a problem we experience with our regular community — therefore this 'test' is not a real world example."

The company also said it uses "state-of-the-art technology to identify suspicious review patterns" to stop real businesses from manipulating their rankings.

Grand opening 

But Butler didn't stop there. 

"I've created this amazing reality online, now the only challenge left to do is try to recreate that in reality," he said. "So I opened The Shed for one night only."

He set up tables in his garden and hired his friends to pretend to be servers and patrons. Then he stocked up on instant food, like microwave dinners and instant soup mix.

His first real customers were an American couple on their first trip to Europe.

"We served them this food and they looked so miserable," he said.

"There was this moment that I can just remember so clearly. I was looking from a distance and the woman, who described herself as a foodie, she got out her phone to take a photo of the mac and cheese, looked at it through the phone, and then just didn't take the photo. She put it away. I felt kind of guilty at that point."

Tourists

An American couple is served a heaping plate of frozen microwave macaroni and cheese at The Shed at Dulich. (Theo McInnes/Vice)

But as they brought in new customers, people seemed to be having a good time. All of them gave positive feedback to the servers, and some even tried to book future reservations. 

Even the Americans left a good review.

"The power of the internet is so strong that people will not even trust what's in front of their eyes or what is going in their mouths," he said. 

After his one-night only experiment, Butler fessed up and removed The Shed from TripAdvisor. You can still see an archive of it here

"You could just say that this has proven that everything we know is just essentially nonsense," Butler said.

"But I'm an optimist, so what I would say is I think that this proves that if I can make a fake restaurant in my shed  ... anything is possible. There you go. What about that?"