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Scammers Are Trying to Extort Bay Area Restaurant Owners With Torrents of One-Star Reviews

Michelin-starred restaurants including Californios, Nightbird, Sons & Daughters, and Acquerello have all been hit by the scam

Chef Kim Alter’s Nightbird restaurant has been targeted by scammers looking to make quick cash after flooding her restaurant’s Google listing with one-star reviews.
Patricia Chang

The one-star review is the creeping dread of any chef or restaurant owner. Remy the rat, and with his human puppet Alfredo, live and die by the review penned by Anton Ego in Pixar’s “Ratatouille.” Dustin Hoffman’s critique of Jon Favreau’s lackluster lava cake in “Chef” kicks things up a notch, too. But in San Francisco, the one-star reviews raining down on restaurants seem to be part of a scam sweeping both the Bay Area and cities across the country.

For the last week or so, high-profile restaurants throughout the Bay Area including Nightbird, Acquerello, 3rd Cousin, Sons and Daughters, Californios, and Lucho’s have received a torrent of one-star reviews on Google, accompanied by pleas to send $75 to would-be scammers. Local businesses have taken to Instagram to raise awareness of the phenomenon. Chef Kim Alter of Nightbird, received the first email July 5. The words were apologetic, but there was no disguising the email, which Eater SF has reviewed, aimed to extort the San Francisco chef. The email states the sender would continue to leave more one-star reviews unless Alter sent a $75 Google Play gift card. “We sincerely apologize for our actions, and would not want to harm your business, but we have no other choice,” the email reads, ending with the promise to stop leaving negative reviews if the gift card code is sent.

“It’s kind of crazy,” says Alter, who posted a screenshot of the email to Instagram. “People from across the country just started reaching out to me, like in Texas and Chicago, and half the restaurants in San Francisco.” Chefs at Acquerello, Sons and Daughters, Californios, Luchos, and 3rd Cousin all confirmed their restaurants were all similarly bombed with one-star reviews. When Alter checked her own reviews the morning she received the email, there were already 10 new one-star reviews on Nightbird’s listing.

Kim Alter Patricia Chang

Greg Lutes, owner and chef at Bernal Heights’s 3rd Cousin, worked tirelessly for the last week to get his restaurant’s false reviews taken down. He says he’s received two emails baiting him into paying for the reviews to stop. He gets alerts whenever Third Cousin receives a review and says about a week ago he started getting daily pings — all one star reviews without any text. Within three days the restaurant had seven or so. Then the gift card asks started. “I thought, this is crazy; they’re trying to extort me,” Lutes says. At first he used the Google Business app to dispute each review, but eventually Google Business Profile Support helped him get them taken down. “It’ll be interesting to see if they keep trying to do this,” Lutes says. “I’m a little worried, but it’s also just really annoying.”

Sons and Daughters’ Julianna Yang had a less positive experience with Google. On July 2 her restaurant got a few mysterious one-star reviews within a few hours of each other. The team flagged the reviews as spam, but within an hour or so Google let her know the reviews didn’t violate any policy issues. “They said we could appeal the decision,” Yang says. “Within a few days we had 10 or more.” Son and Daughters received just one of the extortionist emails, Yang says. As of July 7, though, she says it looks like the fake reviews have been hidden or removed — but, Yang points out, one review that did come from a recent diner was taken down, too. “It looks like Google just sweeped a lot of recent ones,” Yang says.

After seeing Alter’s post, chef Val Cantu reached out to her about one-star reviews on the Google listing for his Michelin-starred restaurant Californios. He noticed email notifications about the bad reviews rolling in for about a week, mostly one-star without any words. Digging through his emails, he finally found an email nearly identical to Alter’s, also asking for a $75 gift card. “I’m surprised that it hasn’t happened sooner, I mean, it seems like a pretty smart scam,” Cantu says. “Restaurants are so vulnerable to [bad reviews] and not that that’s the end of the world, but those reviews do tend to sway diners and hospitality is at the core of what we do — whenever somebody isn’t happy, we want to fix it.”

Giancarlo Paterlini of Acquerello also fell victim to the scam. He’s heard from other business owners that replying to the emails escalates the situation, leading to more requests for money and harassing phone calls to the restaurant. Paterlini says he reached out via email to Google Support only to receive an automated reply stating that a response could take “weeks” — but he doesn’t hold much hope about the situation. “I just wish that the company that allowed this thing to happen would patrol their own territory a little bit better,” Paterlini says.

And the scammers aren’t just targeting high-end restaurants; Lucho’s, a Mexican restaurant on Ocean Avenue, was also hit. Closed for maintenance from July 5-8, the restaurant has racked up several one-star reviews while not even open. The restaurant owners took to Instagram to vent their frustrations. For now, it seems like Google’s responses have been quick enough to support businesses who reach out for aid. But this is the type of problem that impacts businesses right where it hurts: spending extra time on an issue when they often barely have enough as it is. So far, Cantu hasn’t reached out to Google about the situation, and those one-star reviews are still sitting on the Californios listing. “I think the longer it continues, the worse it will be,” Cantu says. “We don’t do what we do for reviews, but certainly we don’t want somebody to tarnish our reputation for an Amazon gift card.”

Eater SF reached out to Google, but didn’t hear back by the time of publication.


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