Do food reviewers have an obligation to be positive during the pandemic?

Caterer Middle East editor Simon Ritchie asked food critics and restaurateurs for their thoughts
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Should reviewers only be positive during the pandemic?
Photo by Leighann Blackwood on Unsplash
Should reviewers only be positive during the pandemic?

Twitter was abuzz this week as celebrated British chef Gary Usher rounded on a TripAdvisor reviewer who suggested people should avoid his restaurant “like the plague” after she had an underwhelming experience at his restaurant, Sticky Walnut.

In Usher’s forthright response, he criticised her comments and said that his team are simply “trying to survive a global pandemic”, which got me wondering.

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Do food reviewers, both professional and amateur, have a responsibility to be more positive about their experiences in light of the ongoing coronavirus situation that restaurants are navigating? Or does the responsibility to faithfully document their experience remain?

Dubai-based food writer Samantha Wood, popularly known as Foodiva, and famously banned from Izu Ani’s restaurants following a less than sparkling review posted on her site, made the decision to change to recommendations instead of reviews back in June, citing the difficult conditions and restrictions that restaurants have to operate under. “Until these restrictions are lifted, traditional restaurant criticism is unfair,” she said.

Restaurateurs I spoke with tended to agree with Wood. Aleix Garcia, head of operations at Infini Concepts, said that while he believed it was important that venues attempt to maintain their high standards, many restaurants are only open in a bid to keep their staff employed, and are making no profit. “This should definitely be taken into consideration when criticising a business today.”

Chang Sup Shin, CEO of 1004 Gourmet, went further. “I have always believed that food reviewers should never be harsh in their reviews unless something terrible has happened, such as rude service.” When it comes to negative feedback, Chang believes the reviewer should speak to the restaurant manager privately. “A reviewer’s role in the F&B industry is to spread awareness about restaurants, but that should be it,” he said.

But does this just create an endless feedback loop of positivity, where no criticism is allowed? How then do potential customers choose where to spend their money if all they read are positive reviews of every outlet?

Despite the pandemic, the UAE’s main lifestyle and dining magazine Time Out has made no changes to its restaurant review policy. It pays in full for its experiences, all of which are done anonymously. And if its reviewer likes somewhere, they will say so. If they don’t, they will highlight the reasons why.

And shouldn’t that be the way it always is? Food writer Haiya Tarik told me that in her experience restaurants “are now seeking only cheerleaders, and not real, constructive criticism that’ll lead to healthy competition and improved quality”.

She’s recently had a friend “named and shamed” on social media by a restaurant owner just for asking her followers which of two venues they preferred. “We need to harbour an environment that encourages continuous improvement and one that isn’t hostile towards the honest food writer,” she said.

In the face of such hostility, Tarik said she’s choosing not to write about negative experiences publically, instead sending feedback privately. But with many customers financially struggling alongside restaurants, she is left with the guilt of leaving out information that could help her followers make better choices with their limited disposable income.

What do you think? Should reviewers cut restaurants some slack, or does the diner’s dirham matter more than ever?

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