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For Chefs (and Others) Who Hate Yelp

August 16, 2013

Yesterday I broached on the hostility towards food trucks by some restaurant owners. But recently it came to my attention just how much some chefs and restaurant owners hate Yelp.

My interest here is that I personally think Yelp is great. It was the place where I started writing about food and finding my voice. Plus, I find it to be an incredibly useful tool for finding good places wherever I happen to be. But I totally understand the frustrations faced by those in the restaurant business.

Really, there are two separate issues here. And to argue either of them effectively, they need to be separated.

Issue one involves reports of shady business practices by Yelp salespeople who make promises of better rankings with ad dollars, and tales of reprisals from Yelp when ad dollars aren’t delivered. It should be mentioned that this is expressly forbidden by Yelp. However, If there are any owners who are interested in sharing the details of such interactions, I would be happy to personally investigate them. But until then, let’s put this issue on the back burner.

The other is the widespread attitude of restaurant insiders towards Yelpers that goes something like, “Who the hell are you to write a nasty review of my labor of love?”

I get it. The restaurant industry is brutal. Failure abounds. Margins are thin. Egos are high. And even at not-so-great places, people are often driven by a love of food. It’s not uncommon, even for large brands, for those involved to be blind to their own shortcomings. I saw this first hand at Taco Bell and with Edy’s ice cream.

Taking criticism is hard. Especially when it deals with some creative expression of yourself. But not everyone will like everything. And even places that strive for perfection every single time will sometimes fall short of the mark.

However, negative reviews have the potential to improve a business. Of course that assumes someone at the restaurant has enough of a level head to see the kernel of truth in the criticism, and then can find a way to constructively deal with the problem.

Yes, not all negative reviews are constructive. Some are just nasty, vile and bitter. And yes, there are some bad actors, who may threaten bad reviews unless they get something extra from the restaurant. It’s unfortunate.

Hopefully those get filtered out by Yelp’s filter. Some do. Others don’t. That filter is a fickle beast, which is just as likely to strip out good reviews as it is to take out the single shot snipe attacks.

But you know what? Even if the filter doesn’t pick up on it, those folks who read Yelp will surely be able to discern the nature of the criticism and understand that it’s not reflective of the typical experience. Seriously, how many people do you think gave credence to my rant about the shape of the spoons at Dante’s?

I wasn’t making the issue up. The spoons were awful. And true to my word, I didn’t return until the spoons changed. But then it quickly became my favorite FroYo place in the region.

Now even if you don’t trust the users of Yelp to give the reviews such careful scrutiny, one nasty vindictive review is just that. One review. If you are running a solid operation, that one blip will have no meaningful significance in your overall Yelp rating. Plus, Yelp allows business owners to respond. So don’t give the “Elite” yelper special service. If they write that one negative review, there’s a chance to affix your side of the story to their write-up.

Is it a hassle for restaurant owners to deal with this kind of thing? Sure. And it’s just one more thing that you don’t have the time to deal with. But if it’s something you care about, there is recourse.

However, for the most part, those individuals who are writing dozens, scores, or even hundreds of reviews on Yelp are not schemers. They are honest eaters, like me, who want to help others find good food and avoid the stinkers. These people use their real names, and they include real pictures of themselves in their profiles.

I know this because I’ve met them. I’ve had drinks with them. And together we’ve talked extensively about food. Yelpers aren’t assholes by nature.

Honestly, I’d rather stake my next meal on the collected opinions of a hundred amateurs (representing multiple dining occasions and sampling a wide array of dishes on the menu) than the professional opinion of a local critic who visited a restaurant once.

Yelp is a tool. Think of it like a gun. It can be used for good, and it can be used for evil. It may not be the best tool in all situations. If you are a restaurant owner or a chef, you probably shouldn’t just pick it up without taking a basic safety course. Yes, it can be destructive. But it can also help you hunt your next meal.

Using it effectively for hunting is another topic entirely.

And seriously, if any chefs or restaurant owners want to talk off the record about their experiences with Yelp, I’m happy to try and help you out. 

9 Comments leave one →
  1. August 16, 2013 7:49 am

    I think you have it exactly right, Daniel. Yelp is a tool – and when using it, you have to be mindful of the prejudices and backgrounds of those who contribute to the site. I’m not a restaurant owner, merely a diner – but I use Yelp all the time so I can see how other diners reacted to their experience at a restaurant I’m considering patronizing. What I do – and I suspect many other people do – is filter out all the incoherent, ungrammatical comments, and focus on those that seem to actually have some sense to them and relate to the menu and the dining experience. It’s a lot like life – you ignore people who aren’t too with it, and you pay attention to those who seem to have something to say. Yelp is like any tool, really – if used properly, it’s incredibly helpful.

  2. August 16, 2013 8:22 am

    I’ve used Yelp in a number of cities and it’s clear that the Cap District offers the worst Yelp experience available… a combination of outright indifference on the part of Yelp management and a disproportionate population of whining, clueless dim bulbs who love nothing more than to hear themselves complain because of insufficient portion size or perceived lack of respect from the waitstaff.

    Even with all that, I find Yelp in the CD useful. If there’s a thought of going to a place I am unfamiliar with, it’s easy enough to pick out the reviewers with the chops to actually describe their experience and the thoughtfulness to explain why they feel the way they do. And easy enough to ignore the shitheads when they aren’t already filtered.

    By the way, Google Plus is now making a push into Yelp territory with its own city guides, including a promise of elite-like status (with invitations to insider events and other perks) once you’ve written 50 local reviews. Of course, Albany is not on their initial city list. (Of course, Austin, a city of comparable size, is.) I’m really tempted (though constrained by a lack of free time) to write 50 reviews of Cap District places and see if that gets any traction.

    • Lorres permalink
      August 16, 2013 3:17 pm

      I use yelp because of the way Google places it in search results, and yelp almost always has something about places that don’t have a [working] website. I take the reviews with a huge helping of salt. I’ve read enough reviews of places I’ve been to know that I disagree with many of the reviewers, so their assessments don’t always count very much for me.

      What’s the URL on the Google city guides? I’m tempted to follow right behind you with reviews of Capital District places just to see if piling on gets our location into the hopper.

    • August 16, 2013 3:55 pm

      This is A) hilarious and B) totally spot-on. As someone who’s moved a lot in recent years, Yelp has been a great tool in all these new places. I’m not some clueless rube (at least I hope not) who refuses to use any critical reading skills, so (gasp!) I am able to tell the difference between some unreasonably pissy reviewer and someone who had legitimate criticisms of a place.

  3. August 16, 2013 10:00 am

    Ah, yes. We live in an age where every idiot has a soapbox and a megaphone via the internet. Isn’t it glorious?

  4. Sue permalink
    August 16, 2013 12:57 pm

    Forgive my haste, but when I read this blog post this morning the lyrics to “Killing Me Softly with His Song” came to mind. I fear yelp like I fear the plague. (Which is its equivalent for a bussines like mine). The chances of getting a internationally recognized critic to review my shop are about as good as being struck by lightning. I depend completely on word of mouth. The majority of my best return customers are lovely older ladies who are unlikely to yelp. At the same time, the majority of clicks to my web site are from yelp. This is an extremely uncomfortable catch 22. I’ve had seven yelp reviews and five (all 5 stars) have been removed. I called yelp, and they said they could help if I became a member at a bargain priced membership. Whatever about algorithms!!
    The dirty part is how many business owners stalk our yelp pages looking for those thoughtless reviews by anonymous reviews with fake pics and a point of view that a small business should be abundant, consistant and overstaffed like a chain, and yet taste like a farm to plate homemade european cafe. I had a customer come in two days ago telling me about how a very well known owner of a food establishment was agonizing over an unfair yelp review to his bar full of customers. I had a very good friend, who also happens to own a restaurant, texting with a yelper who had just reviewed his competitor.
    Listen,…. last monday I went to the ER with broncitis and a collapsed thyroid. After getting antibiotics and synthroid I rushed back to the shop to finish a birthday cake order and bang out enough product so my case would not look empty in case that lone yelper just happened to walk into the store yhst day. I did say most clicks to my web site are from yelp. I have two reviews. One bad one could sink my score. Its just reminds me to much of the high school ‘slam book’.

  5. albanylandlord permalink
    August 17, 2013 3:48 pm

    Any restaurant owner should realize that the opinions expressed on Yelp are those that your customers hold anyway and use to decide whether to come back or not. They are also being expressed by word of mouth to their friends and acquaintances. If your place is not doing well, or as well as you want, there is information in those reviews to help you understand what people are unhappy with.

    • Sue permalink
      August 18, 2013 9:19 am

      Yes. I do agree that the majority of yelps are helpful. If not helpful, then accurate. I am grateful to my customers who have, thus far, reviewed and patronized my business. There is a humanity in business that some of us forget in the age of ‘big box stores’. We get sick, we run out of things, and most of us are barely breaking even. I only ask that when you yelp, yelp thoughtfully.
      There is a yelp review this morning for a food establishment where I whole sale. There is a threat in that review and some personal drama. I am sure it will be removed. But I just read it, and how many others?

  6. Vicki Berry permalink
    November 17, 2013 12:43 am

    My husband and I have owned our restaurant for the last 21 years. We have spent countless hours away from our children and extended family not to mention having only 2 vacations during this time. What we have recently noticed is the inability of customers to speak with us directly when there is an issue. We both work in the kitchen insuring food consistency. I am in and out of the dining room throughout serving hours getting to speak with staff and customers just in case there is a problem. In the past, before the internet and web sites like Yelp, Urbanspoon etc., we were able to speak directly with customers. Problems were addressed before they left and not left to be advertised by someone hiding behind a keyboard. I personally feel like negative reviews from 10 years ago should be removed and newer posts should be shown. I also feel that if a business owner sends the negative reviewer an honest apoplgy and offers a free meal and the opportunity to personally apologize, they should respond. If they do not respond then their review should be removed. We have had long time employees tell us they would do anything possible to ruin our business if we let them go. It is really strange how our worst reviews appear right after they have been released. Recently we had a negative review where the customer gave the exact date and time of an incident at our hostess stand. Lucky for us we had just put in a new camera system. We looked two weeks before and two weeks after the date of the “incident”, it never happened. I guess this explains why she was unwilling to respond to our apology. We spoke with Yelp explaining the situation and they were unwilling to remove the review. They told us we should contact the customer; did they even read our complaint where we told them how we had apologized? We have worked hard for our reputation and it is frustrating that a company like Yelp seems to hold our good name in their hands. If they have their way our name will not be good for long. Just as others have said, our best reviews have been filtered, and we have been left with too much negativity. I feel sorry for others who are going through the same thing, it is very unfair.

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