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Recovering from bad reviews

The odds were stacked against the restaurant to begin with.  While Lucy Mexican Barbecue had opened in a space within ABC, a trendy antiques and home-furnishings store in New York, its immediate predecessor had failed to thrive there, and its curb presence was minimal. The Nuevo Latino restaurant could've used some good press to get the word out. But with a designer interior and a celebrity chef, there was no reason to believe it didn't have a shot.

Instead, it got a lukewarm review from the New York Post not long after opening. No big deal, thought Lucy's owners. Nothing a good review in the New York Times couldn't fix.

Then the Times review landed. While some aspects got favorable commentary, most would agree Lucy's review fell somewhere between harsh and scathing. Food was "bland" and "boring," while chairs were "stained" and placemats "food-spotted." Worst of all, out of a possible four stars, Lucy got zero. "We were shocked," concedes maitre d' Chris Hutchings.

It's the scenario just about every newly opened restaurant dreads: The make-or-break review going bad. In Lucy's case, things had gone about as badly as possible. Business plummeted 25%. In a town where some believe that each Times star means an extra $500,000 in business annually, owner Phil Suarez considered his receipts, and his crew considered their options.

They could ignore the reviews and stick with their original gameplan. Or they could turn the bad press into the script for Lucy's second act.

"We started from scratch," says Hutchings. "We revamped the menu, staff, training, and our image overall."

Foremost, Lucy execs moved away from primarily regional Oaxacan cuisine to the more general Mexican fare people could not only relate to, but pronounce as well.

They then broke the reviews down point by point. One reviewer said the disappointment started with the hostess, so they got rid of her and retrained the new one to be more pleasant. Another said the guacamole was bland, so they added jazzier ingredients. Another said the cuisine was boring, so they added interactive items like build-your-own tacos.

They also replaced their PR agency with one more in touch with the general public than with foodies, sources say, and took the Lucy's message to the people themselves by adding delivery.

But the Lucy gang also learned from its good press. The Times, for one, loved the cocktails—so Lucy played up its bar by introducing free margarita tastings, after-work specials, and later hours. Bar sales went up 40% as a result, and food sales started to follow.

"We've got a great lounge area," says Hutchings, "so we emphasized it more as a way of getting people in the door."

Today, Lucy's numbers have climbed back near pre-review levels, Hutchings says, and he's optimistic that, heading out of New York's typically slow summer, Lucy will soon be firing on all cylinders.

"We'll have our year anniversary in October," he says. "Sometimes it takes a year for a restaurant to hit its stride."

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