Welcome to Hot Topics, in which food industry people chime in on a major issue in food.
[Illustration: Eric Lebofsky]
Over the years, Yelp has evoked some considerable ire from chefs and restaurateurs frustrated not just by negative reviews, but also insinuations of pay-to-play and users' so-called "graymail" tactics when angling for perks. But Yelp continues to grow, announcing last month that there are now about 53 million cumulative reviews on the site, while average monthly unique visitors are at approximately 120 million. And Yelp listings are often at the top of any internet search for a restaurant. So what is a restaurateur to do about Yelp? Well, some certainly bite back, while others ignore the site entirely. And others still use Yelp to analyze trends within their restaurants, though perhaps taking each complaint with a grain of salt.
Here now, chefs and restaurateurs Anita Lo (Annisa, New York City), Jay Jerrier (Il Cane Rosso, Dallas), Tony Maws (Craigie On Main, Boston), Kelly English (Restaurant Iris, Memphis), and Brian Canlis (Canlis, Seattle) weigh in on the issue. And please also see this separate interview with Andrew Zimmern on the topic.
Annisa, New York City
For starters, are you more pro or against Yelp?
I'm actually in the middle. I think it's unfortunate that it turns into a place where people can just complain and be negative and get that out. We've done very well on Yelp, but every once in a while, you get somebody who doesn't ... I don't know, they're just not going to be happy, no matter what. And we try our best to make everybody happy. That's one of the biggest tenets of our service, is that we have to try to make everyone leave happy, even if they're wrong. And the customer actually is wrong sometimes.
Do you have any reviews in mind that kind of stick out to you that have been wrong, that have bothered you?
It's real important for me never to read Yelp.
On Yelp? I don't read Yelp, actually. I think it's real important for me never to read Yelp. My managers do watch it, just to make sure, but sometimes you learn something. Every once in a while, there's someone that says something that makes sense, and that we need to watch. So my managers read it, I believe they read it about once a week, but for me, I think it's better not to read it.
How have you seen its power evolve over the years?
Hm. A lot of people go to Yelp. Yeah, I believe it actually has gained a lot of power over the years. We want to make everybody happy that comes in our doors, but we're a small restaurant, and our food is very esoteric, and it's not about pleasing the masses. It never has been, so on some level, Yelp isn't ... the general populace isn't necessarily our target audience, so I think Yelp is actually not that important to us.
[Photo: Eater NY]
Il Cane Rosso, Dallas
What is your biggest gripe about Yelp?
I would say my biggest gripe about Yelp is that really it's a platform for the passive-aggressive. I don't understand why somebody can't wait to hurry home and write an anonymous one-star Yelp review when they're at the restaurant and they can say, "This pizza wasn't cooked the way I wanted." If we bring you a pizza and you've eaten one-eighth of it, we're going to say, well, is there something wrong that you don't like? It takes me two minutes to get you another pizza, so give me a chance to fix it.
And then the worst part is it's indexed so highly on Google. When you search for Cane Rosso, the first thing that comes up is our website. The second thing that comes up is our Yelp page. I mean, the majority of our reviews are all good. But that Yelp community is a bunch of little bitchy people where they'll say, "I came in with very high expectations because of all the good reviews, and I needed to take them down a peg." Or like the lady today that didn't even eat here wrote us a one-star review because she didn't know we took reservations. So it's my fault that she decided to roll up with her party of six at 8 o'clock on a Saturday night when there's an hour wait at Chick-fil-A to eat. Fine lady, I don't know what to tell you.
Do you read your Yelp reviews?
We use Yelp to look at trends, but we don't overreact.
When we first opened I was obsessed reading all the Yelp reviews and panicking every time somebody said something shitty. But now we're at the point where I hardly ever look at it. I just tell our staff, "Look, if they mention a specific server or a specific incident, you've got to research it. Or if you see trends like 'Oh I come on Monday night and the service is really shitty.' All right, find out who's working Monday night because service might be shitty." So we use Yelp to look at trends and everything, but we don't overreact.
