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Yelp, GoFundMe Make COVID-19 Fundraisers for Restaurants Without Their Permission

Blindsiding businesses that were already in a tough position

An automatically generated GoFundMe for the restaurant St. Clair Supper Club, linked to on Yelp
An automatically generated GoFundMe for the restaurant St. Clair Supper Club, linked to on Yelp
Yelp

Andy McMillan didn’t expect to see a call for donations splashed across the Yelp page for his fledgling Portland business, Suckerpunch, a just-barely-opened bar serving nonalcoholic cocktails that temporarily closed amid the COVID-19 outbreak. McMillan hadn’t started any fundraisers — but Yelp and GoFundMe had done so for him, and tens of thousands of other small businesses, too, seeking $2,500 each.

“Support Suckerpunch” read the tab on McMillan’s Yelp page, linking to an automatically-generated GoFundMe. “COVID-19 has made it tough for local businesses and their employees. Share your support in these difficult times by donating. Any amount helps. All proceeds go directly to the business.” To donors, GoFundMe suggests, but doesn’t require, a 15 percent tip for its services.

“I was like, what the fuck?” McMillan tells Eater. “They hadn’t called; They hadn’t emailed; I hadn’t heard from them at all.”

Yes, Suckerpunch has been forced to shut its doors, like all Oregon bars and restaurants, which were ordered to close down their dining rooms for public safety earlier this month. And yes, many restaurants in the U.S. have set up their own GoFundMe pages to help them stay in business or compensate employees. But Suckerpunch wasn’t one of them.

Instead, it was part of a small business relief partnership that Yelp and GoFundMe announced earlier this week. Using Yelp photos and descriptions of businesses, GoFundMe automatically generated fundraisers for certain businesses listed on Yelp — “Restaurants, nightlife, beauty, and fitness and active life businesses” with five or fewer locations in areas hardest hit by the COVID-19 outbreak — and Yelp linked to those fundraisers.

The idea is a charitable one, and Yelp and GoFundMe announced plans to match $1 million of the donations generated, in $500 grants to businesses that raise at least $500 on their automated GoFundMe pages. Intuit Quickbooks later joined the effort, pitching in $500,000 more. But the execution, says McMillan, was mystifying. “They think they’re doing something generous, but this hasn’t been thought through,” he says.

Nick Kokonas, co-owner of Chicago’s Alinea restaurant group, was “beyond angry” to find a Yelp-linked GoFundMe for one of his businesses, St. Clair Supper Club, yesterday. “Our customers think that we are asking for charity for our workers. We are not. We are working hard to provide for them by selling food to-go, and will participate in the government programs being crafted for hospitality workers.”

“I truly cannot believe that Yelp and GoFundMe thought this was a good idea,” Kokonas says. “It’s the worst kind of fake stewardship in a crisis, crafted to look like charity but really taking advantage of a horrific situation.”

The Yelp fundraisers could also draw attention away from other ones, restaurant operators like the writer and chef J. Kenji López-Alt speculated on Twitter. “Restaurants are actively working on their own fundraising efforts and this effectively splits that pot, adding unnecessary workload to then take funds from GoFundMe when they could have gotten them directly.”

Opting out of the fundraisers also proved difficult: A business like Suckerpunch needed to claim the GoFundMe, then delete it; If donations had been made, they’d automatically be returned to donors. “This is some techbro horseshit thinking” says McMillan of the automatic opt-in. Other restaurant tech companies like Grubhub, for example, have drawn criticism for similar behavior, like adding restaurants to its platform without their consent.

In response to criticism, Yelp says it will change its format to opt-in. “In an effort to get businesses help quickly and easily, a GoFundMe fundraiser was automatically added to the Yelp pages of an initial group of eligible businesses, with information provided on how to claim it or opt out should a business choose to do so,” a Yelp spokesperson says. “However, it has come to our attention that some businesses did not receive a notification with opt-out instructions, and some would have preferred to actively opt-in to the program. As such, we have paused the automatic rollout of this feature, and are working with GoFundMe to provide a seamless way for businesses to opt into the program moving forward.”

GoFundMe’s default tip suggestion notwithstanding, Yelp says it isn’t profiting from fundraisers like these. But helping small businesses stay open isn’t purely charitable for Yelp, either — it’s a survival instinct. Without businesses, there’s no ads to sell, the company’s main source of revenue. In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, Yelp has withdrawn its first quarter and full-year 2020 guidance to shareholders. Yelp has also pledged $25 million in relief funds for small and independent bars and restaurants, though not in cash, but in waived advertising fees and free services.

Still, despite the crisis, some Yelpers are still at it, leaving one-star reviews of restaurants like New York City’s Prince Street Pizza. “Just know if you’re Yelping during a time like this, there is a special place in hell for you,” the pizzeria wrote on Instagram.

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