A Good Idea Gone Horribly Wrong
It's hard to type while applauding, but that's what I'm doing right now. I am wildly cheering for Boston restaurateur Michael Scelfo and his “Alden & Harlow” eatery. No, I don't know the guy and I've never eaten at his restaurant – although next time I'm in Boston, I will. Rather, I am applauding the act of his standing up to and publicly exposing a couple of Yelp thugs.
Yelp is a good idea gone horribly wrong. On the surface, the concept of a forum wherein the “common man” has a voice and can express his opinion is a noble one. Unfortunately, it does not take into account the preponderance of rude, ignorant, selfish, entitled idiots one finds buried beneath the veneer of altruism contained in Yelp's mission statement: "To connect people with great local businesses."
Yelp proudly proclaims that “Yelpers” have written more than seventy-one million local reviews. The basic problem with that statement hearkens back to the old adage that says “opinions are like a**holes; everybody has one.” And in the case of Yelp and its imitators, far too many of the users expressing their opinions are a**holes.
Case in point: a couple of young females – “ladies” probably stretches the definition – showed up at Alden & Harlow with no reservations. They proceeded to seat themselves, to berate and insult the staff, to loudly proclaim that they were not tipping because of the poor service, and then to refuse to leave when asked to do so. And, of course, they played the trump card – threatening to give the establishment a bad Yelp review.
You get the picture? These are jerks. They went into the place with the intention of causing trouble and then blackmailing their way out of it. And in most cases they would have been successful because many small, local restaurant owners are thoroughly cowed by the threat of a bad social media review. Word of mouth is the bread and butter of their advertising and people bad-mouthing them can put them out of business. And Yelp thugs have figured that out and know how to play it to their best advantage. I mean, come on! The difference between Yelp et.al. and protection rackets is minimal. What's the difference between a hulking goon in an ill-fitting suit holding a club and saying “pay up or I'll break your kneecaps” and a stylishly-dressed moron with a cellphone saying “give me what I want or I'll put you out of business”?
I've never thought much of social media review sites, but my contempt reached a tipping point a few years ago when I found this scathing review of a local Italian place posted on one of them: “This is absolutely the worst Italian food I have ever had in my life. It was nothing but over priced boxed mixes with some chewy, obviously frozen bagged seafood on top. It literally disgusted me. If you value your hard earned money and your stomach I would keep on driving right past this place.” In the first place, it's poorly written – “if you value.......I would keep on driving.” Really? In the second place, it's non-specific. What dish particularly “disgusted” you? Or did you have a general sampling of everything on the menu and found it all to be “the worst Italian food”? And did you actually see “boxed mixes” and “bagged seafood” being used? Or did it just taste like that to you? There's a difference.
I had eaten at the place myself and knew the opposite to be true. It was a small, family owned and operated business, started by mom and pop and now run by the kids, all of whom are right off the boat from Italy. I knew their food was fresh, delicious, and as authentic as American tastes would allow. I'd seen their kitchen and watched everything being prepared from scratch. There wasn't better Italian food to be had within a hundred miles. No, this was just a hack job written by somebody who wanted to hurt the business. I took it upon myself to go online and rebut this scurrilous billingsgate, pointing out the obvious lies and flaws therein and concluding with: This is absolutely some of the best Italian food I have ever had in my life. It is nothing but high-quality, fresh ingredients deliciously prepared in a wonderful Italian family tradition. It literally delights me. If you value your hard-earned money and your stomach, you'll drive directly to this place, and you'll do it often.
But I gotta admit, Michael Scelfo did me one better: he posted a picture of the thugs who tried to dun his establishment on Instagram, along with a description of their execrable behavior that included the hashtag “#wedontnegotiatewithyelpers.” I. Love. It!! “We don't negotiate with Yelpers” should be posted large on the front door of every restaurant in the country.
For some reason, Instagram removed the post, but BostonInno has the story and the picture here: http://bostinno.streetwise.co/2015/03/02/duo-attempting-yelp-blackmail-gets-an-earful-from-alden-harlow-chef-owner
Scelfo has since written that, regardless of the picture being taken down, “#wedontnegotiatewithyelpers stands true." And he says, "I would encourage more people to be responsible with [Yelp].” Can I get an “amen” from the choir, brothers and sisters?!
Scelfo and I aren't alone in the outrage department. Botto Bistro in Richmond, California got a lot of mileage out of offering discounts to patrons who would give them “bad” reviews in the hope that their “star” rating would sink low enough to remove them from Yelp's radar entirely.
Yelp and its ilk are a bad joke badly told. No matter how benign the intention, the system is intrinsically broken and it is being abused by thugs every day to the detriment of the “great local businesses” it was supposedly designed to help. And most people seem to know it. Here are a few random comments I pulled from the 'net: “Yelp is less than useless. They're shady and people abuse the hell out of how much power Yelp has over small businesses. Burger King doesn't give a s**t if a location has bad Yelp reviews, but it can kill a small family owned restaurant.” Or, “One of the things that makes Yelp so uneven is that it allows for anonymity of the reviewer. Unlike professional reviews (where the reviewer might be a secret, but still is accountable to a readership and probably a publisher) with Yelp there's no accountability at all. It's total crap.” And, “Anything that can make Yelp useless, I'm behind 100%.”
But let's face it, Yelp is a culturally entrenched behemoth and it's not going anywhere. Curmudgeons like me and a handful of rebels at places like Alden & Harlow and Botto Bistro can quixotically tilt at windmills all day long and it's not going to make a bit of difference other than, perhaps, making us feel a little better for having “done something.” So instead of saying, “don't use Yelp,” – because I know you're going to anyway, – let me echo Michael Scelfo and say, “please use Yelp – and other similar sites – responsibly.” As a consumer, develop a “BS meter” and learn how to figure out when the system is being gamed. There are a lot of tells you can spot in a fake review. I've written about them and there are a ton of articles on the subject available online. Don't be a part of destroying somebody's livelihood just because some moron with an ax to grind tells you to. And if you're one of the ax-grinding morons, shame on you. I hope your Mama's proud and that you can live with yourself, because it's likely that no one else wants to live with you.
Better yet, exercise some judgment and common sense. You want to know if a place is good? Ask a local. I do it all the time. Last time I was in Boston, I didn't “Yelp”. I was in a little North End bottega and asked the clerk, “where's a good place for lunch?” And her recommendation was wonderful. Or you can consult an expert. Read a newspaper or magazine review. Check out a copy of a guide like the one published by Zagat. The people who eat for a living are much more qualified to guide you to a good place than some idiot who trashes a restaurant because he didn't like the way the waiter smiled.
Just remember that adage about opinions and a**holes the next time you're tempted to rely on Yelp. And then think seriously about what you get out of an a**hole before you make a choice.