Last month, I dined at a popular 12-year-old trattoria in Collingswood so that I could update the local newspaper’s official review. While there, I noticed an obvious lack of salt in nearly every dish. A shaker full of salt was available on the table, so I repeatedly sprinkled it over my plates, and subsequently enjoyed the rustic Italian food quite a bit.

During my interview with the chef a few days later, I asked him about the lowered salinity. Was it a one-night fluke? Some line cook with a sensitive palate? A misinterpretation on my behalf?

“Unfortunately,” he told me, “while you and I may think a certain amount of salt tastes good, many Americans have been trained to think that any saltiness is bad.” How did he know? After years of sifting through complaints on Yelp, the Sicilian native had resigned himself to adjusting his recipes. He buys unsalted butters. He uses less salt in his sauces. He doesn’t add salt to his stocks. Instead of proper salting in the kitchen, he puts salt shakers out on the tables.

“Salt is easier to add than it is to remove,” he explained, his tone conveying the shoulder shrug I couldn’t see.

Whether they view it as constructive, a plague, or a necessary evil, no one in the restaurant world can deny the impact of Yelp on their kitchens and on their businesses. In fact, I couldn’t find a single chef or restaurateur working today who doesn’t have some kind of story about the ubiquitous consumer experience-rating service.

The rise of Yelp

Credit: Danya Henninger

Founded by former PayPal execs in 2004, it only took less than two years for Yelp to catch fire — by 2006, the website was attracting a million users a month. Over the past decade, its popularity has increased exponentially. As of September 30 of this year, the San Francisco-based company reported 79 million desktop and 89 million mobile monthly unique visitors, who page their way through a total of 90 million reviews.

Of course, those hordes of listings aren’t only for restaurants and bars. The hospitality industry doesn’t even represent the sector with the most posts; that honor goes to the category Yelp calls “shopping,” which accounts for 23 percent of the total. But restaurants is a close second, representing 19 percent of all reviews. That’s a healthy distance above the third and fourth place categories: “home and local services” and “other,” which each count for 12 percent of the pie.

However, relative to most other services, food and drink is probably more susceptible to consumer capriciousness — and therefore to online ratings.

It’s notoriously tough to keep a restaurant open — studies have cited a failure rate of at least 60 percent within the first year — and it’s very easy for customers to compare experiences. While “shopping” could just as easily mean buying something that costs $15 or something that costs $15,000, all dining experiences fall within a much closer range, with very few exceptions. Plus, dining experiences happen with exceptional regularity. According to the National Restaurant Association, 47 percent of Americans’ total food spending occurs at restaurants.

Before the giant reach of the internet made crowdsourcing credible, it was up to professional critics to guide their readerships toward or away from specific eating establishments. Those pros are, for the most part, competent, experienced and well-researched, but despite all that, their missives still only reflect the opinion of one person. Online reviews are different. Thanks to their huge sample size, average star ratings on sites like Yelp end up being very likely to be somewhat accurate, or at least relevant.

So there’s reason to understand why Yelpers hold sway. There’s also reason to realize that doesn’t mean all — or even most — individual Yelpers are right.

Take it away, South Park

Credit: Comedy Central / YouTube

A recent South Park episode called “You’re Not Yelping” illustrates the dichotomy with characteristic precision.

This season, the Colorado mountain town where the long-running Comedy Central show takes place is experiencing a gentrification boom. Now that they have restaurants serving organic kale and heritage pork belly, it only makes sense that they also have Yelpers. Soon enough, residents start announcing themselves as “reviewers” when they dine, and demanding freebies and fawning service — threatening to give one-star ratings if they’re not accommodated.

In the episode, after bending so far backwards as to threaten their own financial well-being, South Park restaurateurs eventually take a stand against the amateur extortion. But the Yelpers, each certain that he or she is an exquisitely qualified critic, fight back, and, in a disheartening caricature of the mob psychology that fuels groups like ISIS, enact a beheading of a popular restaurant mascot to assert and regain their esteemed place at the table.

Shocked into submission, restaurateurs welcome the Yelp crowd back, but not without exacting some revenge of their own. The musical finale — “The Yelper Special!” — will make you think twice about ever sending a dish back to the kitchen again.

YouTube video

Obvious comic exaggerations aside, is the South Park portrayal that far from real life? Not necessarily.

Every single restaurant person I spoke with vehemently denied any kind of tainted or purposely maligned food was ever sent out of their kitchens, whether to be served to an annoying Yelper or to anyone else. On the other hand, back when I was a server and a bartender, I personally witnessed some of the exact transgressions in the Yelp song, and heard first-hand stories (hiyo!) about the other. But that was 20 years ago, so surely the industry has come a long way since then?

In any case, South Park’s tracing of Yelp’s influential rise, subsequent fall, and rise again is relatively on target.

Yelpers in the house

Credit: Danya Henninger

Terry Berch McNally, co-owner of Fairmount neighborhood favorite London Grill, remembers that when Yelp first burst on the scene, she asked servers to actively encourage customers to post reviews, and also started a Yelp special to sweeten the deal. While servers no longer mention it up front, that Yelp deal — $5 off every $25 if you pay in cash — is still in effect. What changed was Berch McNally’s perception of Yelp the company.

