Botto Bistro in Richmond, California, might have stellar pizza. It might serve of a decent dish of pasta with pomodoro sauce. It might even have great service.
But you wouldn't know it from its reviews on Yelp, which in total give it less than two stars. It's the Italian restaurant itself though that's driving these bad reviews with its "Hate Us on Yelp" campaign. In fact, it's even offering customers discounts if they give it a one-star rating.
Why would a restaurant do such a thing?
The bistro explained on its website that it wants to be rated with the lowest score on the online review site, because it wants to "prove that low score and bad reviews don't impact us and any other successful restaurants."
"We have heard many stories about Yelp threatening businesses and forcing them to advertise with them," the restaurants Hate Us on Yelp page said. "Over the last few years we have received some of those phone calls too."
Looking back, within the last few years there are several articles with similar businesses accusing Yelp of manipulating user reviews under certain conditions.
Ed Wells, who owns a restaurant in Florida, told Business Insider in 2013 that a Yelp representative swore at him when he refused to buy advertising. After this refusal, he also said he started seeing negative reviews come in through the site.
Kristen Whisenand, a Yelp spokeswoman, told Business Insider at the time that the company does not manipulate reviews based on a business giving it money.
A restauranteur from in the Oakland, California, area identified only as John told the East Bay Express he was contacted by a Yelp representative who told him the site would move negative reviews for $299 per month.
"That's the biggest scam in the Bay Area," John said. "It totally felt like a blackmail deal. I think they're doing anything to make a sale."
Earlier this month, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Yelp can lower or raise the rating of a business depending on whether it advertises with the company. Yelp denied that it does that, saying it uses an automated system to cull reviews that determine ratings. Regardless, the court said if Yelp did do this, it would not constitute extortion.
As for how Botto Bistro is doing, co-owner Davide Cerretini told the San Francisco Chronicle that this campaign is the "best business move I have made in years."
“We are getting not just customers, but new friends who they like this," he told the newspaper.
KPIX-TV reported that Yelp has contacted Botto Bistro, asking it to stop giving rewards for negative reviews.
Some of the recent reviews as a result of the campaign are quite humorous. Here are snippets from just a few:
- Joshua C.: I can say just looking at their menu that it's completely horrible. Fresh made pasta? Ha! Haven't they ever heard of packaged pasta? What kind of business would make something fresh when you can have it premade? How can you run a successful business with those kinds of labor costs?! Organic salads? Who wants that? How else do you make sure all of the bugs are kept away from the veggies before they arrive at your establishment? More wasteful labor costs - someone now has to wash and check all of those veggies. Cooking classes? Why would you teach people to cook the foods you make? How else are you going to get repeat customers?! Seriously, these people need to eat at a McDonald's or something and learn how a real restaurant business is run.
- Jason B.: I ordered a pizza but they said all of the pizza was broken. I was so sad until the owner called me back and said he would fix the pizza with tomato paste. Anyway, I can only give them a 1 star rating because they will not deliver to New Jersey. The gall these people have opening up in California and not thinking about the people out here in the East Coast. What gives?
- Michelle R.: My boyfriend took me here for dinner the other night, and I totally thought he was going to propose... but he DIDN'T. Obviously this is the restaurant's fault, and not the fact that I purposefully killed his pet goldfish the other day and frequently read his emails in order to find out if he's cheating on me. The ambiance in here is just completely unromantic, really off-putting for who are trying to propose to their ladies.
- John S.: All I asked was for a delivery to Virginia and they said no. I offered to meet them halfway, but nada. Totally unreasonable.
Watch KTVU-TV's report about the campaign:
The Associated Press contributed to this report.