Darrow Montgomery
Darrow Montgomery

“You know what I think?” Matteo Russoniello says. “Yelp sucks anyway. Who really cares. Just losers go there.” The online review platform’s recent decision to publish restaurant health scores in more cities and states as a part of its Local Inspector Value-Entry Specification (LIVES) program has frustrated the general manager of Il Canale. The program launched in 2013 in San Francisco and New York, and expanded to D.C. on July 24. 

The move makes the already complicated relationship between restaurants and Yelp even more contentious. Restaurant owners question the accuracy and fairness of the numbers, as well as the transparency of a process that can translate to dollars gained or lost. 

Yelp aims to provide users with easy-to-digest numbers indicating how hygienic a restaurant is using existing government data. Yelp’s vice president for public policy, Luther Lowe, argues that health inspection reports on “.gov” websites are tough to access and can be rife with jargon. A simple score of between zero and 100 on a highly trafficked site, which had 155 million reviews posted as of March 2018, is more serviceable, he argues.

“There’s an incentive for health inspectors and restaurateurs to have esoteric language that keeps consumers out of the loop,” Lowe says. He isn’t confident that the average District resident could track down a restaurant’s most recent health inspection report. “Yelp is a proxy for consumers,” Lowe continues. “We’re trying to give them a seat at the table.” 

Lowe hopes the program lights a fire under bad actors who put diners in danger and points to Los Angeles as proof that demystifying health scores is beneficial. In the 1990s, the city implemented an A, B, C grading system for restaurants. A score of 70 to 80 points is a C, 80 to 90 is a B, and 90 to 100 is an A. Placards displaying a restaurant’s grade are conspicuously posted for diners to see. 

“Within two years there was a 13 percent reduction in [foodborne illness-related] hospitalizations,” Lowe says. “Ninety percent of of restaurants had A and B scores. It raised the bar in terms of upping people’s games. Thousands of Americans die per year of foodborne illnesses they get in restaurants.”

The rating procedure District health inspectors employ isn’t as compatible with generating a single number from zero to 100. The Department of Health (DOH) utilizes the Food and Drug Administration’s system of tabulating violations in three categories: priority, priority foundation, and core. To help translate these results into something more meaningful to consumers, Yelp contracted with HD Scores, a private company that aggregates health inspection data. 

“I’m not sure if I showed you the algorithm, you would understand it,” says HD Scores chief marketing officer Glynne Townsend. “It takes a view of a restaurant over a two year period. A report from last Tuesday will have a stronger impact than one from nearly two years ago.” HD Scores’ system looks at how many critical versus non-critical violations a restaurant racks up and applies a number to them. Repeat offenses carry more weight. 

To understand how the scoring system works in practice, City Paper chose a D.C. neighborhood—Georgetown—and sought out the highest and lowest health scores posted on Yelp thus far. Fine dining mainstay 1789 Restaurant, which just completed a 19-month renovation, came away with a perfect 100.

On the other side of the spectrum, Simply Banh Mi scored a 59. Health inspectors last evaluated the Vietnamese deli on Dec. 9, 2016, after a complaint was filed. They found bonafide cause for concern: four priority violations, eight priority foundation violations, and six core violations. Violations that fall under the priority category are the most dangerous and are directly related to the elimination, prevention, or reduction of foodborne illnesses. 

Some of the infractions tallied on Dec. 9 included dirty cutting boards, soup held at improper temperatures, visible rodent droppings, and no soap near the sink. As is customary, inspectors returned several days later on Dec. 12 and found that every complaint had been addressed. 

Alison Reeves, a DOH spokesperson, confirms that Simply Banh Mi’s last inspection was in December 2016. “Due to a computer glitch, the re-inspection was not automatically assigned,” she says. “Now that it has been brought to our attention, we are now able to immediately correct the error.” She adds that DOH is working on implementing procedures that will prevent this oversight from reoccurring. 

To determine how frequently a restaurant should be inspected, DOH assigns risk levels based on factors such as the menu and the inspection history. Risk level one locations receive one inspection per year and risk level two locations receive two per year and so on up to risk level five. Simply Banh Mi is a risk level two establishment, according to Reeves. It should have had two inspections in 2017 and likely should have received one of its two 2018 evaluations by this point in the year.

As it stands now, the low health score rating of 59 for Simply Banh Mi is based on old information. The deli could have come a long way in 20 months. According to Yelp, the posting of hygiene scores on its site leads to a 12 percent decrease in purchase intentions for restaurants with poor scores.

