When Is A Shill Not A Shill?

New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni expressed surprise today at seeing a modest Manhattan eatery, La Sirene, included on an Open Table list of the city’s 10 best:

But I wonder. Is this somehow another sign of how Internet-savvy the restaurant’s chef and owner, Didier Pawlicki, is?

As I noted in my review, he personally replies to almost each and every diner comment about the restaurant on the Citysearch web site, either thanking happy diners or reasoning with unhappy ones.

Has Mr. Pawlicki or someone in his corner gamed Open Table? Or have his aggressive Internet ways spawned an especially Internet-oriented, Internet-activist clientele?

Bruni is right to hone in on the internet savvy of Pawlicki as a possible means to the inclusion of his outlier restaurant, but it’s just one of a number of threads to be plucked at.

While marketing firms offer business owners like Pawlicki search optimization and other online services, this could be a case of general customer satisfaction that filtered all the way to those customers’ online habits, or maybe some very shrewd outreach. The premise of Bruni’s blog entry seems to be that Pawlicki is either an online marketing genius or a culinary genius, and indeed he may be a little of both.

At MenuPages, we editors get a chance to see the user-review sausage being made. It’s thanks to a personal look at every user-submitted review that we rarely end up on Eater’s Adventures in Shilling. And this process gives some insight into how so-called “black pr” (or sock puppets or shills or some possibly nicer, yet-to-be-coined name) works. It’s not hard to spot a shill, but what is hard is determining what we’ll call here a partial shill.

This may be somebody who knows an owner or staffer and eats at the restaurant as a paying customer and then is asked to post a glowing review. It may be someone known to the staff or owners who actually receives something for free in exchange for a good review. It may be a staffer or owner trashing the competition.

But it can be very hard to pinpoint, in the larger discussion, when a satisfied customer becomes a shill. Would it be a conflict of interests if a restaurant owner, circulating amongst tables of chatty satisfied diners, mentioned that he’d appreciate any feedback in a certain online forum? Probably not. What if he then sent over a dessert or a coffee? Well, yes, then it would be a payoff.

But what if he was planning on sending out that dessert or espresso anyway and the topic of online reviewing came up naturally in conversation? Well, the adage says something about the appearance of conflict of interest being tantamount to actual conflict of interest, but if everything were that strict, restaurateurs and diners would only ever discuss the weather. And where’s the fun in that?

Also, doesn’t it make sense that an increasingly net-savvy dining public would naturally post a lot of positive feedback if a particular restaurant regularly impresses? Of course, and you won’t find a much more net-savvy group than lower Manhattan diners.

What does all that say about Pawlicki and La Sirene? Well, we don’t know yet, but one sure thing is that La Sirene is now on our radar for the next time we’re hungry in TriBeCa. Something’s working for him.

One Of These Things Is Not Like The Other

New York Dining [Open Table]
La Sirene [MenuPages]
La Sirene [Official Site]

[Photo: via La Sirene official site]

When Is A Shill Not A Shill?