2015-09-03 / Business News

Electronic shout-outs

More and more, good reviews on websites bring big business
Florida Weekly Correspondent

Celebrity chef Alton Brown gave kudos to Havana when he was in West Palm Beach for shows at the Kravis Center in February. 
ALTONBROWN.COM Celebrity chef Alton Brown gave kudos to Havana when he was in West Palm Beach for shows at the Kravis Center in February. ALTONBROWN.COM Reuben’s Smokehouse, 11: Eleven Café, McCarthy’s Wildlife Sanctuary and other local businesses are benefiting from the power of the online customer review and the celebrity shout-out. When customers and celebrities rate, others read. As several businesses in Southwest Florida and Palm Beach County have discovered, rankings by TripAdvisor and visits from famous foodies will ratchet up customer counts and improve their online cred.

Three months after Internet powerhouse TripAdvisor named Reuben’s the fourth-best barbecue restaurant in the country, the Fort Myers business is still packed to its rafters. Celebrity chef Alton Brown’s gushing kudos to the avocadogrilled cheese sandwich at 11: Eleven in Fort Myers and the Hostess cupcake milkshake at Relish in West Palm Beach also created a similar avalanche.

Sauti, a 4-year-old Bengal tiger, chills at McCarthy’s Wildlife Sanctuary, a place rated by TripAdvisor as the top thing to do in West Palm Beach. 
COURTESY PHOTO Sauti, a 4-year-old Bengal tiger, chills at McCarthy’s Wildlife Sanctuary, a place rated by TripAdvisor as the top thing to do in West Palm Beach. COURTESY PHOTO “Forty percent of our business continues to be from people who saw us on TripAdvisor,” says Arvey Krise, Reuben’s co-owner. “It’s such a wonderful tool for businesses and for people in the area looking for a place to eat. We have just 11 tables and recently had visitors from Sweden, France, Germany and Great Britain here at the same time. They all heard about us from TripAdvisor.”

Mr. Brown’s favorite restaurant finds, unearthed during his recent North American tour, were featured in USA TODAY and print and online media outlets worldwide, as were the recent TripAdvisor top 10 national rankings for Reuben’s, Brooks Gourmet Burgers and Dogs and Harborwalk Scoops & Bites.

“Thousands of people came in who had no idea we were here,” says Ms. Krise, “Even older people were finding us online and on their smartphones. It’s been absolutely great. There were people driving from Chicago and all over the country to eat here. It brought all these tourists to Fort Myers during the off season.”

“We had a lot of new business just piling in the door. Our business increased 30 percent overnight” says Todd Brooks, owner of Brooks Burgers in Naples, ranked sixth-best burger joint in 2014 and ninth in 2015. “It was pretty amazing how much power the rating gave us. By getting mentioned it pulls us up to the top of search engines. It gives us a great advantage.”

Although Google, Yelp and Facebook garner customer reviews, TripAdvisor is the king of the travel and hospitality world with 375 million unique monthly visitors, 250 million worldwide reviews and 160 new contributions every minute, according to Julie Cassetina, senior public relations specialist.

Throughout the year TripAdvisor releases top 10 lists, using an algorithm for businesses with fewer than 10 locations and factoring in quality, quantity and customer bubble scores. A five-bubble rating is the best.

“People are very passionate about food and we help them uncover lesser-known places for pizza, barbecue and ice cream,” Ms. Cassetina says. “There’s a huge appetite for food stories and our team at TripAdvisor has a lot of fun putting them together.”

Sometimes its timing, however, isn’t the best, especially for high winter season destinations. Ron and Claudia Thomas, owners of Scoops & Bites in Punta Gorda, were on vacation in Brazil when the news broke Aug. 11 of their No. 1 rating. Brooks Burgers in Naples wasn’t at full staff when it received its ratings in July.

“You are not told in advance this is happening and it’s announced during our off season,” Mr. Brooks says. “We went from having a solid lunch business to suddenly an hour wait with half our staff. The first week after was pretty rough. We loved the attention, but we also wanted to live up to the reputation.”

