Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Close to fisticuffs at the show

Some mixed martial arts were served up during the NRA show at a no-holds-barred debate between chef Stefan Richter, owner of Stefan’s at L.A. Farm, and Luther Lowe, Yelp’s director of business outreach.

Most of the heat was generated not in their exchanges, but in the verbal volley between Richter and the uniformed Yelp employees in the audience.

Richter was swinging from the moment debate moderator Corby Kummer began the education session with a fairly innocuous question: “Do you read your reviews on Yelp?”

“Yes, I do read my reviews on Yelp, and I get my panties in a twist,” said the chef, a runner-up on the hit TV show “Top Chef.” Indeed, Richter said the prospect of bad reviews has cost him considerable sleep.

The problem, he says, is that so-called citizen-reviewers don’t base their assessments on reasonable criteria like service, but on “bull shit,” like his tendency to come out of the kitchen and speak with guests, or even to have a glass of wine while he greets customers. That leads to blasts on Yelp that he’s not manning the line as a chef should.

Once, he asserted, he was dunned a few stars because local gossip reports had mentioned his break-up with a girlfriend.
“You want to comment on my service? Fine. You want to comment on my personal life? Fuck you,” he barked. “Just eat your steak and enjoy it.”

You don't have to pay attention, and don't be so sensitive, contended a woman in the audience.

That drew a sharp retort from Richter.

When the shouter returned the volley, Kummer interceded with a request that she hold her “questions” until the end.

What the woman had yelled was true, Kummer commented to Richter: “You don’t have to care. But you do. Isn’t that the point?”
Playing the diplomat, he turned the focus to Yelp’s Lowe, who calmly asserted that part of the problem is a difference in perspective between customer and chef. He recounted how a restaurant was aghast because a customer kept complaining on Yelp that the place didn’t provide crayons for her children.

Lowe told the concerned restaurateur that the gripe was actually a good thing. Patrons looking for a sports bar where they could watch the game over a few beers, without the noise and mayhem, would read that review and choose the restaurant, he contended.

Full disclosure: I had to leave the session right at that moment to dash to a meeting outside of the show. For all I know, Lowe and Richter were hugging at the end, and the whole room might’ve erupted into a moving rendition of “Kumbaya.”

But when I saw an ambulance heading in the direction of McCormick Place while I was cabbing elsewhere, I did do a major double-take.

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