Do local restaurateurs disparage Yelp and other crowd-sourced review sites? Well, yes—and no.
When asked what he thought of the crowd-sourcing review site Yelp, Enosh Kelley, chef/owner of Bistro Montage, said, “Sometimes it’s like recess for grownups out there—it’s a place where anyone can do or say anything to each other.”
Recess, with its potential for schoolyard bullying, became an especially apt metaphor last year, when a San Francisco-based production company launched a Kickstarter campaign for a documentary, “Billion Dollar Bully.”
The film’s trailer shows a restaurateur claiming that six or seven hours after declining to advertise on Yelp, three or four of his good reviews on the site disappeared, while two one-star reviews appeared.
Yelp, however, claims to treat advertisers and non-advertisers the same, using “entirely automated software” to filter out reviews that might possibly be fake or unhelpful. Reviews that the software deems “not currently recommended” can be viewed with a little digging; however, the ratings are not figured into the overall rating of the restaurant.
Nevertheless, local restaurateur Sara Hill, co-owner of Baru 66, said, “It may be coincidental, but we noticed that the five-star reviews get tucked into the ‘not recommended’ category after you say no (to advertising on Yelp) a few times.” Currently, Baru 66 has 11 five-star ratings in the “not currently recommended” category.
Whether or not advertising plays a role, the filtering system can be puzzling, to say the least. “I know five people who have posted good five-star reviews (of Bistro Montage),” says Kelley. “They show up and immediately disappear, or they have never shown up.” Kelley also does not advertise on Yelp.
While Mike Holms, Marketing Director of Splash Seafood Bar and Grill, hasn’t noticed questionable tactics after declining to advertise, he describes Yelp’s sales techniques as heavy handed. “They do like to tell you how much smarter they are than you and how many businesses have gone out of business by not following their suggestions,” he says. (Meanwhile, of course, Splash and the Jethro’s empire of barbecue restaurants are thriving.)
The Multi-Headed Beast
Some restaurateurs interviewed expressed less concern about Yelp’s alleged tactics than about the fairness of the crowd-sourced reviews themselves—and the odd details that diners fixate on—whether on Yelp or other rating sites, such as Urban Spoon, Facebook, and Trip Advisor.
Michael Leo, chef/owner of Strudl Haus, mentioned that one reviewer ridiculed a waitress at his Austrian restaurant because she didn’t use proper German pronunciation for some of the dishes.
“Come on, this is Iowa,” Leo said. The review has since been removed, at Leo’s request. (And really—if there’s an Austrian pastry chef in the kitchen, do you really care of your Iowa-born server can’t pronounce German words?)
Mike Holms finds it confusing “when people review items on your menu that you have never served. Or when someone says ‘I’ve been there multiple times and it’s always been awesome, but this time such-and-such happened’ and you get 1 star. Where are the reviews for all the great experiences?”Lynn Pritchard chef/owner at Table 128, noted that one reviewer disparaged the restaurant’s signature burger. However, the photo the reviewer uploaded to illustrate the review was an entirely different burger.
“If you’re going to review,” he says, “make certain that your facts are accurate.”
Andy Walsh, owner of Mickey’s Irish Pub in Waukee, received a low ranking by a reviewer who couldn’t understand why he and his children were turned away at the pub on the evening of St. Patrick’s Day.
“St. Paddy’s is the one time of the year you don’t take your kids to the Irish Pub,” said Walsh.
A few of Flying Mango’s rare 1-star reviews on various sites have nothing to do with the food, service, or ambiance; rather, owner Mike Wedeking says they’re in response to signage at the restaurant that states, “No smoking. No Guns. No Smoking Guns.”
One reviewer wrote on Facebook: “If you believe in the Second Amendment this business and it’s [sic] owners do not. No comment on the quality of the cuisine…it could rival warm butter and honey dripping off an angel’s wings, I won’t be dinning [sic] there.”
And then there are the reviews that move into the realm of personal insult, sometimes against the wait staff. While Yelp claims that their software is designed to filter out “unhelpful rants or raves,” somehow, this screed got through in a review for Malo:
“First off, to the waitress….Either you hate your job, husband or girlfriend, upset at a friend or co worker, hate the sun that was out that day, or even us….You were a b— 60% of the time…. To sum it up, you sucked, we never received our order of tacos, the Bloody Mary bar was kinda crappy. I wanted to face punch you and throw a chair at patrons nearby, this is not like me.”
“Those [reviews] are troubling,” said Malo chef and partner George Formaro, “because I don’t know what I can learn from them.”
What about the possibility of fake reviews—posted by owners praising their own places or disparaging the competition?
“Someone on the Internet with an agenda? Never heard of such a thing,” quipped Splash’s Mike Holms.
Indeed, it will probably surprise no one that a restaurateur might enlist people they know to inflate his/her own rating. Another restaurateur, who didn’t want to be identified by name, said, “You’re not allowed to [review your own restaurant] yourself, but when I’m dealing with a 16-year old giving me one star, yes—I’ve had to bring in my friends/family to help.”
“I think everybody’s friends and family have done this,” the restaurateur added.
The Silver Linings
A major benefit of Yelp, of course, is that the great reviews can lead new customers to the restaurant. Wedeking, whose Flying Mango restaurant receives great ratings on Yelp, says “[The site] has brought people in from around the world who wouldn’t have found me in the Beaverdale Neighborhood. I have a terrible location—I’m not even near the interstate, so I appreciate what it’s done for me.”
Yet even though Flying Mango has 155 four- to five-star reviews on Yelp, as opposed to merely 16 one- to two-star reviews, Wedeking still says he has “mixed emotions” about crowd-sourced sites.
“Media sites are a public whipping post, and restaurants are picked on more than a shoe repair shop,” says Wedeking.
Nevertheless, nearly every restaurateur interviewed for this article saw Yelp and similar sites as a learning tool.
“Most of our reviews are glowing and lovely and flowery and flattering—it’s embarrassing to read some of them,” says Lynn Pritchard of Table 128. While he says it can sting to get a not-so-glowing review, he also says, “We try to use them as ‘North Stars.’ They’re a way to modify some of what we do.”
Pritchard adds that every Wednesday morning, they have a core team meeting in which some of the time is devoted to discussing the online reviews.
Sites like Yelp can, in particular, help restaurateurs identify problems with the staff.
“Yelp doesn’t allow a rogue server to go off and be a crazy person for very long,” says George Formaro. “If you have a server that doesn’t care about his job, or any employee—bartender, cook, server—it holds everyone a little more accountable. I don’t look at that as a negative thing.”
Sara Hill of Baru 66 mentioned online reviews have even resulted in staff changes. “We had a couple reviews that related to a particular server,” she said. “We tried to correct the issue, but it didn’t work out.”
Other restaurateurs take note of online reviews to varying degrees. Mike Holms of Splash said, “We read [the reviews] and use the constructive things in them as learning and teaching tools, but we are not consumed by them.”
In the end, some restaurateurs even voiced the idea that Yelp might be helping the restaurant industry continually improve.
“Yelp forces everyone to look at themselves a little closer to try to sharpen their edge,” said Enosh Kelley.
“The more we can communicate with our customers, the better,” says George Formaro. “It’s good for industry as a whole. As the tide rises, so do the good restaurants, servers, and everything with it. And the chance of getting the jerk bartender or server is reduced.”
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