illustration of an angry woman reviewing restaurant
Cole Ott/Thrillist
Food & Drink

How Restaurants Deal With Insane Yelp Reviewers

Early last year, six months after the grand opening of Thoroughbred Food & Drink in Toronto, co-owners Ariel Coplan and Jacob Fox logged on to their Yelp account and found a curious two-star review. "I went to Thoroughbred for the first time with fairly high expectations," a user named Jennifer M. had written. At first those expectations seemed to have been met: "To be honest, I was decently satisfied during and throughout the meal." But then disaster struck: Jennifer forgot a bit of leftover sausage in a takeaway box on her way out the door.

"Got back to the restaurant ten minutes after we left, and when I got home and opened it, half of my food was missing. WHY WOULD YOU DEPRIVE ME OF MY SAUSAGES AND NOT TELL ME ABOUT IT? … Anyways, call me dramatic, but I don't think I'll be going back any time soon. Which is unfortunate because the Chicken Liver Mousse was delicious and at first I thought the service was ok." She concluded with a warning: "If you do go, just eat all of your food. Or pack it up yourself. Or check your box when you get it. And don't leave it there by accident."

Coplan and Fox were mystified. "It was crazy," Coplan remembers, laughing. He saw the takeaway dropped off at the pass by the server and watched it sit, undisturbed, until the diners returned to retrieve it. If anyone had eaten Jennifer M.'s food, it was Jennifer M. But this is the nature of the restaurant industry in the Age of Yelp. Coplan and Fox reached out to Jennifer to apologize and to invite her back for another visit. "I must give credit to a business when they make a good attempt at service recovery," she wrote as a follow-up emendation to her review. She also bumped up her rating. From two stars to three.

The rise of the angry, know-nothing gastro-yahoo

The good thing about the internet is that anyone can voice their opinion. The bad thing about the internet is that anyone can voice their opinion. In a perfect world, a platform like Yelp would empower diners and edify restaurant owners. Instead Yelp instills in tens of thousands of its users an inflated sense of authority and entitlement, affording the angry a vehicle for their resentment. You and I are welcome to ignore the most ridiculous reviews, and to read even the most judicious-seeming ones warily. But if you run a restaurant, you don't have that luxury.

Thoroughbred's Yelp reviews are otherwise very good, but, Coplan points out, a little negativity is to be expected: "You're never going to have only good reviews. When there are bad reviews, it's firstly about gauging why they're bad." Faulty service? Undercooked food? Fair enough, and worth reporting.

But it doesn't take so much to arouse the ire of a Yelper. "We've had reviews that read quite positive but have negative ratings. We had someone write that the drinks were really good because they're boozy, and then later in the same review write that the drinks were too boozy so she didn't like them. Or, you know, we don't accept American Express. Someone on Yelp had a great time, and everything was fine -- but suddenly when it came time to paying they're giving us a bad review and promising never to come back because we don't accept Amex."

Fox makes a point of encouraging Thoroughbred's satisfied diners to share their positive feedback online, but even that can fall short. "Usually they'll only tell you they're going to write about it when they've had a positive experience. If it's negative you don't hear about it until the review pops up. People will sit there at the table and say that everything is fine and then trash you on Yelp."

Over the years, there have been some spectacular flare-ups inspired by online reviews: dive bars have found infamy after taking vengeance to bad reviews in writing, beloved eateries have taken Facebook by storm with runaway rants, and owners have gone viral bringing fury to problem diners face-to-face. But as fun as it is to watch, even the wittiest and best-intentioned counterattacks can ultimately cause more harm than good.

So what do you do?

fried chicken and waffles at Sweet Chick
Courtesy of Sweet Chick

Option 1: Stay calm

If you've woken up hungover and hungry in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, you've no doubt shuffled blearily into Sweet Chick, a fixture of the neighborhood. Many Yelpers have: the beloved hotspot has nearly a thousand reviews and ratings to its name. And one man has read nearly all of them: John Seymour, Sweet Chick's owner. "I look at about 99% of them."

Sweet Chick has a solid four-star average. But like Coplan and Fox, Seymour is beleaguered by the inanity of many Yelp reviews. "I saw a really weird woman jogging by, completely topless," noted a Yelper recently in a three-star Sweet Chick review. "I'm talking National Geographic. So there are things to do while you wait." One fussy diner bestowed John a single star because "their vegetarian chicken isn't vegan"; another lambasted him because Sweet Chick doesn't take orders over the phone. Not especially helpful pieces of criticism from a restaurateur's perspective, true. But then there will always be good reviewers and bad reviewers, just as there are good reviews and bad reviews. ("Not everybody in the world is crazy," as Seymour puts it.)

