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A Culture of Criticism

February 4, 2015

Last week was the public announcement of my new job with Yelp. It really covered what I would be doing in this new role. What it didn’t address was why I wanted to take on these responsibilities. Writing about food criticism was a part of the FLB from day one. It was always one of the categories, and to date there have been dozens of posts on the subject.

One of the earliest was called Dare to Compare, and it holds up Yelp’s star system as a great way to evaluate restaurants at all different price levels. I was a big fan of the platform then, and obviously I continue to be a fan today.

When I first moved to Albany, and started writing Yelp reviews, I got a bunch of hate mail. Most of it sounded pretty much the same.

“What gives you the right to say that this place is bad.”
“If you don’t like it, why don’t you go back to California.”
“Who do you think you are, anyway?”

What I quickly came to realize is that Albany doesn’t have a very strong culture of criticism.

After years of careful observation, I think I’ve finally figured out the obvious. Albany is a small town. It’s neighboring cities are also small towns. The Capital Region is truly a loose affiliation of small towns. And people in small towns, especially ones in freezing cold climates on the edge of the wilderness, stick together.

Albany has a culture of collaboration and cooperation.

It’s hard to say that’s a bad thing. It’s not. It’s totally not. And it’s perfectly understandable. You can see this in our restaurants. You can also see it in our local governments. On one hand, it’s really lovely to have such tight knit communities. On the other hand, too much collaboration has a tendency to stifle criticism and stymie innovation.

Should you decide to swim against the grain and criticize a local business, a common response is, “That’s really not fair. I know the owner, and he works really hard.”

Hard work is valued in these parts, as well it should be. Great food requires lots of hard work. But you can work really hard and still not even make good food. You can also make pretty freakin’ delicious food without that much work if you begin with incredible ingredients.

I think for the Capital Region to improve, it needs to embrace a culture of criticism.

This isn’t to say we should all start being snarky and harping on every little thing that ruffles our feathers in the course of everyday life. You have to be tougher than that to survive in this world.

But if you have a truly unpleasant experience at a local business, it’s okay to talk about it. Yes, even in public. Yes, even on the internet.

What gives you the right? Well, it’s your experience. You lived it. You paid for it. You’re allowed to share it with others so that they can make more informed decisions based on the outcomes of others.

If you don’t like it, why don’t you just leave town? Because it’s okay to want nice things in the place where you live. Some have argued there is a cloud of mediocrity hanging over the Capital Region. Sure, there are businesses that rise above it. But it’s fair to expect more.

Who do you think you are? Just someone who thinks we can do better. And we totally can do better.

Changing a culture takes time. But the first step is to recognize the current state of affairs and try to envision what a better future looks like. Why did I take the job at Yelp? I would really love to see more people try their hand at online reviews and watch what happens.

Use your real name. Put up a real picture of your face. Stand behind what you say. And don’t just write about the bad things. People who write only negative reviews aren’t helping to pave the way towards positive change. It’s equally important–actually, it’s more important–to share which places are getting it right.

I have no idea if Albany will ever truly embrace a culture of criticism. But I’m really excited to be part of a community of critics. Speaking of which, there are still a few spots left open for tonight’s Yelp Ice Cream Social at Emack & Bolio’s.

Here’s where you go to RSVP. I’m looking forward to seeing some of you there.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. February 4, 2015 10:43 am

    Respecting that if a restaurant knows you are a well-known reviewer when you walk in the door that also changes the equation. One more reason to like Yelp where the unknown but interested patrons will write about their experience and even the playing board. And to remain behind my mask. (:

  2. February 4, 2015 10:46 am

    A majority of individuals acclimated to slick corporate American “customer is always right” ethos” and the normalized middle of the road cuisine that presently dominates the mid-range market for restaurant experiences + Yelp = A dystopian future where all restaurants are Taco Bell (like in “Demolition Man” – )

    I hate Yelp and you will never convince me that it is a good idea. There are certain things I want to take from a rarified pulpit of experience and expertise. I don’t take my medical advice from and I don’t want my culinary criticism from any idiot on Yelp. I bemoan the death of the quality food critic in our society. As a hack food-blog guy I have probably shared a hand in his demise. I won’t put more nails in his coffin via Yelp.

  3. February 4, 2015 11:05 am

    Praise is great. And it sure feels good at times. But criticism is actually your friend – not your enemy. Listen to it, and listen to it well!!! All too often, criticism is taken with a defensive harsh – almost forceful welcome. We opt to defend our choices and actions, rather than listen. Listening is hard. It’s one of the hardest things we have to do as humans. Hearing is easy. Listening is the hard part.

