“I was thinking of giving this place five stars, but I’m kind of teetering on five stars or one star,” says South Park’s Eric Cartman, surrounded by half-eaten plates of food in a 2015 episode. Visibly concerned about an impending online review, a manager asks what he can do to help. “I mean, I can probably be persuaded with free desserts,” Cartman replies.
Titled “You’re Not Yelping,” the episode centers on Cartman using his status as an “Elite” Yelper to extort free food from restaurants. One of the top user-generated review sites, particularly in the U.S., Yelp hosts recommendations for everything from plumbers to tattoo shops, but it’s arguably most well-known for its restaurant reviews. In order to be considered a Yelp “Elite,” a subgroup launched in 2005, users must be recognized by the Yelp mothership for “well-written reviews, high quality tips, a detailed personal profile, an active voting and complimenting record, and a history of playing well with others.” Yelp’s website says it considers its Elite members “the true heart of the Yelp community, both on and offline.”
Many restaurant owners and others in the hospitality industry see it otherwise. The late Anthony Bourdain said in a 2017 interview, “There’s really no worse, or lower human being than an Elite Yelper,” declaring them “universally loathed by chefs everywhere.” For years, restaurateurs and chefs have waged war against petty reviewers who hit them with one-star reviews for offenses ranging from refusing to serve them any more alcohol to not offering takeout, and numerous internet complaints suggest that pay-for-play ploys like Cartman’s were a semi-frequent IRL occurrence at restaurants across the country.
And it’s a well-established fact that, like it or not, Yelp ratings can have an outsized impact on a restaurant’s business. During (arguably) Yelp’s cultural peak in 2011, one study showed that independent restaurants who see a one-star bump in their Yelp rating also see a significant jump in revenue, and in 2012, a study emerged indicating that even just a half-star increase means a restaurant is much more likely to be full at peak dining hours.
But over the past few years, a new, even-thirstier-for-attention internet archetype has emerged: the Instagram influencer. Where the media was once obsessed with the sometimes-bad behavior of Yelpers, that attention has now largely shifted to Instagram influencers. The power of said influencers is undeniable: Restaurants often partner directly with them to get more butts in seats, giving rise to the marketing strategy of simply “going viral” — or at least attempting to — with stunt-y foods like birthday cake croissants and obnoxiously over-garnished milkshakes. And just like Elite Yelpers, Instagram influencers are facing similar backlash: Using the same language that once defined restaurants’ relationships with Yelp, some have proclaimed influencers the newest blight on the industry.
So does the rise of the Instagram influencer — both in their inescapable allure to marketers, and the inevitable resentment that goes along with that surge in popularity — signal that Yelp Elite is going obsolete?
Restaurants and Yelpers haven’t always been at odds. Based on the concept of asking friends for recommendations, Yelp was founded in 2004, and by 2006, it was attracting one million users a month and had a database of more than 100,000 user-generated reviews. The site (and the app, which launched in 2008) would forever change the way business owners and customers interacted with one another, giving diners the ability to give restaurants the kind of honest, specific feedback that had previously been relegated to comment cards — except now in a very public forum.
In that sense, Yelp was initially something of a populist victory, giving regular people the perceived ability to wield, to a certain extent, the power formerly only held by professional critics and other press. In 2008, the New York Times wrote about how Yelp’s surging popularity was helping small businesses draw in customers by turbocharging the speed and reach of peer-to-peer recommendations. The story also noted how, two years in, the relationship between users and business owners was already turning transactional: After a moving company damaged a customer’s furniture, its owner told the Times, “[The customer] wrote a one-star review. I called her. We fully replaced it. And then she upgraded me from a one star to a five-star.”
Within the Yelp community, the Yelp Elite Squad is a particularly enthusiastic and active group. Many Elite users have thousands of reviews under their belts: A 2014 analysis by Stanford University students found that Elite members, on average, wrote nearly eight times as many reviews as regular Yelp users. “Elite are role-model Yelpers who embody the spirit of Yelp — both online and off — and write useful, funny and cool reviews,” says Yelp PR manager Brenae Leary. According to the company, decisions about who ultimately gains the title are made by a group of Yelp staffers mysteriously referred to as the Elite Council.
For Elite Yelpers, perks include invitations to events ranging from yoga classes and ice-skating to VR gaming and concerts, but frequently include free lunches, dinners, or happy hours at both new and established restaurants. There’s also a less tangible benefit in the form of “Elite badges,” which appear next to users’ names on the site, and, like the blue “verified” checkmark on Twitter, grant a certain amount of authority. For some, the appeal of producing free content for a $3 billion company was the belief that they could help shape the narrative of a business; that their opinions mattered and were influential; that after writing hundreds of reviews and weighing those experiences against each other, their authority was indeed earned.
