In 2015, when Fat Kid Deli opened in Navi Mumbai, the burger joint began to grow in popularity not just for the size of its burgers but also for the impassioned replies of its co-founder and head chef Ranjiv Sahni to negative reviews on the Zomato website.

When someone ticked him off with a poor review, Sahni responded, “It’s on the fricking menu you visually challenged people! It’s mentioned what the burger comes with and what not. Just because I’m running a business here does not mean I should take any crap that you’ll talk.”

A year later, Kaliash Patil, the assistant manager at the restaurant, acknowledges that Sahni lost his temper, but attributes the fury to the fact that “our chef was 23 years old when he set up the restaurant”. “He is a passionate guy,” Patil said. “For him, someone insulting his food is like someone insulting a child." Another reason for the annoyance, Patil claims, was that Fat Kid Deli had brought new ingredients to Navi Mumbai, an area where not many restaurants had “complex menus”.

So if people complained about the use of wasabi or its spiciness, Sahni and the restaurant felt the need to respond.

Something similar happened in the case of Cafe Terra, a fine dining restaurant on the terrace of the Executive Enclave Hotel in the Mumbai neighbourhood of Bandra.

A food blogger rated the place a poor 2.0 on Zomato because it did not have a proper Jain menu and because he alleged its food gave his friends and him a stomach bug. The review sparked a flurry of comments, some of which picked a debate with the food blogger, who is also a Zomato connoisseur (the title is given to users with the most number of reviews with a large number of likes on the service).

Cafe Terra’s owner Monish Rohra says he didn’t have a problem with the review, but he did take issue with the connoisseur tag given by Zomato. “A connoisseur means you are an expert. How can you be an expert when you want Italian food without garlic, which is what the entire cuisine is based around?”

Why did the restaurants or their owners react to individual reviews? Because, in the world of crowd-sourced opinion, each one can damage equally.

Set up in 2008, the restaurant discovery service Zomato has grown relatively quickly, spreading to 23 countries and listing close to 75,000 restaurants across 12 Indian cities. In its current form, it allows users to browse through menus, write reviews and rate restaurants. The website has also recently started an online home deliver service. Deepinder Goyal, one of the service’s founders, claimed in an interview last year that Zomato gets over one crore unique visitors each month.

Even a string of bad news has not diminished its popularity. Although its billion dollar valuation was halved, its online delivery services was shut down in four Indian cities, and it laid off 300 employees last October, it is still the biggest player in the food ratings industry.

Indeed, such is its enviable popularity that many restaurants keep aside a marketing budget for it. “In the days before Zomato, the buzz was created through print media and advertisements,” Rohra said. “But this time most of our marketing budget was reserved for Zomato.”

The service connects users to restaurants and vice-versa. For instance, menus can either be uploaded on Zomato by restaurants themselves or through a company team that visits them and collects information. While restaurants do not have to pay to get featured or reviewed on Zomato, they do have to pay to get one of the top spots in the collections that group restaurants on the home page.

The reviews, meanwhile, can be uploaded by anyone. Its website home page lists the top food bloggers, reviewers and photographers, all of whom have been ranked based on the number of reviews or photographs they submit. Each review gets 25 points plus an additional bonus point for every 10 likes on a review. With more reviews, and more points, the likelihood of being upgraded to a top reviewer or connoisseur is greater. It is often these reviewers who get invited to restaurant openings and are called to write the first reviews.

Good reviews and ratings also lead to a better overall score out of five.

Survival instinct

Kumar Jhuremalani, co-founder of Pet Pujaris, a community of foodies that organises trips to try restaurants and cuisines, says he visits establishments even with a low rating but it does give him pause. “Anything below three, I will think twice about going there,” he said.

For Patil, the rating threshold is four stars. And for Rohra, the owner of Cafe Terra, it is “anything above 3.5, although I am not a big fan of how their algorithm works. We have many four and five star reviews and yet our restaurant is rated a 3.7.”

It is this widespread reliance on Zomato’s star system for discovery of restaurants that makes restaurateurs take it so seriously – too many poor reviews and low ratings by reviewers and the overall score drops to an undesirable degree. Which, in turn, means that prospective patrons stay away.

For restaurants with large reputations and deep pockets, this system can be detrimental but not necessarily fatal. They often employ social media agencies to reply on their behalf with stock responses – “thank you for commenting” to a positive review and “we are sorry” to a negative one.

However, for mid-sized restaurants, the star system can be the difference between survival and closure. That is partly why they feel compelled to respond to each review, sometimes with forcefulness and vehemence.

A negative review of Barbarian, a home-delivery service in Matunga East that promises to serve food till 3 am, went something like this: “To the management of Barbarian – the pizza on the right is your infamous Triplet. Eat a little dogshit mixed with tabasco and let me know if you can tell the difference. To all you future patrons of Barbarian – if you want to kill yourself barbarically, eat here.”

