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Andrew Zimmern on the Power and Problems of Yelp

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Photo: AndrewZimmern.com

More than a year ago, chef and Bizarre Foods Andrew Zimmern created a bit of a stir when he called Yelp a "tremendous forum for a bunch of uninformed morons" on his Go Fork Yourself podcast. He later invited Yelp's public policy director Luther Lowe on the show to defend the online review site. In the spirit of today's Hot Topics piece about how chefs and restaurateurs can deal with Yelp, Eater got Zimmern on the phone to talk a little more about why he has a problem with the online reviewing site, how he prefers to get his restaurant recommendations when he travels, and his thoughts on the power of Yelp. Zimmern also explains why, in spite of all that, he still believes Yelp has "got as much right to be around as anybody else."

I know, obviously, you had some opinions about Yelp a little while back on your podcast and then had [Yelp's public policy director] Luther Lowe on the show a little bit afterward. I'm curious whether your thoughts have changed at all since then.
No. Look. Do I think that there's some sort of satanic conspiracy going on over there or some covert plan to compensate people? No, I don't. Do I think that there are some people who have taken a rogue position and easily tried to stretch boundaries and stuff? Yes, I do. That's what happens with organizations that are horizontal and not vertical. In today's world, especially the digital world, especially with a product like Yelp, the organization is horizontal and not vertical. There are always people trying to take advantage of stuff like this, so I imagine, sure, I don't think Yelp can do a lot about how people interact with this forum.

Do you think it's their responsibility?
It is their responsibility, and policing it is just a hard job. That's why I'm not giving them a pass. They're probably scrambling to figure this shit out as much as anyone. I will tell you flat out that I continually find Yelp and products like it to be increasingly worthless to me as a consumer. That's really where I feel strongest about it.

How so?
In today's world of social media and the instant gratification nature of the internet, I don't even have to type something in. I can just ask Siri what Mario Batali's favorite restaurants in Seattle are. Why do I want to put it to risk? As I famously said before, I don't like to waste meals. I'm no one's food snob. I consider a perfect hot dog on the street to be as valid a food experience as dinner at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. I do not care what people — who I don't know where they live, don't know what their eating habits are, don't know what sort of expertise or standards they bring to the experience — telling me what they think of a hot dog on the street or Blue Hill at Stone Barns. It's meaningless to me.

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[Screenshot: Yelp]

What I want to know is what the locals in Chicago think about street hot dogs in their city; but I want hot dog lovers. In today's social media-saturated world, I can get really specific in what I call "crowdsourced expertise." I've not looked, but I bet you I could look on my phone under #chicagodogs and basically spend 30 seconds on Twitter and figure out four or five places I haven't been to that I really should check out. I could go to Chicago Magazine and punch in "hot dogs" on their website. I may triangulate a couple of different services.

The last thing I want to do is utilize a service where millions of people are chiming in, and the results are tainted.

The last thing I want to do is utilize a service where millions of people are chiming in, and the results are tainted. Either it's people who don't know what they're talking about shouting over the people who do ... Look. There's lots of people on Yelp whose opinions I would love to have, but you know what, I can't use on Yelp, because Yelp to me is worthless.

But if you're looking under a hashtag like that, it seems to me that Twitter could be similar to Yelp in that way. It's a self-selecting group of people.
Maybe a hot dog is a bad example. Pick an ethnic food. I would be interested to know where Rick Bayless likes to eat Mexican food in Chicago. I follow Rick Bayless. I follow Mexican chefs who are there. I follow line cooks. I build my own profile. I take food seriously, so I have my own resources. People who don't want to spend a little bit of time building their own network and their own profile on their social media love to turn to Yelp, and that's great. The problem is that they're not crowdsourcing expertise. They're just crowdsourcing noise. My suggestion is, why wouldn't you spend 15, 20 minutes and search on Twitter and follow some people in the city?

The problem is that they're not crowdsourcing expertise. They're just crowdsourcing noise.

I travel as much as anybody I know. Most of my friends, because I live in Minneapolis, are eating in Minneapolis for 99% of their meals. I don't spend a lot of time in Philadelphia. If I was going to Philadelphia this coming weekend, I would go onto Twitter. I would find five, six, seven food people in Philadelphia, and then I'd start following them. Within a couple of days, I'd probably have more recommendations than I would know what to do with. Twitter is great; so is Facebook. I don't respond to everything all the time, but when fans say to me, "I'm coming to Minneapolis. Where should I go?" I respond to it, because I want to promote the food scene in my city.

I will also say — I'm not saying it because it's you guys — when I'm traveling, if it's a city that you have a heatmap, I like that, because it's telling me places where people are eating now. Then I can make my own decisions. I've got a couple nights in Philly. God. I love going to Zahav, and I love going to Jose Garces' place, or whatever. But what's new and hot there? I look on the Eater Heatmap. We don't have every city, we're adding them, [but] we have recommender lists on andrewzimmern.com of places that I go. Other food travel folks have, oftentimes, great resources that you can learn to trust the same way we trust movie critics or music critics.