And that influence wasn’t all in their heads: A 2011 Bloomberg Businessweek story called Yelp Elites “a motley crew of tastemakers” bearing “the power to build up businesses — and take them down.” It noted that a select few Elite members were able to parlay their reviewer status into real jobs, including a travel writing gig at a San Francisco newspaper and a guest-judging appearance on Gordon Ramsay’s cooking competition show Hell’s Kitchen.
But a problem emerged in how some Yelpers wield their perceived sense of clout. Reports surfaced of Elites cutting in line at events and writing reviews laced with a heavy sense of entitlement. Businesses grew frustrated at the perceived lack of accountability, or expertise, by the people judging them: In 2014, Momofuku head honcho David Chang vented his Yelp frustrations to FiveThirtyEight, saying that, “For the most part, no chef is going to take a Yelper’s review seriously” because “most of the Yelp reviews are wrong.” In 2011, a Yelp community manager in NYC penned a lengthy letter to local Elites, scolding them for degenerate feeding frenzies at restaurants and offering a stern etiquette reminder. “Occasionally some members of the Elite Squad at meals can be likened to an Animal Planet feeding frenzy, as certain people descend on appetizers as though they have not eaten in weeks,” the letter read, before continuing, “(We know you’ve eaten lately, as in all likelihood, it was your stellar review of your last dining experience that finally got you into the Elite Squad.)”
But the true nadir of entitled Yelper behavior may have come in 2013, when a short-lived, unaffiliated startup called ReviewerCard offered Yelp and TripAdvisor reviewers fancy black cards to identify themselves to business owners as reviewers. The card’s purported purpose was to ensure holders better service by telling business owners up front, “I write reviews.” Many were outraged by the concept, pointing to ReviewerCard as “what happens when Yelp goes to your head” and positing it as simply a way for Yelpers to extort restaurants even more aggressively. As its founder Brad Newman told the LA Times, writing Yelp reviews could be leveraged into VIP treatment: “If that French waiter had known at the beginning that I write a lot of reviews, he’d have treated me like Brad Pitt.”
Instagram launched in 2010; by 2013, had 100 million monthly active users. And like Yelp, its stratospheric rise was reliant on a certain type of content creator with self-bestowed authority: the influencer. Influencers cultivate their clout differently: Unlike Yelp, where diners typically search for a particular restaurant or type of cuisine and then read reviews to pick a restaurant, on Instagram, users choose to follow the people they deem as authorities on a given topic.
For some restaurant owners, users curating influencers into their feeds came to represent a system with more accountability: Influencers amass large followings by establishing credibility with their audience, who come to rely on them for high-quality content, including bright, eye-catching food photos, accompanied by captions that might offer recommendations. Where Yelp Elite users are rewarded by the site simply for the quantity (and, to a lesser extent, the “quality”) of their reviews, the Instagram influencer needs to constantly hustle to promote their own content, usually to the restaurant’s benefit.
“Yelp is such a negative platform — it’s like Twitter, a negative, vile place where everyone argues,” says Chris Coombs, chef-owner of Boston steakhouse Boston Chops. Yelp, of course, tends to open up restaurants to more criticism, as users are actually writing “reviews” of their dining experience; on Instagram, coverage is usually in the form of a single moment, captured in a snapshot. “Instagram is a positive place,” Coombs says.
Indeed, restaurants are going to great lengths to market themselves to Instagram users. The newest Boston Chops location that opened last May is home to a so-called “Instagram table.” Outfitted with a customizable lighting system that’s controlled by an iPhone, it gives diners the ability to perfectly light their shots in a restaurant that’s severely lacking in natural light.
According to some professionals, focusing on Instagrammers is a much better investment for restaurants. In 2016, NYC restaurant Springbone Kitchen estimated that posts by Instagram influencers were responsible for five percent of its new customers each day, on average. A recent study shows that influencer marketing is the fastest-growing online method of acquiring new customers, beating out organic search (e.g. Googling something), paid search (the ads that show up in said Google results), and email marketing (the reason you’re constantly clicking “unsubscribe” links).
Jenna Ramirez, influencer marketing manager for PR firm Bread + Butter, says she doesn’t typically encourage her clients to host Yelp Elite events as part of their influencer marketing strategy unless the business owner suggests it themselves. “For a restaurant that provides high-ticket food items, giving out all that free food [at a Yelp Elite event] is something they may be more hesitant about,” Ramirez says, pointing out that Yelpers are not permitted to leave reviews on a restaurant’s main Yelp page based on an experience they had at a free Yelp Elite event; that would violate Yelp’s official policy against users leaving reviews in exchange for free goods or services. Instead, reviews from Yelp Elite events go on a separate private event page that typically can’t be found unless someone specifically looks for it. Put simply, hosting a Yelp Elite event does nothing to directly boost a restaurant’s star rating, that all-important metric that can have a significant impact on revenue and traffic.
