For better or worse, websites like Yelp, Zomato, and TripAdvisor (and perhaps social media, in general) have made the old gatekeepers to dining and beverage criticism increasingly obsolete. With the tap of a screen, anyone can send their opinion of a bar or restaurant out into the cyber world — a process that is minimally curated but deeply impactful for the businesses. Feelings on sites like Yelp span the spectrum — some bar owners and employees believe it’s irreplaceably beneficial, others find it irreparably detrimental. These websites and apps provide free feedback to owners, management and staff, and (when an establishment has a high score overall) they can set your bar apart and send newcomers your way. But they also open up a forum for customers to bash your business with no vetting process, no credentials, no context and with no consequence to their own livelihood. The whole process has only become more morally ambiguous, as companies like Yelp offer incentives to reviewers, prompting them to write reviews in bulk (without necessarily having even been to a place). Even worse, Yelp can legally reward a business by raising its rating in exchange for advertising dollars by pushing their lowest scores to the top and hiding genuine, positive feedback.
Maybe it’s just symptomatic of the digital age in general (Hello! Why are people on their phones in a bar to begin with?), or it’s the fair and balanced democratization of public criticism, or it’s a specific system in need of change, but these sites aren’t going anywhere. We asked bartenders, owners and managers all over the world how they’ve grappled with the complicated questions surrounding review sites.
What has your experience been like with reviews and reviewers?
“We are in a touristy part of Denver and we heavily rely on Google and Yelp for our customers finding us.” — Mike Huggins, Owner of UL1 and Arvada Tavern, Arvada, Colo.
“I have never (over managing several bars) seen a tangible benefit from these sites; it does, however, lead to Yelp ‘Elites’ trying to get us to host free events for them in exchange for reviews.” — Joshua Seaburg, Owner of Model Citizen LLC, Virginia Beach, VA
“Personally, I love them. Sure, they can be a little biased/one-sided/inaccurate, but perception is reality and these kinds of websites give guests an opportunity to give you some unfiltered feedback about what they’ve experienced.” — Mike Henderson, Beverage Director at Edible Beats, Denver
“In Santa Barbara it has made quite a big difference. Finch and Fork has fluctuated between the top ten best restaurants and bars in town. When we are at the higher end of that list we certainly seem to have more reservations in the system. You are always going to have the negative writers on these sites but as long as the majority are good reviews, the bad ones look whiny and over-the-top.” — Andy Nelson, Lead Bartender at Finch and Fork, Santa Barbara, CA
“With Yelpers it seems that we either get 5 stars, or someone gives us one star, because we aren’t ‘their style’ or price range. I get that we aren’t for everyone, but to bemoan the way a place does business because you like a cheap beer and a shot, or prefer Krystal burgers to our higher end fare, well, that’s ridiculous.” — Jason Eddy, Managing Partner at Restaurant Orsay, Jacksonville, FL
“The experience with the reviewers and reviews has been mostly positive. People discover us on Yelp, contact us, get directions, and those that visit tend to review us positively. I also appreciate the democratization of cultural criticism that sites like Yelp allow. People who criticize Yelp tend to focus on the poor quality of individual reviews, but these sites are much more useful as aggregators, and, in the aggregate, they tend to be pretty accurate.” — T. Cole Newton, Owner of Twelve Mile Limit, New Orleans
“I don’t care for Yelp in the least. The company is manipulative when it comes to advertising. If you refuse to pay for advertisement, all of your good reviews are pushed to the bottom and replaced with negative reviews. If you do choose to advertise with them, it is public knowledge that your good reviews are pushed to the front, so it essentially spells out that you are paying for good reviews.” — Tyler Chauvin, General Manager of Treo, New Orleans [Editor’s note: While Yelp has long been accused of using these tactics, a 2015 Federal Trade Commission investigation into these claims yielded no findings and was subsequently dropped.]
Has your business ever received a negative review on one of these sites?
