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The Rise of Revenge Yelp, and Why It Will Only Make Restaurants Worse


Yesterday, a New York City Chinese restaurant got its revenge against a one-star Yelper. When user “Dan W” scrawled on the restaurant-ranking site that Wonderful had refused to seat him, the restaurant posted video to YouTube showing that he’d never even spoken to an employee, and had instead left on his own accord moments after walking in. The response worked: Dan W removed his post, and perhaps will think twice before disparaging a restaurant again.

This is part of a nascent trend that may as well be called Revenge Yelp, in which a restaurant employee, usually an owner or head chef, strikes back at a vicious Yelper by publishing something of their own that either refutes the claim or shames the poster. With Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and other social media services at their disposal, restaurants can use Yelp-like mechanisms to silence the most obnoxious or mendacious Yelpers. The problem: in doing so they implicitly encourage Yelp’s toxic structure.

For all the service industry-born criticism, Yelp did serve a useful function when it arrived. We’ve all experienced the feeling of being wronged by an establishment and having no recourse to either rectify the situation or get our money back. In the past, a diner who’d been served a bad meal or made to wait a long time was at the mercy of management, and could badmouth a restaurant to a limited circle of friends and family. Yelp appeared to have given those customers leverage.

But as bad reviews grew into an art form, Yelpers began to develop individual, in-app brands based on their creative savaging of dining experiences, and before long it felt as though customers were actively seeking situations to complain about. (The coincidence of this process with the foodie movement didn’t help.) Any wait was too long; any service was bad service. The bad restaurant review became preferable to the good restaurant experience. I managed a restaurant in Austin, Texas around the time this conversion was happening, and remember one group of diners complaining until I had comped their entire meal. They pleasantly accepted my apology, swore they’d be back, then gleefully destroyed my restaurant on Yelp while still sitting at the table. Nothing would get in the way of their bad review.

What seemed at first like a democratizing vehicle has rendered restaurants essentially powerless to anyone with a smartphone. Yelp weaponized the “customer is always right” sentiment, and it was only a matter of time until customers started explicitly wielding it as such. This process culminated in an incident earlier this month, in which two diners at Boston’s Alden & Harlow demanded to be sat without reservations, or they would Yelp the restaurant then and there.

Thus are chefs and owners striking back. Arden & Harlow owner Michael Scelfo posted a photo of the two on his Instagram account; it went viral, becoming a kind of clarion call for Yelp revenge. “My choice to post this is not to slander on them per se,” Scelfo wrote, “but to call attention to a major flaw in the current ‘online review system & entitled mentality.'”

In the moment the process is satisfying. But using social media to call out other uses of social media isn’t a rectification, it’s an escalation. If restaurants — which can be major operations even if not part of a chain — can wield the sword of social media, the balance of power shifts once more against the lone customer. Whereas restaurants are entities, diners are people (however obnoxious); the possibility that a business owner can slander a customer is a nebulous threat that must be guarded against. Most likely this will result in a sort of cold war between customer and establishment, in which each has their phone pointed at the other, waiting — perhaps, per your brand, hoping — for the first wrong move.

This is, in the end, not a service industry problem but a social media one: to fight against an abuse of social media entails participating in that medium, inherently bolstering its power. (See the battle over hoax posts on the internet for a similar and equally frustrating dynamic.) Faced with the option of satisfying the urge for Revenge Yelp at the cost of underwriting the shame-based system upon which Yelpers rely, the restaurateur’s best option may be to disarm. Is exposing Dan W worth it?

[Image via aradaphotography / Shutterstock.com]

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