    I learned from a young age that criticism is means to keep positive – IF YOU LISTEN. Listen, and filter. Take what you need, and let the lest go. And, we do NEED something.

  4. February 4, 2015 11:15 am

    One of the problems with Yelp in the Cap District has been that there are lots of reviewers who will give five stars for “grate pizza” or one star for “I was so sick I barely made it to the bathroom” without elaboration. Businesses are right in resenting these irresponsible and lazy reviewers.

    Educated, responsible reviewers who support their opinions with specifics are in evidence in the 518, but not so much as in other cities… add a slash mark to look at to see a cross section of current reviews in your ZIP code, then input a NYC or San Francisco ZIP code and the difference in review quality will be striking.

    With a community ambassador paying attention, hopefully we’ll get a feedback loop in which good reviews are recognized, bad ones are pushed to the bottom, and businesses will benefit from more business when they do a good job and are recognized for it.

  5. February 4, 2015 11:51 pm

    “Some have argued there is a cloud of mediocrity hanging over the Capital Region.”

    My girlfriend and I moved to the area in August and that is EXACTLY what we’ve been saying the whole time. People around here seem to have settled for simply mediocre food. I’m still waiting to find that “Man, when you come to visit we totally need to hit this spot!”-type place (though Ala Shanghai & Ali Baba’s come very, very close). It’s quite the depressing food scene.

  6. February 5, 2015 9:07 am

    This is a pretty interesting subject, Daniel – and I think you’re right for the most part. I feel like the overwhelming majority of local restaurant reviews that I read are too positive, poorly articulated and just kind of shitty. The negative reviews follow this pattern too – often times being too negative (without reason) which typically leads me to believe there is some sort of personal issue (the same can be applied to overwhelmingly positive reviews too).

    What I would like to see are more honest and thought out reviews. If you didn’t like a dish, explain what it was about it that didn’t work for you. Over cooked? Too bitter? Too sweet? Lacking texture? Etc.. This information is incredibly valuable to the people making the food. In the few years I have been cooking in this area I have received this kind of feedback from a customer exactly one time. When a professional (and I do acknowledge that we are not all professionals) hears this stuff its never taken personally – we use the information to re-evaluate things. We look at the dish with a new set of eyes, so to speak. Just saying I loved it or I hated it means very little and will only invoking an emotional reaction (‘Thanks!’ or ‘That guy is an idiot!’) . What did you love? What did you hate?

    In a kitchen – the person cooks and chefs goto the most for feedback is the one who isn’t afraid to tell them they’re under seasoning, that their food sucks, that they should try doing this instead of that.

    Its also a good idea to talk directly with the restaurant. Tell your server, or the manager, or if you see them – the chef, what you did and did not like. Your honest opinions. Its not always easy to seek out this information on the internet. Write your thoughts on the back of your bill. Talk to someone in person or on the phone. Send an e-mail. Anything. I cannot stress how valuable having this conversation is for you as a diner and for us, as food service professionals – and good or bad, we want to hear it. Its the only way things will get better.

  7. enough already! permalink
    February 6, 2015 2:20 pm

    Daniel -care to comment on the current Yelp discussion on Table Hopping? In particular the comments regarding paying off to remove negative reviews.

    • February 6, 2015 10:55 pm

      Thanks for bringing this to my attention. I’ve been up to my neck in donuts today. That’s the downside of having more than one job. Right now my comment on Table Hopping is awaiting moderation. If it’s not up in the morning I’ll re-post it here.

  8. February 6, 2015 7:07 pm

    “Some have argued there is a cloud of mediocrity hanging over the Capital Region.”
    There’s a veneer of mediocrity that covers over some real gems. The landscape appears to be homogeneous until you’ve had the time to look more deeply. I start getting all twitchy when people try to make simple generalizations about the Capital Region. On the other hand, I write what I write in my own blog in hopes that the people who are really looking for good interesting food can find it in here. I think also that a lot of us get hung up on restaurants when we have some world class food producers that get left out of the conversation. For those of us who like to cook at home, we have some fantastic choices. In the same vein as above, the junky looking markets, the walmarts, the shop rites (love the double entendre on this one) and the other grocery stores that sell crap crap and more crap crowd the landscape so that one has to hunt down the small artisan producers and the wonderful little delis. Part of the fun is seeing how long one can carry the torch, and to keep walking into the little shops to see what they have and celebrating when we find something worth praising.

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