Butter wouldn't melt in her mouth, you'd think. Don't be fooled. Katy Hewitson is the public face of Yelp.com, probably the most controversial institution (after the health inspector) in the restaurant industry.
She approaches her job, officially termed "community outreach," with the full knowledge that the site is hated by many, but she believes that their animosity can be turned around by the sheer force of her relentless cheerfulness. She doesn't sell ads; she teaches business owners how to tame the rough beast of social media, how to encourage the good and manage the inevitable bumps. She approaches her work with the good-hearted innocence of a child and the confidence of a wizard.
Yelp is now ten years old and a ubiquitous feature of American life, all the more important because we're eating out more than ever. The stats are impressive: over 130 million unique visitors a month in the US alone, 57 million reviews. Yelp itself isn't the arbiter but the forum where the merits of an establishment are laid out, played out, flayed out by hordes of (some would say) liars, beggars, tramps, and thieves, or expertly dissected by a swarm of (what others might call) discerning critics. Either way, Yelp provides a platform from which to view and admire the train wreck.
Some surprises to be found in the mangled mashup of boxcars and parlor cars, by the way:
- Restaurants account for only one in five Yelp reviews
- Two thirds of them are four- and five-star ratings
- Four out of ten Yelp users make over $100,000 a year
- About a quarter of all reviews are for shopping
- Most readers put more credence in the content of a review than in the rating
Yes, there are algorithms written by Yelp engineers that flag reviews suspected of being hit jobs by competitors or blow jobs by paid fluffers; Katy says she doesn't have anything to do with that part of the company. On any given day, some 40,000 reviews are held up or removed by Yelp staffers, due to the unfathomable algorithms or to flags from customers or business owners.
Katy came to Seattle eight years ago fresh out of college (U Mass, Boston) for a job in tech, fiercely determined to take full advantage of her newly adopted city. It was a propitious time. Various guidebook-style websites (Citysearch, Urbanspoon, TripAdvisor) were adding user comments to their directory listings, with Yelp users in particular taking passive-aggressive advantage of their anonymity to complain about the slightest perceived insult to their self-centered sense of entitlement. (Waitresses who don't refill water glasses are targets of particularly vengeful bolts of wrath.) In 2009 she became the public face of Yelp in Seattle, the one whose job description is "community engagement," not sales (definitely not sales) but liaison with consumers and business owners, sponsor of public and private events, and author of a newsletter with some 650,000 readers.
Yelp, which will list any business with a street address, has ten times the number of visitors than travel-focused TripAdvisor, Hewitson claims. (Parenthetically, fully half TripAdvisor's top dozen Seattle restaurants are in the Pike Place Market; Ellenos, a Greek yogurt counter, stands at the top of the rankings.) Yelp listings cover 30 countries; the site gets 150 million unique visitors a month. Like a tour guide showing off backstage secrets to theater buffs, she reveals the inner workings of the site to business owners, showing them what they can do on their own, for free.
The irony, of course, is that it's no longer enough for a restaurant owner to serve a killer carbonara or an artisan to fashion unique leather goods; they have to learn a whole new set of skills to fight back against social media. Friends can't be too fawning lest they get screened out by Yelp's inscrutable algorithms. You have to guard against sabotage from competitors; even your own customers can turn on you at any moment. No wonder it's harder than ever to run a restaurant.
One case in point: Mondello in Magnolia, a 30-seat café owned by Corino Bonjrada, where his mother, Enza Sorrentino, prepares dishes from her native Sicily. Solid four-star record. Along comes a dude from Brixton, in the UK, who proceeds to trash the place, complains of rude treatment from owner's daughter (?), crappy lasagna, no water refills, etc. Turns out, after much bafflement, that the guest was writing about a different Mondello, in London, no less. Not as easy as you might think to move this review out of the Seattle listings. Bonjrada's social-media monitoring service responded after a couple of days: "We're sorry you had a poor experience at Mondello. We're glad it wasn't the Mondello in Seattle!" Zing! The service, Main Street Hub out of Texas, isn't cheap: $300 a month. Still, the entire thread disappeared within minutes.
In Greenwood, Paola Corsini doesn't bother responding to negative reviews for her cozy Turkish eatery, the Olive and Grape. Most of the comments are four- and five-star reviews, and the occasional one- and two-star complaints are obviously from self-absorbed grouches. "They'd complain even if they were at Canlis," she says.
Not quite as generous in spirit is Ted Furst, longtime presence in the local restaurant scene (Campagne), owner of Le Grand Bistro Americain on the Kirkland waterfront. "Yelp is one of the tools we use to listen to our guests," he says, "even though there's not much you can do about a petulant, anonymous one-star review." Furst prefers the reviews on Open Table because he can identify the diner, the order, and the server.
Katy Hewitson hears the frustrations, and is reminded of her own family's commercial ventures. (Her older brother is following in dad's footsteps as a pharmacist.) "I would never do anything to hurt small business owners," she says.
Note: this post, in slightly different form, was also published today on Crosscut.com.