Wednesday, May 21, 2008

St. Louis Restaurant Owner Derek Onstott Tries To Censor Yelp Review: EPIC FAIL

BESO Mexican Grill & Cantina
1130 Washington Ave
Saint Louis, MO 63101

While checking my twitter feed, I noticed an update by a friend* that really concerned me. She had received an angry call from Derek Onstott, Beso Mexican Grill & Cantina’s owner, about an unfavorable Yelp review she authored. According to this Yelp user, her review discussed everything she witnessed and heard in the restaurant. During her visit, Onstott disclosed to her that he funded his establishment using money obtained from illegal activities. An even worse observance was when a police officer came to the restaurant to serve Onslott with a warrant. The Yelp User also mentioned the sub par service and food in her review. After a quick search, it was evident that this isn’t the first time Onslott and Beso have received negative reviews.

Once Onstott discovered the review, he contacted the Yelper. He threatened to harm her and file a lawsuit if she did not immediately remove her review. She removed her initial review and replaced it with the following:

1 star rating

I am re-writing this b/c i had a post about this place, then the owner called going off on me b/c he was pissed at the review I gave him. Someone obviously saw this and told the owner. But remember this is a social site/forum.

I am giving you opinions on what I experienced. Food - so so, same with drinks. Owner should trust his staff to help out and not do all the work. I would suggest a little bit more positive feedback towards the staff, and they would want to do a better job instead of walking on pins and needles all day. In short badly run place…. There are a lot of details I will leave out.

She had to remove this review as well due to an angry voice mail (transcribed below) Onstott left her. She has notified Yelp of the threats.

Onstott does not appear to be familiar with the concept of user-generate content. Social media encourages users to share their experiences online. Based on his verbal threats, Onstott doesn’t realize that his attempt to censor this Yelp user has prompted a conversation online that will only prove to be detrimental to his business. Reputation management isn’t coercing patrons to change their opinion; it is implementing the recommendations that they offered. It is thanking the users for sharing their opinion and letting them know they will at least be taken into consideration. Above all, this owner needs a lesson in the basics of customer service.

My initial reaction was to tweet this occurrence with fellow users. Needless to say, they were outraged by Onstott’s behavior. Idofluk created a poll based on this situation and asked the Twitter community what this Yelper should do. The options were: Ignore the owner, contact yelp to complain, write a worse review, erase her initial review, and other. Within a few hours of the poll being posted on, there were 219 views and 53 votes.


The Twitter community also provided me with their own questions for my friend. Below are those questions and her answers.

How did the owner find your phone number, etc? Did you record any calls or will you record any future calls to/from this owner? Asked by: MixMastaKooz

Derek and I share mutual friends, so he was able to obtain my phone number through one of them. I did not record any of the calls, but I saved on of the voice mails he left me. Apparently, he didn’t discover the Yelp review himself. A friend mentioned it to him and linked him to my review. Here is the transcribed version of the voice mail he left me:

Hi Rebecca this is Derek. I am calling in one last attempt to have you remove your review, and I spoke to my attorney about the first review you posted. I printed it out. That is defamation of character my attorney and will slap a lawsuit on you if the review is not gone in 24hrs. You never dined here. You don’t have receipt from here. You drank here, no service, no food… I will sue you. Your review has nothing to do with my restaurant… Trust me I will spend $10k in lawyers to win a $100k from you. I will drag your name through the mud, I fucking mean it. I will drag your fucking name through the mud. This is my livelihood. You drag my name through the mud I will drag yours. And mess up your life and job.

I did dine at his restaurant. He invited me to his restaurant as a guest. He gave me food and drinks. So he is correct - I don’t have a receipt.

Given this situation, do you feel you will become reluctant when leaving any future online reviews? Asked by Sonnygill

No, I believe it is important to share my opinion and experiences. People use review sites to determine which businesses to patronize. Reviews help people make final decisions on where to go and what to buy. These sites empower people and enable them to make well-thought out decisions.

Will this experience keep you from writing any more honest reviews online or will you continue to voice your opinion? Asked by shaxxon

All my reviews have been completely honest, may they be positive or negative. Although this is the first time I have had experienced such a horrible experience, it will not hinder me from being honest.

Do you think this is related to the medium (UGC) or would this guy have reacted similarly if the review wasn’t online? Asked by melaniephung

A jerk is a jerk is a jerk. This man would have behaved the same way regardless of the medium. He has been involved in many legal problems in the past. His reputation is already very poor in the St. Louis area. If he had contacted me as a concerned business owner, I would have reacted differently.

Given the transparency of social networks, do you wish you had been more anonymous in your profile on elp? Sonnygill and BarbaraKB

My profile didn’t contain any personal information, besides my first name and city. In fact, my avatar is my cat. It isn’t even a personal picture.

Does this discourage you from continuing participation in social media? Asked by martinbowling

No. In fact, I tweeted my frustration right afterwards and agreed to let Reem blog about this.

I’m interested in knowing what the police can do (if anything) in this country (being from AU). What did they recommend to her? Asked by MadLid

I contacted an officer right after the first phone call. I explained what Yelp was, what happened and who threatened me. The officer was surprised and documented all the information I shared with her. Within two days, I received a call from a local detective. He told me I had two options - report it or leave it alone. He mentioned that if I reported it, I would have to deal with the legal system and go to court. Since I wasn’t interested in going that route, I decided to just step back and leave everything alone. Then, Derek called me a few days after I posted my revised review and left me a horrible voice mail. I contacted the detective again who suggested I remove the review and stop all interaction with him.

This restaurateur was attempting to control his image, and apparently thought threatening a reviewer was the best way to do so. He must not have expected her to share her story on Twitter and receive the support of the online community. The number of people who are now aware of Onstott’s indiscretions has increased significantly. I wonder if he’ll try to call each one of us and dole out individual threats. Many people who aren’t familiar with the social media space don’t realize the power that users have to spread a message to countless others. He didn’t censor her, he empowered her with knowledge. Not only are journalists covering his apparently crazy behavior in local newspapers, now bloggers and twitterers are discussing it online as well. Derek Onstott — Epic Fail!

* My friend wants to remain anonymous at this time.

** Thanks to the Twitter community for their concern and providing me with great questions to ask the Yelp user.