I have a friend who used to review movies for the Star Tribune. He always used to tell me that you find a movie reviewer who you like, who likes the films you like, and then you read them all the time and don't read anyone else. I said, "That seems kind of crazy." Then he explained it to me; it made all the sense in the world. He said, "If we like the same movies, I'm the one out seeing absolutely everything." Rotten Tomatoes is great, but when Rotten Tomatoes gets an 84% for Turbo, the kids' cartoon movie, that doesn't mean I'm going to like it.

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[Screenshot: Eater]

So for food, you should find a food resource that matches your interests. Right?
Yeah. Exactly. Crowdsourcing something other than expertise is such a waste of time. It was really hard 20 years ago to do that. Now you can just flip on your phone.

Right. There is so much out there.
Not just your people from Eater or andrewzimmern.com, two of my favorite websites. There's apps that are out there now that aggregate where chefs are eating.

Oh, right. Chefs Feed?
Chefs Feed is one of them. It's really good.

How have you seen the power of Yelp when it comes to affecting a restaurant's business? Do you think that Yelp can make a difference?
Yes, it can. We've seen a lot of stories about that. That's fine. They're very powerful. People used to say all the time, they complained about the power that the New York Times' primary food reviewer had, or when Frank Rich was reviewing Broadway shows, or whatever. One bad review from the New York Times, it's too much power to put in the hands of one person. I think that's bullshit. I think you earn that power. People get that power because, in some weird way, they've earned it.

I may not like them or recommend them, but Yelp can move the needle.

Yelp, in a very perverse way, I may not like them or recommend them, but they have hit a core amongst viewers and they can move the needle. A good review in the New York Times used to be worth two million dollars. A good review on Yelp, they've put some sort of number attached to that. God bless them. It helps them sell ads, I'm sure. I think it's a defective mechanism. It's very, very popular. There's tens of millions of people on that site.

What do you think are a restaurant's best practices, then, for dealing with Yelp? Is it better to ignore it, or to engage?
I'll tell you a very funny story. I was in a restaurant the other night. There was a celebrity guest in the restaurant who had fallen from grace recently. As this celebrity fallen-from-grace walked out the door, they got a lot of hugs and kisses from the management. We were watching this all go down. Someone at my table said, "Wow. Can you believe that?" The implication was, "Why would you kiss that person's ass?" They had done some stuff that people are pretty judge-y about these days.

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[Screenshot: AndrewZimmern.com]

Having been in the restaurant business, our job in the restaurant business is to be responsible for our customers' happiness. It's the nature of the hospitality business. You need to take care of people. You take care of customers above all others. Customers are your lifeblood. You take care of every customer that comes in the door. There are some restaurants that have thrown critics out or thrown bad customers out and asked people to get up and tell them their drinks are comped because they have regulars at the door. You hear all these stories. You've heard people reacting poorly to Yelp reviewers and stuff like that. To me, the best thing you do is, you're a professional. I think being a professional counts for something these days.

I'm popularly not a fan of Yelp, but they've got as much right to be around as anybody else.

I think you take care of all your customers and let the chips fall where they are. To try to become combative to me is exactly what we should be less of in today's world. We live in a very divisive society, and we're too combative over too many things. I think that it doesn't mean you can't disagree. I'm popularly not a fan of Yelp, but they've got as much right to be around as anybody else. It's why I believe in engaging in more of a civic discourse about whether or not Yelp has value, and who it has value for, and let people decide for themselves, much in the same way that my restaurant doors would be open to anyone, and I would take care of them, approve of you or not. That just is important.

Yeah. I am all for more civil discourse.
It ends up coming up with original solutions. I will say I am shocked at how popular Yelp is.

Yeah?
Again, I don't know why the working mom and dad with two jobs, a high schooler and a grade schooler, living in Des Moines ... Their entertainment dollars that go to dining are precious. I would be most careful if I were them about where I'm spending my money.

I guess it's so easy. It comes up so high up in Google searches.
There's a whole other issue with where the bandwidth is given, and how you get involved in search engines, and all that other kind of stuff. That's why I'm so concerned about the internet and neutrality issues, in terms of bandwidth, especially in light of the big Comcast merger. This is exactly the kind of thing that messed up our food system 50, 60 years ago. When you start to concentrate production in the hands of the few, you end up creating problems for the many.

There's pay-for-play temptation everywhere.

I do worry about organizations like Yelp that would get even bigger and be able to steer where people go. There's pay-for-play temptation everywhere. At a certain point, there's just so much money involved, and the algorithms used ... Did you see the thing in the news the other day about Uber? Imagine that going on with Yelp and restaurant seats and reservations. It becomes pretty goofy.

· Chefs and Restaurateurs Weigh In: How to Handle Yelp [-E-]
· All Eater Interviews [-E-]
· All Yelp Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Andrew Zimmern Coverage on Eater [-E-]

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