The management’s response was equally vitriolic: “You may not order again perhaps we dont need any guest’s like you !! wo r drunk and abuse our staff’s at delivery !! lol please we request you don’t order again!!!! (sic)”

A review of Five Fat Monks, Bandra, saw a reviewer argue with the management over the delay by a third party delivery app.
A review of Five Fat Monks, Bandra, saw a reviewer argue with the management over the delay by a third party delivery app.

It is not that negative reviews lead to fights every time. Often, restaurants call back the patrons for a free meal. This review of 1Tablespoon, a pizza shop with two outlets in Mumbai, is a good example of the amicability. “I usually never score any restaurants below 3 unless it was a complete disappointment and I felt that I wasted all the money,” wrote a user. “I wish they improvise on their sauce and the cheese texture.”

The restaurant responded by calling the reviewer back, showing them how the pizza was made, what kind of ovens were used, and conceding that they might have missed a beat on the day of the critic’s visit. As a result, the rating with the review was upgraded to 3.5.

Zomato’s model of user-generated content comes from Yelp, the popular American service set up in 2004 which publishes crowd-sourced reviews of local businesses and services. Yelp gets close to 145 million unique visitors every month and has around 102 million reviews. It is often criticised for asking customers to pay for better reviews, the reported surfeit of fake reviews and a complicated relationship with small businesses. A report in the Los Angeles Times described a restaurant with a sign outside that read, “Our customers repeatedly tell us they have submitted very good reviews that never show up on the website. We asked Yelp. We were told ‘perhaps if you paid to do Yelp ads, we could help with this.’“

Yelp has also been used as the site of protest, a trend that the company itself frowns upon. In the aftermath of the killing of Cecil the Lion in Zimbabwe by American dentist Walter Palmer, numerous one-star reviews of the dentist’s office littered Yelp.

Every opinion matters?

It is irrefutable that Yelp and Zomato have provided customers a voice on an open forum that anyone with an internet connection can access. But restaurant owners, who often feel shortchanged, wonder if every opinion is worthy.

“One Saturday night when we got busy, a person who did not get a table for a long time reviewed us from the restaurant and gave us one star,” Rohra said.

Jhuremalani recalled another review, which read “There is no valet parking. So I left”. It came with a rating of one.

Then, there have been instances of Zomato critics demanding free food in return for a positive review. In May, a top critic alleged that the company asked restaurants to pay for reviews and had deleted his profile because he became an independent contractor.

He wrote: “Now, Zomato’s ‘verified reviewers’ (you know the ones with blue & white stars on their DPs) come into picture here. Zomato invites these guys to do review under the pretext of “Zomato Meetups”. These guys eat to their heart’s content for free, and subsequently reward the restaurant with high ratings and positive reviews.”

The company’s version was that since he asked for money, the reviews were fake and they had to consequently delete the account.

Conversely, a Zomato critic who also runs a popular blog and an Instagram account, says that some restaurants expect a positive review just because they have invited you for a free meal.

Spago Fusion, an Italian restaurant in Pune, became famous for being rude to its customers. While the original comments were taken down on Zomato, the thread survives on Reddit.
Spago Fusion, an Italian restaurant in Pune, became famous for being rude to its customers. While the original comments were taken down on Zomato, the thread survives on Reddit.

A large number of apps in the sharing economy have begun to rate their users. For instance, at the end of every ride in an Uber or Ola cab, the driver rates the rider, just as the rider rates the driver. After a stay in an Airbnb apartment, the owner too gets to rate the renter. This creates a level-playing field for both the service provider and user – it draws a line that does not exist on user-generated review apps as yet. On Zomato, restaurateurs can only respond to critics, not rate them.

Besides, quite a few of the reviews are not even specific. There are positive five-star reviews that say, “The food was good and I had a good time.” Many reviews talk about the ambience and lighting. They are mostly generalised opinions, aired decisively from the safe distance of the internet. “About 70 per cent of reviews on Zomato are vague – ‘We liked the food. The ambience was good’,” Patil complained. “For reviews like that we don’t feel the need to respond.”

Another frequent complaint of restaurant owners and a point raised both by Patil and Rohra is that customers write negative reviews on Zomato despite telling them in person that the meal was alright and that they had a good time. Jhuremalani blames the website for creating this atmosphere. Scroll.in reached out to Zomato’s public relations team for comment but they did not get back.

Food is a major industry in India with television channels, YouTube channels and Instagram accounts devoted to it. A large number of followers means entry into the hallowed ranks of so-called influencers that allows a passion for food to become a career. For restaurants too, Zomato is the cheapest and easiest ways to get noticed.

“Restaurants should stop responding through social media agencies,” Jhuremalani said. “A trend needs to start where a restaurant chef starts responding to reviews. That might improve the community.”

A negative review of Central Perk 7, Pune, and the management's response.
A negative review of Central Perk 7, Pune, and the management's response.