We've all been there: you have a bad meal in a dodgy joint and, frustrated over having spent your money on a plate of food you wouldn't serve to your canine, you head online to post a rage-filled review of the place. End of story, right?
Not for Brit Sarah Gardner, who, after posting a negative review of High Rocks restaurant in Kent to customer evaluation site TripAdvisor, is being sued by the restaurant.
The review, which has since been removed, gave the restaurant a one-star rating and alleged that "[the staff] have an arrogance that should not exist in a service industry, particularly the management." The food, said Gardner, was "mediocre at best." Gardner says she thought nothing more of the review until a few days later, when an 11-page letter arrived for her from High Rocks's lawyers, who claimed their client was suing her for "tens of thousands of pounds" in lost business due to her "defamatory review".
The restaurant's owner, Giuseppe Cappellazzi, says that Gardner didn't visit the restaurant on the day she posted the review, and Gardner doesn't dispute that fact. She says she has the receipts, photographs and bank statements to support her case. And according to TripAdvisor guidelines, posts should be recent – as in, within one year, which Gardner's review was.
This isn't the first time TripAdvisor – or indeed, High Rocks – has been embroiled in a scandal over a negative review. Earlier this year Cappellazzi responded to another customer's bad review by examining the CCTV footage of her meal, saying, "[you] appear happy and smiling when you go to the bar to pay". And there have been many instances of restaurateurs seeking similar payback when reviews haven't gone their way. In 2014, the owner of the Broadway Hotel in Blackpool, England, "fined" a customer for a negative review by adding a £100 ($173) surcharge to their bill. (It was later refunded.) And on the other end of the spectrum, a restaurant owner in Brisbane hit back at a customer who allegedly found a hair in her pasta, uploading the CCTV footage to social media to show that in fact, she'd put her own hair on the plate.
For chefs and restaurateurs, a bad review – based in fact or not – truly can lead to lost business. And while most chefs agree that customers have the right to report on negative experiences, it's tricky for readers to know whether a particular restaurant or meal was definitively bad, or whether it simply wasn't to that customer's taste. As Monty Koludrovic, executive chef at Sydney's Icebergs and The Dolphin, says, "Nobody likes a bad review, but especially one from someone who is a complete unknown". Reviews from critics are different, he says – they are trained to give an unbiased, objective view. Keyboard warriors (my term, not his) are not. "But," he admits, "it's the game we're in. We rely on the internet for so many aspects of life, and this is just another one. It's not always bad or vindictive, and sometimes customers genuinely have had a bad experience and just want to let you know. That, I'm OK with."
One Melbourne chef, who asked not to be named, has been on the receiving end of a few bad reviews, and while she doesn't want to comment on Gardner's case, says she understands why a restaurant owner would want to hit back. "I've had customers post reviews saying that my pasta tastes like shit. That they found rat droppings in their salads. Stuff that is just absolutely not true. Our restaurant is consistently reviewed well by actual reviewers, and it drives me nuts to see these people – who don't have to provide any evidence, by the way, that they even set foot in my place – write damaging lies about my work. My team and I work so hard, and we just don't deserve it."
While TripAdvisor does have a review policy, there are simply too many posts (about 60 every minute worldwide) for the team to moderate every single one. So reviews are monitored for language content and to ensure they're posted to the right business, but they are not fact checked in the way that, for example, a restaurant review in Good Food would be. If owners feel their business has been reported on unfairly, they can lodge an appeal to their local management centre. A spokesperson for TripAdvisor Australia reiterated that every customer has "the fundamental right to share their genuine experiences with others." The site, TripAdvisor maintains, is meant to be a virtual version of sitting around with a group of mates, telling them honestly about the hotel or restaurant you just went to. "You should have no fear or hesitation to share those same thoughts and opinions with the travel community. As such, we are absolutely against any attempt by a business to stifle the honest feedback of its customers."