Vancouver restaurateurs take on the reign of Yelp

Vancouver celebrity chef Vikram Vij sees value in Yelp, in hearing from customers, but says it’s also abused.

Online reviewing platform Yelp has changed the way we decide where to eat and where to shop—turning everyone and their neighbour into a published critic. But is that a good thing?

Vikram Vij pores over a menu at his Vancouver diner, Rangoli. “Do I really want Indian food?” he muses.

Others who ask that question often turn to Yelp. Over the past decade the San Francisco-based website has become the giant of the online ratings game, boasting 2014 advertising revenues of US$377.5 million, over 135 million monthly visitors and well over 70 million reviews.

One of those reviews resulted in a radio showdown with Vikram Vij himself. In December 2014, Montreal resident Raj Basdeo (on Yelp as Rajendra Rejean K.C.B.) posted a lengthy one-star review of the renowned chef’s flagship South Granville restaurant, Vij’s. Vij’s, the review claimed, “sold its soul (and its ability to make good food) in a Faustian stroke of treachery in exchange for some paltry C-list notoriety…” In nearly 850 words, Basdeo managed to reference Chinese sweatshops, Insite and intercontinental ballistic missiles before describing the restaurant’s patrons as “yellow-bellied posers with the intestinal fortitude of lily-livered chicken shits.”

Vij himself does not lack intestinal fortitude. He contacted Basdeo for an explanation. On December 23, the two men ended up on CBC Radio’s Daybreak Montreal program. Basdeo confessed he had not been to Vij’s for at least four years before posting the review, which he described as “light-hearted.” While there was no shouting match—the two did not converse on air—Vij decried the nastiness of Basdeo’s attack. “Don’t get personal,” he pleaded.

While not as large as TripAdvisor in terms of traffic or revenue, Yelp has come to dominate certain online review categories, including restaurant and retail, and become a standard consumer tool. According to a 2011 Harvard Business School study, a one-star change in a restaurant’s Yelp rating can affect revenue by five to nine per cent, while a study by PR firm Cone Communications found 80 per cent of consumers had reported changing their minds about a business after reading a negative online review.

Yet the anonymity of Yelp posts leave the site open to the same kind of trolling that has made a toxic soup out of so many online comment threads. Whatever useful consumer function it may provide, Yelp also offers a virtual whetstone for axe-grinding. “How many of these people are accredited?” asks Pino Posteraro, chef and owner of Cioppino’s Enoteca and Grill in Yaletown. “How many of these people are real? Potentially if I don’t like [neighbouring Yaletown restaurant] Blue Water I can create something fake and go slander them. I support free speech, but there has to be somebody who manages the site.”

Posteraro cites as an example a man who called Cioppino’s from Los Angeles last spring. “He told my hostess, ‘I’m in the food and wine business, I do television… I would like to have the Dom Perignon room.’ The Dom Perignon room is sponsored by Dom Perignon,” he notes. “We have guidelines—you have to buy a bottle. The hostess came to me and said, ‘This guy is being very pushy.’ So I listened to him. I told him the rules. He said, ‘You don’t understand, I am so-and-so… You’re very rude.’ And then he hangs up.”

The Yelp review from Jeff L. of Los Angeles promptly appeared. “In all my years I’ve never been treated so rudely,” Jeff wrote. One star.

“This guy didn’t even come to my restaurant,” Posteraro says. “He’s not even a paying customer. I am building my reputation for 16 years and you are trying to slander me because you didn’t get what you want?” He says he brought the review to the attention of Yelp—arguing that they should not allow it because Jeff L. didn’t eat there—but the review remains. “For them it’s kosher, it’s cool.”

According to Yelp spokesperson Katrina Hafford, if a business owner feels that a review violates the site’s terms of service, he or she can flag that post for review by Yelp’s operations team. “However,” she adds, “Yelp does not take sides in factual disputes, so their best bet is to use Yelp’s free response tools to publicly address that review, stating the facts and their company policy.”

Like Posteraro, Vij supports the idea of consumer feedback. “I follow Yelp, Urban Spoon and TripAdvisor a lot. When I was here on the floor, every day for 15 years, I could see a problem and rectify it. Now that I’m away from it, because I’ve got three other establishments that I’m running, my way to find out what’s happening is to talk to the managers and to go on Yelp, Urban Spoon, TripAdvisor and see what people are saying. So it gives you a tool.”

But he feels the tool can be used irresponsibly, as was the case with the Montreal reviewer Basdeo. “He was just doing it as a joke,” Vij says. “I texted him and he emailed me, and then we spoke. I really thought he’d had a bad experience. But he told me he had last come to the restaurant in 2007, seven years earlier. I asked him what he ate, and he said he didn’t remember.”

A number of court cases launched by American businesses have attempted to force Yelp to disclose the identity of negative posters, claiming that many businesses are being targeted by malicious competitors or ex-employees. One recent case went to the Virginia Supreme Court. Hadeed Carpet Cleaning was suing to obtain the names of negative reviewers, believing they were in fact competitors. In April the Virginia court ruled that it lacked jurisdiction in the case. Yelp proclaimed the decision “an important win,” despite the fact that the court did not actually rule on the business’s right to know the identities of its critics. Instead, the court said the case should have been filed in Yelp’s home state of California.