We have people that have given us a five-star review, "Everything is phenomenal, I love this stuff, this is the best place ever," and then I'll make some joke on Facebook about gluten-free and they'll go back like, "I'm updating my review to one star because this guy is very insensitive to gluten-free people." Jesus, dude. Relax.
How have you seen its power evolve over the years?
I think it's kind of like a bell curve. It came from out of nowhere and then it really peaked. Some people have had some epic collapses over Yelp, and some people have gone the other way. At least in my restaurant circle, I think most people try not to acknowledge it or give it too much power. We use it like I do: Look at it for trends, but don't get obsessed with it. It's not worth it. It's just one indicator. I don't know that Yelp drives a ton of business to the restaurant. Maybe when you first open and you get a bunch of good Yelp reviews. But in any city it's a community of 100 people or so that flock to restaurants based on Yelp reviews. So it's not going to be long-term success.
Aside from their influence with Google, I don't know many legitimate restaurant people that give a whole lot of credence to Yelp's power. I'm sure now for this we'll probably see a bunch of one-star reviews.
What can restaurants do about Yelp? You speak up about it, but is that something everybody can do? Can it make or break a smaller restaurant?
It depends on how small a restaurant is. If you have 12 seats, maybe. I don't see how one website can make or break a restaurant. It's really about the quality of the food and the service and the atmosphere and things like that. Maybe Yelp does reflect some of that on a macro level. But for the most part it's what you do when the diners are there, not their reaction on a website that's going to make or break it.
We've ultimately just decided we're going to make fun of Yelp and not take it too seriously. I think we've all been much happier. My blood pressure is lower, and I don't feel like I'm going to stroke out over it now. We even put a joke about it on our menu. It says on the menu that we make authentic Neapolitan pizza that food critics love and one girl on Yelp says is the worst pizza she ever had in her life. So we joke about that stuff. Some of them are pretty funny, even when they write the bad reviews.
[Photo: Garrett Hall]
Craigie On Main, Boston
So do you read your Yelp reviews?
I do not personally read every Yelp review. My managers for both of our restaurants have been tasked with that because I would have jumped off a bridge a long time ago. But what we do is we look for either very specific and obvious pertinent information that we think is relevant or trends. So if a bunch of people are saying something about this restaurant, regardless of how inflammatory or whatever it might seem, trends are important information. We'll bring those to our manager meetings, and we'll talk about that. Thankfully, there are not a ton of them. But no, I do not live and die by Yelp.
I know you've talked about the so-called chef's special for customers who give you a hard time. Does everybody who threatens a bad Yelp review get shown the door?
No. If someone's threatening a bad Yelp review, honestly that's their problem. It's not mine. I hate saying this because I want to cook for everybody, and I mean that. There's no cliche there. I opened up restaurants to cook for people and make people happy. But if someone's going to throw that around, to me what they're saying is they just have no business being happy. They don't want to be happy. And if someone comes here and they don't want to be happy, there's not a whole lot I can do.
What do you think is the power of Yelp? Some people say even a half star can make a difference to a business, while others brush it off.
I don't know how to be objective about that. I have one restaurant, Craigie on Main, and we've had 4.5 stars for years. Will that change someday? I suppose. If it did, would I flip out? Again, I think the best I can do is look at the trends of what we're doing. I think it's also important for me as the owner/chef to be objective. I know when my restaurant is doing well, and I know when it's not. I suppose I could try to lie to myself, but it wouldn't really work. So if they're saying something and it's supporting what I'm already thinking, again, regardless of language choice or tone, I have to be willing to hear that.
Why would I trust Yelpers who aren't even courageous enough to give real feedback to the restaurant?
The reason I don't read it personally is because it's infuriating, the idea that someone feels empowered while they're hiding behind a computer screen. I don't understand why people think that's being helpful to anybody. From my perspective, why would I trust Yelpers who aren't even courageous enough to give real feedback to the restaurant? If you care enough about the restaurant then give me the feedback. I'm a big boy.