“Yelp claims to be an advocate for my small business when they call me for money and yet this act seems to be in direct contradiction to that claim,” says Simply Banh Mi co-owner John Tran. “We’ve made mistakes in the past and to highlight those past shortcomings is obviously detrimental. We can only hope that the public will accept our apologies for the mistakes we’ve made in starting our business.” 

City Paper contacted Yelp, DOH, and Simply Banh Mi last week when Simply Banh Mi’s health score was 59. As of July 31, the score had increased to 65, despite the fact that no new health inspection date had been posted on the DOH website. The most recent inspection date is still from December 2016.

Yelp VP Lowe says he sympathizes with Simply Banh Mi. “The restaurant is hurt by this,” he says. “They don’t feel it’s fair because it was a while back. That’s a reasonable complaint.” 

But he pins the blame on DOH, not his employer. “I can’t believe you have a restaurant that hasn’t been inspected in almost two years,” Lowe says. “This is as embarrassing for the city as it is for the restaurant.” He hopes the health scores on Yelp play a role in holding both restaurants and the city accountable. “We knew this would be disruptive, but that’s sort of the point.” 

The Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington is displeased with the local rollout of the LIVES program. Restaurant owners wanted more notice, according to RAMW CEO Kathy Hollinger. “We could have given our folks a heads up over what could create a disturbance in the market locally,” she says. “That wasn’t done.” 

Hollinger points out that Yelp just opened a 52,000-square-foot office in downtown D.C. “It’s not a great way to enter our market,” she says. “It does not create much goodwill within the restaurant community.” 

Lowe expected this response. “We know what the unanimous view of the trade associations are,” Lowe explains. “They empower and protect restaurant owners. We exist to empower and protect consumers. There’s always going to be tension.”

Hollinger argues that giving health inspection results greater visibility yields unintended consequences. “It pits one restaurant over another in terms of creating these wars in an already very competitive landscape,” she says.

Take Il Canale and Flavio, next-door neighbors on 31st Street NW, for example. Il Canale’s Russoniello was surprised to learn the Italian restaurant he manages has a score of 66 on Yelp. Most scores in the neighborhood hover between 80 and 90. “You can see through our kitchen,” he says. “It’s hard to hide dirt.” 

He wonders why Flavio deserves its score of 84. “The last three reviews say people left because there were rats inside,” Russoniello says. Three recent reviews of Flavio mention vermin. Yelp users Shanna G. and Kristy W. wrote about seeing cockroaches there this month and Ashley P. talks about a rat in the rafters in her June 25 review. The only recent review of Il Canale that mentions critters is from June 2016. Incidents described by diners aren’t verified and don’t factor into a restaurant’s health score.

Both Il Canale owner Giuseppe “Joe” Farruggio and Russoniello are concerned about Yelp’s motivations and ethics. “Yelp sells advertisements,” Farruggio says. “They’re helping the people that pay them. We don’t spend any money.” “What they’re looking for is advertising—they added this feature just to draw people’s attention,” Russoniello adds. 

Lowe refutes claims that Yelp is a pay-for-play site and that the intention of the LIVES program is to increase traffic, making the site more tempting to advertisers. “This is the anti-vaxxer, Pizzagate-level conspiracy that that has been debunked six ways from Sunday,” he says. “There has never been any amount of money people can pay to monkey with their ratings or reviews on Yelp.”

He believes that whatever additional traffic Yelp receives from introducing health scores will be marginal. “We’re already a heavily trafficked site,” Lowe says. “We want to make sure that all traffic coming in gets useful, actionable information.” 

Some frequent Yelp users are confused and concerned about health data as well. Several individuals City Paper interviewed assumed the health scores were crowd-sourced like the rest of the site’s content. Clicking on the blue text that reads “health score” opens a new window with more information, but it’s unlikely everyone will click through.

Yelp user Paige F. worries the health grades will give new restaurants another leg up on older establishments. While she says she plans to look at the health scores before dining out, she will take them with a grain of salt. “I’d want to take a look back to how updated the records are,” she says. 

Michael De Dora, another avid Yelp user, believes the site is well intentioned in providing consumers with more information, but feels there are some shortcomings—most notably that HD Scores isn’t being fully transparent about its score-tabulating algorithm. 

“What we do know suggests there are some deficiencies,” De Dora says, referring to the fact that some scores are based on health inspections that are more than a year old. “Maybe certain restaurants should get a period where they don’t get scored for their health because there hasn’t been a recent inspection.” Otherwise, he worries, it could hurt a lot of businesses that worked to improve over the past one to two years. 

“Yelp is providing restaurants with a free service. They should be thankful for that,” De Dora continues. “But [Yelp has] a responsibility to make sure what they’re providing is accurate.”

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