Starting Tuesday, Yelp is expanding across the nation a controversial program that pulls health-inspection data from government databases and places it directly on a restaurant’s page on the user-generated review site. Yelp is calling it a win for consumer food safety. Some restaurateurs are calling it a misleading ploy to draw more people to Yelp.
Yelp launched its Local Inspector Value-Entry Specification, or LIVES, program in 2013 in San Francisco, working with city officials to make health inspection reports easily available to Yelpers who are trying to decide which restaurant to visit. Yelp executives had hoped other jurisdictions would follow San Francisco’s lead, but only about a dozen did, says Luther Lowe, senior vice president of public policy for Yelp.
To expand the program nationally, Yelp partnered with a third-party company, HDScores, to scrape government websites to find health inspection reports that often live in the “dark, unvisited places of the Internet,” says Lowe. According to HDScores’s website, the company has scraped the Web for more than 6 million inspection reports, representing more than 1.16 million restaurants and food-service establishments in 42 states. As a result, Yelp will add the data to restaurants in New York, California, Texas, Illinois and the District of Columbia. Data for restaurants in other states will be rolled out in the coming months, Yelp promises.
The inspiration for making health reports available on Yelp, says Lowe, was a 2005 study conducted in Los Angeles County, which in 1998 started requiring restaurants and other commercial food establishments to post grade cards in their windows. (Each restaurant is assigned a letter grade that corresponds to its health inspection score — 90 to 100 points for an A, 80 to 89 for a B and 70 to 79 for a C.) The study found that after the grade-card program was launched, foodborne-disease hospitalizations in Los Angeles County “decreased in 1998 to the same level observed in the rest of the state.” The decreased was sustained for the next two years of the study as well.
“That was kind of the analog version of what we’re doing,” Lowe says about the grade cards. “In the case of Los Angeles, people would have to wait, I guess, until they’ve parked their car and are about to walk into the restaurant [to] learn what the restaurant hygiene score is. In the case of Yelp, nobody is looking at a restaurant listing for fun. They’re trying to figure out whether to go out to eat. So catching them in that context to us made a whole lot of sense.”
In San Francisco, Yelp’s trial run ran into serious resistance from the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, which complained that a poor inspection score could remain online long after restaurant had corrected any problems. In San Francisco, inspectors update a score (on a 100-point scale) only after a full inspection, not after a follow-up to see if previous violations have been addressed. A full inspection can occur anytime during a six- to 18-month window, says Gwyneth Borden, executive director of the association, sometimes forcing a restaurant to live with a subpar rating on Yelp for months.
A couple of years ago, San Francisco tried to address this issue with a pilot program that allowed restaurants to cover the costs of a full reinspection, which presumably would erase the low score from a previously poor inspection. But the experiment was shelved last year, Borden says, leaving the restaurants stuck with scores that may no longer reflect actual practices.
What’s more, Borden says, not all health-inspection violations are the same, such as a bathroom that happens to be out of soap when an inspector arrives or a hand sink that’s two inches closer to a food prep area than it’s supposed to be. “Those scores don’t tell the whole picture,” Borden says. “There are infractions that people get dinged on that are quite minor.”
“They are coloring it as a public information thing,” she adds. “I think it’s just another attempt to drive more people to their site.”
In some ways, San Francisco’s problems are unique. Yelp relies on data supplied by each jurisdiction’s health department, which explains why diners will notice a variety of methods to sum up the complicated information contained in the average health report: In Miami, the city uses a pass/fail system. In New York City, officials rely on a letter grade system similar to Los Angeles’s. In San Francisco, of course, the city issues its own score for each restaurant.
In Washington, the Food Safety and Hygiene Inspection Services Division doesn’t issue scores. D.C. inspectors file reports that list violations of varying importance and urgency. Because these reports are basically hieroglyphics to the average diner, HDScores will take the raw data and translate it into a score, from 1 to 100. Yelp declined to share the methodology that HDScores uses to determine the scores, but Lowe said, “We wouldn’t work with them if we didn’t feel confident in their ability to really take the data and put it into a meaningful format.”
Cedric Maupillier, chef and partner at Mintwood Place in Adams Morgan and Convivial in Shaw, isn’t sure what to think about Yelp using a third-party company to translate health department inspection reports into scores. He’s already not a huge fan of Yelp and its power over independent restaurateurs. (A Harvard Business School paper once determined that a 1-star increase in a business’s Yelp rating can lead to a 5 to 9 percent increase in revenue.) Maupillier worries that Yelp, being a business and not a health department, won’t understand certain problems confronting restaurants.
Such as rats, which have long been a problem in Adams Morgan, where improperly secured trash containers in the alleys attract the rodents. The city is working hard to confront the problem, Maupillier says, but it still takes extraordinary efforts on a restaurateur’s part to keep the rats out. At Mintwood Place, Maupillier has installed metallic mesh screens to keep the rodents at bay. It’s clearly worked. Mintwood Place has not been cited for any infestations on its recent health inspections.
Will Yelp understand, Maupillier wonders, that rats are as much a city problem as a restaurant problem?
One benefit, however, to Washington’s lack of health department-issued scores is that a restaurant will probably not be stuck with a poor grade for months. HDScores, says Lowe, will constantly monitor the Web for new reports, and the D.C. inspectors post their follow-up inspections online, often within a week of the initial inspection. Presumably, a District restaurant dinged with health violations can correct its Yelp score quickly.
But can a restaurant manipulate its health department score? Borden from the Golden Gate Restaurant Association said she worried that Yelp might use its new service as a way to attract advertising from restaurateurs, who might then see their health scores rise. It’s a variation on a common accusation consistently denied by the company: that Yelp allegedly extorts businesses for advertising and in exchange manipulates the business’s star rating.
“That is absolutely untrue,” emails Hannah Cheesman, a spokeswoman for Yelp. “There has never been any amount of money a business can pay Yelp to manipulate reviews or health scores. We started the LIVES program to help consumers and provide more transparency. Allowing businesses to pay to have their bad scores removed would do the exact opposite of that.”