Your restaurant can look like crap, so long as it’s “authentic”

Unclean Restaurant

A couple of years ago, my wife and I — who at the time I believe was just my significant other — were walking with another couple in Astoria, over in Queens (over in New York — why do I keep classifying this?). We were “couples friends” (still are) and all four people in this walk were essentially foodies, in that we can all cook, we believe we can cook better than anyone else, we’re arrogant about how we season meat, etc. That’s what a foodie is, right? 

We get to this restaurant and on the window, their hygiene grade (from the Dept. of Health) is a C. It might have even been a D, honestly. The place looks like hot garbage, even through the window. But yet … it’s a type of Mongolian food, which you don’t see a lot (even in a place like Astoria). And I mean, Mongolia is a land-locked, hard-to-reach-as-a-tourist country without a lot of infrastructure, so what’s the real chance you’re ever going to get out there and eat the authentic Mongolian food, right? We’re not talking about Italy here, you know? There’s a reasonable chance someone of the middle class could eat authentic Italian food, and less so authentic Mongolian food. This placed seemed authentic. What resulted was a large debate about whether we should enter. The hygiene score is terrible and the food may well make us sick, but … damn, yo, it’s authentic Mongolian food!

Apparently there’s academic research around this concept now, from Glenn Caroll of Stanford University and his co-researchers, David W. Lehman of the University of Virginia and Balázs Kovács of the University of Lugano, Switzerland. Let’s start with some basics:

In the latest research, Carroll and his colleagues posited that consumers apply one of two social-based codes when forming opinions about a restaurant. One code is rational and scientific, known as an imperative code. The other, known as an interpretative code, is context-based. In the case of restaurants, the imperative code is found in the establishment’s compliance with local health regulations. The interpretive code is more concerned with if and how a restaurant conforms to cultural norms, making it “authentic.”

Imperative vs. Interpretative. Got it.

So what happened?

They analyzed 9,734 restaurants — and did this:

To measure the consumer value of restaurants, the researchers used the number of stars assigned to a restaurant by a reviewer. For hygiene, they looked at the restaurants’ latest health grade from the public health department (posted prominently on the window as A, B, C or F) and created a hygiene score for each review by analyzing the text. To gauge authenticity, they did the same thing, creating an authenticity score for each review by searching for keywords related to authenticity and inauthenticity. “Then we compared the effects of the health ratings and authenticity scores on consumer value ratings of each restaurant,” says Carroll.

OK. There’s some limits to that study, sure — like “analyzing keywords” doesn’t necessarily get you the thing you’re looking for, but it is a common technique in the modern research canon — but so far, this still seems cool.

Here were the basic results:

What they found was that authenticity, the interpretive social code, tended to trump the importance of cleanliness, the imperative code. Although consumers had negative things to say about restaurants with low health grades, they tended to overlook low grades when the authenticity of a restaurant was high. In the end, unhygienic but authentic restaurants were valued more similarly to their hygienic counterparts. Less hygienic and less authentic restaurants, however, had a significantly lower value than their hygienic counterparts. The research showed that when social codes conflict, consumers tend to apply one and sidestep the other.

This is kind of interesting.

First of all, it has huge resonance for business: be authentic. If you’re authentic, you can get away with other stuff.

But there’s a flip side at the personal level. Think about this story.

Ted Bauer Is A Wreck

This is what I looked like on the regular in about 2007-2008.

When I started dating my wife, I was a total fucking slob. I mean, had no idea how to eat at a nice dinner, had terrible clothes, smelled, slept on basically just a solitary mattress, etc. Uncouth would be a good word. My wife comes from a pretty good, well-mannered family and this was a bit of a collision point. To be honest, I fought back a lot on it, you know? My whole thing has always been — who the hell cares what pants/shoes you’re wearing if you’re an authentic person who is cool to talk to?

The thing is with personal cleanliness and upkeep and style, people do care about that — you can be authentic as the day is long, but if you have a stain on your shirt or your tie is super short, people remember that stuff.

My theory on all this is wedding invitations. You can go to a wedding and have a magical time and be like “Those people — those people define love!” and the party and the dancing is great, but if that invitation was low-class, man … you will still bring that up in your top three bullet points about the whole affair.

I kind of think the same at work sometimes — you know the situations where managers should be focusing on high-level stuff and instead they dive into the weeds over commas and spacing in some random MS Word document? People always love to think about the stuff that they think they can control — and the stuff where there’s a reasonable expectation of what it should look like (i.e. a wedding invite, a sales doc, a person’s shirt).

Bottom line: restaurants can get away with authentic over clean, apparently. People not necessarily so much. And if you’re a brand, focus on telling your story and being authentic.

Ted Bauer


  1. Now come on, how was the food? What did you eat? I actually live in Mongolia, and it is nigh on impossible to get authentic Mongolian food outside the borders.

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