In the first episode of Dear Elite Reviewer, co-host James Lim asks Lois Ko, the owner of ice cream shop Sweet Alchemy, to relive the mortification.
Valentine’s Day, 2018. An unnamed Yelp reviewer just hit the two-sample max the shop has instituted to help manage holiday lines. But then the visitor spotted a raspberry rose flavor and asked to try it before ordering a scoop. Per her account an employee informed her “in an incredibly impolite tone” that Sweet Alchemy was limiting samples. The employee did fork over the sample of raspberry rose, but the review concludes: “But honestly with the scathing person I faced, I am not sure I will be rushing over there again.” One star.
Ko’s cringe is practically audible. Moments earlier, she recounted how she used to hustle all day building her business, then churn ice cream all night while her young daughter slept on a bench. She and Lim debate what is a reasonable customer expectation in an industry built on samples. Co-host Amy Faulkner admits she feels stressed ordering a scoop of something she hasn’t tried.
The episode ends on a positive, a glowing review. Over the years, Ko’s University District ice creamery certainly racked up way more of those. But she still agonizes over those pans, even three years, two additional locations, and one pandemic later. “It’s going to live on,” she says. “For all our future Valentines events.”
Dear Elite Reviewer drops its third episode this week, the first an introductory conversation between its co-hosts. I’m always baffled that nerdy, tech-savvy, ingredient-focused Seattle doesn’t have a deeper bench of food podcasts. This one, thus far, is a great listen.
The premise isn’t complicated. Lim and Faulkner bring on guests who own a business subject to Yelp or Google reviews. After a bit of get-to-know-you, hosts read two reviews of their choosing, one positive, and one negative. The trio rehashes and discourses accordingly.
It would be easy to take this idea straight into gleefully snide Pete Wells on Guy Fieri territory. Instead, Lim and Faulkner prompt thoughtful conversations on the importance of feedback. The need to accept you can’t please everyone. The annoyance of being slammed for a dish that has too much cumin when it does not, in fact, contain any at all.
Lim also owns Watson’s Counter, the wildly excellent Ballard brunch restaurant. (He originally envisioned it as a cafe centered on the coffee program, but with a few fun snacks; customers' obsession with the Fruity Pebbles–crusted french toast soon shifted the concept.) “It’s really easy to be behind a keyboard and troll people,” he says.
Nearly two decades after its founding, Yelp remains a valid resource for customers and an emotionally charged topic for business owners. Withering reviews strip proprietors of a chance to rectify a problem and add a light layer of public shaming that can translate to potential customers taking their dollars to some other coffee shop or ice creamery.
For restaurants, this became especially complicated as they fought to stay solvent this past year. A takeout program implemented overnight and under duress will likely have some kinks. “For most of us, the business is an extension of who we are as people,” says Lim. “When you insult the business, you’re insulting us personally.”
He tapped Faulkner, a Watson’s Counter regular turned friend, who runs an event production company in Seattle. She experiences the service industry through a different, still adjacent lens. Together they have takes and foster good conversation. It’s easy to overlook the fact that Ko's episode is 55 minutes in before we get to any actual reviews.
Right now Dear Elite Reviewer drops new episodes every other Friday. Presumably the hosts will keep a close eye on their iTunes ratings.