Did Thrillist Really Kill A Local Burger Spot?

There’s a sombering article in Thrillist that’s making the rounds on social media this week about a second generation family-run burger restaurant, Stanich’s. Back in 2017 Stanich’s received the enviable title of Thrillist’s Best Burger in America, and owner Steve Stanich was happy to the point of tears. He talked about how proud he thought his parents would be, a local restaurant received a lot of attention and author Kevin Alexander received a mug for his troubles.

That’s where the goods news ends. In a subsequent Oregonian article Steve Stanich now refers to the burger award as “the worst thing that’s ever happened to us.” He goes on to describe how Stanich’s became a tourist destination and how this was too overwhelming to handle. One story involves Tim McGraw showing up and not being served due to a five hour wait for service. On January 2, 2018, Stanich shut down the restaurant for a “two week deep cleaning.” As of this writing Stanich’s is still closed. The Google listing is flagged as permanently closed – which can be a huge problem when businesses reopen.

Alexander makes it clear that he feels personally responsible for Stanich’s closing. The article segues into the kind of ethical accountability journalists need to be adhering to regardless of what beat you’re on, and he discusses how Stanich’s was not an isolated case.

But then, a month or so later, a different sort of story emerged. The first was in Seattle, where the local restaurant critic wrote about Loretta’s Northwesterner (No. 4 on my top 100), a small local bar that was now being overrun by burger tourists. I heard from friends in Chicago of the many grumblings at Mott Street (No. 7) where people were waiting hours for the bar-only burger while tables in the restaurant sat open. And then came Stanich’s.

It’s clear that Alexander genuinely feels that he has a stake in this business closure, but did a journalist from Thrillist really kill Stanich’s though, as his article boldly claims? The truth, as is often the case with these sorts of stories, is a bit more complicated.

The most explicit evidence of this is towards the tail end of the article where this telling paragraph lurks:

And then, in a quieter voice, he started to explain why it wasn’t just two weeks. He asked me not to reveal the details of that story, but I can say that there were personal problems, the type of serious things that can happen with any family, and would’ve happened regardless of how crowded Stanich’s was, and that real life is always more complicated and messier than we want it to be.

I’ve watched personal and family problems completely throw enough wrenches into otherwise perfectly functional small businesses to testify that this is far from an isolated case. One of my earliest small business hosting clients sold to a larger company after the owner unexpectedly had a heart attack and passed away. Another web client from before my hosting days made a closing announcement that shocked the community due to his wife’s illness leaving him incapable of both managing the business and caring for her.

This goes back to one of the riskiest things about running a small business. You’re not on a corporate team filled with other people who can assume your responsibilities if you have a major health crisis. There’s no HR department to reshuffle people and replace them depending on who can take on more responsibilities. If something personal happens the business itself may be at stake unless you’re very lucky and have qualified people to handle business matters. Often your only resources are the ones in your pockets and your office.

Dealing with those problems by themselves can be physically exhausting, not to mention emotionally and even financially bankrupting. Dealing with them when your small business has been catapulted into mainstream attention would be a nightmare.

A number of people have also taken issue with the article including FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver. Silver notes that Yelp reviews indicate problems for years dating back to 2014, with 3-star review averages. Additionally he notes that the reviews prior to Thrillist article being published describe exactly the same problems – unclean atmosphere, slow service, unpleasant staff – that the author is worried was caused by the restaurant’s newfound popularity as a tourist destination.

Having criticized Yelp extensively in the past I wasn’t sure how much credence to lend this theory, but a look at Google Reviews and TripAdvisor show the same three-star averages dating well back before the article. Even on Facebook, where reviews are higher, a number of highly rated reviews have the same complaints. So this isn’t something I’m inclined to pin on Yelp burying positive reviews and trying to extort protection money in the form of advertisements (which they do, though).

What really stood out at me in particular was one example that flies in the face of “go big or go home” mentality that a lot of entrepreneurs in the United States seem to possess.

The Oregonian restaurant critic Michael Russell told me about a little ceviche place in Portland. Its chef Jose Luis de Cossio had cooked at the greatest ceviche restaurant in Peru, and opened fancy places in America, but tired of all that, and opened a tiny 23 seat ceviche place named Paiche in a desolate section of Southwest Portland. He’d wanted it to be small and serve the neighborhood and allow him time to surf and lead a balanced life.

