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The good-bad review trap

Goa has been a consistent vacation home for my wife and me since 2013. Yes, believe it or not, we've been to the coastal paradise every year since the final year of our engineering college!

Oh, including 2020 and 2021, by the way! The 2020 trip was a mix of good and bad luck. Thanks to the rising pandemic, our Thailand trip got canned, but we managed to sneak in a last-minute trip to Goa before India locked itself in. The 2021 trip was in January. When half the country lulled itself into a false sense of reprieve, we headed out to the coast for a week-long 'workation'. Only one of us worked, though. 😅

Anyway, the consistency of our visits also implies that we do have our regular hang-out joints in Goa, Thalassa being one such place. Owned and run by a family of Greek immigrants, it is a spectacular taverna located along the picturesque backwaters of Siolim in North Goa. And as is evident from my description, its unique proposition is definitely its ambience! The food is good in parts, with a decent selection of wines on offer, and the place boasts of assorted entertainment that'll undoubtedly keep you on your feet for a couple of hours. But in the end, people visit this place for its breathtaking view, the perfect sundown, and the crisp Konkan breeze that sends you packing to a tropical world of dreams!

It's funny how the prose never flows this fluently while I am IN Goa. That's probably a function of my blood alcohol level which rises meteorically thanks to low-tax liquor and every justification to party. 😅

But sadly, our experience in Thalassa this time around left much to be desired. It was overbooked to almost three times its already amped-up capacity, the tables clustered too closely to have the sense of a calming evening ambience. There were WAY more waiters and busboys moving around than what we'd come to expect. And worst of all? The food was underwhelming enough to take note of the fact.

Since my wife and I'd had a pleasant experience on our earlier excursions to this place, we discounted this one occasion as an off-night. But the two friends who'd accompanied us were not impressed. They found the place to be over-hyped, overwhelming, and grossly overpriced for the sort of ambience that we managed to squeeze out of our two hours there. Had we not advocated for the place early on, I am positive that those two would have walked out in under ten minutes.

Oh, and those infernal Instagrammers! 😱 Don't judge me! I've begun to love Instagram over the second phase of the lockdown, more so as a medium to share and converse, rather than an endless thumb exercise. But I AM NOT an 'Instagrammer'. My life does not revolve around sharing stories every hour of the day, at the expense of the very day that I'm out to enjoy! Anyway, this point will come in handy later on. Stay tuned.

Obviously, we traded our past and present experiences at the table and pegged half of the mismatch down to the halo effect of 'lockdown withdrawal'. The restaurant probably wanted to make up for lost business and hence had scaled their operations. The people were most likely giddy with the newfound freedom in early 2021 and rushed out like a bunch of cattle without a shepherd. But these two points aside, I noticed a pattern that had always reared its head like an ugly dragon in similar cases.

Out of affection, I've named this dragon 'the good-bad review trap of popular eating joints.'

It's story time!

Boy meets girl. They get married, move into a house, and have three warm meals a day. The happy couple blossoms into a family. To make ends meet and share their culture with a broader audience, they decide to open a modest restaurant. The restaurant is pretty, well located, and serves up a good experience. People began to rave about it online, and the cosy little restaurant becomes a local icon! Thanks to our good friends at Menlo Park, the reviews become viral, and tourists start to flood in. To keep up with the demand, the restaurant expands too far and too quick. Quality and attention-to-detail suffer. New customers never come back, and eventually, the oldies also leave because their little slice of heaven is no longer pristine. Reviews begin to decline. Devoid of the good patrons, the quality of visitors drops. The new visitors don't want to pay as much as the old patrons! The restaurant changes its business strategy to accommodate the frugal-minded. Some of it works, some of it doesn't. Reviews take a nose-dive. A decade passes by, and the once well-known local icon is reduced to being just another eatery on the block. Another few years pass by, and that modest restaurant is no more. The end.

And that right there IS the dragon.

Don't I have a flair for writing cute fairy tales? Let me find a bag to hold all the forthcoming Disney paychecks. 😂

Most restaurants go through this life cycle at some point. In fact, thanks to hyper-local social media and over-abundance of influencers, the cycle has reduced from a decade to a couple of years. Virality is a double-edged sword that could very well make or break a business. And if we break down the above morbid tale to its barebones, we'd find three inflection points for the restaurant.

