Stephanie Rudig

If you’ve ever written a Yelp review and felt like you were shouting into an abyss with no one there on the other side to hear your feedback, you’d only be right part of the time. At least five of D.C.’s largest restaurant groups have employees scurrying around behind the scenes tracking patterns, making adjustments, and strategically responding to aggrieved patrons who chose not to voice their criticisms in person. 

“I love Yelp,” says Farmers Restaurant Group co-owner Dan Simons. He has six full-service restaurants in the region, including Founding Farmers in Foggy Bottom. When the restaurant hit 10,000 reviews earlier this year, it became the most Yelped restaurant in D.C. “The only thing I ever disagreed with Tony Bourdain on was his disdain for Yelp. But I understand it because he wanted to defend the restaurateur or defend the chef. You don’t need to be defended from people who are upset. You need to engage them.” 

The late chef and TV personality’s disdain for the review site was well documented. In 2017, he told Business Insider, “You open a restaurant, you struggle for a year to put together the money, you work your heart out, and then 10 minutes after opening, some miserable b—- is tweeting or Yelping, ‘Worst. Dinner. Ever.’” 

While some restaurateurs live to put Yelpers in their place, others like Simons can’t fathom ignoring free advice. “The return on investment is crystal clear,” he says. “The analogy is if a guest said to a server, ‘I want to talk to a manager.’ Can you imagine not going? There’s the positive return for engaging and the negative cost of not engaging.” 

He believes hyperbolic one-star reviews, while impactful on a restaurant’s overall rating, are not the norm. “I know it’s a megaphone and people can say really mean things and people can write things that are untrue,” Simons says. “But that’s not what it’s about. That’s at the fringes. To get wrapped up in the fringes is just really silly.” 

Horror stories of Yelpers behaving badly abound. Disgruntled guests look for freebies or threaten poor reviews in exchange for a better table, so restaurants don’t always consider the site a valuable resource. “You know when you run into those people,” Simons says. “They want to talk to someone in corporate. They’ve got a playbook. The beauty of not having a boss is I can say whatever the fuck I want, but I teach my team to ignore the small fraction of people that are just trying to beat you or scam you.” 

Farmers Restaurant Group assigns five employees from its communications team to monitor and respond to reviews on Yelp and six other sites. “It’s emotional feedback and it’s hard to sift through,” says vice president of marketing and communications Meaghan O’Shea. “But you have to get to the core of what is actually wrong, own it, and try to make it right. To say this doesn’t matter, you’re basically saying the guest doesn’t matter.”

They make real world adjustments based on Yelp. Farmers Fishers Bakers in Georgetown once had a server who traversed the dining room doling out free pastries to customers in the morning. But those toward the front of the dining room got first dibs, leaving diners in the back of the dining room jealous because they never got any cinnamon buns or biscuits. “Now when you’re seated, the server rings and then the pastries get run [directly] to the table,” O’Shea says. The change happened because staff saw it mentioned in reviews. 

Farmers Restaurant Group uses Venga, a D.C.-based third-party service to aggregate its star ratings across multiple platforms. The company spits out average scores for food, service, and ambience. “There’s also a word cloud,” O’Shea says. “If meatloaf gets mentioned three times for being salty, it will be red in the word cloud.” 

They use the aggregated scores to stoke healthy competition among their eateries. “There’s some level of accountability in a good way,” she says. “Anytime an employee is mentioned in either a positive or negative way, we follow up whether it’s a coaching point or time for praise.” 

Neighborhood Restaurant Group Chief Strategy Officer Amber Pfau also noticed that Yelpers mention servers by name. “We get to go tell our staff what a great job they’ve done—it’s one of the best parts about investing in Yelp,” she says. Reviews from professional critics are quick to high-five or knock an executive chef or bartender by name, but they seldom mention waitstaff.

About a year ago, Pfau decided to put more elbow grease into tracking and responding to reviews on Yelp. “There were people who were clearly dining in the restaurants and feeling positively or negatively about something and not conveying it to the restaurant at the time,” she explains. The first step she took was to look for patterns at the group’s 18 businesses using Excel sheets and plenty of patience. 

Pfau and her team found that Bluejacket patrons were clamoring in large numbers for fries instead of chips with the brewery’s burger, for example. “It actually became comical that it happened so many times in one month,” she says. They adjusted their food costs so they could make the switch. “We did it and people seem to like our burger better,” says Pfau.

