RICHMOND, CA—Of all the places that have come up with a clever way to protest Yelp’s alleged aggressive advertising tactics, a small plucky Italian restaurant in a strip mall just northeast of San Francisco is as unlikely as they come.
For a few weeks now, Botto Bistro has been actively trying to become the worst-reviewed restaurant on Yelp as a way to stick it to the venerated review site—so much so that they’re offering 25 percent off for anyone who does so.
In recent years, Yelp has been publicly accused of extortion—asking for money from businesses that are automatically listed on the site in exchange for preferred placement on the site. There are also accusations of abruptly vanishing positive reviews and suddenly appearing negative reviews. Earlier this month, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco dismissed two cases alleging that such behavior by Yelp is illegal.
“The business owners may deem the posting or order of user reviews as a threat of economic harm, but it is not unlawful for Yelp to post and sequence the reviews,” Judge Marsha Berzon wrote for the three-judge panel. “As Yelp has the right to charge for legitimate advertising services, the threat of economic harm that Yelp leveraged is, at most, hard bargaining.”
But now, in the recent weeks since they’ve been actively seeking one-star reviews on Yelp, Botto Bistro’s owners claim that those calls have stopped. Just after 11am on Friday, as lunch diners came in to tuck into an early lunch, co-owner Davide Cerretini explained to Ars why he’s decided to mock the entire Yelp system.
“Look,” he said, in an exasperated but friendly tone, “you have to understand, we have an FAQ, it’s our way to do business.”
Like other legal cases involving Yelp, this saga gets at the heart of a fundamental question: does Yelp’s right to run its reviews site in the way it sees fit—never removing Yelp entries—trump the rights of someone who feels bullied by such a site and would prefer to have nothing to do with Yelp at all?
“We will treat YOU like an Italian”
Indeed, the FAQ is pretty atypical for most restaurants.
It includes sections like:
May I give you a suggestion?
This is a very tricky question. But frankly, the answer is ‘no thanks’. We believe too much constructive criticism can be confusing. We truly believe in what we’re doing and we are committed to giving our best, as we’ve done successfully for the last 20 years. There are already many ways and places where you can express your culinary knowledge and restaurant business know-how, like Yelp. If and when we decide to ask a professional for suggestions we will contact a restaurant consultant and gladly pay for his time. In the meantime, it seems like we don’t need it!
Do you serve pizza by the slice?
Do you have ice?
Because that’s the way, uh huh uh huh, we like it.
Are you really Italian?
We are Italians, we do business like Italians, we speak Italian, we cook like Italians, and we will treat YOU like an Italian. We must be Italians.
Before I ordered lunch, Cerretini explained how he and his co-owner arrived at this point.
Nearly five years ago, he said, the two of them quit their jobs at their respective restaurants in San Francisco and nearby Marin County and wanted to find a spot in a “worse location—a ghetto—and serve amazing food without expectation of customer service or tablecloths.”
Indeed, this tiny restaurant is in a small city that was once known for being home to a World War II-era shipyard, and more recently, for being subjected to serious violent crime. These days, Richmond is a largely blue-collar town with a sizeable Latino community—it’s not known for being a gourmet destination.
Botto Bistro serves all of its food at its order counter—there’s no table service—and crams 10 tables amidst giant flatscreen TVs (the Dodgers vs. Cubs game was on when I was there) and is next door to a Quizno’s. Its menu is extensive and includes homemade pasta and pizza, along with rotating specials. In fact, the menu specifically mentions the type of flour the restaurant uses: “00 ANTIMO CAPUTO FLOUR IMPORTED FROM NAPLES.”
The message is clear: the food should speak for itself.
“We specifically, aggressively inform people that if you’re looking for customer service, this is the last place you should be,” Cerretini says.
“You don’t need to tell me how something from my town is cooked. I work 12 hours a day, six days a week. But if you come here to try to make us change whatever it is that is in our place, just shut up and go to eat somewhere else.”
“Yelp asked me to pay them as advertising so they can criticize me better. If I had to be criticized, I don’t mind, I have 500 one-star reviews, so if they want to remove it, filter it, please do it. Now you’ve got a big job to do it. Whatever they put the stars, I don’t care. I have a good idea—if they call me—where to put the stars, but that’s on them.”
Cerretini claims that at one point, Yelp was calling “30 times a week, sometimes five times a day,” and that “a year ago we decided to do advertising with them, it was just to stop calling me. We did it for six months, and then they kept calling. I insulted them and I called them bad names, insulting their mother and father. Somehow when we started this campaign, no phone calls.”
