In 2014, chef Davide Cerretini decided to undertake a risky protest against Yelp. He believed that the social media platform was manipulating reviews as a strategy to scare the business owner into paying extra for Yelp ads. In response, Cerretini encouraged his customers to give his Italian restaurant, Botto Bistro a 1-star review on Yelp by offering 25% of a pizza. Many businesses are concerned about online reviews as they generally define a business’ reputation. Though, this owner wanted to take away Yelp’s control and power over the hospitality industry.
Cerretini has been using Yelp since the opening of his restaurant in 2009. Over this period he has realised that this customer review platform has so much control over small business’ digital presence that a mere half-star difference in a restaurant rating could increase sale volume by 19% during peak-hours. Yelp has risen to be an influential factor to every companies’ online reputation.
The dilemma between Cerretini and Yelp began a couple of months after the grand opening of Botto Bistro when he started to receive several calls from Yelp salespeople, who pushed him to invest in Yelp ads. After rejecting these offers, the owner realised that new 5-star reviews were being deleted 24 hours after talking to Yelp. It was believed that the website was distorting reviews, hoping that he would eventually concede and pay for ads. Instead, Cerretini resorted to writing 5-star reviews for his own business, replacing the original ones which were removed and also wrote fake critical reviews about competitors. He knew this was wrong and was not proud of it.
Yelp denied Cerretini’s extortion claim and stated that the platform’s algorithm was the reason behind the removal of Botto Bistro’s positive reviews. This algorithm would regularly assess reviews against a criteria however, filtered reviews are never removed from the page, they are always visible to people but are no longer factored into the Botto Bistro’s overall star rating.
Eventually, Cerretini decided to pay $270 per month towards advertising on Yelp but cancelled after 6 months because he wasn’t earning a return on his investment. As predicted, his rating dropped instantly and the 1-star reviews were moved to the top. This had pushed the chef to his breaking point and motivated him to take away Yelp’s control over his restaurant’s reputation.
At the time, the owner was known for being snarky. His Italian restaurant has a Hall of Shame which gives Yelpers a bit of tongue-in-cheek, a Village Idiot and FAQ page on his website which is compiled with laughable customer inquiries such as “Do you guys have a kitchen here?”. Loyal customers are accustomed to Davide’s sarcastic and unqiue behaviour however, Yelpers are responding unfavourably to his style of service.
On one of the mornings in September 2014, Cerretini wrote “give us a one-star review on Yelp and get 25% off any Pizza! Hate us on Yelp” on a basic sign in front of his restaurant (discount later increased to 50%). He knew Yelpers would oppose this promotion but that was the reaction he was looking for. In terms of timing, his protest could have not been anymore perfect as a couple of days earlier, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled that Yelp were allowed to manipulate reviews as the advertising tactic was considered as a form of “hard bargaining”. This outcome irritated small business owners and as a result, Cerretini’s protest against Yelp was perceived as heroic.
The following day, the chef was swarmed by journalists, other restaurant owners and supporters who were trying to understand how it felt to take away Yelp’s control and not care about reviews. On the Friday of that same week, Cerretini ended up doing more business on that day than he usually would in an entire month. He even had some supporters refusing to take the discount as they were only interested in writing a review and participating in what was seen as an anti-Yelp uprising. Botto Bistro’s Yelp page lured more than 2,300 1-star ratings (95% of reviews) which complimented his restaurant’s food, service and ambiance.
This amazing chef/restaurant owner has established a career with his 1-star reputation. His protest against Yelp has earnt him free publicity and has made him a celebrity in the hospitality industry. Cerretini claimed, “I’m the only person to beat them at their own game, I trolled them. I humiliated them and now, they avoid me like the plague”. He still annoys Yelp by changing his listed business hours and renaming Botto Bistro, “The Worst Chinese Food in the World”. It is understandable that like many small business owners, it is difficult to stop caring about reviews but as Cerretini has shown all of us, these reviews do not define your business, it is your actions (marketing) which build your business’ reputation.