February 21, 2024

Houston’s Bludorn restaurant is often cited as one of the city’s best serving up French-inspired cuisine — but you wouldn’t know it from some of the one-star reviews recently posted on Google. According to co-owner and chef Aaron Bludorn, all the bad reviews appeared at once.

“Someone took, you know, something that we worked so hard for — which was a lot of four-star, five-star reviews and a good Google rating — and they ripped us off,” Bludorn told CBS News’ Janet Shamlian.

Bludorn and co-owner Cherif Mbodji said before that, they rarely received negative feedback. Both Mbodji and Bludorn were concerned about the damage bad reviews could cause.

“Reputation for a restaurant is everything,” Mbodji said.

It wasn’t long before they learned the reviews were part of a scam after the restaurant received an untraceable email asking for a $75 Google Play gift card to be removed.

Bludorn said paying the $75 was never an option.

“I never thought about paying that ransom because to me that meant they would have won, you know, — and they could. I also didn’t know where it was going to end,” Bludorn said.

The note said bad reviews would continue to stick unless redeemers got what they wanted. Restaurants across the country are reporting similar blackmail threats — a barrage of bad reviews and demands for money, in the form of gift cards, to stop them.

Michelle Korsmo of the National Restaurant Association says federal agents are now involved in cases similar to Bludorn’s. It encourages more awareness between meals when they read Google reviews.

“Consumers should really read reviews with a critical eye to see if they make sense with what others have said about the restaurant. Don’t let a scammer cheat you out of a great restaurant experience,” Korsmo said.

Bludorn says she contacted Google, which initially said the one-star reviews did not violate the policy because no comments were included. The restaurant then posted the blackmail attempt on social media to explain what happened and was shocked when more than 100 customers submitted their own positive Google reviews.

A Google spokesperson tells CBS News that the company’s teams are working around the clock to prevent these attacks, remove fraudulent reviews and put protections on business profiles that may have been affected.

Google later removed reviews related to Bludorn, but it removed both the good and the bad. Bludorn says the restaurant has never lost customers, but the incident comes at a difficult time as the restaurant faces inflation.

“We can’t really raise prices because we want to stay competitive, so every guest counts right now,” Bludorn said.

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