“Botto User Support Team”
Yelp clearly doesn’t like what Botto Bistro is doing. This week, the company wrote to Cerretini:
Date: Mon, 15 Sep 2014 18:28:59 +0000
Subject: Message from Yelp HQ [ 2800338 ]
SEP 15, 2014 | 11:28AM PDT
I’m contacting you from the Yelp User Support Team because we’ve received complaints from the community that you may be offering incentives in exchange for reviews.
To be clear, this violates our Terms of Service (http://www.yelp.com/static?p=tos&country=US), and reviews written under such circumstances violate Yelp’s Content Guidelines (http://www.yelp.com/guidelines). We also often find from user feedback that such practices do more harm than good, as the practice creates distrust amongst customers and users who now eye all reviews on a listing with suspicion.
If you are offering incentives in exchange for reviews, we ask that you immediately discontinue such activity. If we learn that this type of behavior has continued, we may take action on your Business Account which could include suspending access to your listing. It may also result in a Consumer Alert being placed on your listing: http://officialblog.yelp.com/2012/10/consumer-alerts-because-you-might-like-to-know.html
San Francisco, California
Yelp Official Blog | http://officialblog.yelp.com
Yelp Support Center | http://www.yelp-support.com
Yelp for Business Owners | https://biz.yelp.com
Cerretini replied in kind:
Subject: RE: Message from Yelp HQ [ 2800338 ]
Date: Tue, 16 Sep 2014 08:43:36 -0700
I’m contacting you from the Botto User Support Team because we’ve received complaints from the community that you may be removing reviews in exchange of vague explanations to loyal customers.
To be clear, this violates our Terms of Service (http://www.bottobistro.com/FAQ.html), and reviews removed under such circumstances violate Botto’s Content Guidelines (http://www.bottobistro.com/FAQ.html). We also often find from loyal customers feedback that such practices do more harm than good, as the practice creates distrust amongst loyal customers and users who now eye your site with suspicion.
If you are offering this explanations in exchange of removed reviews, we ask that you immediately discontinue such activity. If we learn that this type of behavior has continued, we may take action on our Business Account which could include suspending all activity to our listing. It may also result on adding a Yelp Customer Alert page on our website and in our Newsletters.
Botto User Support Team
All you had to do was ask!
A Yelp spokesman seemed utterly baffled as to why anyone would actively try to thwart their system.
“First of all, I think that you have to wonder if this is the smartest strategy—there’s a Harvard Business School study that was done showing that for every [star] increase, restaurants see an uplift in revenue between five and nine percent,” Vince Sollitto told Ars.
So what would Yelp do if Botto Bistro continues its discount-for-bad-reviews deal?
“We’re not going to comment on future possible action,” he said.
If Yelp decided to take Botto Bistro to court for breaching its terms of service, it wouldn’t be the first time. In 2013, a bankruptcy lawyer in San Diego was sued by Yelp over supposed false reviews posted from 2010 to 2012. The lawyer, Julian McMillan, strongly denies that he placed them.
“There have been a small number of businesses that don’t want to be on Yelp because they don’t want to see the reviews that people leave on them,” Sollitto added. “While some businesses may not want the spotlight shown on their customer relations, consumers have that right. I understand that some businesses wish that there weren’t conversations about them, but that’s not reality and that’s not the law.”
He also disputed that Yelp had been harassing Botto Bistro.
“I went back and checked the log, and we have called his business once in the last two and a half years—June 2013,” Sollitto said.
Later, Sollitto e-mailed to clarify:
“Looking back at our records, it shows that our Sales team called his business on average a little more than once a week, for a few months in 2012, before his business purchased search advertising in June of 2012,” he wrote. “We have called his business one time since then, on April 17, 2014.”
“Many of those phone calls appear to have lasted long enough to have had an engaged conversation, including give and take on the ad product offered. These conversations presumably encouraged our rep to believe that the owner was open to considering purchasing advertising, which was borne out when he did so in June.”
“If the business owner did not wish to be called ever again, all he had to do was ask not to be called again and he would have been placed on our ‘Do Not Call’ list. If he said he was not interested ‘at this time, maybe later’ then our rep would very likely call again later at another time.”
Clearly, that message was never communicated to Davide Cerretini. For his part, he feels that now that there are several hundred one-star reviews on his Yelp page, the point has been made.
“Honestly, I’m not expecting anything,” he said. “Apparently they don’t have to explain to me and now there are lots of people waiting to hear why they removed their review. We went way beyond far of our expectation. Our place now has all the attention of the planet, what else can I ask for? Thank you Yelp for whatever you do in the future and whatever you did in the past.”
After our interview, they recommended that I order a house special, the peppered venison sausage pasta. It was so terrible with its unique balance of flavor, texture and deliciousness, I gave it a one-star review.