I want to make everybody happy, but that's unrealistic. I'm on a very sick and twisted wheel. It's like a gerbil wheel where I'm constantly striving for perfection, at the same time I know I'm not going to make everybody happy. People who say in the restaurant, "Hey, I didn't enjoy this," we take care of you. So the pot-shot concept just doesn't make any sense. What were you trying to get out of that? I would have replaced your steak. I would have given you a gift certificate to come to brunch. I would have bought you a glass of wine. Not to appease you; to show you that we care.
Finally, what are the best practices for a chef in dealing with Yelp reviews?
I can't fight the bigger battle. I can be part of it, but I can't take it upon myself. So if there's a population of people who feel like that's the tack they want to take, I feel sorry for them. Sorry in the sense that you could have had a relationship. You could have had results. So what I would tell other people is you read it as objectively as you possibly can. That's all we can do.
[Photo: Cal Bingham]
Restaurant Iris, Memphis
Do you read your own Yelp reviews?
I quit reading them after the first six months we were open. But I have a GM that reads them religiously and alerts me to anything of any trouble. But no, I don't read them.
Why did you stop?
Some of the things that people would say would either be far-fetched or would be things that they could have easily had us rectify when they were there and they didn't. On the other side, I really didn't want to have a bunch of pats on the back for good stuff, either. We really tried to focus on things that our customers gave us an opportunity to fix if something was wrong.
So do you pay more attention to feedback you get in the restaurant rather than what you would get on Yelp?
I'm open to feedback. I love to get good feedback, and I love to get bad feedback, no matter how we can get it. I just think that when I look at a restaurant's Yelp page if I'm traveling — and that's usually the only time I'll use Yelp — I will throw out the best three reviews and the worst three reviews. Because I'm fairly certain that the worst three are something personal against someone that worked there or another restaurant owner. And I'm pretty sure the best three could be employees of the restaurant or the owner himself. I've heard of restaurants incentivizing employees to give good Yelp reviews, or incentivizing their customers to give good Yelp reviews. When that happens, the whole system doesn't work.
What kinds of incentives are they giving?
I'm not sure. I've heard of places that encourage their employees to give great reviews on Yelp to boost it up. I get that. We've been really lucky that we have a great team of people and we don't have to do things like that.
I got an email from Yelp offering to help me manage my online reviews, which is ludicrous.
Also, a couple months ago I got an email from Yelp offering to help me manage my online reviews, which is ludicrous. There's so many things that a business owner has to worry about these days. For someone to come in and want to make money off managing the reviews on the site that they created, whatever.
What did they mean by help manage?
I don't know. I didn't get past the third line. I don't know if that means that they'll go in and get rid of your bad ones or what. I can't really tell you what their intentions were on that one, but it seemed a little out of place to me.
Yeah that's weird. But you do hear that from time to time.
Sure. And a lot of people complain that everybody's a critic in today's day and age. Well, everybody is a critic and everybody always has been a critic. The problem that comes online — and this isn't singular to Yelp, you can go to the comments section on any newspaper — [is that] people have this platform where they can hide behind an alias and say some of the nastiest and most untrue things that aren't fueled by anything having to do with fact. It's insane to me some of the things that people have said about people that I respect in the industry and that work for us. I just wish people would have to put their picture up or use their real name.
Oh yeah, a court in Virginia recently ruled on this. Do you think this problem would be resolved if it was completely un-anonymous?
I mean, how are you going to police that? Facebook has a rule that you can only have one account, but there's plenty of fake Facebook accounts out there. There are definitely ways around it. I don't know if there is a perfect solution to anything. But, like I said, I think everybody is a critic, and I value everybody's opinion. I think Yelp gives a great platform for that. I just don't think that across the board people are using it appropriately.
So what are the best practices for a chef or restaurant owner in terms of dealing with Yelp reviews, both good and bad?
