These days it seems like almost everything we do happens online, including deciding where and what to eat. Before heading out to a restaurant — even one you’ve been to time and again, perhaps — you likely do a quick search of the spot online, and with that almost surely yields an entire profile of the eatery on Yelp.com, complete with reviews, photos and a rating from fellow diners. The feedback from those guests can make or break a restaurant’s online reputation, which is exactly why restaurant consultant Monti Carlo has her work cut out for her on the upcoming series Help My Yelp, premiering Monday, April 10 at 10|9c. After members of Yelp’s elite squad visited struggling restaurants and left (perhaps scathing) reviews of the businesses, it’s up to her to work with the management and chefs to swiftly rethink their approach to service in the hopes of boosting their standing online. After all, potential diners make quick decisions based on what they read online, so business owners ought to heed Monti’s advice before the next group of Yelp members stop by for a meal.
We checked in Monti recently to find out what’s to come on Help My Yelp and to get her take on the negative restaurant reviews that permeate the web. Find out how she utilizes Yelp and what she thinks about food photography while dining out. Read on below to read her thoughts in an all-new exclusive interview.
What can fans expect from Help My Yelp? What are you most looking forward to?
Monti Carlo: Help My Yelp is a feel-good show all about transformation. It’s not a traditional restaurant makeover show in the sense that I don’t go in with a sledgehammer and knock down walls. Yelp is a mirror. I hold that mirror up and show business owners how to look at the big picture. We focus on their strengths and work on their weaknesses to quickly make changes that have an immediate impact on ratings. If you’re a fan of kitchen hacks, you’re going to learn quite a few.
What I’m looking forward to the most is seeing the long-term effects of our combined efforts. Consumer reviews are the norm in today’s economy. They’re not going anywhere. So how do we use them as a tool to help us improve our product, our customer base and our finances? When it comes to Yelp, even a half-star bump in ratings can increase a restaurant’s bottom line by almost 10 percent. A one-star bump can make a dead night into a sellout. For many mom-and-pop [places], that can mean the difference between staying open another year or closing their doors for good.
How do you use Yelp to decide where and what to eat?
MC: If I’m in the mood for a particular cuisine, a quick search on Yelp shows me the best place to get it. If I’m visiting a new town or if I want to discover a great spot in my neck of the woods, I always turn to Yelp to help me make my decision. I search for places in my current location and sort by rating. Then I sift through the best-rated [spots] to see what looks good. If more than one person raves or posts a pic of a must-have dish, more often than not it’s what I’m ordering.
In your experience, how much weight should diners place in a negative restaurant review? Sometimes restaurants have off nights, and diners can let other issues affect their reviews, right?
MC: I never make a decision based on one review, good or bad. I look to see how many times a restaurant has been reviewed and how many stars it averages. It’s all about the big picture. No one is flawless 100 percent of the time. When I read a particularly scathing review, I see it more as a reflection of the reviewer than a reflection of the restaurant. How many other bad reviews has the person posted? Do they habitually play the victim? Is the review a cry for attention? Are other reviewers saying the same thing? If the review seems legit, I look to see what steps management took to resolve the issue in a hospitable way. Everyone makes mistakes, but what we do to right them speaks volumes.
What do you think of the food-photo phenomenon that has taken over our dining-out culture? What value does it bring to sites like Yelp?
MC: Most of the time I’m halfway through a dish before I realize I should have taken a picture. This is probably because I grew up in an era where the solar-powered calculator was considered cutting-edge technology. My good friend Helen, on the other hand, has her phone locked and loaded. As soon as a dish hits the table she’s taking pics from every angle. I once had to wait five minutes for her to finish taking shots of my butterscotch pudding before she would let me touch it. As soon as I stopped pouting about it I realized that I should be thankful for Helen taking the time to show off my fave dessert spot. Pictures + Social Media = word of mouth on steroids. An incredible picture of a dish on Yelp has sealed the deal on more than one occasion for me. “Oh yes. I want that in my belly.” The fact that those pics have a measurable impact in an industry where margins are razor thin is the proverbial cherry on top.
What do you hope to convey to business owners and diners alike about what it takes to not just run a successful restaurant but also to support and eat at one?
MC: No matter what side of the token you’re on, never forget the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
As a restaurateur, strive to exceed guest expectations. Having a clean restaurant that thrives on hospitality and delivers on the promise of great food is what’s expected. Utilize the “and one more thing” technique. What’s one more thing you can do to elevate that guest’s experience, to take it over the top? Figure it out and do it.
If you’re on the receiving end of an amazing meal and experience, don’t keep it to yourself. Photograph it, Yelp about it, tell your friends and come back again. If things aren’t perfect, be kind, let management know and give them an opportunity to make it up to you.
Tell us a bit about your own style in the kitchen. What kind of food do you gravitate toward?
MC: I’m Puerto Rican, born and raised, so if it’s fried, came from a pig, and has a side of rice and beans, I am #AllIn. I live in California now so I’m definitely trying to incorporate the flavors I grew up with into dishes that are fresh and light and utilize as many locally sourced ingredients as possible. I call it Cali-Rican cuisine.
When did you first become interested in food? What led you to this passion?
MC: I’m a twin and I was born first. I came in at a solid 6 lbs. My brother, on the other hand, came in at 2 pounds. Apparently, I had hogged all the nutrition in the womb. So I guess you could say I’ve been interested in food from the word go.
I grew up watching the women in my family cook. My grandmothers, my aunts, my mother — they are all gifted chefs. Food is everywhere on my island: street vendors with fogons full of pinchos (grilled meat on skewers), ripe mangoes and guavas falling off the trees, women and men at red lights selling coconut candy. Those smells and flavors soak into your skin. They become a part of you.
Growing up my mother and my aunt both had restaurants. When I was a kid, I’d make cookies and doughnuts to sell to other kids in my neighborhood for pocket money. I worked in restaurants as a teenager and in my 20s because that’s what felt like home to me. All of these experiences laid the foundation for my passion for the kitchen.
What five ingredients do you use most when cooking?
MC: The French have mirepoix (onions, celery, carrots) and Creoles have the holy trinity (onions, celery, bell peppers). Puerto Ricans have sofrito. It’s the base of most of our savory dishes. I often use onion, garlic, peppers, cilantro and salt pork when building the foundation of a stew, soup or savory sauce.
What’s your favorite culinary hack or shortcut?
MC: I love making microwave mug cakes. If you’re anything like me (impatient, with a sweet tooth so big it rides shotgun), microwave mug cakes are an awesome recipe to keep in your back pocket. The cake is ready so fast you can literally make it during a commercial break. Check out my recipes for Tropical Coconut Mug Cake and Leftover Coffee Mug Cake on my blog islandgirlcooks.com.
Tune in to the premiere of Help My Yelp on Monday, April 10 at 10|9c.