The exercise proved advantageous enough that Pfau wanted to dig deeper and correspond with reviewers. She tasked the general manager at each restaurant with responding to every review on Yelp, TripAdvisor, RESY, and OpenTable, regardless of whether it was positive or negative.

“The hot button issues are the prices and timing and they’re so subjective based on the person,” Pfau says. “Someone will say something is too expensive when we’ve literally priced it the same at our restaurant as every other neighborhood restaurant … Then you know it’s not about the price. It’s really about the experience. Something about the experience is making them feel like the dish is expensive.” 

NRG takes reviews so seriously that they’ll do deep data analysis. “If someone says, ‘I waited a long time for a drink,’ you don’t know what they consider a long time,” Pfau says. “We can go and look at the ticket times and say, ‘to us that is a long time. You shouldn’t have to wait 20 minutes to get a cocktail.’” 

When they spot a situation where the restaurant is at fault, they take Yelp’s advice and stop short of offering free food or drinks to bait disgruntled customers into returning. “That’s the number one rule,” she says. “We abide by it. You shouldn’t be defensive and you should not offer them anything.” 

O’Shea takes a different approach. “We have a whole recovery process,” she says. “We want to make sure the punishment fits the crime.” If drinks took too long to come out, Farmers Restaurant Group might invite them in for a round of drinks and an appetizer on the house. “In the long run, that amount of money is a drop in the bucket to potentially have them update their review or have them come back. It’s more expensive to acquire a new guest than it is to maintain a current guest.” 

O’Shea, Pfau, and others in the industry know what to filter out. “Traffic, a bad day, a break-up, it all comes out in a Yelp review like you’re talking to a therapist,” Pfau says. “These are the things servers and managers have been trained on when it comes to reading a table.” The only difference with Yelp is that the comments are digital. 

“It’s amazing how much people talk about the weather and how that influences whatever happened,” Pfau says. The elements factor into the dining experience at Iron Gate because customers covet its patio. “We’ve tried everything in our power to make it as large and covered as possible. But if you can’t sit outside because of the weather, you don’t tend to blame it on mother nature. You tend to blame it on [Chef] Tony Chittum.”

That’s why it’s critical to know your businesses and their nuances, according to Ivan Iricanin. He owns two Ambar locations in the area, plus Tacos, Tortas and Tequila and Buena Vida in Silver Spring.

“I can read reviews and tell what’s accurate and what’s not,” he says. “Sometimes you have uneducated diners and it’s a platform that anyone can say whatever they want, but in general you can learn a lot about your business.” 

He describes a review where a Yelper was disappointed that one of his restaurants didn’t do “anything special” for restaurant week. “We had all-you-can-eat for 70 items for $35,” he says. “It’s the best deal in the world. You’re going to get a lot of those, but if you understand your business, you can read through the bogus reviews.” 

Clyde’s Restaurant Group and José Andrés’ ThinkFoodGroup also dedicate manpower to monitoring review sites on a daily basis. “When a guest has an unfortunately negative experience, it is our opportunity to be able to turn that around and create an even stronger engagement and connection,” says ThinkFoodGroup COO Eric Martino. “Being able to recover and relying on your guests to provide feedback and accepting that feedback is key to help you thrive.”

Molly Quigley, Clyde’s’ director of communications, reads about Yelp and participates in webinars to glean best practices. The restaurants in her group—Clyde’s, The Tombs, 1789, Old Ebbitt Grill, The Hamilton, and The Soundry—receive about 100 reviews a day combined. “We reach out to however many we can,” she says. “Sometimes it’s two. Sometimes it’s 20.” 

Quigley takes the approach of responding privately. “We see this as us talking to them,” she says. “Yelp recommends the opposite. They think everything should be public. We’re just trying to talk to them, we’re not trying to increase our rating or SEO.” 

Overall, the extra effort is worth it. “There’s so much power behind Yelp,” Quigley says. “In the last year, 600,000 people went to Old Ebbitt’s Yelp page … There are so many restaurants and they’ve chosen to come to ours. People use it so you can’t ignore it.” 

Pfau agrees that restauraters would be remiss to ignore Yelp, calling haters unwise for thinking anyone is unqualified to make a judgement about a restaurant. “There’s no exam you need to take before you’re able to go somewhere,” she says. “It’s challenging to hear criticism in any format … but once you let your guard down and recognize it as a real opportunity to provide your guest with the experience they’re telling you they’d like to have, it makes you realize how important of a tool it is. We’re already doing it in our restaurant. This expands it beyond our doors.”

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to lhayes@washingtoncitypaper.com.