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Everyone’s a critic

How to deal with today’s restaurant reviewer: any charlatan with a fork and a laptop.

There once were tools of the trade for reviewing restaurants. A fake mustache. Dark glasses. Aliases for making reservations. And a newspaper or magazine holding the reviewer to standards. Today, with the rise of the citizen-reviewer, operators no longer have to worry about spotting a tough critic. They can point to anyone in the dining room and see a potential source of panning.

Their ranks are staggering. Yelp claimed to have more than 130 million monthly unique visitors as of the first quarter of the year, and its members have written over 57 million reviews of all kinds of businesses, including restaurants, since the site launched a decade ago. TripAdvisor boasts more than 60 million members and more than 150 million reviews.

Complicating matters are suspicions about the validity of these everyman reviews. A study by Harvard Business School last fall found that roughly 16 percent of Yelp reviews in the Boston area were fake. Still, people put faith in consumer write-ups: another study found that only one in four believe the information available on ratings sites is unfair.

What’s a restaurant to do? Here are five tips for dealing with today’s panoply of critics. 

Respond to negative reviews quickly ...

“We apologize ... and try to get the customers back in for a replacement meal,” says Anthony Pigliacampo, founding partner of Modmarket, an eight-unit chain based in Boulder, Colo. “We also outline the steps we’re going to take to prevent it from happening again.”

... but respond privately.

Responding publicly online just draws more attention to the negative review. If you right the problem with the customer, he may go back to delete or amend the negative post, anyway.

Acknowledge good reviews, too.

“A ‘like’ or comment can go a long way and build loyalty,” says Ali Grant, director of Be Social Public Relations in San Diego.

Forgo freebies.

Reviewers or bloggers worth their salt won’t ask for free food. Melting Pot execs advise franchisees not to provide anything for free “in an effort to stay true to the unbiased nature of a review,” says Sandy D’Elosua, national director of marketing for the chain. Leslie Brenner, restaurant critic for The Dallas Morning News, says it’s bad form when restaurants send out extras. “I operate under the strict ethical guideline that I pay for every-thing at my table, so now the chef has put me in a position that I have to pay for things I haven’t ordered.”

Host an event for reviewers.

Modmarket has hosted 60 Yelpers. “The dollars spent are on par with traditional advertising, and the effect is better,” says Pigliacampo. Squeeze In, a four-unit chain in South Reno, Nev., held a Taste & Tweet to build its Twitter following. People agreed to tweet positive comments and verbally express anything negative, says owner Misty Young.

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