People watched the video in Texas, California, Alaska, and Illinois. They watched it on iPhones and Androids, on tablets and laptops.
They watched it—a few seconds of content featuring vague criticism of the customer service at Durham vegan restaurant Earth To Us—and scores felt compelled to do the same thing: rush to the restaurant’s social media profiles, type out profane comments, and hit “send.”
“I started getting all these notifications, and my body became numb,” says Yanitza Pubill, who opened Earth To Us on Guess Road in 2019 and has since launched a second location in Raleigh. “I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what had happened.”
When she found the video that spurred the comments, she grew even more confused.
The previous day, on March 9, a North Carolina–based content creator who goes by “Mr. Chime Time” had posted a review of Earth To Us on Instagram and TikTok.
Chime Time did not respond to the INDY’s request for comment.
In typical fashion, Chime Time—who has more than 1 million followers across the two platforms and uploads multiple restaurant reviews each day—recorded the review while sitting in his car and eating takeout. The video raked in several hundred thousand views.
His feedback on the food was largely positive. The ingredients in the loaded nachos were fresh, he told viewers, and the Impossible burger patacón was something he “would get again.” The vegan mac ’n’ cheese was too salty for his liking, but he enjoyed the creamy texture.
In the last few seconds of the video, he delivered his rating.
“I’m gonna rate this restaurant an 8.5 [out of 10],” he said. “However, due to customer service, it goes from 8.5 down to 4.”
Even without context, the point reduction was enough to mobilize an army of trolls. And on March 11, when Chime Time posted a second review focused entirely on customer service, that army swelled.
In the second video, which has nearly a million views on Instagram and TikTok, Chime Time names, mimics, and shows footage of an Earth To Us employee—we’ll call him Omar—who Chime Time says made minimal eye contact, shrugged in response to questions about the menu, and walked away when Chime Time came up to order more food.
This behavior, according to Chime Time, is that of an “arrogant, condescending, disrespectful, rude individual.”
“If you have a problem with face-to-face customer service, let me help you out,” he said. “Let me tell you a little secret: Find another job. Work from home, bitch.”
In the hours after the video was posted, Pubill says vitriolic comments on the restaurant’s Instagram page rose to the mid-hundreds. Dozens of one-star reviews were posted on Google and Yelp. Many reviewers identified Omar by name and wrote from the perspective of real customers, parroting Chime Time’s talking points.
“The food is decent but the customer service was absolutely horrible,” one Google reviewer wrote. “I have no idea how this guy ([Omar]) sleeps at night. He lacks the respect that my 5yr old has.”
“If you hate people then work at HOME,” another wrote. “YOU OBVIOUSLY DONT UNDERSTAND CUSTOMER SERVICE. PEOPLE PAY YOUR BILLS. HORRIBLE CUSTOMER SERVICE WILL YOUR DOWNFALL.”
On Instagram, the comments—which Pubill has since disabled—were shorter and cruder: “Fix ur shitass attitudes.” “Fire that zesty worker.”
“It’s like they don’t understand that there’s a human being on the other side who is receiving this,” Pubill says.
The scariest messages were the private ones.
“People were calling and saying, ‘Something could happen to you after work, when you close,’” Pubill says.
She contacted the police and requested that they start checking in on the restaurant every few hours. If everything’s OK, Pubill gives them a thumbs-up through the window.
But even with this precaution, Omar didn’t feel safe enough to continue working at Earth To Us, Pubill says. Shortly after the videos were posted, he parted ways with the restaurant.
“[Omar] is a member of the LGBT community,” Pubill says. “We were receiving phone calls saying, ‘You have to get rid of that [homophobic slur] or we’ll come down there. He just felt too threatened.”
In the weeks since Chime Time uploaded his Earth To Us reviews, several users have dubbed him “Keith Lee’s alter ego,” a reference to the wildly successful social media influencer who popularized the restaurant review format now used by many video creators. In most reviews, Lee focuses solely on flavor and only discusses customer service if he’s had an especially positive experience with an employee.
His reviews are forthright but never scathing; when he doesn’t like a dish, he almost always acknowledges that taste is subjective, and he reserves his harshest criticism for corporate chains.
Lee’s platform has grown so large that his videos are now guaranteed to have a significant impact on the restaurants he reviews. In January, he posted a glowing review of Frankensons, a pizza restaurant in Las Vegas that suffered heavy financial losses during the pandemic. Before the review came out, Frankensons was preparing to shut its doors; after Lee’s endorsement to his nearly 12 million followers, traffic increased so rapidly that the restaurant hired 23 new employees within six weeks.
But overnight internet fame of this sort comes with its own challenges. In an era of staff shortages and waning tolerance for wait times, the immediate demand can be hard for restaurants to meet—especially if their phone lines are swamped with people who want to congratulate them from 3,000 miles away.
Virality is virality: whether a review is good or bad, a mob will descend.
Restaurant reviews, of course, have existed for centuries. Like any form of criticism, they come with an implied directive for consumers to support, or not support, a given subject.
