Illustration by Mike Freiheit (for Express)

 

If you want to make a chef or restaurateur bristle, just mention Yelp. Of the first 20-plus people contacted to discuss their opinions of the review site, not one was willing to open up, most likely out of fear of “poking the beast,” as one publicist put it.

Then a light bulb went off: Call the bar owner who has clocked 19 years in the industry and once told Eater DC that Yelp is often “highjacked by idiots.”

“Getting mad about a bad Yelp review is like getting mad at people at an S&M convention for beating each other,” says Derek Brown, founder of the Columbia Room and three other bars in Shaw. “The medium is designed to be a complaint factory.”

In reality, of the more than 71 million reviews posted on Yelp worldwide, only 22 percent are two stars or less (out of five), according to recent data from the site. But those harsh reviews can do some damage, and restaurants are especially vulnerable.

Diners who abuse Yelp have come under increased scrutiny. Recently two women in Boston seated themselves without reservations at a restaurant and threatened to leave a bad review if they were removed. And last month in San Francisco, surveillance footage at a Chinese restaurant proved a Yelper made up a story about poor treatment in a 1-star review.

“People often feel a sense of entitlement at restaurants,” says Kaylie Milliken, the director of an in-progress documentary about Yelp’s questionable practices and the ways some users exploit the site. “Yelp allows a public platform, and they hope they can manipulate the system to get what they want.” (A Kickstarter for the film, titled “Billion Dollar Bully,” raised over $60,000 in fewer than two weeks.)

The weaponization of Yelp is something Justin Abad, proprietor of Pop’s Sea Bar and Cashion’s Eat Place, has witnessed. While waiting on a table at Cashion’s in 2009, he encountered a diner who requested that her mixed cookie dessert come with only chocolate chip cookies. Abad apologized and said he couldn’t honor the request due to limited supplies.

“She threatened to leave a bad Yelp review,” Abad remembers. “I said, ‘You think threatening me with a bad review will gain you more chocolate chip cookies?’ I was a little patronizing, but this was a woman in her mid-40s in business attire at a table with grown-ups.”

Docking a restaurant stars for reasons that have nothing to do with the actual meal is another misuse of Yelp, restaurateurs say. When the difference between a 3-star and a 4-star overall rating can translate to as much as a 9 percent bump in revenue for a restaurant, as a 2011 Harvard Business School study found, is it responsible of Yelpers to leave a bad review solely because they don’t like the decor?

“One negative review of Smith Commons said it looked like it was thrown together at thrift stores. I was like ‘you’re exactly right.’ That’s how I wanted it to look,” says Miles Gray, owner of Smith Commons on H Street and Smith Public Trust in Brookland. “I don’t understand what that has to do with your dining experience. If you don’t like thrift stores, I think you’re wack, but I can’t go to your place and rate you one star because I don’t like your couch.”

Restaurateurs who feel they’ve been unfairly reviewed are not powerless. “Business owners can post a public comment visible to all Yelp users” in rebuttal of a review, says Morgan Remmers, a senior manager of business outreach at Yelp. “We’re providing a two-way platform for people to share their experience and for business owners to respond to reviews.” Businesses can also privately message a reviewer to resolve an issue.

And if a business owner feels a commenter violated Yelp’s terms of service and content guidelines, he or she can seek its removal.

Still, many restaurants prefer to deal with complaints on the spot.

“It’s easier for us to address an issue at the time of service,” says Matt McQuilkin, director of operations for Pizzeria Paradiso, which has locations across the city. “We’re in the business of customer service. You just have to tell us when you’re unhappy.”

Some restaurant owners are able to brush vindictive Yelp reviews aside. “I take it personally in the same way I’d take it personally if my niece or nephew hurt my feelings,” Gray says. “You realize it’s just a child talking.”

Others are hit a little harder. “We put our heart and every single penny into this business,” says Thor Cheston, owner of Right Proper Brewing Company in Shaw. “To have someone completely rip you apart because the crowd is too hipster or they didn’t feel like waiting for a table is really disheartening.”

How to use Yelp responsibly

  • Before bashing a restaurant online, try hashing out the issue in person.
  • Refrain from personal attacks on restaurant employees in your review.
  • Go at least two or three times before leaving a harsh review, as any restaurant can have an off night.
  • Before writing off a restaurant based on a scathing review, check that Yelp user’s rating distribution to see if he or she frequently leaves negative reviews.
  • Yelp isn’t the only way to go. Alternative review sites include TripAdvisor, Foursquare and donrockwell.com, a local restaurant forum that has a 10-year archive of community-provided reviews.

Related:

This restaurant has one of the worst Yelp ratings in D.C. We talk to the manager about it.

Can 80 Yelpers be wrong? We sent the Post’s Tim Carman to review a one-star restaurant.