But even in drivel he aspires to find merit. "Everybody has an opinion," he says. "Not everyone's opinion is going to be right, but every opinion is going to have something to it. You can have someone who is totally off-base, who doesn't know how restaurants work. Maybe they give you one star because you're not open at 6 in the morning. Not many restaurants are open at 6 in the morning. But if I see that review, I might learn something from it: maybe our hours aren't posted clearly online. Are they on the door? Are they on the Yelp app? Let's look into that."

Jon Trasky, general manager at Detroit’s Wright & Company -- a man with the unenviable job of reading and responding to hundreds upon hundreds of Yelp reviews -- also stands by the measured approach. "Take the emotion out of it," he says. "Either thank them for their feedback or offer some insight into why that experience maybe wasn't what they thought it was going to be -- without blaming the customer or venting your own frustrations."

Which leads us to:

exterior view of Copper Top BBQ
Courtesy of Copper Top BBQ

Option 2: Blame the customer and vent your own frustrations

While restaurateurs who complain about bad reviews probably think it's much easier for those with near-perfect ratings, it turns out that universal acclaim is not without its drawbacks. Want proof? You can find it in the middle of long stretch of open highway in California. Here, acclaim seems more like a curse.

Out along the 395 in little Big Pine, California, valley-set and bracketed by mountains, sits a huge ruddy yellow barbecue on an 8ft trailer, so conspicuous you can see it from the road. It's the eponymous grill of the Copper Top BBQ -- modest highway eatery, father-son affair, and The Best Restaurant in the United States of America.

The distinction is no mere personal whim. It was decided by you: by popular vote. Yelp announced last January, with customary fanfare, that it had rigorously studied its archive of user ratings to determine the hundred best-reviewed restaurants in the site's history from across the entire country -- "from food trucks to fine dining," as its press release put it. There are more than 600,000 restaurants in America. Copper Top emerged as No. 1. Suddenly, instantly, this unassuming family enterprise was launched from roadside obscurity into the stratosphere of culinary superstardom.

Critics both professional and amateur were surprised to learn that so seemingly inconsequential an establishment had received such an honor. So were the establishment's owners. "We had no idea," says Matthew Otten, manager of Copper Top and son of Hank, its founder and head chef. "We knew that our ratings on Yelp were good -- I think we had maybe one bad review out of 250. It was constant positivity. But we're just a small town. We thought there's got to be other restaurants out there doing way better than us. We didn't think much of it." Until a Big Pine local rushed to Copper Top one morning with breaking news. "We were No. 1 in America. It really took us by surprise."

Before their unlikely triumph, the Ottens maintained the kind of steady if unspectacular business one might expect of a well-liked small-town barbecue joint. "We were pretty popular around here," Otten remembers. "It wasn't crazy, but it was paying the bills." Then came the award.

"It just exploded. It went through the roof. We had people lined up down the street. We had nowhere near enough food -- for months." Of course every restaurateur dreams of being inundated with eager diners. But for an operation of this scale it isn't necessarily enviable. "We got a lot of business… more business than we could handle. There were so many people all day; we'd sell out by 2 o'clock. And we're selling barbecue. What we have is what we have."

Humble places have an unspoken advantage when it comes to reception. It's a matter of expectations. People are happy to praise a low-profile restaurant all the more for its lack of renown. But being designated the best restaurant in the country tends to provoke the opposite kind of reaction. People are merciless.

The surge of diners that descended on Copper Top after its Yelp victory could no longer be pleasantly surprised or even mildly awed; their experience either confirmed the title of No. 1 restaurant or contradicted it, making even the slightest error an infraction of unforgivable magnitude. Not enough napkins? Too-tangy sauce? Fine, ordinarily. But best implies a degree of perfection Yelpers swiftly identified as, in this case, unattained. It was like Copper Top suddenly found itself in the ring with Per Se.

Otten had in fact been warned that this would happen. Shortly after the award was announced he received a call from the restaurant that last held the title. "They called me and said to watch out: there's a target on us now." They were right. "We still had just as many good reviews," he says, "but we had all the people attacking us. That was difficult to adjust to, because I'm just trying to make a living here. My dad and I, we're working our butts off. And they're saying these horrible things."

Indeed. One user declared, "Everyone including the owner and Yelp should be ashamed of themselves for listing this restaurant so highly." Another wrote, "I couldn't say anything good about the meal. It was beyond comprehension that that Yelp gave such a high rating to this restaurant." They go on like that: "Don't waste your money or time… unprofessional and disgusting." "I don't know how this place became supposably #1 because that's a joke" [sic]. "Way overhyped by Yelpers." "Waste of time and money."

To hear Otten tell it, there was nothing short of a conspiracy to dethrone him: "I had businesses all over the place leaving fake one-star reviews. Just to bring us down. The business across the street started talking trash about us to the locals, saying horrible things, saying that we can't cook. People were calling us derogatory names. It got bad." (Some of the Yelp reviews really do get personal: "Don't listen to Matthew," one user wrote. "He is a loser.")

"I had this lady come up with a notepad in her hand," says Otten. "She said, 'Why do you think you deserve to be No. 1? Because I don't think you do!' I'm like, whoa! What the heck? We got that all the time: this place is not No. 1 and here's why." The Ottens weren't accustomed to such ruthless scrutiny. "We were just a quaint little barbecue joint. Just my dad and I. But because of that award people look for things to tear you down with."

Otten wasn't blessed with Seymour's zen calm. The deluge of negativity got to him. And so he started fighting back. "I went on the defensive for a bit," he admits, sounding a note of regret. Some of Otten's more colorful replies are still on Yelp -- and they're not pretty. "Please do us a favor and don't come back, we don't need your drama." "Take a chill pill and grow up." "Feel free to leave your review up and show the world just how knuckleheaded you are." Or, my personal favorite: "Please contact me if there is a real problem that I can fix, otherwise, please enjoy the obscurity that you are so accustomed to."

In recent months, Otten's responses -- even to the most censorious remarks and unfair one-star reviews -- are levelheaded and judicious. "I'm sorry we weren't able to feed you some great BBQ that day," he informed an angry Yelper annoyed that Copper Top had run out of food. "I'm sorry if your recent experience felt less than excellent in any way," he wrote to another, "and I hope you'll give us another chance soon." What accounts for Otten's newfound sense of diplomacy? "I just thought, I can't do this," he says. "All this does is make me look bad." Now, "I just write nice replies and if they seem biased I try to let it go."

appetizers at The Morrison
Platful

Postscript: Adapt or perish

Yelp unveiled the latest edition of its nationwide Top 100 in February. One of this year's surprise victors was The Morrison pub in Los Angeles -- the seventh-best restaurant in America, according to Yelp's survey, and the sole gastropub on the list. It's already proven as much a boon for business as it was for Copper Top last year. "Yelp is very, very, very powerful,: says Marc Kreiner, The Morrison's owner. "Of the guests that dine with us on a daily basis, I would say 60 to 70% of them are there because of Yelp. We've seen a huge increase in our business."

Like the Ottens before him, Marc is quickly finding that with the Yelp list's prestige come new demands. "It puts a lot of high expectations on our service and on our food," Marc says. "When you're as highly rated as we are, and when you're ranked seventh in the country, people have such high expectations before they even walk into our doors." Studies have shown that when books win major literary awards, their average ratings on Goodreads plummet -- call it the law of heightened expectations. It holds just as true for Yelp-praised restaurants and diners wary of hype.  

You can see the resentment manifesting itself in some of the negative reviews posted since the Morrison's top-10 placement: "I thought this place was just okay," "I have no idea why this place has the rating it does," "not sure where all the raves are coming from," "So overrated it's not even funny." And as with Copper Top, the plaudits make others quite nasty: "Probably the worst-tasting food I've ever had." "Is this place buying their reviews or what?" "7th best place to eat in the United States? This is not even the 7th best restaurant in Atwater village."

But for Marc you can't do anything about expectations. That's reality. "In life, people always have expectations. None of us can live up to them. It has nothing to do with restaurants or with Yelp. That's just human nature." It's all the restaurant can do to strive to be its best.

Today Copper Top and The Morrison are holding steady on Yelp with an average rating of 4.5. The madness of the post-awards rush, meanwhile, has settled for both to more manageable levels. Otten prefers to focus on what is plainly a net gain. "The end of it is we've had a big increase in business," he says. "It still brings people in: people say they've seen us on Yelp, they've seen the good reviews." As for his time on top of the world, he seems… humbled. "It's been a good learning experience. It taught me how to deal with the public and how people react to things online."

Yelp will continue to matter to restaurants like Copper Top and The Morrison, Marc believes. People aren't likely to lose interest anytime soon. "When the public has an opportunity to express themselves, when the public can express their feelings, you can't stop that. Yelp is just gonna get bigger and bigger," he says. "It's a monster."

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Calum Marsh is a freelance writer born in Great Britain and based in Toronto. His writings have appeared in The Guardian, The New Yorker, and Playboy. Follow him: @calummarsh.