Tag Archives: Yelp

Do we even need proper food critics?

One of the rare non-Apple laptops seen in an otherwise cool park full of cool people

Photo by Ed Yourdon via Flickr

In this day and age, every person with an agenda and a computer can start a restaurant blog, post to sites like Yelp and Urbanspoon, or contribute to message boards like Chowhound.

Bon Appétit restaurant editor Andrew Knowlton posted an interesting piece a couple weeks ago about the value of so-called “Citizen Criticism” in the restaurant world.  In it, some big-time food critics around the country weigh in, some with the obvious observations:

“Yelp doesn’t surprise, inspire, enlighten, educate — or even make me salivate.”

“Who are these anonymous posters? And what are their credentials?”

“In general, I’m in favor of anything that gets more people out to more restaurants.”

I can say with no hesitation whatsoever that blogs and online review sites are great for diners and restaurateurs alike. I can think of a dozen places in Kansas City that have benefited from this kind of online exposure, and I’m not talking about places that get ubiquitous high praise like Blue Koi and Blanc. I’m talking about El Pulgarcito, Vietnam Cafe, El Pollo Rey and Swagger. Nothing spreads the word about good places to eat more efficiently than Twitter, Yelp and blogs.

But I also wish we had a proper, snobby restaurant critic in this town. Yes, someone with credentials. The illustrious Mr. Ferruzza is damn good, but sometimes I fear his tastes are a little too populist for our higher-end eateries. Our paper of record has taken a cue from the review sites by turning over the restaurant content to a rotating contingent of writers who may or may not know what they are talking about. Sometimes I want to read a review from someone I have absolute faith in, someone well-qualified, experienced and respected. If I’m going to blow $200 at The American or Bluestem, I want to have a really trusted opinion to rely on.

What to do in the absence of such a voice? Well, learn to take every opinion expressed online with a grain of salt. Figure out who the few people are that you can trust online and keep asking questions. Knowlton, in a related article, expresses a preference for asking real people because “That way, I can hold the person accountable.” Of course, don’t forget that you can hold people accountable online too. If you get a bad recommendation, let the person know, whether or not you know them in real life. But please be nice, you know how out of hand these things can get.

–Dave LaCrone

When Restaurant Owners Attack

Why responding to negative comments on the web can be a mistake

Most of the chatter about local restaurants happens out there on the old Interwebs. And of course, not all of it is complimentary. Imagine for a moment that you are a restaurant owner and you encounter a negative review of your establishment online–what do you do?

This has to be extremely difficult terrain for restaurateurs to navigate since their very livelihoods are being publicly questioned. A bad review must feel like a personal insult, and most people don’t like to take insults lying down. For this reason, owners or chefs sometimes respond. Typically they try to either defend their business or de-legitimize the reviewer. Responding in a public forum is very tricky business, and it’s usually a bad idea.

Owners who are overly strident come across as mean-spirited and defensive. Writers and readers of a particular blog or website do not take kindly to a new visitor harping on regular site users. The surest way to alienate current and potential customers is to ridicule them–even if they are wrong. Earlier this year a restaurant owner wrote what could be interpreted as a rather snide response to a one star review of his establishment on Yelp.

“Happy to hear your wife likes it,” he begins, “you’re welcome to stay at home.”

When you read the entire response carefully, the content is actually not too disrespectful, but it was bad enough to warrant a lengthy thread on the Yelp Talk forums. I have received a few comments from owners on my personal blog and honestly, it strikes fear into my heart every time. The owner of a local Italian restaurant responded to one of my reviews thusly:

“In my opinion, anyone with any type of cullinary [sic] knowledge would not consider our sauce to taste sweet. It is probably a mis-interpretaion [sic] of the bold flavor of garlic, parsley and oregano which is slowly cooked over our stove top. I’ve tasted many tomato sauces including sweet ones. Ours is not, we do not and have not ever added sugar, or anything that would give it that flavor. To further discredit your critique of our tomato sauce you thought that our pasta salad contained chopped peppers when in fact they are and have always been tomatoes which highlights your lack of taste for tomatoes.”

Now this rubbed me the wrong way, but when I really thought about it hard, he was just giving me information, and pointing out errors in my review. Yes, he comes across as kind of a dick but he was merely questioning my qualifications. Of course I was just a food blogger with a readership of maybe a hundred people, and qualifications don’t matter in this brave new world, but my words were public enough to get him to respond somewhat haughtily. Indeed the KC Lunch Spots post displays above the restaurant’s own website in a Google search.

Comments like these immediately put the whole exercise of food writing into perspective. This is fun for me, but it’s very serious for restaurant owners. Eventually critics learn to publish only what they can stand behind 100%, but do owners learn anything? Most of them should just take a deep breath and step away from the computer; it is just too easy to misinterpret passion for rage.

On the other hand the Internet is full of stories about restaurant owners who reached out to reviewers, asking them how they could improve, how they could make it right. Steve Tulipana, owner of the Recordbar in Westport, keeps his finger on the pulse of blogs and social media when it comes to his restaurant, and intervenes when appropriate.

“We make mistakes, we employ humans with emotions, there are always problems that can arise that can leave the customer with a bad experience,“ Tulipana told me via email. “When they leave pissed and go straight to the internet to vent there is not much we can do but explain the situation and offer to make it up to them in hopes that they will give us another chance.” The owner of Cupini’s operates on a similar principle. I have seen Yelp threads where he tries to clarify matters rather than cut down reviewers who may not know the ins and outs of a particular dish.

These calm, professional approaches almost always meet with a great deal of respect and admiration in the blogosphere. Diners are much more likely to return and give a restaurant another chance if they feel that an owner is responding in good faith. “The customer is always right” may not always apply in the real world, but on the Internet, it should be a rule of thumb.

Yelp if you like it; Yelp if you don’t: Yelp.com connects Diners with Local Restaurants

The chipper business review service invests in Kansas City

Over the past couple of years, the online review site Yelp.com has become one of the most popular ways to find information about local businesses. If you Google the name of a restaurant, you are likely to see the Yelp page appear very high in the results. While the site boasts reviews of everything from hair salons to dentists, restaurant posts make up nearly 30% of its content.

Yelp differs from many other online review sites in that it encourages transparency and interaction among its users. After signing up for the site, one can befriend other members, give compliments, make lists, post to the discussion forums and rate other reviews. So-called “yelpers” who post frequent, high-quality reviews are awarded “elite” status which gives them access to free monthly parties at local establishments. (Full disclosure: I am a casual user of the site and an elite member.)

A select number of larger cities have been assigned a “Community Manager”; a person who keeps the elite community enthused, arranges Yelp gatherings and acts as a liaison between the website and the user base. While Yelp has been around since 2005, Joi Brozek was just hired as Kansas City’s Community Manager in March of this year. A writer and former bar owner, Brozek came to Kansas City via New York City and Lawrence. I recently met with her and a visiting community manager from Detroit, Mariah Cherem, to discuss the ins and outs of Yelp.

Before Brozek came on board, local Yelpers dutifully wrote reviews and interacted in a silo for several years, and even set up some casual real-life meetups. In her short tenure in Kansas City, Brozek has found the makeup of the local Yelp community to be quite active and diverse. “One misperception is that all of our reviewers are really young, but they are totally not. In our community we have so many people that are over 40,” she said, adding, “I come from a writing background and some of these reviews are really well-written.”

A common complaint about Yelp and Internet reviews in general is the lack of accountability, and the high profile nature of reviews that are posted anonymously. While one can contribute anonymously to Yelp, only members who use their real first names can achieve elite status. Yelp elites must also use a genuine, identifiable photograph of themselves in their profile. “Having your photo up is a big thing,” said Brozek “we are all real people and that’s what we foster on the site.”

Yelp also uses an algorithm to sort and display user reviews in order to downplay reviews that may not be particularly useful and promote ones that are likely to be valuable. While the details of the algorithm are elusive, one can imagine that elite status and the number of “compliments” one receives could only benefit a particular post. In the same manner, users with one or two total reviews, no friends on the site and no profile picture are often filtered, and only displayed if a user chooses to see all filtered reviews.

Oddly vehement reviews are fairly common, and typically reflect a user’s single poor experience at a restaurant. “The chicken tasted like a frozen grilled chicken patty with some frozen mixed vegetables on the side.” reads a filtered review of Osteria El Centro. “This food was awful!! We only ate it because at this point we’d been at the restaurant for over 2 hours and wanted to LEAVE!!!! NEVER AGAIN! I would NOT RECOMMEND THIS RESTAURANT TO ANYONE!!!!” Earlier this year a local food blogger even developed a kind of tribute site for these kinds of reviews at a site called Barbaric Yelp.

While some may take issue with the very notion of filtering reviews, it does seem to cut down on the nonsense that proliferates elsewhere on the Web. The local Yelp community also carefully monitors and flags suspicious reviews, such as those that rate one business highly and all its direct competitors very low. “It does happen that occasionally a few legit reviews get filtered out but you can still read those reviews,” said Cherem, “a lot of times when you do read them you understand why the reviews have been filtered out.”

Encouraging real-life engagement in the form of elite parties also serves to keep reviewers on their toes. “I think the offline element adds additional accountability to the online component” said Cherem. “For instance ‘Joe W.’ is not going to write a total flame war of a review if he knows you’re going to be reading it and your other friends are reading it.”

However, Yelpers are certainly not professional food critics. Palates, writing skill and personality vary widely among its users. Pretty much any restaurant will have its share of detractors and advocates, some of whom are more reliable than others. For this reason, Yelp is not very popular among a certain sector of restaurateurs, as I recently discussed on the KC Free Press food blog. Certainly, Yelp carries more clout and visibility in cities like New York and Chicago and by and large Kansas City restaurant owners have been receptive to the local community of Yelpers. But owning a computer does not make one a food critic (believe me, I know).

For this reason, business owners can “claim” their pages and respond to reviewers in public or privately. While this service is free, some business owners choose to purchase additional advertising on the site which gives them access to special features such as video on their pages.

Earlier this year a number of businesses across the nation brought a class-action lawsuit against Yelp, claiming that company sales persons pressured them into advertising with the site in order to remove or downplay negative reviews. Whether this is a “special feature” of advertising with Yelp or not is for the courts to decide. Fortunately community managers don’t have to worry about that aspect of the job. “There’s a complete separation between community managers and ad sales, said Cherem. “Our job is just to let people know about all the free tools that they can use.”

Love it or hate it, the Yelp community is thriving in Kansas City, complete with its own set of power-users and trouble makers.  Active diners and restaurant owners alike will want to check it out, pay attention and interact with the site, because these days, that is increasingly where the action is. And both sides of the reviewing equation would do well to always remember that real people with real emotions lie on the other side.