That’s playing out accordingly when it comes to where restaurants spend their marketing dollars. According to a 2015 survey of marketing professionals, businesses were on average making $6.50 for every dollar they spent on influencer marketing, a number that’s certainly only increased in the years since — making it a very attractive place for restaurants and PR firms to thrust free food (and, in many cases, wads of cold-hard cash). Creating a welcoming environment for influencers, in theory, allows restaurant owners to better control the end result. “[Yelp is] still a great place to learn about how people perceive your restaurant and their dining experience, but the issue it is really anyone can go on there and write anything they want about any place at any time, whether they’ve been there or not,” says Coombs. “With Instagram, if you’re posting about your dinner, you’re showing you were actually at that restaurant… [and] if an influencer has a bad meal somewhere, they typically just won’t post about it.”
Nonetheless, some successful and established brands do still host Yelp Elite events: In mid-2017, several months after David Chang’s then-10-year-old Momofuku Ssam Bar closed for a brief revamp and reopened with a new menu and updated interior, it hosted a dinner for Yelp Elites, clear evidence that Chang’s formerly adversarial relationship with the site had shifted dramatically. When Cereal Milk purveyor Milk Bar expanded to LA last year, the bakery threw an Elite event where Christina Tosi showed Yelpers how to make cake truffles. (Momofuku does not comment on its marketing strategies.)
Jinya Ramen Bar, which originated in Tokyo and now has 20-plus locations across the U.S., hosted two Yelp Elite events last year with mixed results. According to Jinya’s VP of marketing Ingrid Martinez, a Yelp Elite happy hour for an 8-year-old spinoff restaurant, the more upscale Robata Jinya, did result in a noticeable increase in customers, but a Yelp Elite dinner hosted at one of its new fast-casual Jinya locations didn’t make much of an impact.
Jinya also works with Instagram influencers, but Martinez notes there are potential pitfalls there, too. “Anyone can be an influencer nowadays,” she points out. “For [Jinya] to consider working with you, you have to have a certain amount of followers, but it’s not just the number of followers — it’s the interaction you have with your followers. A lot of people buy followers, so you don’t necessarily know if they’re paying for them or if it’s real engagement.” Indeed, buying fake followers is a common practice in the influencer world (even amongst bona fide celebrities), and some brands have begun cracking down on the practice. Conversely (and strangely), wannabe influencers posting fake sponsored content to boost their street cred has also emerged in the Instagram sphere, pointing to influencer culture’s tight grasp on society.
Over time, many restaurateurs came to resent Yelpers even as they still begrudgingly recognized their influence; now, it seems some business owners (and the general public) are beginning to sour on Instagram influencers even as they continue to rely on them. Media outlets that used to cover Yelp’s big impact on the restaurant industry and later, the resulting backlash to said impact, pivoted to writing about the rise of Instagram influencer culture — and now, how they’re ruining everything from luxury hotels and restaurants to, more broadly, travel and food in general.
It’s unclear whether the actual number of Yelp Elite members or frequency of Elite events has waned in recent years, as Yelp does not disclose such information. Sarah S., a Yelp user from Chicago who has maintained Elite status for 10 years straight, says she hasn’t noticed a decline in user interest in the Elite program or in the number of Elite events in recent years. “I think positive reviews on Yelp have a much greater long-term effect for local businesses,” she says. “Instagram is fleeting with a photo being ‘popular’ for a day, then it’s gone from the feed.”
Though she also has an Instagram account where she posts pictures of food, Sarah says she continues to use Yelp because she finds the format is more conducive to writing comprehensive reviews, versus just a photo and a quick caption.
Instagram may provide users more opportunity to wield real influence (and earn cold-hard cash), but building a following requires a considerable amount of time and know-how. “I didn’t know Yelp Elite was still a thing,” says @foodbitch, an anonymous Instagram influencer with 32,000 followers who also works in marketing and brand strategy. They note that while just about anyone can write a lot of Yelp reviews, becoming an Instagram influencer is considerably more difficult. “On Instagram, people have to notice you, people have to like you and follow you and share your stuff for you to stand out enough to get noticed and invited to restaurants [for free meals]. So it’s a much slower process for people to become Instagram-famous.”
What’s less clear is just how long businesses (and consumers) will look to digital influencers — be they Yelpers, Instagrammers, bloggers, or occupants of some other yet-to-emerge platform — for advice on where to eat, when those recommendations are so often accompanied by entitled behavior and just maybe, informed by a meal they didn’t even pay for.
Whitney Filloon is Eater’s senior associate editor. Zoë van Dijk is a freelance illustrator living and working in Brooklyn.
Editor: Erin DeJesus