This is the first in a series of interviews spotlighting AAN members who have made notable “Achievements and Innovations.” If you have a suggestion for a future interview topic, please contact Amy Gill at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-289-8484.
For the last year and a half, Washington’s City Paper has featured an online database of restaurant reviews written by readers. The “Restaurant Finder” allows any reader to create an account, post reviews and search for other reader reviews by restaurant, genre, or by a particular reviewer. Selected reviews are run in print every week, and reader-reviewers are invited to special events called “nosh mobs,” held at different restaurants around the city. Below, City Paper Publisher Amy Austin (pictured), Webmeister Dave Nuttycombe, and recently hired Food Critic Tim Carman discuss the unexpected ways that Restaurant Finder has improved the Washington City Paper brand, both on- and off-line.
How did the Restaurant Finder get started?
Amy Austin: Actually, it came from the owners of the Chicago Reader — the Reader has the same owners we do, but we’re organized as two separate companies, and we share ideas. They did a version of it first, and then we took a lot of their ideas and were able to improve on them. The idea is that the site should be a combination of the City Paper’s food criticism printed side by side with comments from the readers — who are also playing critics. So you get this combination of voices.
Did it come down as a directive?
Austin: Let’s say [Chicago Reader Executive Editor] Mike Lenehan was very persuasive. But it makes sense. Getting restaurant listings is something we weren’t able to do well in print. You can’t just review 50 Italian restaurants and run them out into listings.
Before, we had just one restaurant review each week, and we didn’t have a group of restaurants around it. Now we have the review, and then listings — like our music. We have tons and tons of descriptions. Having the readers rate the restaurants themselves gives us this big database of reviews we can run every week. And there’s more of an ownership by City Paper of restaurants in this town — in other words, we have a critical voice, we have the reader’s voice, and we have a base of advertisers.
What do you mean by ownership?
Austin: Urban dwellers want to know about food, and no one does food better locally than we do — Washingtonian and Washington Post Web sites are terrible for food — you can’t find anything. And we also have a really good mapping system, so you can find out, if you want to go X club, what restaurants are around there.
[Webmeister] Dave Nuttycombe: The idea is that when people are hungry, they’ll think of restaurant finder first — that City Paper is the voice, through [Food Critic] Tim, for what’s good for your tummy in town.
How does it all work: a reviewer creates an account, writes a review, and posts it –- does it go online immediately? Are the reviews selected or edited?
Austin: We don’t just put them up immediately, because there’s potential for libel. And there are restaurants we don’t review. We don’t do chains, we have to make sure that the review is part of who we want to cover. And then it’s posted and however they rate it, it gets an accumulated score — you get 1 to 4 “sporks.”
Austin: The spork idea was controversial — but in the end we decided it’s a fun idea. It’s like a star rating. There are checkboxes for various categories, and depending on what gets checked, those numbers determine the spork score.
Can readers choose to review any restaurant they want? How do you get people to review less well-known or less popular places?
Nuttycombe: We have a list of restaurants that need just a few more reviews to get a rating. A user can’t add a new place to the database, but we get a lot of suggestions. Our requirements are that it has to be a sit-down place, and we don’t do chains, take-away places, or bakeries.
How do the nosh mobs work?
Nuttycombe: I’m one of the hosts and organizers for what we’re calling the nosh mob, an event that we host every six weeks at a different restaurant. We send out an e-mail invite the day before to all 3500 raters — we do it the day before so they don’t all show up — and they get drink specials and we usually have a food-related discussion, lecture, some kind of educational component.
Austin: They learned about hot sauces at a Mexican restaurant, they did sushi and learned how sushi chefs cut up fish and where they get their fresh fish. They had a Greek wine and food tasting.
Nuttycombe: They’ve been wonderfully successful. We came up with the nosh mob, and the Chicago Reader is doing it now.
Who pays for the nosh mob? Does it bring in revenue? Austin: Nobody pays — well, we trade space in the paper with the restaurant, which is beneficial to sales.
Nuttycombe: It’s more of a branding exercise, making more people aware of City Paper and the Restaurant Finder site, and obviously the advertising around it goes up. The idea is that when people are hungry, they’ll think of Restaurant Finder.
How does the food critic figure into this?
[Food Critic] Tim Carman:I think that one of the things that’s going to make the Restaurant Finder better is developing a relationship with the reviewers. Just because you have a Web site doesn’t mean they will come.
You have to build a community for these people. The nosh mob is one way of doing it. Another way is to get this dialogue between the critic, the restaurant raters and the paper. We’ve talked about doing a newsletter to give a sense that we’re going to make them into active participants.
The Washington Post has a similar web feature: you can read a review and down at the bottom there are maybe a couple of comments on it. But ours is more up in your face — if you give a review, you’re almost given the same weight as the critic. And not only that, but if a reader likes a particular rater’s style, he or she can go into the history of that rater and see all their reviews.
Are you worried about being put out of a job?
Carman: No, it’s part of the way the world operates now. There are a lot of opinions and you shouldn’t be afraid of somebody else’s opinion. I think it makes it much more democratic than this old sort of tsarist system. A critic’s opinion could make or break restaurants, and in some ways that wasn’t a fair system.
Has the Restaurant Finder feature been successful in terms of ad revenue?
Austin: Uh-huh. It’s brought us more restaurants. We hope to generate more of an online presence for our advertisers, too. We’re not doing a good job of that right now. What I hope we can do is more keyword searches, so that if someone searches Italian then our base of Italian restaurant ads would show up — we could put menus online, photos of restaurants.
Could you see a similar interactive, online format working for other reviews — clubs, for example, or music? Is this part of a push to get more of the paper online?
Austin: We didn’t sit around and say, “How can we make our Web site better? Let’s do restaurants.” We said, “How can we make our restaurant section better?” Restaurants work really well online.
But this was the first project that I had ever worked on where there was this big intersection between publishing and editorial, and one of the first examples of where I see the whole world moving: before, things went from print to online; now they’re going from online to newsprint.
Isaiah Thompson is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin and was a 2005 fellow of the Academy for Alternative Journalism. He lives in Washington, D.C., where he is a freelance writer and educator.