The Great Yelp Debate Continues

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Whether user-review Web site Yelp, the bane of many small business owners, is a helpful aid to consumers or a disservice to the restaurant industry is still up for debate. What's for certain is that it elicits strong reactions from both sides of that industry.

While supporters believe that the site holds bar and restaurant owners accountable to consumers, thereby improving the quality of food and service in local businesses, there are others who complain that reviewers on the site are typically uninformed patrons who base their opinions on just one visit. There is also the claim that there are customers who don't compartmentalize, leading to negative food critiques influenced by personal, emotional factors that have nothing to do with the quality and execution of the meal itself. There are even those who accuse the site of buying positive reviews for its advertisers, but that's another issue altogether, and one that has little evidence to support it.

Many local retailers aren't shy about their opinions on the popular consumer site, some even taking to social media to openly bash Yelp, posting phony reviews to mock their impression of a "typical Yelp user" for comedic effect. But for those who run the risk of tarnished professional reputations, or those facing real financial consequences due to "unfair" reviews, the issue is no laughing matter.

"Some guy once posted a review about me being 'rude' to him- It's true: I was rude to him," Captain Foxheart's Bad News Bar & Spirit Lodge owner Justin Burrow says. "He reached across the bar, grabbed a piece of fruit out of the bowl I use to garnish drinks, and I gave him the 'don't do that look' and he quickly put the fruit back [before] I threw the whole bowl of fruit into the garbage."

Part of Burrow's issue with Yelp is that there is no way to hold customers accountable for their own involvement in bad dining experiences. He claims that many tend to broadcast personal dissatisfaction with the staff rather than providing objective, informed critiques. (Although his bar's current Yelp rating is a respectable, above-average four stars with thirty-nine reviews.)

"People always try to make themselves seem blameless in a public forum, but if folks would take more personal responsibility there would be little to criticize about review sites like Yelp," Burrow says. "But as it stands, it's often little more than a sassy bitch-fest."

While many anti-Yelp voices are service industry players who are directly affected by the reviews, there are also some advocates within the food scene who confess that they frequent the site. Local bar consultant Chris Frankel has used Yelp throughout his food travels across the country-- which he documents on Facebook and Twitter-- to find lesser-known local fare without the public relations pitch. Although he admits that he wouldn't rely on the site for his own gastronomic edification, he sees it as a good reference tool when planning his tasting adventures.

"Just being able to know that these places exist is a valuable asset for food and restaurant research," Frankel says. "The sheer volume of write-ups on Yelp does mean you have to spend a lot of time separating the wheat from the chaff, [but] you can focus on objective items reviewers post- like food pictures and menus-instead of spending too much time parsing the editorial content."

The Yelp discussion has even attracted outspoken celebrity food writers, critics and television personalities such as Andrew Zimmern:

Here's something that really pisses me off: Yelp. I was against Yelp for a long time. I don't like the idea of Yelp. The problem for me is that crowd sourcing is very beneficial except when it comes to things like restaurant criticism and restaurant reviews and restaurant recommenders.

Just the same way I don't ask my five-year-old to tell me whether or not I should go see the movie This Is Forty or Sessions or The French Lieutenant's Woman, I don't ask my son which John Updike book is his favorite -- because he'll just point at any old random one. And while he might get lucky, and certainly most John Updike books are really good, Yelp essentially gives a tremendous forum for a bunch of uninformed morons to take down restaurants.

Such scathing critiques have inspired some to monetize the growing discussion. A new guide from food critic Hanna Raskin teaches consumers how to properly review an establishment on Yelp. Her 79-page ebook, Yelp Help: How To Write Great Online Restaurant Reviews, advises readers on writing "reviews which contribute to our collective culinary conversation and enrich your readers' dining adventures." I'm curious to know how receptive she will be to the Amazon reviews on her ebook.

Whether you're staunchly pro- or anti-Yelp, it's surely a debate worth following as a food-lover in a city with a quickly evolving culinary scene such as our own.

Duff Beer Distribution/Favorite Brands account representative Joshua Baggett says, "I would always get mad with reviews on Feast that started with 'I'm a vegetarian'; well then, why the f**k are you reviewing a place like Feast or complaining that places like Petrol Station [known for big, hoppy beers] don't have enough light beers on tap?"

Still, when it comes to determining where to eat or drink, Baggett concedes that it's a useful resource. "I use it for to search and see what's around," he divulges with a smirk.

Where do you stand on the debate, as a consumer or local small-business owner?

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