Monday, September 15, 2014

Rant: Dirty Restaurant? No Worries If It's Authentic

When selecting a restaurant, how much do you value its cleanliness? Are you willing to dine at a dirty restaurant if the cuisine is "authentic?"

It seems that many people are willing to make that trade-off, and that disturbs me on a certain level.

In June, a study, Conflicting Social Codes and Organizations: Hygiene and Authenticity in Consumer Evaluations of Restaurants was published in Management Science. The study was conducted by Glenn Carroll of Stanford Graduate School of Business, David W. Lehman of the University of Virginia and Balázs Kovács of the University of Lugano, Switzerland.  Their study included statistical analysis of over 724,000 consumer reviews from Yelp (of over 9700 restaurants) and over 52,000 food safety inspections conducted by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.

They found that many restaurants of they studied, by law, must publicly post their health grades, meaning that consumers can readily determine the cleanliness level of a restaurant. It would seem logical that consumers would value restaurants more which possessed higher health grades. However, when selecting a restaurant, cleanliness is not the only factor that consumers consider.

For a number of consumers, authenticity of the cuisine is very important. I'm not going to get into a lengthy discussion of what constitutes "authentic" cuisine as it is a very complex issue, and often it is more of a personal issue. Each diner generally has their own idea of which restaurants they consider to have authentic cuisine. They might consider the opinions of restaurant reviewers, though there is no guarantee that the reviewer is an expert in that particular cuisine. For the purposes of this article, what is most important is that many people value authenticity.

In the study, it was found that reviewers tended to rate restaurants higher if they had a higher health grade or if they were considered authentic. However, if a restaurant was rated highly because it was considered authentic, the health grade generally didn't matter so that even a place with a low health grade received a high rating. Authenticity was valued much higher than hygiene, and consumers would ignore dirt and health violations just because the cuisine was considered authentic. What does this conclusion say about people?

When considering authenticity, we generally are referring to ethnic restaurants. Does this mean consumers assume authentic ethnic restaurants are dirty?  Is this a form of prejudice or ignorance?  Do consumers have different standards for restaurants, dependent on whether it is ethnic or not? For example, a steakhouse is almost never referred to as "authentic"or not. Thus, the health grade of such a place would be very important but if it were a Chinese restaurant, consumers would care less about the health grade.

It seems strange that people would value authenticity over a threat to their health. The threat of food poisoning seems to be ignored in favor of authenticity. It seems even more strange when you realize that authenticity is elusive.

How important is authenticity to you? Does it trump the cleanliness of a restaurant?  

No comments: