Sunday, August 12, 2012

Yelp: A vegan's best friend?

The author (at right), who yelps "to help other vegans and to
encourage the veganization of restaurants of every stripe."

By Kim Stahler

When my journalist spouse reminds me that people should be paid for writing rather than giving it away for free, I pause and think about my frequent contributions to Yelp, currently the most popular website for reviewing restaurants. Yelp offers a one- to five- star system, with as much writing space as you can fill.

Yelp is now a public company (not exactly taking the financial world by storm, at least not yet). So my regular writing on this site helps generate corporate profits. That doesn’t make me particularly happy, but I justify it by exploiting Yelp to promote vegan restaurants. I Yelp in order to help other vegans and to encourage the veganization of restaurants of every stripe. Alas, Yelp has become a verb.

I found Yelp several years ago when searching the Internet for vegetarian food, and I have routinely received great advice from the reviews of other vegans. Yelp has also clued me in to hidden vegan menus, introduced me to restaurants I would not have otherwise known about, and shown me pictures that help greatly when visiting a place for the first time.

There are other sites just for vegans, namely Happy Cow and VegGuide, but Yelp is king right now. Because it seems most populated by Millennials, there is a growing ethical veggie sensibility there that stands up against foodie elitism. Even the omnivores seem generally appreciative of and sensitive to plant-based foods.

One of the most Yelpable places on our planet.
Speaking of elitism, one particularly silly aspect of Yelp is its awarding of Elite status to people who write a lot of reviews. Since Yelp doesn’t pay its writers, it offers this status to the status-conscious, conferring little but party invitations and a badge on one’s profile. I can see the appeal to twenty somethings who are unfairly stunted by a horrific economy and student loans: free food and drinks abound. However, I hear things can get pretty drunken and competitive in such an environment. Even though my profile states I am uninterested, I have been offered Elite status repeatedly.

I have also felt the sting of having reviews removed when I did not follow Yelp’s guidelines, and this no doubt means someone complained. While companies are smart to hire people to supervise their online reputations and respond to problems, Yelp says it will not remove bad reviews unless they violate its policies. One of my violations was commenting on a restaurant situation when it was clear I had not visited (like the tipping arrest controversy in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania; it appears the people arrested for not paying the included tip got all their friends to Yelp-bomb the restaurant with tons of 1-star reviews). Another was giving an inside scoop on a place I had worked. However, if you rewrite and repost your review according to their guidelines, they will usually leave it alone.

Restaurant owners can contact reviewers who post of their disappointments. I’ve received messages after lamenting the lack of plant-based food, usually with the not very thrilling answer of “We can make you something.” But that is a start to a good conversation on how a restaurant can actually become appealing to alternative eaters. See my open letter on this blog for more about this.

Another positive: Yelp does not allow direct comments on reviews, so it has not become the hotbed of nastiness that you see with online newspapers. You can mark a review as cool, funny, or useful, and you can send compliments or comments to writers, but the writer controls which comments show, and you can block people and flag those who are harassing. And writing from a vegan perspective does occasionally inspire a nastygram, but not nearly as often as it inspires sweet notes of support.

Yelp offers a similar friending mechanism as Facebook. It seems mostly for collecting and status purposes, because you don’t need to be a friend of someone to read their profile or reviews. So friending is not that important to me on Yelp.

Yelp’s smartphone app is particularly useful to vegans and vegetarians, especially when traveling. I love how they show when a restaurant is open and that you can call the restaurant right from the Yelp app. Because the search seems to work more by keyword than category, it is important to mention descriptive words such as vegan or gluten-free in one’s reviews. However, this means that when I complain that there was not even one vegan item on a menu, that restaurant will show up in a keyword search for vegan. Sorry about that!

Yelp seems to have a lot of room for pictures too, both in restaurant listings and in the writer’s profile. This can make you into that annoying person who is constantly photographing her food. It’s up to you whether you want to show your face on there. I was once paying the check at a local place, when the owner said to me, “If we take credit cards, will you give us another star?” I remembered that I had gone on about his credit card policy in my Yelp review; uh oh, a Yelp moment. I’ve also had waiters come up to me and comment on my reviews after recognizing me. This might not work out so well if you return to places you have savaged...

Yelp claims that four-star reviews are the most common rating, which makes sense because people usually go to restaurants they know they will like. Most of my five-star reviews are reserved for vegan-only restaurants, but there are some exceptions. Maybe it is where I live with its lack of options, but I follow the Bell curve and most commonly give three stars. Yelp allows writers to update and edit reviews any time, a welcome feature.

You can enjoy a bigger influence if you live in a less-Yelped geographic area. Because I don’t live in a big city, my reviews are more visible. Sometimes, mine is the only review. In the major markets of NYC, Philly, and so on, interesting restaurants typically have hundreds of reviews. Yelp used to organize them to show the most recent first, though they now use some confusing algorithm to determine the order. This has gotten them accused of manipulating content according to whether the establishment has advertised with Yelp. It supposedly went like this: “Buy some advertising, and we’ll move those bad reviews to the bottom.” Anyway, small communities benefit from user-generated content that is not influenced by ads, since most small newspapers and magazines won’t risk losing advertising by publishing critical reviews. I always hope my (mostly) polite urging for vegan food will make a difference or at least make vegans more visible as people trying to spend money.

So Yelp gets me to write for free, but my payback is using it for my food activism. Do you check Yelp for vegan options? Do you get good advice? Do you contribute?

Kim Stahler has been vegetarian since 1990 and vegan since 2009. She works as a college librarian and lives with her spouse and three cats outside Philadelphia. Her other interests include worker advocacy, New Urbanism, buying less stuff, and writing letters with old fountain pens.