It’s no secret that those in the hospitality industry are not the biggest fan of Yelp. From Amanda Cohen of Dirt Candy declaring to an angry non-patron Yelper, “Trust me, I’m not out to get you,” to Food Network host Andrew Zimmern calling the site a “forum for uninformed idiots”, to the many countless chefs rebutting angry “reviews” on the site itself. What’s changing for the better are platforms designed to combat the negativity. With a brand new online community, Roundtable, the industry is one step closer to taking the referral process back from the masses.
The idea sprang from CEO and co-founder Andrew Johnson’s own frustration as a city diner. He had a background in product management for sites like Clickable, Syncapse and Spotify, and realized that his struggle to find where best to eat at night should be easily fulfilled in today’s hyper-communicative online world.
But while there’s an overwhelming amount of restaurant choices in New York and plenty of voices promoting them, Johnson recognized a lack of trust in a review system where anyone can be a critic — those who are not likely the ones you would turn to in every day life: “We started thinking about the people you trust in the food community,” he says. “We didn’t want a site where you had to worry if the reviews were fake, if they were poorly written, or if it was by someone just complaining about how long it took their check to arrive. We wanted people who were knowledgeable and passionate about fine dining.”
Johnson’s team landed on featuring those within the industry itself.
On Roundtable, chefs, cooks, sommeliers, restaurateurs and managers are the ones offering referrals. In the two months since they’ve launched (right now, just in NYC), the site has attracted around 250 members, most within the industry from restaurants like Jean-Georges, Craft, The Dutch and Del Posto. Their profile pages state their title and location, so you see sommeliers commenting on other sommeliers and chefs complimenting the work of fellow chefs, all in plain sight.
Anyone can sign up and reap the benefits, but only industry personnel can post or answer questions, or invite others in the industry to be active members, too. In this way, the community is built on trusted friendships and work relationships, rather than the anonymity that open restaurant review sites afford; that’s how the community has been built thus far, purely from referrals and word of mouth. “When someone posts,” Johnson says, “you learn something about that person: this is a chef at Le Bernardin writing about Toro. It’s a real person, and we know their profession and their tastes. We’re trying to bring this notion of who the person is onto the site.”
Because of this inside-out structure, Roundtable members are into sharing when a place is really killing it for a specific reason — like a wine menu that’s particularly interesting or a well-executed dish. “That isn’t to say that people don’t post objective recommendations,” Johnson says. “They mention a long wait, or if you shouldn’t expect Michelin-starred service. But ultimately it’s not about negativity. It’s about sharing and discovering the best stuff around the city.”
There are no star systems on Roundtable. The site isn’t about reviews or compiling “best burger” or “best fried chicken” lists, either, setting it apart from blogs and the other “anti-Yelp” site ChefsFeed.com, which allows chefs to review and rank restaurants. Rather, questions focus on sharing the newest and most thorough dining experiences out there: “What’s the most interesting dessert you’ve tried in the past year?” “What’s an uncommon ingredient you’re working with at your restaurant that you’re really excited about right now?” “What are the best places to eat after midnight?” These kinds of questions allow those within the industry to share what they’re really pumped about, and those outside of it ideas of where to have a particularly stellar dining experience with a touch of insider knowledge.
And that insider knowledge gets pretty intricate. “We had a recent question for sommeliers about what are great lesser-known varietals people should be looking for,” Johnson says. “They came up with a really interesting list, and if you’re someone passionate about wine, you may find something you haven’t known about before and where to try it. We try to ask questions about what’s interesting to people within the industry and without; things that they haven’t seen a million other places.”
Responses are rather detailed, so that wine recommendation comes not only with “this exists”, but a bit of “here’s where it comes from, this is what it tastes like, and this is why you should make the effort to try it.” This attention to detail within the hospitality community means that members are coming back to explore purely for their own interest, as well, with frequent users like Minetta Tavern’s executive chef Bill Braswell sharing many nuggets of his knowledge, or chef Franklin Becker of Little Beet Table throwing love to Amanda Cohen’s Dirt Candy. They return to call out others who are doing notable work or to give colleagues the attention they deserve.
And, unlike Yelp, all members vet which questions and which answers are the most intriguing and worthy of attention, so the most popular recommendations float to the top. “You’re seeing the best recommendations based on what the entire community says is right,” he says. You can see who exactly voted them up as well, and follow members whose tastes match your own so that their responses are immediately available.
Ultimately, the site is about getting people into restaurants to build more knowledgeable, intimate relationships with those doing the sautéing and pouring. It’s about not settling for the same spots over and over again when there’s a city’s worth of creativity to explore.
Right now, Roundtable operations are pretty slim — there’s Johnson, a designer, two engineers, and a community organizer to pull in new members and help manage those who have already joined. But they’re all extremely passionate about creating a community of those with expertise in the food world, and getting people in the industry excited about it, too. “That’s really what we want to own within the space of food and dining,” Johnson says. “Whenever people think, ‘I’m not sure where I want to go tonight – I need ideas,’ we want to be a platform they turn to.”
For more and to sign up, head over to Roundtable.io.