Dreading Yelp As Restaurants Reopen for Service

Before losing my job to the coronavirus, as a server I used to check Yelp once a day, sometimes more. It was as much a part of my routine as checking Instagram, Facebook, or my online bank account. And what I would see when I logged on could make – or break – my day, my week, or even my career. 

I’ve been a server for years, and I love it. But I don’t love Yelp.

Created as a place for consumers to voice their honest opinions about local businesses, for us industry workers it’s too often a black hole of fear and manipulation. At my last place of employment, the owners were obsessed with Yelp reviews—if you wanted to keep your job, you better not get anything less than four stars.

One night, half an hour before closing, the restaurant was all but empty. I was in the service station by the bar, waiting for time to pass. A woman sat down on a bar stool, then ordered a burger and a beer. All was well until the bartender made a fatal mistake. When her plate was clean and her glass empty, he dropped the check, without asking if she wanted anything else.

She looked like a Yelper. As it turned out, she was.

I watched her write her one star review right then and there. As I started to close the floor, I could see her typing. She wrote three paragraphs; edited it; revised it; gave it a final scan.

When she left I told the bartender what I’d seen. I thought he deserved a warning. Then I read the scathing review as I rode the train home that night. She’d mentioned him by name, and came up with a laundry list of offenses. It was all over for that bartender. He got fired.

There is undeniable merit in having a forum to voice opinions both good and bad. However, a few important things need to be understood by Yelpers.

Service industry workers are people, and we sometimes make mistakes. We have bad days. We sometimes cry in the walk-in or the bathroom. It’s not an easy job, but for many of us, we love it and we do our best. The restaurant dance isn’t always perfectly choreographed, and missteps are often beyond any one worker’s scope of control, whether they’re working the dining room or kitchen.

Yet, when things go wrong, many Yelpers go on the attack. They get personal. They describe what their server looked like, the time and date they visited the restaurant. They take pictures.

It goes beyond constructive criticism or honest feedback for a business. That’s something any customer can do the right way, in person, by having a polite chat with a manager, giving the restaurant a chance to fix the problem. One-star Yelpers who call out their server or bartender are going after the individual person, not providing valuable feedback for the business. 

Many of the people who write these kinds of reviews don’t work in service, but I’ll wager they make mistakes at their jobs too. 

Imagine a nine-to-fiver accidentally hits reply-all on an email. No one would publicly post about their mistakes online. No one would send a message to their boss in the hopes that they’d get fired. A server accidentally hits medium instead of medium-rare on steak? For Yelpers, that’s a different story.

The second thing to understand is that although Yelp was created as a space for legitimate consumer feedback, there are many ways to beat the system, and restaurants (and their staff) can and do.

At a restaurant where I once worked, a crisis struck when we dropped from a four star rating to three and a half. As one of the longest standing employees, and one who had demonstrated my care and loyalty to the place over the years, I was tasked with fixing it.

“Just get us back to four stars,” my boss said. He didn’t care how I did it.

So I got resourceful. I made my parents create Yelp accounts. My roommates. My friends. I went as far as having my accomplices review a few other restaurants first, to give their five-star praise more credibility. I had them cite specific dishes, talk about the service, wax poetic about how they’d be coming back.

In my own defense, I never asked anyone to write a review who hadn’t actually eaten at the restaurant. I didn’t want to lie or ask anyone to lie on my behalf. The people I asked had all enjoyed their dining experiences, and I asked them to be honest in their reviews. However, I’m sure not everyone who wants to boost their Yelp rating takes the same approach.

My scheme worked, and a few weeks later we were back at a four stars. I did it for brownie points with my bosses, but also because at the time I really did care—I didn’t want people to think I worked at a restaurant that only merited  three and a half stars. That was just plain embarrassing.

I’m not saying that Yelp isn’t useful. I’m not saying all Yelpers write the same mean reviews. But I am suggesting that people should use Yelp differently.

Customers should approach it in the same way they would approach critiquing one of their own co-workers, with care and respect. If your server was your office-mate, would you eviscerate them in the same way to their boss? To the public?

Restaurant owners and managers also carry the onus regarding how Yelp should be used. If a manager sees one of their employees treating the customers with care and the job with respect, that should outweigh a stranger Yelping that they never got their side of Ranch. And if they see mediocrity, it shouldn’t be mitigated by a five star review that could have been written by their mom.

Today, as restaurants start reopening for dining in-house and the service industry begins to get back on its feet, I hope to see a shift in the attitudes and behaviors people exhibit in terms of online reviews. Restaurants and their workers are struggling, and figuring out how in-house service will function in the age of social distancing is not going to be easy. Mistakes will be made. And I dread how Yelpers will review us.

In the wake of the coronavirus, the humanity of hospitality workers is being brought to the forefront, and it becomes increasingly clear that we are, in fact, essential workers.

I hope Yelpers appreciate that, and will be gentler in their approach as we reopen for service and navigate this new era of social distance dining in real time, with less than a full team.

I hope the much publicized respect and concern for hospitality workers and restaurants that has arisen in response to the coronavirus crisis will carry over, and that Yelpers will no longer purposely attempt to end a worker’s livelihood after seeing how fragile our livelihoods, and our industry, can be.

Also from Rebecca Riddle: “Smash Server Stereotypes & Show Some Respect”

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