Part of Opening a Restaurant: Learning to Live With Yelp

By Sara Jenkins
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Sara Jenkins


To try Sara's recipe for pasta with red wine sauce, click here.

It's a new world out here. Even in the two years since I opened Porchetta, the whole idea of being continuously reviewed by people of unknown qualifications has grown to what sometimes seems an all-consuming quantity. While two years ago there was plenty of Internet foodie chatter on sites like Chowhound, Yelp, Serious Eats, and Eater, it seems every day brings a new one online, each clamoring to be first and have the real inside scoop. By and large the people running these websites have knowledge of what they talk about: They are passionate foodies who spend quite a bit of time discerning what is real, what is authentic, and what is worthy of the common person. They might be a little too obsessed with one theme, but at least their writings are based on some informed criteria.

And then there are the blogs that are simply forums for anyone to get on and chat and spit their opinion out into the ether, informed or not. When I first opened Porchetta, I received a window decal from Yelp that I put on my car window. I didn't even understand what it was. I understood putting my print reviews up in the window of the store, but not that Yelp was a new and powerful tool driving business and people's choices about where to eat or shop or apparently congregate (people actually spend time rating important landmarks like the cube at Astor Place or Bethesda Terrace on the Upper West Side).

One person writes that his wine glass could have held a lot more wine. Another is disgusted there are toasted bread crumbs in the pasta.

Practically the first day my new restaurant, Porsena, is open for business we have Yelp reviews posted—and they are horrible. Any restaurant opening is shaky. There are so many cogs that have to run together and they never move smoothly out the door, but already, a month into things, I am really happy overall with the food coming out of the kitchen and the service on the floor. I am inordinately proud of my wine list. We do of course have missteps: the wrong pastas get fired, people wait too long for their pasta (which is cooked to order every time), sometimes one lone guy has to put up 18 pastas all at once and I admit that they are not quite as perfect as when he puts up four pastas. In the ongoing process of trying to be the best that we can be, we adjust and tweak every day, generally improving what I think was pretty good even in those first shaky days.

I believe in criticism and I believe in humbly analyzing one's faults. When my father taught me to ski, he also taught me that if you don't fall down you're not learning. Pick yourself up, understand what you did wrong, and then try to do it right the next time. Part of trying to understand what we do wrong is reading the reviews on Yelp, which are unfettered, unfiltered information about what you are doing right or wrong. But as I read these negative reviews I sometimes don't understand what restaurants these people are eating at.

One person writes that his wine glass could have held a lot more wine than was poured into it, which is true: I could probably pour half a bottle into it, but then it would be wine by the half bottle, not wine by the glass (and priced somewhat differently). Another person is shocked and disgusted that there are toasted bread crumbs in the pasta and implies that they are stale beyond belief. Someone complains that the anchovies on the salami plate are too few. Every time the plate comes up to the pass I look at the tangle of three to four fat anchovy filets and think, but how many anchovies does anyone want to eat? Another review says there were too many clams in the vongole and not enough pasta; it should be called clams with pasta he thinks.

Meanwhile around me what I see is people devouring their food, the happy warm glow of people excited about what's put in front them, strangers coming up to us telling us how good everything is, how they can't wait to come back. We've been open a month and we already have regulars, people who have been in five times already. Every day is a struggle to prepare enough food to feed all the people coming in, so it's pretty guaranteed that everything is fresh. There are no stale breadcrumbs in the house, that's for sure. It's a dream as far as waste goes because there is none (except for the beautiful chicken that no one orders, but that's a whole other story).

So I don't know what to believe. I want to read my criticism and take it on the chin, use it to better see what we are doing wrong and improve, but I really don't know what restaurants these people are eating in. I have to put more faith in what I see in front of me, and that is good honest food and happy people. I try not to read Yelp anymore, and I think that's where I'll just have to stay until I feel a different current in the room.

Recipe: Pasta With Red Wine Redux

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2011/01/part-of-opening-a-restaurant-learning-to-live-with-yelp/69972/