Where are the five-star reviews for Auckland’s controversial new restaurant coming from?
If you like a side-dish of snark, sarcasm and sick burns with your burgers, fries and milkshakes, you’re in luck. A new restaurant chain that opened recently in Auckland promises to deliver all that, and much less.
At Karen’s Diner, customers are treated to waiters who dish out insults and terrible service as part of a kooky dining out experience. One recent NZ Herald diner was called a “loser”, “lazy” and a “basic bitch” within five minutes of sitting down, while the dining partner of Stuff’s reviewer received a middle finger salute while being seated.
If customers don’t like the way they’re treated, the restaurant’s website has some advice: “Don’t ask to speak to a manager.”
The franchise is from Viral Ventures, an Australian marketing company promising to deliver “fun across the globe”. So far, its activations include ice skating rinks, an Alice in Wonderland-themed eatery, and magic bar The Wizard’s Den.
With 13 outlets across Australia, the UK and now Aotearoa, and thousands of YouTube, Instagrammers and TikTok users filming their terrible encounters with foul-mouthed wait staff, Karen’s Diner appears to be its most successful brand yet.
This Karen can dish it out – but can she take the same punishment? Since its Auckland restaurant opened in Mt Eden just over a week ago, several one-star reviews have emerged with customers taking to Google to complain about dry burgers and cold fries, unhygienic bathrooms and – ugh – menus covered in hair.
“When we arrived our table was dirty, there was hair on the menu, no napkins were provided even when we asked, one milkshake came without a straw, no toilet paper or ability to dry your hands. Fries was cold and the burgers were dry. If you are actually coming here to eat I would recommend anywhere else,” said one critic, who rated Karen’s Diner as a one-star experience.
“The burgers were disgusting … bun tasted like it was 2-3 days old, fries were cold and no napkins [were] provided even when I asked staff [for] one. Spent over a $100 which I think was worth not over $30-$40 max,” said another who also rated it one star.
If you keep scrolling through the restaurant’s Google reviews, another trend emerges: a series of five-star reviews from diners who don’t have much to say. “Cocktails and burgers amazing. Karen vibe was rocking,” says one five-star critic.
Those wildly disparate views also come alongside another kind of review – a warning from some who don’t trust those five-star reviews, with several calling them “fake”. “Most of the five-star reviews are fake, they only review other Karen’s Diners!!” warned one.
One potential diner who contacted The Spinoff said he was looking forward to visiting Karen’s Diner this weekend until he saw those seemingly fake reviews. “To me it seems a bit on the nose that a business is trying to doctor its reviews when local businesses are still struggling post pandemic,” he said.
He warned those dining there to check the validity of any five-star reviews. “It seems to be a tactic to boost poor ratings,” he warned. Some of those reviews do seem suspicious, with critics only reviewing Karen’s Diner outlets here and in Australia. One had visited three in the past month, and given each five stars.
Usually, businesses complain about fake one-star reviews. One recent scam in America involved those writing one-star reviews refusing to take them down until they were sent gift vouchers. But this is the opposite, with what seems to be a pretty obvious outcome. Karen’s Diner’s Auckland branch has a review rating of 3.4 stars. Without those five-star reviews, it would be much lower.
When contacted for comment, a spokesperson for Karen’s Diner appeared to confirm the company was behind the five-star reviews. “We have three individual contractors who have worked across our multiple Karen venues and also dined as customers that have left a review for the Auckland location based on their experience,” they said.
When asked if those contractors were asked by the company to post positive reviews, or did it of their own free will, they replied: “We generally ask customers if they have had a good time to leave a review.”
Google bans companies from rigging star ratings. In its terms of service, the search engine says “content that has been posted from multiple accounts to manipulate a place’s rating” isn’t allowed. It promises to remove them, if they’re flagged.
Be warned: If you’re thinking about dining at Karen’s Diner, it might pay to read those Google reviews carefully to see if they’re written by real diners, not contractors employed by the company posting five-star reviews. Fake insults with your food are one thing, bad burgers and cold fries – according to their (real) Google reviews – are another.