Five Ways Nicoletta Can Respond to Those Not-So-Hot Reviews

photo(304)Melvin Felix Nicoletta got handed lemons and is
making lemonade.

Michael White has yet to respond to the harsh reviews of Nicoletta that have been the talk of the food world (and the cat world) for the past 24 hours. The star chef was unavailable for comment when we tried him yesterday, though he has now retweeted a few messages from supporters, including this one: “@pete_wells A bitter note seeped into your review. Ambitious owners? Long lines? Well-designed tables? Thick crust? Fine by me.”  

It remains to be seen what, if anything, Mr. White will say for himself. But looking at how East Village restaurateurs have responded to criticism in the past, it’s clear he has some options.

1. Respond in the comments
In March, Tompkins Square Bagels owner Christopher Pugliese replied to a none-too-positive assessment of his “bagel burger” special by saying the joke was on the reviewer, Josh Ozersky: “I probably put more thought into what color chalk to use on the special board than to that burger,” he wrote in the comments. During the ensuing exchange with Mr. Ozersky, the bagelsmith conceded, “I should not have responded so strongly because this fellow Josh was just doing his job,” going on to explain, “I am very passionate about my bagels. To call them light, airy confections and poke fun at my clientele, got me riled up.”

2. Shoot Pete Wells an e-mail
Mr. Pugliese got riled up again in June when a Yelp reviewer, Alexander Edelman, criticized the bagel shop’s switch from Stumptown Coffee Roasters to Stone Street Coffee. Master Alexander, as Mr. Edelman sometimes calls himself, hated the new coffee: “It really makes me question the intentions of the owners that they would serve this swill,” he wrote.

Mr. Pugliese sent a message to Mr. Edelman suggesting he “take a good long look around my shop and then let me know how dopey/insulting a comment like ‘question the intention of the owner’ sounds”; in response, Alexander criticized the Broadway hits played at the bagel shop (“Are you serious? This isn’t Times Square,” he wrote, demanding some Ramones instead), which led to the owner calling him a “trust-fund hipster.” Mr. Pugliese wrote, “Kid, if I gave you all the money up front and a blueprint on how to open up a place like mine, you still wouldn’t be able to do it.” As for the music, he added, “Ramones? Co-opted by the yupsters who are trying to buy cool. We purposely play what we do to keep them out.”

Alexander posted a version of the exchange (“edited to make me seem less crazy,” he admitted) on his Tumblr, but eventually both parties agreed that the squabble was petty: the Yelper edited his review so that it was “more favorable and fair” (he changed the one-star rating back to three) and took down the Tumblr item. (The quotes above come from a print-out of the post.)


Mr. Pugliese said he learned a lesson from the brouhaha. “I need to learn this as a small-business owner: I can’t read everything that’s written about the place,” he told The Local, “and I can’t get upset like I did with Mr. Bagel Burger.”

3. Blog the pain away
For Manitoba’s owner Richard “Handsome Dick” Manitoba, responding to negative reviews tends to be out of the question.

“Having been a performer for so many years, I learned you have to maintain your sensitivity, but you’ve got to be tough so that you can survive as an artist,” Mr. Manitoba said. “That’s how I look at it as a business owner, too. If most people like [Manitoba’s] and I’m making money, I’m doing something right.”

But don’t talk smack about his employees. Last month, an unhappy Yelper complained about one of the new bartenders at Manitoba’s. Here’s how the proprietor responded.


“I won’t be righteous to you if you’re attacking someone who works for me,” Mr. Manitoba explained. And if you’re a former employee who has fallen out of his graces, expect to hear about it on the rocker’s Maniblog. A few months ago, Mr. Manitoba unleashed on a former manager suspected of manipulating the bar’s hours on its Yelp page. “I got a little too lazy, and Kevin grew to a monster who thought the bar was his,” blogged Mr. Manitoba, later adding that the ex-employee “basically ran the business into the ground.”

“The internet creates keyboard gangsters,” Mr. Manitoba complained. “Everybody talks with their computer. If you don’t like somebody or you want to hurt somebody, it’s easy.”

For better or worse, owners can blog back. Eddie Huang, the outspoken proprietor of Bauhaus on 14th Street, famously used his blog Fresh Off the Boat to question the credentials of critic Jay Cheshes after his short-lived Lower East Side restaurant, Xiao Ye, got a bad review in Time Out. “The fact that you compared zha jiang mien to dan dan mien shows you know ZERO about Chinese food,” Mr. Huang wrote. When Sam Sifton of The Times followed up with a no-star review, his reaction, on Twitter, was more restrained.

4. Turn the other cheek
Violet Masco, one of the managers at Bad Burger, said criticism was hard to swallow. “If you’re struggling in the first place, and Yelp is screwing you, it’s too much,” she said. “We’re ignoring Yelp right now. We know we have happy customers.”

But before that approach, the owners were generally apologetic. Here’s a typical response.

Bad Burger

5. Take it to the streets
In February, a customer wrote a review saying the meatball sandwich at Joe Dobias’s sandwich shop, JoeDough, was the worst he had eaten in three decades.


Instead of responding to the review online, Mr. Dobias decided to publicize it on the restaurant’s sidewalk chalkboard.

“We didn’t want any further damage to come from the person,” said Mr. Dobias. “We embraced it and let the general public decide if it’s the worst meatball sandwich.”

A photo of the A-frame was posted by EV Grieve, and though some commenters questioned the strategy (“the attitude… makes a potential customer a former customer,” wrote one), Mr. Dobias said the sandwich became more popular. “People ask for it now,” he said. “It’s turned into an East Village icon.”

Of course, it’s possible Mr. White already has responded, albeit subtly. When we called today, the hold music was Jay-Z’s “Dirt Off Your Shoulder.”