Davide Cerretini's business strategy is one that most restaurant owners probably wouldn't endorse: trying to become Yelp's lowest-rated restaurant in the San Francisco area.
"I really don’t want to be in the Yelp listing,” Cerretini told ABC News. “So we decided if you can’t beat them, try to play the same game. If I can’t be removed from that list, I’m going to do everything in my power to be the most unreliable restaurant ever.”
Cerretini started offering incentives to customers about six months ago to post one-star reviews on Yelp of his restaurant, Botto Bistro in Richmond, Calif. Anyone who posts an on-site poor review of the restaurant receives an immediate 25 percent off their check.
Reviews range from sarcastic (“I might as well have been in Italy. YUCK!”) to supportive (“I can only give this place one star. To do so otherwise would show them disrespect. The pizza is fabulous and I want to support any business that's willing to expose Yelp’s unhelpful review manipulation policies.”), but they all come with a one-star rating.
“Knowing we’re confident in our food, we decided, ‘Let’s go the other way. Let’s make fun of ourselves,” Cerretini explained.
Cerretini decided to start the rewards program in response to what he sees as Yelp’s manipulation of reviews and unfair practices to “blackmail” restaurants into advertising on the site.
“We did advertising, we tried to play the game, we tried to do what every other restaurant has to do to the point where finally one day we decided the harassment was enough. No more phone calls for advertising; no more worrying about the review,” he said. “I don’t have anything against Yelp; it’s a business, so obviously they need to get money. If I don’t follow their guidelines, what are the consequences? Am I going to jail? Or am I going to be removed from the listing? So that’s the point. I do a lot of advertising and respect a lot of critics but not to the point where I also have to pay to be criticized.”
Yelp contacted Cerretini over email on Monday about the situation, writing in part, “If you are offering incentives in exchange for reviews, we ask that you immediately discontinue such activity. If we learn that this type of behavior has continued, we may take action on your Business Account which could include suspending access to your listing. It may also result in a Consumer Alert being placed on your listing.”
Cerretini sarcastically responded, writing in part, “I'm contacting you from the Botto User Support Team because we've received complaints from the community that you may be removing reviews in exchange of vague explanations to loyal customers.”
His response to the company plays into his attitude toward the situation: carefree.
“If Yelp decides to go for me, I don’t know what they’re going to do because I just sabotaged myself. They cannot force me to be in the listing in their terms. They can force me to be there, but if I want to win the worst restaurant in the planet, the business is mine. I pay my rent, I pay my employees, I think I should feel free to be the worst,” he said. “My business already skyrocketed since I did that. We had an increase about 30 to 40 percent of business.”
“Millions of consumers use Yelp each month to find great local businesses because they trust the content on our site,” Yelp VP of Corporate Communication and Government Affairs Vince Sollitto told ABC News. “That’s why businesses can't pay Yelp to manipulate their reviews and why it’s a violation of our Terms of Service to pay for or incentivize reviews.”
Cerretini has no plans to stop his practices, despite what Yelp may ask him to do.
“I have thousands of people just calling us to shake our hands. They’re so supportive,” he said. “We hope that other people will follow us and finally be free from the blackmailing or worry about going to work. You should be worried about the food and the clientele, but not Yelp. I’m so glad that people finally understand.”