  1. Finding the right ethos that connects with the audience

  2. Feedback that lands them on the moon, too early

  3. Scale that could be their undoing

Ethos is a fancy word for the spirit or mood or vibe of a place, and I could use those words instead, but businesses need fancy words. Otherwise, they are just a bunch of hippies smoking pot on the beach. So, ethos. We wouldn't even be discussing Thalassa or a similar place had they not introduced a unique vibe and ambience to the Goan landscape. It was the promise of new culinary heritage, its associated culture and familiar comfort that made people gravitate towards the joint.More than 70-80% of restaurants fail to reach even this first inflection point!

Goa itself boasts of a crude selection of thousands of beach shacks that all serve the same beer, same food, and same sheesha. I've sampled enough throughout the past eight years to back this statement confidently.

But kudos to the restaurants that do manage to reach this milestone. The next part is critical. In today's world, if you appropriately engage customers, you are bound to go viral at some point, especially in the food industry. Every new joint needs only a handful of good reviews from moderate influencers to really explode onto the scene. But it is prudent to note WHAT the people are saying about your place.

If those early reviews only mention the beautiful sunset behind a portrait selfie, then those are the exact kind of people that you are going to attract as a business. If a reviewer raves about your food and service without over-romanticizing the ambience of the place, you are going to end up with good ol' foodies, who'll be repeat customers for life.

And businesses should be extra careful of being rated or reviewed as an 'insta-worthy' spot. The moment that review goes viral, what you're going to get is a throng of selfie-stick monkeys, who don't have a dime to spare on food and drinks, the actual lifeline of a restaurant!

It's the exact opposite of going to a theatre to eat good popcorn, chicken wings and nachos. 😅

So it's key to not only encourage and interact with 'quality' reviewers but also ensure that THEY put the focus back where it belongs!

I've got nothing against Instagram, by the way. In fact, there isn't a better place to market food and restaurants at the moment. But attracting the right audience is equally important. Without getting too deep into the tenets of 'good' marketing, let me put it in a simple way. Given an option between Saransh Goila or Karishma Tanna as their Instagram torch-bearers, I hope restaurants go for the former, though the latter has ten times the number of followers. 😅

Now, irrespective of what sort of publicity a place attracts, I still stick to the old adage 'any publicity is good publicity' because it just gets the word-of-mouth going. But this is where most local businesses phase into the third and most critical inflection point, scale.

Once those 'influenced' customers start pouring in, restaurants have a small window to react with essentially a few options -

  1. Expand operations rapidly to accommodate the scale and risk losing the quality and the ethos

  2. Introduce a franchising model that can further dilute the brand equity built over the years

  3. Move onto a more exclusive reservation/wait model to funnel customers in gradually while keeping the operations intact

  4. Do nothing, and let chaos reign

Thalassa took the first option and disappointed us eventually. Fisherman's Wharf opted for number two and lost the quaint riverside charm that was its original identity. Cavala took option 3 to manage their Friday night rush and did a splendid job of it. Fat Fish decided to do nothing and have customers wait for hours on end, only to realize that the item for which most customers travelled is no more in stock! And yes, these are or WERE some of my most loved places in Goa. 🙂

The issue is that expansion, in general, is a resource-heavy, risky venture that many large businesses have failed at. So while every restaurant should dream of growing bigger eventually, they should not feel obliged to rush under the pressure of social media virality. No one else should dictate their appetite to scale. It should be the other way around! 😅

Because, based on the way a restaurant reacts to scale, they can amplify the good feedback or invert it into a complaint box. And that inversion can be gradual or sudden, but once an establishment gets a bad name, nothing short of a complete rebranding can save it. So, the only way to break that cycle is to avoid entering it!

Yeah, I got that from Mahabharata and Abhimanyu! 😅 Indian mythology is dope.

So the smart thing would be to avoid the wrong sort of positive reviews as well as the obvious 'negative' ones. After all, a restaurant is not a digital platform or an app that can welcome a poor quality audience at scale. You can't just increase the number of compute nodes in a cafe to accommodate more customers. You can't segment customers walking into your restaurant and customize their experience with a click of a button. You cannot show non-paying Instagrammers advertisements to earn some money on the side either!

Technically, Udupi restaurants in Mumbai do have a personalized experience based on AC or non-AC seating, but that is hardly the point of debate in this post, right? 😂

Hence, it is essential that restaurants, or at least the ones I love, do not fall into these three traps -

  1. Dilute their ethos in exchange of a measly bump in footfall

  2. Ignore the loyal patrons to accommodate newer guests

  3. Fail to manage scale and let chaos ruin what's good

I am looking at you Fat Fish! 😅

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