August 21, 2014

Respecting the Craft: Everyone’s a Critic

Being critiqued is difficult for any restaurant owner. And it’s not just newspaper and magazine critics anymore. These days there are so many critics or “want to be” critics out there when you take Bloggers, Yelp, Tripadvisor, etc. into account. It can be tough, especially when you go into a new market where you have no customer base and are trying to create one and mesh with the community. Typically writers have their favorite spots, so turning someone from the dark side to your side can be very challenging. Typically a true critic will give you six to eight weeks before coming in. They should be unannounced and come in at least three times. Other professional critics — typically with newspapers, magazines, blogs and freelancers — do sometimes inform the owner. That is great for me because I could let them order but also drop some items which I feel are my best and want them to try.

Yelp has really changed the entire critiquing system. Everyone’s a critic. It’s pretty bad, when you think about it, because it’s difficult to know who to believe. Are these real customers reviewing your store or are they false statements made by competing pizzerias, an ex-girlfriend or boyfriend, an employee of Yelp, a past enemy, etc. I used to read these all the time. It became a bad habit. I do take them into consideration, but I also have to read between the lines to make sure they are legit. For me Tripadvisor has the best, most honest reviews — at least in my experience.

When I opened up my new stores I was really under the microscope even more than ever due to my credentials and longevity in the industry. The build-up and hype with a strong marketing team behind it does bring you to a level where you can’t just be average. You really have to go above and beyond to make sure every pizza, the experience and the service are at their finest. It’s very stressful. I feel having a PR agency is important for an opening. You could pay an agency for a three-month launch, for example. This can help you with access to several media outposts and sometimes one on one with writers and some critics. I am personable and like to talk to everyone — especially someone writing about my food. It’s great when a true critic can come in well after your opening and not be pre-judgmental. Those are the ones I really enjoy. The worst ones are the ones that come opening week — rookies.

But you have to be prepared because someone is always watching and always ready to write a blog about you.

RESPECTING THE CRAFT features World Pizza Champion Tony Gemignani, owner of Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in San Francisco and Pizza Rock in Sacramento.  Tony compiles the column with the help of his trusty assistants, Laura Meyer and Thiago Vasconcelos. If you have questions on any kitchen topic ranging from prep to finish, Tony’s your guy. Send questions via Twitter @PizzaToday, Facebook (search: Pizza Today) or e-mail and we’ll pass the best ones on to Tony.