Wondering, wandering, and making sense of the world.


Archive for September, 2013

Context versus Ratings

What if the success of restaurants really depended on the context in which people come?

When I travel, I use TripAdvisor to look for restaurants and things to do. I am also a Yelper, reviewing restaurants and whatever else I feel. I’ve recently been noticing a rating discrepancy between Yelp and TripAdvisor. There are restaurants that are ranked highly on TripAdvisor that aren’t well reviewed on Yelp, and the vice versa.

What determines the success of restaurants anyway? The obvious answers is the quality of food and service, but according to cartoonist and restauranteur Scott Adams, that’s not the case at all:

Many people pointed out that the quality of your food and service determine the size of your restaurant business. I used to think that too. To my surprise, those two factors are surprisingly far down the list, at least in my local area.

Obviously the food and service have to be good enough to support the price you charge. But most places achieve that goal. Around here, the restaurants with the best food, or even the best value, don’t have more business because of it. You think they do, but they don’t.

Locally, familiarity is the biggest predictor of success. Italian and Mexican themed restaurants are typically packed regardless of food or service. Everyone knows they can find something on the menu they will understand and enjoy. Indian and Thai restaurants are less familiar and they struggle no matter what they do right. My two favorite restaurants locally (Indian and Thai) are typically 75% empty.

The knee jerk response to the Yelp TripAdvisor discrepancy is to simply say “well, they are different kinds of people reviewing on each of the sites (locals vs travelers).” Are they really different people though? It wouldn’t be a surprise that the kind of people Yelping would be similar to the kind of people reviewing on TripAdvisor. Many people probably do both. So what’s different?

The context in which they arrive at the restaurant.

You can imagine that how you would rate a restaurant would be different if you’re traveling versus if you’re living right next to it. A boring ordinary French food may captivate the Minnesotans on holiday but would disappoint the Frenchman living down the street. Equally a family owned Spanish restaurant with really friendly owners would delight the locals while the Bostonians who don’t speak the language won’t think much of it. A restaurant for special occasions (e.g. table cloth and wine) would most likely garner extreme responses (love it or hate it) rather than the neighborhood diner. Date spots? Dive bars? Neighborhood mom&pop store? We all go to places under different contexts that vary significantly from occasion to occasion. Can we really say we can be impartial under such circumstances?

What does this mean for restaurants? Well, beyond controlling the quality of the food and service, restaurants also need to control the context in which people come and be able to match the expectations for it. Is going to be kind of restaurant where people come to celebrate? go for an adventure to discover something new? simply to just get food? (probably the most difficult context to deal with?)

To be able to control how people come to a restaurant can be a huge advantage for restaurants, because by the time someone walks through the front door, it’s possible that more than half his/her mind is made up.

(I’m sure one could semantically and statistically analyze Yelp or TripAdvisor to find evidence for this theory, and I wouldn’t be surprised if people are already doing it to start new restaurants)


Nice little homage to the Trabant

Anyone else who watched Despicable Me 2 notice that the featured car looks like the Trabant?

Despicable Me 2 Trabant


I’m guessing most people outside of Germany in my generation and younger don’t know what the Trabant was (or how iconic it was). I highly suggest reading the Wikipedia article, but in short, it was a shitty little Eastern German car that became the symbol of centralized planning incompetencies.

There is a famous drawing on the Western side of the Berlin Wall depicting the “Trabi” breaking through.

Berlin Wall Trabant

In the movie, Gru and Lucy break out of the shopping mall driving the Trabi-wannabe (or super Trabi):

Despicable Me 2 Trabant Breakthrough

Nice little homage. Well done Illumination Entertainment. Well done.

(In trying to see if anyone else online noticed the connection, I came across I swear, the internet has everything.)


What is a border?

I spent last weekend visiting a friend working at CERN and participating in a Ultimate Frisbee beach (by the lake) tournament hosted by the team from Geneva.

This is how my trip went:

  • Germany -> Switzerland (Train from Frankfurt to Geneva)
  • Switzerland -> France (My friend lives in France despite working on the Swiss side of CERN)
  • France -> Switzerland -> France (The tournament was actually on the French side of Lake Geneva but I had to go through Geneva proper to get there)
  • France -> Switzerland -> Germany (Back to Geneva before getting on a flight to Berlin for work)

In a span of three days, I crossed the French-Swiss border four times.

My friend crosses the border everyday to get to work. He make his income in Swiss francs but uses it in both euros and francs. Euros can be used readily in Geneva if you don’t mind unfavorable exchange rates being offered by the stores and machines (I didn’t withdraw any francs for this trip).

There is absolutely no language barrier at the border as French is the official language of the Canton of Geneva. There are more language barriers within Switzerland which has four official languages (French, German, Italian, Romansh). I’ve seen two Swiss people communicate in English. Imagine a white and an Asian American talking to each other in German because that’s the only language they share…

Switzerland is actually not a part of the EU, but they are a part of the Schengen Area which is why going through the border is seamless. I’m surprised this works since Switzerland has non-EU taxation and they have pretty much no control over the flow of goods.

So what is a border? The boundary between people? culture? language? currency? laws? With the EU, euro, and the Schengen area, all these boundaries have blurred. Driving across the continent one will see gradients rather than sharp lines of distinction.

Europe, with its viciously violent history, is going through the largest experiment in radical human collaboration which may become the model for human kind in the future. Not surprisingly, it’s going through its fair share of bumps and hiccups, but I hope it succeeds. The world is too beautiful for boundaries.

P.S. This is actually the second time I was in Switzerland this year. Few months ago I was in the German border town of Konstanz. This is what the border looked like:

Konstanz Swiss Border

Quite a stark contrast from the Israeli – Jordanian border.


Advertisements where the product is outright denigrated

Or how to sell while talking shit about your product.

The following commercial is for the Finnish Salmiakki Ice Cream.

If you have any close Finnish friends, you’ve probably tried Salmiakki, one of the foulest, most disgusting candies you could come across in your life. Foreigners hate them, Finns love them, and they know it, which is why this advert works brilliantly; it tickles at the Finnish national pride while introducing a new variant to the ammonium chloride flavoring they enjoy so much.

The above video clip was introduced to me by a colleague, and it reminded me of another iconic Japanese commercial from the 90s:

You probably understood nothing of that, but to simply translate, the man chugs the product being advertised and proclaims “ahhh, DISGUSTING! One more!” Then the narrator states that it’s good for health and free samples are available.

As you could already guess, the product, Aojiru (literally translates to blue juice as the antiquated use of the word blue includes vegetation) is being sold for health purposes, not something you would serve at a party or make cocktails out of. Japanese people believe that a certain level of suffering and patience must accompany something good, which makes this commercial works. Furthermore, the commercial became so iconic that the entire category of the vegetable based health drinks rose from niche to mainstream. It was also used as “penalties” or “punishment” in Japanese game shows (I’m sure you know something about that).

So how else could denigrating a product be used to advertise the product? I’m sure having Americans eat and comment on vegemite/marmite would hearten the national psyche of Aussies and Brits. Could having smug yuppies talk about how boring Windows is sell the operating system to the “rest of us?” Can women talking about the bitterness of a beer cater to the sense of manliness in men?

Any ideas? Any other examples you know of?


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