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Tabelog.com's customer-generated restaurant reviews prompt food fight

by Yuji Nakamura

Bloomberg

Minoru Tanaka has set off a food fight in Japan.

The 52-year-old is president of the company behind Tabelog.com, the country’s largest restaurant-review website. By getting diners to post over 5.9 million reviews of nearly 800,000 eateries, Tanaka has brought unprecedented transparency to one of the world’s best dining scenes. He has also infuriated chefs and owners along the way.

The local dominance of Tabelog has made it a target of complaints about everything from unfair reviews and incorrect information to the ruination of Japanese cuisine itself — no minor charge in a food-obsessed nation with more three-star Michelin restaurants than any other.

“Tabelog’s anonymous reviews aren’t really different than what’s written on the wall of a bathroom stall,” said Hiroshi Narumi, owner of Espresso Factory in Tokyo’s Sendagi neighborhood. “They don’t take any responsibility for what they’ve created or the influence they wield.”

Tanaka says his website has finally given voice to customers and some restaurant owners are simply uncomfortable with the direct feedback.

“Restaurants and other businesses are at long last being forced to listen to consumers,” Tanaka said in an interview. “And they’re finding it disturbing.”

Controversy has not slowed business at Tabelog, which is owned by Kakaku.com Inc. Revenue at the restaurant unit jumped 79 percent from a year earlier to a record ¥3.1 billion in the quarter ended in September, outpacing a 26 percent increase for the company as a whole. A former banker, Tanaka joined Kakaku.com Inc.’s board in 2002 after overseeing the acquisition of a large stake for his former employer. He became president in June 2006 and helped boost the company’s market value sevenfold to ¥394.5 billion over the past eight years.

Tabelog’s sales growth is driven by subscription fees from restaurants, which made up almost 70 percent of revenue, according to Yuki Nakayasu, an analyst at Credit Suisse Group AG, who recommends buying the stock.

As of September, the number of restaurants subscribing to Tabelog’s premium service had nearly doubled from a year earlier to 37,000. For a monthly fee starting from ¥25,000, the service promotes restaurants in user searches and allows them to edit certain parts of their listings.

Tabelog’s rise has drawn rivals seeking to emulate its success in Japan’s ¥23.9 trillion-a-year dining-out market. In April, San Francisco-based Yelp Inc. introduced a local-language website focusing on Tokyo and Osaka. Tanaka said Yelp began operating in Japan after he rejected an offer from the U.S. company to buy Tabelog last year. Kristen Titus, a spokeswoman for San Francisco-based Yelp, declined to comment on Tanaka’s statement or their progress in Japan.

This month, Newton, Massachusetts-based TripAdvisor Inc. partnered with Tabelog’s largest domestic competitor, Gurunavi Inc., for reservations at local restaurants. Gurunavi has about 585,000 restaurant listings in Japan.

Tokyo-based startup Retty Inc., which unlike Tabelog requires restaurant reviewers to reveal their identities, has grown fivefold in the past year and had more than 4 million active monthly users in Japan as of last month, according to company spokeswoman Yuka Hoshino. The site listed over 230,000 restaurants throughout the country.

Momoko Nakafuji, who helps her parents run the dining bar Momo in Tokyo’s fashionable Omotesando district, said she initially welcomed the service and signed up for a subscription. Over time though, she said, Tabelog did more harm than good.

Nakafuji said the restaurant, which has operated for more than 20 years and specializes in rice omelets, began seeing regulars crowded out by new diners after Tabelog appeared. She estimates almost 80 percent of customers generated by Tabelog do not become regulars, and this in turn pressures restaurants to focus on pleasing broad audiences rather than striving for authenticity or taking risks with new dishes.

The feeling of being monitored and the fear of getting a bad review also put the staff on edge, she said.

“The experience of running a restaurant was a lot nicer before the Internet and Tabelog,” Nakafuji said. “Now, the threat of a bad rating plays into the Japanese mentality of aiming for perfect customer service. This creates a lot of unrealistic expectations, which lead to stress and frustration.”

At one point, when Tabelog listed information about her restaurant that Nakafuji said was incorrect, she spent weeks negotiating and had to give a PowerPoint presentation to persuade the website to remove it, she said.

Third-generation chef Takae Suzuki, who ran a restaurant in Tokyo’s Ikebukuro district for six years, cited exasperation with Tabelog as a main reason for deciding to close shop last September.

Suzuki’s restaurant, which served regional cuisine from Niigata prefecture, catered to a regular crowd and made customized dishes for her clients, including a sumo wrestler who requested vegetarian meals. She also varied her menu depending on what ingredients were in season.

That backfired with some Tabelog users, who would come in asking for a dish they’d seen reviewed on the site, only to be upset that it was no longer on the menu.

“The creativity of chefs is being ruined by Tabelog,” Suzuki said. “In the end, we’ll be left with nothing but the same, predetermined dishes.”

Tabelog gives people the opportunity to critique even world-renowned restaurants.

Jiro Ono has three stars from Michelin, won praise from U.S. President Barack Obama this year and starred in the documentary film “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” as the epitome of a Japanese chef striving for perfection. Still, reviewers gripe about his meals, which cost ¥30,000 and can last less than 20 minutes, including one a reviewer said was 12 minutes. French chef Joel Robuchon’s Tokyo branch, which also has three Michelin stars, had its steaks called “forgettable” and “lacking freshness.”

A spokeswoman for Jiro’s company said sushi was originally considered fast food so the pace can be quick, though diners can have a longer meal if they request it. A spokeswoman for closely held Four Seeds Corp., which operates Robuchon’s Tokyo restaurant, declined to comment on individual critiques.

Some restaurants have taken legal action. In 2010, a man from Saga Prefecture sued Tabelog, claiming the website was posting out-of-date and incorrect information about his izakaya. The case was settled out of court.

Last year, a restaurant in Sapporo sued Tabelog claiming the website was harming its business by refusing to delete negative comments. A judge ruled in Tabelog’s favor, saying restaurants primarily serve the public and that the website was merely providing a platform for the public to share opinions.

In a pending lawsuit filed this year, a company that runs a members-only bar in Osaka is claiming Tabelog refused to take down information about the bar. By advertising the bar’s existence, Tabelog is destroying its exclusive appeal, according to the lawsuit.

Tanaka declined to comment on the pending suit. As for complaints about unfair comments or inaccurate information, he said Tabelog’s customer service department handles 3,000 to 4,000 inquiries daily from restaurants as well as users and “deals with every single case.”

Tabelog strives for accuracy and has removed restaurant listings when owners made compelling cases for it, Tanaka said. Deleting negative reviews, however, could compromise the site’s neutrality, and allowing users to be anonymous is necessary to encourage honest opinions, he said.

“We can’t tamper with user comments,” Tanaka said. “The reason why Kakaku.com or Tabelog is viewed by so many people is because of the trust our viewers have in our rankings.”

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