Guest Column: Frank Parhizgar and Shawn Cooper on the Power of a Review

For the owners of former Little Italy institution Frank’s Kitchen, Yelp is both a blessing and a curse

Eight years ago, we opened Frank’s Kitchen on College Street without fanfare or social media. We did not send out a press package, invite bloggers or contact hotel concierges. We did not have Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or even a website.

We are from a different time, a different era, when restaurants succeeded by slowly building up a loyal base of clientele through consistent nightly performance.

When Frank’s Kitchen first opened, we sat virtually empty for four months. We retained the guests that did come, and weekends did well, but a restaurant cannot sustain itself on weekends alone. We depressingly observed the lineups at the burger-and-wrap joint beside us. We discussed closing.

Once, during a street festival, we talked about doing street food and making a quick buck. But Shawn insisted that we stick to who we were, fine dining. So we held out and did our menu, and Gina Mallet from the National Post happened upon us during that festival and gave us a stellar review.

Our lives changed overnight. Our phone calls quadrupled. We became booked weeks in advance. Then came the other heavyweights: Joanne Kates, Amy Pataki, James Chatto and Chris Nuttall-Smith.

It kept us relevant for years. Anyone who thinks that reviews don’t matter is dead wrong. Without them, you are invisible.

Frank Parhizgar 

What happened next was eye-opening, and now we know a natural progression in the life of a restaurant. For the first two to three years, people came because of critical acclaim. But by year three and four, people heard about us through Yelp or TripAdvisor. They had no idea that we had been reviewed by prestigious food critics.

It’s a brand new game now. The social media craze came up behind us, after Frank’s Kitchen opened. We had our heads down and didn’t notice. In this new social media-driven world, much had changed and we had not. We will not make the same mistake of underestimating media at our new location on St. Clair, FK Wine Bar.

In truth, we want our life’s work as industry professionals to be marked by other professionals. That luxury is sometimes not afforded with Yelp or TripAdvisor. We still get a sinking feeling when a new Yelp review comes up in our email. We know how important they are. We know people base their dining decisions on these reviews.

People will also read the negative ones first, and are likely to be motivated to write negative reviews instead of positive ones. It is disheartening that any false move, perceived or otherwise, is reported on.

Running a restaurant cannot always be a perfect performance. It’s live, and it’s a show, and if one of 1,000 variables goes wrong, the show is not as good. If the incredible effort that goes into a flawless dinner service was fully understood, perhaps people would be more careful in the stories they report.

Some reviews are fair and honest, and others aren’t. Still, the bottom line is that we would not have had our success without reviews. We grow from them. A customer’s perception is everything. You can love reviews or hate them, but never underestimate them.

- Words by Frank Parhizgar and Shawn Cooper