You can probably see where the story goes if you’ve been reading thus far but it presents an interesting question: How do you promote, write about or otherwise give PR to a place that doesn’t want to be the hottest restaurant in the state? Or doesn’t have the huge, ambitious plans to become a national chain? What if the owner just wants to have a local place of his own?

There’s nothing inherently wrong with huge ambitions as an entrepreneur or business owner, but where journalists on the food beat in particular trip up are where they assume this is the plan of every restaurateur. If you plan is to keep growing and expanding then a Thrillist article should on paper be a shot in the arm. It’s also not as if most restaurant owners could really predict the impact of an article like Thrillist since they may not even have the context for what it’s like to make the transition to scrappy local eatery to renowned tourist destination.

This is something I’ve learned in the past several years. I used to not be able to fathom only wanting a static list of product images without an accompanying online store or grand plans for the next five years. I used to think to myself to some of these business owners, where’s your sense of ambition? Is this really all you want?

Unfortunately, this is the kind of attitude that puts the needs of whoever is pushing it – the journalist, the marketer, the web developer – ahead of the business owner. There’s no point in writing an article about a local eatery or planning a marketing mix for them without a clear understanding of what their needs are. If you don’t know their needs, you need to find out. The business owner who wants to be the next Google is going to have vastly different needs than someone like de Cossio who just wants a local place that lets him surf on his off-time.

It’s also important for all of us in media to remember that we have a strong financial incentive to say that these articles or business plans are a good thing. Agencies signing promotional contracts can put thousands of dollars per month in the agency’s coffers. Journalists writing promotionally-tinged reviews of restaurants that get a ton of traffic look great for the writers and may actually be tied to a pay incentive based on extra traffic. So we need to consider the ethics of what we’re selling or writing about.

One of the most important things I’ve learned building websites for small businesses is to both manage expectations and warn of consequences. Huge, ambitious marketing plans cost a ton of money. If they fail you can blast a truck-sized hole in your finances and in some dire cases that may actually be the death knell for a small business. On the other hand, do you really want what those kinds of marketing plans are going to bring even if they’re successful?

Of course, it may not be easy to hear that with potential for big money comes the potential for big problems. It’s easier to envision the money that much business brings without imagining all of the complications, problems and nightmarish logistical issues associated with it. I’ve had a few would-be clients get upset when I try to reign in their enthusiasm for huge, sprawling marketing plans in favor of what I call minimalist marketing – spending just what you need to spend to reach the local audiences you have the most potential of reaching. Not everyone wants that, though; they want the razzle dazzle, and that’s where hyper aggressive pursuit of growth gets risky.

It really depends on your goals, and the problem with articles like the ones in Thrillist is that there’s very little sense of nuance distinguishing between the next Papa John’s and the next Stanich’s. Should it be a journalist’s responsibility to differentiate? That’s a conversation fit for more qualified people than me.

From a journalistic perspective Alexander also takes responsibility for allowing Facebook to dictate his content on some level. He discusses the rise of lists in 2014 even though he imagined this particular list as an antidote to the endless insubstantial lists floating around the Internet being shared at the time. This was, of course, before Facebook notoriously decided to pivot to video and many of these same media companies started selling media kits for small business video marketing. With predictably disastrous results given Facebook’s admissions that they fudged much of their data.

So I expect the real truth here is somewhere in the middle. A Thrillist list did not kill Stanich’s by any stretch of the imagination, but that kind of publicity tends to exacerbate both personal problems and problems that your business has. It’s one thing dealing with an unclean atmosphere locally, but when you have national spotlight fixed on you it’s another ballpark altogether. If personal problems can impact a local business negatively I can’t comprehend the impact it would have to deal with them as you struggle to manage five hour wait times for service.

If there’s any silver lining to this ordeal it’s that there hasn’t been any blaming or finger pointing. Kevin Alexander takes personal responsibility for his role in bringing a tsunami of unwanted attention to a local spot that didn’t really ask for it and for allowing Facebook’s attempt to become a personalized newspaper to dictate his content. Stanich himself acknowledges that despite the “curse” of the best burger award, he doesn’t blame Alexander and he fully owns that his problems were happening regardless of how many tourists came through the door.

In spite of the article’s title there was no one knife that was jabbed into Stanich’s. A combination of misplaced good intentions, misunderstanding the owner’s desires and behind the scenes problems that no amount of coverage was going to solve brought down an institutional small business. Stanich’s sounds like a well-liked place – warts and all – that was suddenly catapulted, confused and bewildered, into an arena that it was nowhere near remotely prepared to fight in.