While Yelp protects the anonymity of users, spokesperson Hafford says the site counsels transparency. “We encourage users to sign up with their real first name, last initial, email address and profile picture,” Hafford says. “Yelp has always been a community review site, not a drive-by one, and having full user profiles helps others determine if they might agree with a particular reviewer’s taste.”

Claims of abuse on the Yelp platform aren’t just limited to patrons. One Surrey-based Yelper who goes by the name “A Customer T.” claims she was threatened with a $50,000 lawsuit by a Surrey legal firm after posting a negative review. “My reviews are an accurate and true account of my experiences,” she says. “I feel that this is why people use reviews or come to Yelp. They want to hear about people’s experiences.”

Many of T.’s reviews are five-star raves, but she is also free with the one-star ratings. One such pan went to a legal firm T. consulted while pursuing a claim. The firm later dropped her case and, feeling they had reneged on an agreement, she left a review suggesting that customers should avoid them. Although Yelp does not disclose the identities of its posters, the firm was evidently able to identify her based on the details she revealed in the review. Two days later she received a letter from the firm alleging defamation. “They told me my statements were false, and that my review has apparently cost them over $50,000 in clients for future business. They told me that if I don’t delete the review and if I ever leave another review they have been told to take legal action and that I would be responsible for all the costs.”

T. says she contacted Yelp and they were supportive. “They told me they would help me in my case and that they don’t support legal threats or harassment,” T. says. But she was still concerned enough to delete her review. After writing about her experience in a Yelp forum, T. says she heard from many others who have had similar experiences with other businesses. “This company only has positive reviews on their pages, which is why I chose them,” she says. “I wonder if they had legally threatened anyone else?”

Josh Pape’s Wildebeest has received mostly rave reviews from professional critics,
but some scathing ones on Yelp (Adam Blasberg)

In the U.S. at least, lawmakers are moving to protect a consumer’s right to complain. Last year California passed legislation widely known as the Yelp Bill, protecting the right to post bad reviews online without penalties. It followed cases in which customers were hit with fines as the result of negative online reviews that, according to the businesses, contravened clauses in signed customer agreements. The California law makes such contracts illegal, and a similar bill was introduced in the U.S. Congress last fall.

Yelp’s FAQ section even helpfully offers the following question: “I’m not happy with what consumers are saying about me. Should I get my lawyers involved?”

Yelp gently recommends you do not. They cite “the Streisand Effect” (the possibility that legal action will bring far more publi–city to the item you wish to suppress—named for the singer’s 2003 attempt to remove an online photo of her Malibu, California, home that was subsequently downloaded thousands of times).

Legal questions aside, there is also the question of Yelp’s quality control. Everybody’s got an opinion, and everybody’s opinion is what makes up a restaurant’s aggregate rating. Is that always fair?

James Iranzad and Josh Pape are co-owners of the multiple- award-winning Wildebeest in Gastown. “It’s not a typical restaurant,” Iranzad points out—the menu can include items like sweetbreads and bone marrow. “We are dedicated to using every part of the animal. It’s not for everybody.”

But almost everybody is on Yelp. Customer opinions are equally weighted. It’s democratic, but it can be the equivalent of reading opera, bluegrass and klezmer concert reviews all written by Bob Seger fans. “Probably the worst restaurant meal I have ever had,” wrote Jill S. of Richmond of her Wildebeest experience. “We started with the pork rinds… the most disgusting thing I have ever eaten.” Narges A. of Vancouver compared it to “uncooked raw meet that was similar to Dog Food… I just feel i was rubbed.” [sic]

Iranzad feels other sites offer a more discriminating take. “Our Yelp rating is 3.5,” Iranzad says, “whereas our rating at is 4.2.”

Posteraro agrees that Yelp reviews can be unfair to those who aim higher. “I fought to give Vancouver a place that is not another pseudo-Italian restaurant,” Posteraro says. “So how can I convince an American who is used to the Olive Garden and says, ‘There’s no lasagna, there’s no garlic bread, what kind of Italian restaurant is this?’”

Bad reviews are never pleasant, but Posteraro makes a distinction between online comments and reviews written by professional critics. “Because it’s a journalist I will investigate, get to the bottom of it, find out what was wrong,” he says. “I had one situation where [Vancouver Sun food critic] Mia Stainsby said, ‘I feel the truffle pasta is too expensive.’ I called her and said, ‘Mia, I’m paying $7,000 a kilo this year for truffles.’ And she accepted that. She wrote me up again, because this is what professional people do. With these people in Yelp, it’s not redeemable.”

Vij feels Yelp has supplanted the more appropriate response for the aggrieved customer. “The thing to do is go to the manager and say, ‘I was treated with disrespect,’” Vij says. “If it falls on deaf ears, the person can then go online and say, ‘Look, I even told the manager what happened to me and nothing was done about it.’”

Posteraro agrees. “If someone calls me, I am the first one to check up and say, ‘Guys, what happened last night?’” he says. “Give me the chance to explain myself, to remedy the mistake.”

But while Posteraro has given up on engaging with Yelp—“Until this last review [from Jeff L.], I was very responsive,” he says—Vij insists that Yelp feedback can be constructive. And he feels it’s still necessary for restaurateurs to engage. “You have to care,” he says. “I do take pride in talking to the customers.”

Of course, you’re never going to please everyone. A Customer T. visited My Shanti and found Vij too attentive. “I don’t enjoy feeling forced to eat my food because the owner is checking up on me every two minutes,” read her Yelp review.

One star.