“I hate that they bother me with calls about advertising,” she said, “which will allow my bad reviews to be moved to the bottom. They deny this; it’s extortion.”

The idea that business owners are encouraged to “pay to play” in return for better display of positive ratings is a concern many share, to the point that in 2010, a class action lawsuit was filed. However, just like in the cartoon, the Yelpers weren’t kept down for long — the suit was dismissed first in 2011 by a San Francisco District Court, and then again in 2014 by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. A documentary film about Yelp’s practices, called Billion Dollar Bully, is currently in production, but as it stands, legally everything Yelp is doing passes muster.

So Yelp is here to stay. And to many restaurateurs, it’s not all bad.

“Before [Yelp], you’d have to hire people to come in and be secret shoppers,” observed chef Peter Woolsey. “Now you’re getting all this feedback — in that way it’s a cool tool.”

Not all the feedback is accurate, however. Woolsey tells of a five-star review one person left for Bistrot La Minette, his 7-year-old quaint French restaurant in Queen Village. “They said the Caesar salad at lunch was just amazing. Well, I have never ever served a Caesar salad here, plus we weren’t open for lunch during the time period they left the review.”

Now that he’s a veteran, with two restaurants under his purview (he also runs brasserie La Peg at FringeArts), Woolsey reads Yelp reviews with a thick skin. Like many of his colleagues, he doesn’t read too much into individual comments. It’s when he notices a pattern emerge that he starts to consider action.

Sometimes, like with the Collingswood chef who cut back on the salt, a restaurant owner might consider action worthwhile even if it’s something they don’t personally agree with.

When Italian forneria Brigantessa first opened on East Passyunk last year, chef/partner Joe Cicala presented a section of the menu filled with $6 and $7 dishes called “sfizi and spuntini.” These types of plates are common in bars in Italy, and are meant to be snacks, not really appetizers. Apparently most Philadelphia diners didn’t grasp the distinction, and Brigantessa was hit with a slew of complaints about both price (too high) and portion size (too small).

“They won,” Cicala noted, “and now we offer only ‘antipasti.’” His story continued: “Our desire to offer something unique, authentic and of cultural significance must be put aside temporarily because in the end, we must please the guest. That is why we are in business in the first place. To make people happy.”

Authenticity is itself a fraught concept, notes restaurateur Jill Weber, who has fielded complaints about the topic regarding her Mexico City-inspired BYOB Cafe Ynez.

“All reviews reflect some sort of reality,” she surmised. “The problem is deciding what reality they reflect.” When a customer Yelped that the peas in the tinga burrito “did not belong in a burrito,” she knew from her extensive travels that peas are in fact very common in Mexico. However, she also noted that Ynez’s cuisine “may not be the style that everyone is expecting — whether because their ideas were forged in a particular restaurant, by a particular region of Mexico, or even by an Americanized style.”

Another thing that separates amateur Yelp reviews from those written by professionals is understanding how the restaurant business works.

“Cost or value complaints, if they arrive, are generally ignored,” said Philly bar specialist Jason Evenchik (Time, Vintage, Garage, Bar, Heritage, La Casa de tu Madre). “Because we cost things out according to industry standard.”

At the new Graduate Hospital Korean tavern Southgate, General Manager Peter Hwang has fielded many Yelp comments lamenting the bar’s lack of makgeolli (Korean rice wine). They are probably not aware that he has been trying to get the spirit imported into the state legally for months now, but hasn’t been able to get it approved by the PLCB.

One complaint he was able to act on was that the dining room was too loud. Somewhat unfortunately, the acoustic panels he ordered were delayed by many months, so that when the installation did happen, it was a day later than the Inquirer’s influential (and famously decibel-sensitive) restaurant critic made his first visit.

“We got dinged for that,” he said.

Poking the bear

Credit: Danya Henninger

Professional reviews are often more respected simply because they are careful to make specific criticisms rather than generic ones. Jennifer Choplin, chef at South Bowl, hasn’t paid too much attention to the bowling alley-slash-pizzeria’s Yelp reviews because there wasn’t anything tangible for her to act on.

“If they wrote something negative, it’s something like, ‘I didn’t like it,’ or just ‘This sucked,’” she explained. She is also of the opinion that responding to Yelp reviews — an option the site gave to business owners back in 2008 — is not a smart practice, and that it only stokes the fire of a customer who is unhappy to begin with. “It’s like poking a bear,” she said. “Better to say nothing.”

If you’re going to say nothing, might it be best to just skip reading the reviews at all? That’s the modus operandi of Fergus “Fergie” Carey, who co-owns four bars around town.

“I gave up reading Yelp because I came to the conclusion that people who leave your bar or restaurant happy are not as inclined to jump on their phone or computer and rate you,” he said, adding: “I used to read the Yelp reviews of one restaurant and think, ‘Christ, no one would go there!’”

That poorly-reviewed restaurant? His internationally renowned beer emporium, Monk’s Cafe.

Danya Henninger is director and editor of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the membership program. She is a former food...