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Changing the Game

The rise of the everyman food critic in the restaurant game

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It's a fact: Everybody has to eat in order to stay alive. But does this basic necessity qualify anybody to critique the meals they eat at restaurants? We asked three local chefs and restaurant owners what they think of the recent rise in the everyman food critic via the Web and how it has affected their businesses.

John Berryhill of the upscale downtown eatery Berryhill & Co. has 15 years experience as a chef, restaurant owner and caterer in Boise. Weighing in with 15 years in the no-can-opener Mexican fast food biz is Senor Fresh founder Paul Provost. And Pizzalchik chef/owner Brad Breakell has been baking gourmet pies and roasting chickens for six years.

John Berryhill, Berryhill & Co.

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How do you think food bloggers and people who post comments after professional restaurant reviews have changed the restaurant business?

We use Open Table, which is a guest management/reservation software program. After they dine, [the customer] gets a review e-mail that asks, "How was your experience?" I'm pleasantly surprised at how many more people are posting good reviews. A lot of professionals and travelers use Open Table, and it falls under the "good" category. They control it more than on other places. A lot of the other stuff I find is just trash written by people who can publish with no accountability. There is a fan page that is just the opposite about me on Facebook, a John Berryhill hate page. It's authored by the girlfriend of a p.o.'d former employee ... They can say whatever extreme things they want and they're not accountable for it.

What do you think qualifies a person to be a restaurant critic?

Well, I don't think you need to go to restaurant critic school. I think you need a general knowledge of food. A professional reviewer is paid to critique the profession that keeps him in business. You can't just slam away. I think you need to be grounded in the industry.

Why do you think there are so many food bloggers and food commentators out there today?

It's so easy and accessible to comment now that technology has developed these platforms where a voice can be heard without accountability.

Paul Provost, Senor Fresh

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How do you think food bloggers and people who post comments after professional restaurant reviews have changed the restaurant business?

To be honest, I don't know enough about it. Whatever people feel about our food, we've been here 15 years. I feel good about our food, and we have a lot of loyal customers. I see people who've come in once a week for 10 years.

What do you think qualifies a person to be a restaurant critic?

A really open mind, to have travelled some and to not just go by appearances. A lot of times, people look at the high-end restaurant reviews. But the majority of the population is middle class, and they're not going to Spago to spend $120 on a meal. It may be a great meal, but few can afford it. A good critic is going to know the niches and be grounded in the middle where there's a wider range of food.

Why do you think there are so many food bloggers and food commentators out there today?

Everybody has an opinion. It's easy to get on a blog and say "this food sucks." It can be anonymous and belligerent. As a restaurant owner, if I have to rely externally on one critic to tell me my food is good, then I'm relying on one entity instead of the general population. As a restaurant owner, you can't worry about one good or bad review. You have to know internally that you're doing a good job, stick to what you do and know it's good. Somebody can come in, they're having a bad day, they don't like the burrito and they take it out on their blog. But then 10 more people come in right after him, eat the same burrito and say it's the greatest thing.

Brad Breakell, Pizzalchik

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How do you think food bloggers and people who post comments after professional restaurant reviews have changed the restaurant business?

It's good news/bad news. Human nature is to talk about the bad experience. I don't look at any of the sites, but only know what my customers tell me. The good news is some people do post good comments. But if someone waits too long for their food, they'll post it was a bad experience. But I'm also hearing that other people will respond, "You're full of crap. The food is worth the wait."

What do you think qualifies a person to be a restaurant critic?

This is the only business where everyone thinks they're an expert. Everyone eats food. But they complain about prices and think they know what it takes to run a business. But they don't. I don't pretend to know how to be a mechanic. So what gives people the idea that they know better than I do about how to run a restaurant?

Why do you think there are so many food bloggers and foodcommentators out there today?

Food is the essence of life. People are passionate about it.

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