“This place is so disgusting. The waitress hated me. I forgot the name of the sandwich I had, but it was really good.”
This might not be what comes to mind when you think of a restaurant review, but with 36 million reviews and growing on Yelp, you’d better think again.
Food journalism has gotten quite a shake up the last decade with the instant and astounding popularity of sites like Yelp, Zagat and Urban Spoon, to name a few. While these sites give us a glimpse into the dining experience of our peers and can introduce us to new, unknown restaurants, it also raises the question of whether or not it is ethical food journalism, and if it really is journalism at all.
Everyone’s a critic
In a world where there’s a gray area of what constitutes food journalism and what doesn’t, it’s more than safe to say Elizabeth Schiele is a food journalist. Schiele spent 10 years in the back of the house and front of the house in fine dining restaurants in Chicago while pursuing a masters degree in Journalism. The accomplished writer, who has decades of experience covering the industry for Chefs.com, Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune, feels there’s much more than eating and writing that goes into it.
“Food writers should have a solid understanding of how to follow a recipe and how to prepare food in a variety of ways,” Schiele said. She recommends food writers spend time in both the back and front of the house at restaurants so they can understand cooking techniques, line organization and food presentation.
Despite the level of professionalism she expects from food writers, Schiele believes Yelp to be quite useful for finding the best restaurants, and got a spot-on recommendation from the site while on a recent trip to Newport Beach, Calif.
Seattle Weekly food critic Hanna Raskin couldn’t agree more. While she feels there is a dramatic difference between a restaurant review associated with a notable publication and a review from Yelp, she does think Yelp has a positive influence in the food community.
“With the budget cuts in the print industry, there is no way we’d be able to get out there to try all of the new restaurants that are opening,” Raskin explained. “They (Yelp reviewers) are the ones out there finding these places and bringing them to our attention.”
With a passion for food and the written word, Raskin feels anything that is promoting a dialogue about food is positive.
Not all five-star reviews
According to a Local Consumer Review Survey published on the Yelp official blog, 85 percent of all consumers use Yelp. So what about the restaurant that gets a negative review? Unlike a “professional” food writer, a Yelp reviewer can hide behind a fake name and a fake photo and really, say whatever they’d like.
Andrew Zimmern, host of Bizarre Foods, has been quoted bashing Yelp saying it “essentially gives a tremendous forum for a bunch of uninformed morons to take down restaurants.”
The less than favorable feelings towards Yelp are shared with David Schoon, the founder of BeerChow.com, a website which offers suggestions on food and beer pairings, recipes and recaps from breweries.
“They write things like ‘way over-priced’ on something that has a 2 – 3 percent profit for the owner or ‘didn’t taste good’ because they don’t understand what they’re eating and how it should taste,” Schoon said.
“Granted some restaurants do deserve some of the reviews they get, but for the most part these restaurants, chefs, owners and servers work their hearts out to bring incredible food experiences to uneducated critics who are unfairly subjected to their ignorant criticism,” he added.
The Chicago Tribune’s food features writer, Kevin Pang, believes Yelp reviews have their place but thinks that a lot of the feedback on Yelp, especially negative, is based on knee jerk reactions.
“Maybe the diner had a bad day and the server wasn’t so sharp, and that’s why they get one star,” Pang said.
He says there’s more credibility to a review by a professional. “I have the luxury [of] going to many places, multiple times if need be, paid for by my company. I feel that I can give a restaurant a fair shake. Servers and chefs have bad days too – I wouldn’t want one isolated incident to be representative of the restaurant as a whole.”
The James Beard Award-nominated journalist said he follows a code of ethics established by the Chicago Tribune. In addition to each publication having their own ethical code and guidelines for food writers, the Association of Food Journalists (AFJ) has specific ethics, too.
The AFJ feel critics should visit a restaurant as many times as needed to properly assess it, and states that two or more times is ideal. Just like Pang mentioned, service, food quality and atmosphere can vary (sometimes quite dramatically) from day to day, so it’s fair to go multiple times.
The AFJ also say that while reviewing a restaurant, there should be an attempt to have the most typical dining experience, such as eating breakfast at a place that is generally known for breakfast. They also recommend sampling a full range of the menu, including items that require different cooking techniques and different ingredients. The AFJ says visiting places multiple times is especially vital with negative reviews, since you are dealing with “people’s livelihood.”
The code of ethics asks writers to remain fair, honest and to “look beyond specific dishes and experiences to capture the whole of a restaurant.” Writers should practice under their real names and make contact information general to the public and fact-check all information. The code specifically states that this also pertains to social media.
The International Food, Wine and Travel Writers Association (IFWTWA) has a similar code of ethics, and believes critics should have an accurate representation of the food and drink from a restaurant and even says writers should ask their server to assist with ordering.
Yelpers have rules too
A study by Harvard Business School concluded that restaurants see business increase between 5-9 percent with an addition of one star from a Yelp review. While this is great news for businesses grabbing rave reviews, business owners can have a love-hate relationship with Yelp. Restaurant owners may feel it is shaky territory for their business when facing writers with no filter, no one to answer to and no consequences.
But there are indeed guidelines that Yelp asks writers to adhere to. The website asks that all writers write their own reviews and use their own photos. They ask that reviewers make content relevant and appropriate, not to focus on employment practices, political ideologies, extraordinary circumstances and to only include first hand experiences. They encourage reviews that are factually correct and ask writers to update a review if an opinion has changed.
And even if Yelp users choose not to follow these guidelines, they aren’t off the hook. There have been lawsuits filed by business owners over negative reviews that were accused of being false.
Despite the idea that Yelp is a forum for complaining about a meal, Yelp can actually be a place to say how great a meal was. Results show that 39 percent of Yelp reviews are 5 stars, followed by 28 percent 4 stars, 13 percent are 3 stars and the remaining portions are between 2 and 1 star reviews. And even if there is a bad review, 65 percent of consumers read between two and 10 reviews before making a decision. So, chances are one bad review won’t break a business.
Either way, it doesn’t look like Yelp and other review sites are going anywhere, so food journalists will have to make room for Yelpers and what they have to say.
Kristen Kuchar is author of Mac n’ Cheese to the Rescue and writes about food, beer and culinary travel for a variety of publications.