But when reviews are presented in a TikTok or Instagram format, the response to that directive intensifies. Unlike the local print publications where restaurant criticism originated, social media is geographically unbound and promotes immediate engagement. Users without a real stake are incentivized to weigh in, and mob mentality decimates nuance.
For North Carolina viewers, Chime Time’s videos might prompt a more traditional response: visit the restaurants he endorses; avoid the ones he doesn’t. But for the hundreds of thousands of viewers who live elsewhere, passive abstention seems to feel less satisfying than, say, visiting a restaurant’s Instagram page and commenting, “came here all the way from Texas to tell u that u suck” with two crying emojis.
To his credit, Chime Time seems to be somewhat cognizant of the responsibilities of a large platform. The vast majority of his reviews are positive. In his second Earth To Us video, he disclosed that he recorded the reviews in early February and spent a month trying to decide whether to post them—that’s how much he hates posting negative reviews, he said. But something pushed him to take his gripes to social media.
Chime Time had looked at the restaurant’s Yelp and Google review pages, he said, and noticed that some previous patrons had experienced customer service issues as well. (When he states this in the video, a patchwork of past reviews momentarily appears on the screen.)
“The owner has failed to rectify this lingering situation,” Chime Time told the camera.
He also took issue with the fact that Pubill had pushed back on a number of one-star reviews. (Two years ago, for instance, when one reviewer wrote, “I was told I couldn’t have a plate,” Pubill replied, “You did not ask for plates.”)
Like most restaurants, Earth To Us has received a number of customer service complaints on its review pages. Some align with Chime Time’s. Some were posted by self-identified antimaskers. But many were left by people who never set foot in the restaurant, according to Pubill—and she’s not even talking about the recent barrage.
Last year, a customer came to Earth To Us with her children and a bag of non-vegan food from home, Pubill says. When the children started to eat dairy products, Pubill told the customer that she couldn’t allow non-vegan food on the premises.
“She was very offended,” Pubill tells the INDY. “She took to the internet and we got a whole bunch of one-star reviews from that. A lot of the reviews that [Chime Time] put in his video [as justification for posting his own negative review]—they came from that.”
Ah, review sites and their self-perpetuating cycles of contempt. How long until someone cites the latest fake slate of one-star reviews, induced by Chime Time’s videos, for the same purpose? If Pubill asserts herself in the replies, will people say she’s out of line?
Restaurant owners cannot opt out of Yelp or Google reviews, and removing reviews from bad actors is nearly impossible. In efforts to “manage social activism review storms,” though, Yelp recently implemented a feature called an “unusual activity alert” that temporarily blocks new reviews in response to “signs of media-fueled activity” on a business’s page.
The alert has been activated on the Earth To Us page since March 12, one day after Chime Time’s second video. Eight one-star trolls slipped in before the gate closed.
For Yelp—a billion-dollar enterprise with a reputation for allegedly extorting advertising money from small business owners—the alert looks to be a step in the right direction.
But that alert also comes with collateral damage. The morning of March 12, a user on Durham’s subreddit called on area Earth To Us regulars to leave positive reviews for the restaurant in an effort to counteract the trolls, writing that “a small business is being put in jeopardy by people who have never visited.”
A few hours later, Yelp activated the alert, locking out both hate and love in one fell swoop.
Pubill says she hopes the review block might compel more people to raise their issues with the business in person.
“If you have a meal and something is wrong or not to your liking, please tell us and we’ll fix it on the spot,” Pubill says. “People are taking to the internet without talking to us.”
For those facing a torrent of online hate, the impulse is often to go forth into cyberspace and confront the trolls in their own arena.
Pubill—as evidenced by some of her years-old responses on review platforms—has gone down this road before.
This time, though, she took a different approach: she reached out to Chime Time and asked him to meet her in person—a grounded, sincere request that, in a way, invoked her restaurant’s name.
On March 14, Chime Time met Pubill at Earth To Us. Pubill says the conversation went well.
“He was speaking from his heart,” she says. “He said, ‘I truly apologize, I did not mean to cause any harm to your business.’”
Pubill told him about the threats her restaurant had received and reminded him that the hospitality industry is still struggling from pandemic setbacks.
The next day, Chime Time posted a third video about the restaurant. He apologized to Omar, the restaurant cashier—whose name he omitted this time—and implored his viewers to stop the threats and offensive comments. (He did not, however, take down the offending viral video, which continues to garner hundreds of daily views and spark one-star reviews.)
The third video received significantly fewer views than the first two—a testament to the way social media algorithms favor strife over reconciliation—but Pubill says the backlash has subdued regardless. And though the Reddit user’s positive Yelp campaign was stymied, people are still finding ways to show their support. Many are showing up in person.
“There was a woman who came in and said, ‘I drove an hour and a half to come and get food from you, because we love your food,’” Pubill says. “I couldn’t help myself because I could see the sadness on her face: I said, ‘Did you see the review?’ She said, ‘Yes, and I am here to support you.’”
“Haters are gonna be haters,” Pubill says, “but the people that love you carry a greater weight.”
Follow Staff Writer Lena Geller on Twitter or send an email to email@example.com. Comment on this story at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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