“We have. We discuss it internally, decide if there is anything that we can and should work on. (There always is!) And move forward. It is our policy to never engage guests on review sites. If it is really bad and valid, we will reach out privately, if we can, to the individual. In the past, we have offered to have the guest back in as a treat on us.” — Jason Eddy, Managing Partner at Restaurant Orsay, Jacksonville
“We get negative reviews sometimes, but even the bad reviews have value. Sometimes their criticisms are valid and reveal a specific flaw that needs to be addressed. Only once did I reach out personally to apologize. It’s considered unwise to do so. Generally, our bad reviews can be ignored. The majority of our reviews are positive, so they don’t do much harm.” — T. Cole Newton, Owner of Twelve Mile Limit, New Orleans
“Thankfully, not yet. We have had a few reviews that had some element of disappointment in them, i.e., ‘we went at 11 p.m. on a Friday and the place was packed, too crowded,’ or ‘I missed happy hour by 10 minutes’ or ‘they changed the menu and no longer make x drink.’ I try to take any feedback and see if there are ways to improve. For example, we changed the POS to extend happy hour prices by 15 minutes past the advertised time, to not punish people who are running just a tad behind, and we try to keep house-made ingredients that are specific to a particular cocktail around for a couple of weeks after a menu change to allow people to get their favorite drink a few more times.” — Alexander Gregg, Owner of Moving Sidewalk, Houston
“Oh yeah, plenty. I do nothing directly. Indirectly, however, it’s a good tool for confirming suspicions about issues the business may have. For example, there was a long period of time that the bar had a bartender who was seriously poisoning the well. That was apparent on review sites, by word of mouth, and in the sales numbers. Again, it was in aggregate that the information was most useful.” — Mark Schettler, General Manager of Bar Tonique, New Orleans
“We’ve received numerous. I get an email every other day stating there’s a new review, and it makes my stomach go in knots. Much less these days than it did three years ago when the bar opened. Just have to take them in stride.. If the criticism was constructive, just look at it as an opportunity to improve an aspect of the business. My only complaint with the whole process is not the sites, it’s the society that we’ve become. People with negative experiences will sometimes go on these sites with the intention of hurting the business, rather than realizing that mistakes are made and letting the business have the opportunity to rectify them.” — Joshua Duke, Owner of Olive or Twist, Baton Rouge, LA
“Not very often, luckily, but absolutely. Some have gotten very personal and ugly; we don’t respond because hopefully the public sees it as drunken outrage, whiny entitlement and whatnot. We have had some taken down. We’d rather focus on the guests and creating a good experience rather than wading in the mire of negative reviews. Sometimes there is a valid complaint. Then we do our best to fix it. I also know of some restauranteurs that have pressured their staff into writing fake bad reviews for their competition and positive for themselves. So tacky and unprofessional. If a restaurant needs to resort to that, they might want to see what’s not working in their own house. Muddies the waters and makes a lot of the actual reviews irrelevant.” — Kimberly Patton-Bragg, General Manager and Head Bartender of Three Muses, New Orleans
“Yes. It said that the ambiance, food, and drinks were spectacular but the fact that our bar is working to gentrify a neighborhood was a total turnoff. Thus, we received one star.” — Tyler Chauvin, General Manager of Treo, New Orleans
Overall, do you think review sites like Yelp are helpful or harmful to small businesses like bars and restaurants?
“Overall they are harmful for business and can ruin morale. But if you are at the top of your game, and hire and train great staff, you shouldn’t be worried. If your product is good, people that are into it will support it. Negative reviews often show management what is happening when they’re not around, i.e., bad service, or not knowledgeable staff. The real negative, though, is that the reviewer isn’t a pro, may not go out much, or maybe is not the right customer for that business, so when they give one star, hopefully no one loses their job.” — Brett Keen, Bartender at Barrel Proof, New Orleans
“Both. If you use them as a tool to grow and get better it can absolutely help. If you blow them off as irrelevant nonsense and ignore them it probably ends up hurting.” — Mike Henderson, Beverage Director of Edible Beats, Denver
“As much as they can infuriate me, I think they are very helpful. It’s a free system that shows you where you need to improve.” — Andy Nelson, Lead Bartender at Finch and Fork, Santa Barbara, Calif.
“I think these sites are infinitely helpful to our industry. Though there are posters who are overly critical, these sites help as much as or more than all of the dollars we have spent on advertising. Likewise, their grassroots appeal means a lot more to the consumer than a magazine, web, or newspaper ad…” — Jason Eddy, Managing Partner of Restaurant Orsay, Jacksonville, Fla.
“Review sites like Yelp have been very helpful to my small business. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’ve benefitted greatly from having platforms like Yelp from which to anchor an online presence for free. We don’t have a website. That would cost money. Instead we have Yelp and Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr and Instagram.” — T. Cole Newton, Owner of Twelve Mile Limit, New Orleans
“Both. On one hand, these sites do raise awareness for small businesses, and can help people discover them who might not do so otherwise; it’s essentially free advertising. On the other hand, there is a very dangerous aspect of allowing anyone and everyone voice their opinions, regardless of their training or knowledge of the subject. As a business owner I can read the reviews with a filter, so to speak, between the lines, and search for feedback that is actually valuable and will help my staff improve. I’m not sure that the average patron looking up places on Yelp is seeing the reviews in this same way — that’s when it can become extremely detrimental to small businesses, especially ones that are doing something progressive that may not be the norm in an area. I’ve seen really cool bars and restaurants get beaten up pretty badly, simply because the people reviewing the place just ‘didn’t get it.’ Also, I’ve noticed that when people go out and have a good time, they typically don’t feel inclined to write about it. However, when people have a bad experience, they are much more likely to do so, which makes the whole system biased towards negative reviews.” — Alexander Gregg, Owner of Moving Sidewalk, Houston
“Harmful. The majority of people are leaving having had a good, if not great, time. That doesn’t often inspire a review. And the vast majority of people don’t write reviews anyway. We’ve been open 7 years and have 291 reviews. There’s no way on God’s green Earth that, statistically speaking, that’s a representative number. We probably have more people than that come through on any given weekend.” — Mark Schettler, General Manager of Bar Tonique, New Orleans
“I could write pages and pages about my opinions on Yelp. When I travel, 90% of my dining/drinking decisions are based on Yelp. It really is beyond useful. Honestly, as much as it pains me to say this, the majority of the time it’s only helpful. Bars and restaurants that try to go above and beyond for every guest will have ratings in the end that show this. There will always be vindictive bad eggs, but ultimately, consistent good service will prevail.” — Joshua Duke, Owner of Olive or Twist, Baton Rouge, La.
“I think they’re harmful in that, back in the olden times of say, five years ago, if people had a problem as part of their experience, they would talk to a manager that would then do their best to fix the problem. Now, they just hide behind their phones, taking more away from their experience, and that might affect someone’s job. We are here to make sure you have a good time — we can’t do that if you leave without us trying to turn things around.” — Kimberly Patton-Bragg, General Manager and Head Barkeep of Three Muses, New Orleans
If you could change one thing about review sites like Yelp, what would you change?
“I would actually have a moderator approve all reviews before they get posted. It seems that Yelp Elite status has very little to do with actual writing capability, and is instead handed out to whomever pounds out the most reviews. The Yelp team should take a look at its Elite writers and seriously ask themselves if they want to give a weighted visibility to those who can’t properly punctuate sentences or conjugate verbs. People should be reminded that they are not professional critics and to not go overboard with their often-times self-inflated view of their own opinions.” — Konrad Kantor, Founding Partner of El Libre, New Orleans
“That reviews are shown less if the reviewer doesn’t respond to an owner’s communication. For instance, if a reviewer leaves a negative review and the owner/manager reaches out to get more info on the incident and that reviewer doesn’t reply, I think that review should not be shown as credible as if they were to respond and participate in back and forth private messaging.” — Mike Huggins, Owner of UL1 and Arvada Tavern, Arvada, Colo.
“Shut down the rating system in favor of a discussion board to encourage and foster communication between businesses and their guests, rather than oppositional replies to reviews.” — Joshua Seaburg, Owner of Model Citizen LLC, Virginia Beach, Va.
“Allow the business to review the customer back. I’ve longed talk about justthehelp.com to take the yelp platform and turn it around: John C. was a great guest and great tipper; Caroline F. was a rude customer that didn’t understand why she had to wait her turn, etc. Just like Uber — the drivers review the client as well as are reviewed by the client.” — Brett Keen, Bartender at Barrel Proof, New Orleans
“Have a memorandum for Yelpers to read before clicking ‘submit’ when submitting a review, and that memorandum is this: ‘Before submitting your review, do you think you need to get over yourself, first? And do you think you need to feel extra special everywhere you go, and does the establishment really warrant 1 star because you weren’t treated like a king/queen?’ Then, maybe there’d be less angry yelps that I keep hearing about.” — Chris Hannah, Bartender at French 75, New Orleans
“Your review may be posted if it directly links to your blog, or whichever credible website/newspaper you write for… in which the reviewer themselves has a credible rating system. Many are self-proclaimed, pseudo ‘professional diners’ with nothing but an opinion to back it up. On the surface, it’s a great platform to have a voice, but it’s gotten out of hand. It’s easy to fire off an unfair critique. With a more credible source, we can easier identify with the writer’s track record; what they like, don’t like, what they look for, do they have a history of aimlessly bashing restaurants, etc.” — Daniel Castro, Bartender at Maple Leaf Tavern, Toronto, Canada
“I would implement a system that highlights the good or bad reviews that stand out as uncharacteristic. Such as employees writing their own reviews and other restaurants bashing each other.” — Andy Nelson, Lead Bartender at Finch and Fork, Santa Barbara, Calif.
“I wish that reviewers would recognize the aim of the establishment, and review accordingly. If you know a high end cocktail bar isn’t your thing, that’s great, go to a dive bar. But don’t negatively review the place because it’s not what you wanted. That’s like handing out one star reviews because a pizza place doesn’t serve tacos. This, of course, is not the site’s problem. The changes we would like to see rest with the reviewer themselves. All in all, however, the sites have been very good to us.” — Jason Eddy, Managing Partner of Restaurant Orsay, Jacksonville, Fla.
“For their freaking telemarketers to stop calling every other week. Have said no to advertising on the site probably 47 times. It’s getting old.” — Joshua Duke, Owner of Olive or Twist, Baton Rouge, La.
“Go back to the days of actually talking to a human being for suggestions instead of a square piece of glass, plastic and silicon.” — Kimberly Patton-Bragg, General Manager and Head Barkeep of Three Muses, New Orleans
“I would like Yelp to do better at flagging habitual one-star reviewers. If all you do on Yelp is give one star reviews, then you should have your account flagged and possibly frozen.” — Tyler Barnard, Beverage Director at Small Cheval, Chicago
“There should be no requirement to pay for your good reviews to shine first.” — Tyler Chauvin, General Manager of Treo, New Orleans
“Remove the incentives Yelpers get to do reviews which creates a fair amount of fake reviews. Someone who works for Yelp once told me they have to do x amount of reviews a month and hadn’t been to some of the locations. The sad thing about the review sites is a customer would rather trash an establishment than have them fix it in person and talk to them. The power of a keyboard.” — Trent Verges, Area Director of Casual Concepts for Creole Cuisine Restaurant Concepts, New Orleans
“I am talking here about Zomato, the bad thing is people are allowed to upload pictures and sometimes they upload not nice pictures with low resolution and not professional shots which make the place or the food or the drinks looks different than they are in [reality]” — Jad Ballout, Bar Manager of Central Station Boutique Bar, Beirut, Lebanon
“I think people should be able to give 3-star and up reviews for free and anything less requires a small fee or an obnoxiously long survey that has to be completed before they can leave their complaint. It would deter people from just bitching to feel heard. Or, shitty complaints should go to the owners first for review, to give them a chance to address the situation before it’s plastered all over the internet. Or even better, every time someone wants to leave a one star [or] bashing review, they must first click through an online album of the owners’ kids so they can see that they are affecting peoples’ lives and not just playing restaurant critic for a day.” — Michael Gulotta, Chef and Partner of MOPHO, New Orleans