San francisco restaurants

San Francisco restaurants slammed with fake negative reviews online

After the holiday weekend, Greg Lutes, owner of 3rd Cousin in Bernal Heights, received an email from Google saying his fine dining restaurant had new reviews. He clicked on the link and saw a flood of uniformly bad one-star ratings left without further comment.

Knowing that’s the kind of thing that can sink a spot over time, Lutes launched an app to try and challenge the reviews, only to have his input denied. He was just beginning to suspect he was being targeted when an email came through to his work account.

“Unfortunately, we have left negative feedback on your establishment,” read a post from a person identified as Manas Agarwal. More “will appear in the future, one review per day,” the email threatened, unless Lutes pays $75 in the form of a Google Play gift card, to be deposited into a Pay Pal account. “We sincerely apologize for our actions and would not want to harm your business, but we have no other choice,” the message concludes. “The fact is that we live in India and see no other way to survive.”

Lutes, who has been in business for seven years, knew scammers had found him. Then he recalled receiving earlier emails from mystery companies offering to review negative ratings, for a fee. It all added up.

“It’s basically extortion,” he said. “They wanted me to pay them to stop it.”

Lutes checked his Instagram feed and saw that Kim Alter, owner of Nightbird on Gough Street, had posted a screenshot of the exact email he had received. The message was picked up by at least a dozen restaurants in the city, mostly high-end Michelin guide spots. And it didn’t stop there. The same scam appears to have hit restaurants in Chicago and other major food cities this week. All received a series of single-star ratings, the lowest possible on a five-star scale, but no additional comments. It’s essentially the same pattern that hit high-end restaurants in 2018.

“Unfortunately, attempted scams are nothing new for restaurants in San Francisco,” said Mat Schuster, chairman of the board of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association. “This current attempt to leave negative reviews on Google is very stressful, especially as tourism has started to return.”

It’s doubly stressful for small family restaurants like Nightbird, which has 20 seats and needs to keep them full. “Bad online reviews can shut down restaurants,” Alter said. “If you look online and see a restaurant with one star, you’re not going to give them a chance.”

By the time Alter checked her Google page, she saw 10 one-star reviews for Nightbird, a seasonal California-style venue with an average Google rating of 4.8 out of 5, and equally high ratings on OpenTable and Yelp. Alter started looking and discovered that the low rating system was only on Google. She also searched for restaurants similar to hers around the city and found at least a dozen.

“I realized this was obviously a big scam,” said Alter, who has dealt with fake reviews in the past. In her experience, the only way to fight them is to go on the offensive, because the sites themselves will always be on the reviewer’s side, she said. So Alter took to Twitter and linked to other restaurants that had been scammed, Acquerello, 3rd Cousin, Sons & Daughters, Marlena, Nari, Birdsong. It took off from there with retweets and more restaurants added to the feed. She started hearing about restaurants in Chicago and Houston. Not just restaurants. It also hit bar owners and car dealerships.

An owl statue sits outside the window of the Nightbird restaurant in San Francisco, Calif., on Friday, March 30, 2018.

Michael Short / Special for The Chronicle

Alter apparently heard from everyone in the business, including people she didn’t know at restaurants she’s never been to, about the rain of reviews. Strangely, she’s never heard of Google, which was tagged in her tweets and Instagram posts. Google did not respond to The Chronicle’s requests for comment.

Twelve hours after Alter partner Ron Boyd emailed Google, he received a form letter saying the incident was under investigation. That was the last he had heard of the company. Just before midnight on Tuesday, the bad reviews had been deleted. When Nightbird reopened on Wednesday, business was average.

On Thursday morning, Alter cautiously checked review sites to see if scammers had followed through on the threat to do so on a daily basis. There was nothing.

“The scary thing about this is that July is a slow month for restaurants in the city,” she said. “I hope they leave us alone.”

Graham Cunningham seats diners at Octavia in San Francisco, Calif. on Thursday, Dec. 30, 2021.

Graham Cunningham seats diners at Octavia in San Francisco, Calif. on Thursday, Dec. 30, 2021.

Scott Strazzante / The Chronicle

The same goes for Melissa Perello, owner of Octavia in Pacific Heights, who received half a dozen one-star reviews on Wednesday.

“We’ve had complaints on Google, but as a restaurant owner, we have the short end of the stick,” Perello said. “There’s not much we can do except file a complaint that doesn’t deserve a response.”

She said business hasn’t suffered yet at her 54-seat restaurant, but give it time.

“Negative reviews will knock our overall rating down,” she said. “It affects people’s perception of the restaurant.”

Lutes also filed a complaint with Google through the Business Pages SEO Program. Within two days, he heard from a human, which he took as a victory. He was asked to take screenshots of the negative reviews and email them to the rep. By Wednesday, all of the negative reviews had disappeared, with no comment or explanation. In the four days that bad reviews were active, her cumulative score dropped slightly but returned to normal. It all happened too quickly to discern whether the criticism caused his business to fall, but he noted that the week had been slow.

“I’m just waiting to see if they keep trying to target us,” he said Thursday. “Will these negative reviews stop or will it be something I have to keep trying to fight?”

Sam Whiting is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: