Under Review: Taking a Closer Look at Yelp
Local restaurateurs discuss the challenges of running a business in the reputation economy.
When I went home for the holidays there was one topic my family agreed wouldn’t be addressed. It was simply too divisive to discuss and remain civil. I’m talking, of course, about Yelp.
If you’re unfamiliar, Yelp is a cornerstone of the “reputation economy.” The crowdsourced review website assigns star ratings to everything from restaurants, to pet stores, to Greater Boston Walgreens locations accompanied by reams of reviews of varying quality and veracity penned by proletariat critics. My friends who use Yelp swear they only look at the aggregate scores – those who reject it tend to focus on the fringe negative opinions. Each side retreats to their echo chambers, confirming their confirmation biases and deepening the ideological chasm between them.
Full disclosure, I’m not a fan of Yelp (here’s where I mention that the dictionary definition of yelp is "a sharp shrill bark or cry as of a dog or turkey"). As a longtime restaurant employee, I’ve never been comfortable with the idea that a bad day at work can or should result in a public shaming. And since Yelpers can be anonymous, their experiences unverified, it’s very easy for false information to be printed. I don’t think I’m stepping on any toes when I say you can’t trust everything you read on the internet.
That being said, to write off Yelp entirely is a mistake. So what if it almost got me fired twice? It’s a powerful resource for consumers and restaurant owners alike and whether you like it or not, those stars have changed the way people make choices. I wanted to see how local restaurants had adapted to the seismic change of the past decade and their approach to the user-review culture so I spoke with three restaurateurs about the advantages and challenges of operating in the age of Yelp.
I’ve known Jay Bellao a long time and I don’t think I’ve ever seen the guy get rattled, so it hardly surprises me when he starts talking about the ways he uses Yelp to his benefit. He approaches negative reviews productively, choosing to see them as an opportunity to improve his product.
“Any outlet that connects you to your guests is a helpful tool,” he says. “A public forum can be a tough way to hear about an overcooked burger, a cocktail that’s too sweet, or a lapse in service, but in general it’s always helpful to know where we can work a little harder.”
My conversation with Bellao brings up what will become a common thread. It’s hard for him to see criticisms get posted online instead of being brought to his attention and addressed in person. But he understands everyone isn’t comfortable communicating a problem to a manager.
In order to get out ahead of potential online negativity, Bellao encourages his management team to be proactive while the guests are still in house. “I find the more tables we touch as managers, the more our teams notice when someone isn't happy and reaches out to them first. By prompting the discussion we hope the guest can leave heard and happy.”
Daniel Myers: Loyal Nine (178 reviews)
Of the operators I spoke with, Daniel Myers is the newest to the restaurateur fraternity. Loyal Nine opened in 2015 and Myers admits he initially took to reading online reviews obsessively to his own detriment.
“I checked constantly, repeatedly every day,” he says. “I had just poured my life into a business, so reading unabashed, anonymous reviews was masochistic.”
Today, Myers limits his intake to a monthly assessment and works hard to filter through the demagoguery to search for repeated complaints that might represent a pattern. Just like Bellao, Myers also would prefer that guests bring issues to his attention while they’re still in the building rather than seeing missteps described in inflammatory posts.
“[Guests] will berate your establishment, with bully phrases like, ‘they should go back to the basics, even my decrepit grandfather can hit medium rare,’” he says. “This isn’t to say that the guest is approaching it wrong but they have two primary options. Say something about your over salted salad now or withhold the information until you can type it on the ride home.”
Myers wonders if the anonymity of Yelp is what emboldens people to use incendiary language – and whether their responses would be more measured if they were also open to review.
“I think the dynamic would change quickly.”
Now on her third downtown establishment, Rebecca Roth Gullo views Yelp and the other review sites as useful tools to gage how well her restaurants meet expectations. She takes a measured view of the comments and tries her best to give equal time to positive as well as negative reviews.
“We use it for a resource – good or bad,” Gullo says, citing moments where reviews have been complimentary to her staff. “Employees are not groomed necessarily to talk about the great things they do because they expect that type of service from themselves. It can be really nice to read about the good stuff and present that to our staff.”
Like her compatriots, Gullo would prefer it if people expressed their concerns face to face. “The one thing I wish, as a restaurant owner, is that people were more willing to give that constructive criticism in-house rather than online. Our objective is to give great food and hospitality and if we fail at that we want to know.”
Gullo also thinks a method for verifying reviews would be helpful to weed out fakes. But demonstrating a reviewer actually dined in your establishment doesn’t guarantee an accurate account of events. “Sometimes we make every effort to accommodate a guest and then you read a review that doesn’t reflect the efforts that were made at all.”
But generally, Gullo welcomes the input. “We can’t worry and take it so seriously. I love constructive criticism whether it’s through Yelp, Open Table or Trip Advisor. We appreciate it.”
A couple of years ago a restaurant manager said to me, “I love it when we make a mistake, because a mistake is an opportunity to make a customer for life.” That’s some pretty great advice. But the philosophy only works if the patron plays their part and is honest about their experience. So if you have an issue with your meal – make sure to let someone know. If you don’t feel comfortable speaking to someone in person, a thoughtfully worded email is a great way to get management’s ear. And remember that we all have good days and bad. That’s why professional reviewers dine at a restaurant multiple times before going to print. There are no establishments that are trying to ruin your night. Most people working in restaurants have dedicated themselves to people pleasing so reach across the aisle and give them the chance to prove it.
Audobon – 838 Beacon St., Boston, 617.421.1910, audubonboston.com
Trina’s Starlite Lounge – 3 Beacon St., Cambridge, 617.576.0006, trinasstarlitelounge.com
Parlor Sports – 1 Beacon St., Cambridge, 617.576.0231, parlorsportsbar.com
Loyal Nine Restaurant + Cafe – 660 Cambridge St., Cambridge, 617.945.2576, loyalninecambridge.com
The Gallows – 1395 Washington St., Boston, 617.425.0200, thegallowsboston.com
Blackbird Doughnuts – 492 Tremont St., Boston, 617.482.9100, blackbirddoughnuts.com
Banyan Bar + Refuge – 553 Tremont St., Boston, 617.556.4211, banyanboston.com