One of my idols on social media, and he's a friend of mine, is Mario Batali. I love when people tweet at him that they had a terrible time in one of his restaurants, which happens. His immediate response is, "Did you speak to management?" Usually their answer is no. And if that's the case then were you trying to have a bad time? Did you not want them to fix it? Did you want to be able to blast people publicly?
Do you engage when you see a complaint on Yelp?
If I know the person or if I can recall the instance. I will never rebut a poor review online. I won't do it. But we figured out who wrote these things sometimes and we've emailed them or gotten in touch with them and asked if there's anything we can do to fix it. And there's more than Yelp. OpenTable gives online feedback, which are easier to track down who the person was. But if we think we know where something came from, we'll make a personal phone call or an email to 'em. But I'm never going to go on Yelp and defend… there's nothing good that can come of that.
[Photo: Restaurant Iris]
Do you read your Yelp reviews?
I do not.
I don't because there's no relationship there. Meaning, it's a one-way relationship. Since I don't have the ability to contact the person or respond to them personally, then I don't find it valuable. Whereas like OpenTable reviews, I read and respond to all of them because I can respond.
Isn't there a feature where you can respond on Yelp?
You know, it confuses me. The last time I talked to the Yelp folks, I had to pay money to Yelp in order to do that. I don't know if that's still the case, but even so, it was a response that was very public. When I saw the way that restaurant owners were doing that publicly and then getting in arguments, it just seemed not cool.
I want negative feedback, but I want it in a relational way.
I want negative feedback, but I want it in a relational way. The service industry is about relationships. If I had a girlfriend who was angry at me and then decided not to talk to me about it, but to talk to others about it and not give me a chance to respond, that's how I feel Yelp is like. It's like, why would you want to talk to everyone else? Talk to me first and give me a chance to fix it. And then if you're still upset, then absolutely, I have no problem with you going and getting more support around the fact that you haven't been served well. But it's hard for me to value feedback when it's so passive-aggressive. I answer my own phone and I answer my own email. Call me. Talk to me. I so much prefer that.
How do you see the power of Yelp? Has it evolved over the years?
What's incredible about Yelp, I think anything that invites this country to pay closer attention to food and hospitality is a great thing. I think Yelp has done good things for the restaurant industry as a whole because it's got people talking about food and excited about restaurants and talking about where they've been. So that's awesome. In that case, I think Yelp has done our industry a great service. But as far as the power of Yelp, yeah, I don't think it's getting less powerful. [laughs] I think it only continues to grow in its influence.
Do you think Yelp has the power to make or break a restaurant?
I think it can have that power. But I don't think it's nearly as powerful as the power the restaurateur has. If you run a great restaurant that serves delicious food and takes care of people then no matter what Yelp says or doesn't say about you, you're going to be successful. So I think Yelp is powerful, but not nearly as powerful as my opportunity every night on the floor with guests right in front of me and taking care of them.
So what do you think is the best practice for restaurateurs with Yelp then? Should people just not engage?
Again, I haven't found a way to engage with Yelp. Let's see. Does anyone at Canlis read Yelp reviews? Yes. My floor managers read Yelp reviews, I think, off and on. But we don't look at Yelp as our main source of feedback. It's very low down on the totem pole. Higher would be an OpenTable review. Much, much higher would be letters and emails and actual people.
How long ago was it that they said you would need to pay in order to engage?
Probably about a year and a half ago, or two years. I remember asking on the phone,
"Hey, can I respond?" And they go, "Well, that's the pro feature. You have to upgrade to being a pro user." I was like, oh, that seems silly. They call all the time wanting you to pay. They want you to pay to have a bigger picture. They want you to pay to do better in search.
Have you gotten an email offering to manage your reviews? Somebody else was telling me that.
No, but I don't even get their voicemails anymore, I told [my assistant] to stop forwarding them to me. So she takes all of those. But yeah, I bet we were getting called at least five or six times a year, every couple months.