Dragon Lee, a family-owned Chinese restaurant in upstate New York, is a beloved place. On Google, it has a 4.3-star average, with high praise for its crab rangoon. Every once in a while, though, someone leaves unhappy. The food “was absolutely terrible,” a Google reviewer recently wrote in a one-star rating—so bad that he later called to ask if there had been a sudden change of chefs. (There had not.) The reviewer, who didn’t respond to an interview request, wrote that he threw most of his meal in the garbage. “I will never go back,” he wrote. “Disgusting!”
Dragon Lee could have ignored the response, or apologized profusely. It did neither. “Learn to spell and use grammar,” the restaurant replied—calling out his misspelled “General Soe’s chicken.” The idea that Dragon Lee had changed chefs was laughable: Since the start of the pandemic, no one has wanted to work long hours in a hot kitchen. “WE DO NOT WANT TO DEAL WITH CUSTOMERS LIKE YOU AND YOU DO NOT DESERVE OUR SERVICE!” the restaurant concluded. “DO US AND EVERYONE A FAVOR, DO NOT EVER COME BACK TO THIS PLACE EVER AGAIN.”
This was not a one-off diatribe, a rogue manager on a bad day. Dragon Lee does this all the time. Perhaps you are a one-star reviewer who saw an outdated menu with lower prices? That “just shows how ignorant you actually are,” the restaurant responded—and it doesn’t care if you come back: “It’s one less dunce we have to deal with.” Publicly claim that its sesame chicken and chicken wings were raw? “If you didn’t like it. We understand … but saying it’s Raw, just shows us how uneducated and stupid you actually are,” the restaurant wrote. “Just saying.” In the restaurant world, where online reviews have an ascendant power over a business’s bottom line, Dragon Lee is doing what other spots can’t, or won’t: It’s arguing with its customers.
When I walked into Dragon Lee a few weeks ago, a significant portion of Warrensburg, population 3,215, seemed to share a Wednesday-afternoon craving for Americanized Chinese food. Customers cycled in constantly to the unfussy dining room, requesting fried rice and spare ribs. The man at the counter could hardly take an in-person order without the phone ringing. (The owner and other employees declined multiple requests for interviews.) Dragon Lee has been in business for more than 30 years and is the only Chinese restaurant in Warrensburg: It doesn’t need unfettered praise from everyone on the internet. Most restaurants, facing thin margins and stiff competition, aren’t so lucky. “Not only do ratings matter,” Minkyung Kim, an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon who has studied online reviews, told me, “I think it’s becoming more and more important.”
Google has become especially crucial; it draws 73 percent of all online feedback, because so many people find a place to eat by searching around on Google Maps. Some restaurants, such as Manhattan’s Thai Food Near Me, have responded by adopting Google-friendly names. If your rating isn’t good enough, “the algorithm inside of Google won’t even find you,” says Joe Fuca, the former CEO of Reputation, a company that helps restaurants get more positive reviews and higher positioning on Google search results. For new restaurants or restaurants with just a few ratings, whose averages might be easily skewed, racking up good reviews is especially stressful. Yasuyuki Motoyama, a professor at Ohio State University, found that rarely reviewed restaurants stay closer to the bottom of the results, giving added influence to nitpickers. “It’s just going to be a vicious cycle,” he told me.
Companies such as Reputation promise to help turn unsolicited feedback into “actionable insights that drive every customer interaction.” Yet the majority of reviews provide no “actionable” information, and many are just noise. Mark Nery, who owns the Denver restaurant Onefold, told me that a customer once complained online that their chair was too cold. “I never really get [helpful] feedback from reviews,” he said. “Usually, if someone has a big problem, they’ll email me.” Nery used to respond to negative Yelpers, but he no longer bothers. Jason Wang, the owner of the New York City chain Xi’an Famous Foods, told me that he checks and responds to public reviews every two weeks to keep a pulse on his 12 current locations. “If we’re wrong, we’ll correct the heck out of it,” he said. “But if we are not wrong, I want to make sure our side is clarified.”
Dragon Lee doesn’t slam all reviewers. As far as I could tell, the restaurant is selective about going on the offensive against Google reviewers whose complaints lack coherence or credibility. More measured critiques tend to receive apologies, even gratitude. “Sorry about the Beef and Broccoli being a bit bland,” the restaurant replied to one customer’s three-star rating, “we are using a new soy sauce base (low sodium and gluten free) and adjusting for the difference … Thank you for your helpful review.” But leave a nasty one-star review, and you should expect nastiness in return. In terms of bringing in more customers, reputation-management companies unsurprisingly recommend a more measured response. “Just say, ‘We value your response,’ and then get 10 more reviews [from people] who loved your food, who loved your service,” Fuca told me.
Sometimes, though, in an era when businesses are encouraged to practice “customer obsession,” it’s nice to see them push back on diners engaged in theatrics. I contacted Jason Wang after seeing his response to a customer who complained about his restaurant’s “terrible, terrible” food. “From your review,” Wang replied, “I can only discern that you are just a bitter person.” Before I could contact him through his restaurant’s website, I had to acknowledge a statement that read, in part, “I understand that no one solicited my advice on anything, and I humbly acknowledge I don’t run Xi’an Famous Foods, Jason does, and knows what’s best for it.”
The same principle applies to Dragon Lee. A restaurant doesn’t survive for 30 years by following the advice of 200 or so self-selected Google reviewers, some of whom might never return. Dragon Lee’s responses, taken at face value, are perhaps as revealing as its reviews. Look through, and you’ll learn that the restaurant is apparently run by a close-knit family, that it would love to offer traditional Cantonese food if it sold better locally. You’ll find that it is deeply appreciative of the customers who flooded it with orders on its first days back after a year-long COVID break, leaving the restaurant without enough food to prepare even a single bowl of rice. So feel free to tell them, as one woman did, that you threw most of your takeout order in the garbage. “Review usefulness,” the restaurant responded: “in the garbage.”