Regardless of having actually written a review, we’ve all used Yelp. Perhaps the app is on your phone as the first place you turn when hunting down your next meal, or maybe it’s constantly popping up first on your Google search results. Either way, seeing that star rating has no doubt impacted a dining decision or two, in all of us.
From a consumer standpoint, Yelp’s role is clear: a convenient endless database of businesses, offering potentially unbiased accounts on anything from fine dining experiences to $10 haircuts. The tools have expanded in recent years, now allowing the ability to book a reservation or even order delivery. Questions like ‘do they have outdoor seating?’ and ‘is it too fancy to bring the baby?’ are easily answered by scrolling through photos, doing a quick review search, or applying certain filters.
To restaurants, the phrase ‘word of mouth’ has never been more apparent. Restaurants have, historically, turned to a tell-your-friends approach, usually combined with traditional advertising methods and professional restaurant critiques (often times pre-planned and well prepped for). But prior to the digital age, online foodies and pseudo restaurant critics didn’t exist. Possession of a phone or computer enables just about anyone to write a public restaurant review.
Along with this freedom comes consequences. At any moment, someone walks through the doors who, unbeknownst to you, is quite the online influencer. One bad experience results in an irrational rage review, thus driving down your entire overall rating.
Granting a public voice to anyone will always address the topic of integrity. A recent, locally infamous incident at Alden & Harlow quickly drew this topic to the media. Can Yelpers use their freedom of speech as a threat? Are people abusing the power?
Then, there’s the flip side, that Yelp provides a voice to those who are voiceless, patrons and restaurant owners alike. Take for example the small foodie town of Portland Maine. Upon a quick search on Yelp, the top rated restaurant comes up as Fishermen’s Grill, a tiny shack, off the beaten path of Portland’s main dining strip, but offering the most delicious (coming from personal experience) lobster rolls. Portland visitors have easy access to finding this hole-in-the-wall gem, and Fishermen’s Grill has a heavy flow of tourists pouring through its doors. Win-win.
The age of Yelp also comes along with that shift in dining standards. For many, gone are the days of ambiance-centric dining choices, for true foodies live in a food-focused world. As in the case of Fishermen’s Grill, diners overlook the lack of views and decor for a delicious meal. To them, it’s not as much about the entire experience as it is about the food, because that food represents an opportunity—a photo op, blog content, and of course, a Yelp review.
The rapid pace in which food trucks entered into mainstream popularity further attests to the culinary shift. Any niche chef with a driver’s license can open a restaurant on wheels, and Yelpers are quick to jump on board and spread the word.
Love it or hate it, trust it or not, Yelp has transformed the restaurant industry. It’s opened many doors, and likely closed a few as well. A truly talented chef or mixologist easily reaps the benefits, while dodging those who abuse the power from time to time.
The culinary scene will always rely on word of mouth, and as technology evolves, so too does hearsay. Take it all in, but with a grain of salt.
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