Kitchener-Waterloo

Andrew Coppolino offers his take on online reviews that go too far

Restaurants have no choice but to face the juggernaut of online reviews that have come to characterize the business and which sees potential customers often searching Google for recommendations and reviews before they even open the restaurant’s website.

Restaurants are often the target of malicious comments online

Many people looking for a place to go out for dinner will turn to online reviews for advice. But CBC K-W food columnist Andrew Coppolino says sometimes, those reviews go beyond just the food and service and become downright mean.

Restaurants have no choice but to face the juggernaut of online reviews that have come to characterize the business and which sees potential customers often searching Google for recommendations and reviews before they even open the restaurant's website.

With reviews in traditional media garnering less interest as reach and readership is reduced, online reviews have become the new word-of-mouth.

And honing in more narrowly, it's an important word-of-mouth for the coveted 18 to 34 demographic – representing a significant cohort of the dining public – deciding at which restaurant they will spend their money.

The aggregation of reviews and star-ratings quickly becomes a defining feature for a restaurant – and that can mean negative reviews as well.

While it is generally positive that the internet gives virtually everyone a voice, it has also spawned malicious comments and no few incidents of outrage and shaming of which restaurants are sometimes on the receiving end. That generates a schadenfreude in readers, a revelling in someone else's discomfort.

Over-the-top rants

Recently, a perhaps petty comment was made online that a Waterloo restaurant didn't respond to an email for three days – two of which days the restaurant is closed.

Worse was a social media post posing as a review that excoriated a restaurant and described meals as akin to dog food and the matter you find deposited in diapers. It was all a rather over-the-top attack and, it seemed to me, ignored any shred of civil social convention.

I also wondered if the harsh terms slandered the character of the well-known business, having seen several examples of businesses suing bloggers, for instance, for allegedly damaging comments.

The post referred to above was likely not libellous – thanks to a few similes and metaphors that pulled it into the realm of opinion – but it was unduly harsh, dramatic, self-aggrandizing and, well, childish.
Andrew Coppolino offers a number of tips before you fire off that negative review, including being critical is different than being angry and ask yourself, was that really the worst experience of your life? (CBC)

Contribute to the dialogue

Retired Kitchener lawyer Ross Wells of Wells Resolutions said defamation has two components.

"There's libel, which is the written word and slander is the spoken word. It's basically writing or speaking an untruth, a lie, about a person's character," Wells said.

Individuals who review or comment on a performer or an artist are completely within their rights to express their opinion under what is called "fair comment," but they can't tell untruths, Wells said.  

"An opinion stated would generally fall within that defence of fair comment. That's different from a statement of fact.

"If online, or in a newspaper review, somebody alleged that the fish that was served to them was a different fish than was on the menu, that's a fact and if it's untrue could be subject to a defamation action. But to say in wild and extravagant language how awful the fish was, that's fair comment."

It is entirely fair and justified to make critical comments about a dining experience; in fact, restaurants would rather know what the problems are in order to correct them than have a customer go away silent and unhappy.

In addition, well-written comments have value and contribute to a dialogue within a restaurant community.

While it is generally positive that the internet gives virtually everyone a voice, it has also spawned malicious comments and no few incidents of outrage and shaming of which restaurants are sometimes on the receiving end.

The vitriolic and hyperbolic language is likely a case of a mode of communication technology outstripping social convention. People can trudge out nasty adjectives – and hide anonymously behind their harsh comments – and sit back and watch the result and ensuing viral reaction. That serves no purpose but to trash a restaurant (or any business), and it is often done as an angry rant following too soon after a less than desirable experience at the restaurant.

Such comments I see as megalomaniacal in nature and add nothing to the public discourse except to encourage trolls to chime in and create a churn of complaints.

Equally as bad is the response, "I don't know much about food, but I know what I like," which notes the commentator doesn't like a particular sauce, or ingredient, and then gives the restaurant a one-star rating. People often merely look at the stars and may not even read the comments. Is that fair? Not really.

Keep comments civil

I'm not an apologist for restaurants. They make mistakes, and they sometimes make their own trouble, like we all do. When they stumble, they pay for it and accept it in comments and reviews, but they don't deserve abuse.

While an audit of online reviews would probably reveal that the majority are positive, it's the negative and petulant reviews and that catch a reader's eye – and may leave a lasting and unjustified impression.

Here are some suggestions for a more civil and useful approach to online restaurant reviews:

  • Don't use social media as a weapon for retribution.

  • Remember, it's easier to write a "wild" negative review than a thoughtful and positive one.

  • Being critical is different than being angry.

  • Talk to a manager first about the service or food issues you are having.

  • If possible, visit the venue a second time to compare experiences.

  • Know your facts: Maybe that hollandaise wasn't split?

  • Take a few days to reflect on the experience.

  • Offer some balance in your comments.

  • Contribute to the food, beverage and hospitality conversation.

  • Finally, ask yourself: Was it really the worst experience of your life?

About the Author

Andrew Coppolino

Food columnist, CBC Kitchener-Waterloo

Andrew Coppolino is a food columnist for CBC Radio in Waterloo Region. He was formerly restaurant reviewer with The Waterloo Region Record. He also contributes to Culinary Trends and Restaurant Report magazines in the U.S. and is the co-author of Cooking with Shakespeare. A couple of years of cooking as an apprentice chef in a restaurant kitchen helped him decide he wanted to work with food from the other side of the stove.