Ms. Krise learned of Reuben’s ranking from a chef friend in Bonita Springs who read it on CNN.com.

“Customers were coming in in droves,” she says. “People were standing across 41 taking pictures and coming in requesting pictures with me. We smoke 500 pounds a day, are a scratch kitchen and couldn’t keep up. It was wonderful and an honor but was very grueling the first month or two. Now it’s manageable.”

TripAdvisor also recognizes the top hospitality businesses each year, awarding its Certificate of Excellence to those that maintain at least a four bubble rating, have been on the site for a year and have a minimum number of reviews.

Celebrity Chef Emeril Lagasse recently put Coolinary Cafe in Palm Beach Gardens in the media spotlight while taping a segment for his Cooking Channel series “Emeril’s Florida,” scheduled to air in January. Coolinary’s chef-owner Tim Lipman’s farm-to-table restaurant remained crowded even during the height of the traditionally slow summer season.

As a wintertime playground for the rich and famous, Palm Beach has long attracted its own cadre of celebrity A-listers, including a decades-long relationship with celeb chef Daniel Boulud and hairstylist-to-the-stars Frédéric Fekkai at the boutique Brazilian Court Hotel. Mr. Boulud regularly gives a shout-out to other local restaurants when he’s in town.

One of his favorite hangouts is Havana, a Cuban restaurant that boasted one of the first takeout windows of its kind north of Miami. Locals often see Mr. Boulud sipping a late-night cafecito with local chef Marcello Fiorentino of Marcello’s La Sirena.

Mr. Brown also recognized Havana, writing on his website: “The pork on this Cuban was out of this world.” He also praised the brews at Subculture Coffee and recommended the Lou Reed cocktail and a speck ham pizza at Hullabaloo in downtown West Palm.

Businesses are reaping the benefits from online customer reviews in an era when more patrons want to express their opinions, either good or bad.

TripAdvisor’s reach extends into everything travel-related, including shopping, activities, attractions and accommodations. Many of Glenn Novotny’s customers mention finding his Adventures Kayaking in Bonita Springs through the website. The kayaking outfitter is currently rated the top three of 15 tours and activities in Bonita Springs.

McCarthy’s Wildlife Sanctuary is rated by TripAdvisor reviewers as the top thing to do in West Palm Beach. “By far Trip- Advisor is bringing in the most customers,” says owner Mark McCarthy, who only recently opened his 25-year-old rescue and rehabilitation refuge to the public. He checks his bubbles every day.

Ms. Krise says she’s more content when Reuben’s is No. 3. “As much as it is an honor to be number one, it puts a bullseye on you. One bad review and you can go down four notches. As long as you’re in the top 10, you’re fine.”

Like many local TripAdvisor-rated business owners, Ms. Krise and Mr. Brooks make a point of monitoring and replying to their virtual reviewers.

“It’s like checking your bank account,” Ms. Krise says. “That’s how serious this is. I want to know if there’s a server people don’t like or if their food isn’t exactly what they expected. I use this to gauge the quality of our food and service. I try to respond to almost all the reviews because I appreciate customers taking the time. Some are long and heartfelt; others are just a few lines. But I know people are reading them.”

The online customer review world also extends into other businesses serving the public with rankings appearing on Google, Facebook, Yelp and even industry specific websites. While restaurants generate hundreds, even thousands of user reviews, other businesses are lucky to have 20 or even a handful of customer comments.

Most business owners remember the customer and the situation that caused a bad review. Despite safeguards in place — TripAdvisor employs 200 staffers with criminal investigation backgrounds, according to Ms. Cassetina — some single out their competition for giving them a bad rap.

“You know when you mess up,” says Mr. Brooks. “We try to put our best foot forward but we’re not flawless. We’re human like everyone else. I get a bad review and it keeps me up all night. I take it really personal.” ¦

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