SAN DIEGO — Over the past decade, North San Diego County restaurant owners Roddy and Aaron Browning have looked upon Yelp, the high-profile crowd-sourced reviews platform, as something of a necessary evil. A diner's positive 5-star review will make their day, but a negative 1- or 2-star review will ruin their week.
But since the pandemic began in March, the Brownings and many other local restaurateurs say recent bad reviews on Yelp — many of them for county-ordered safety and service requirements beyond their control — are making the struggle to survive even harder. Some owners' classy, clever and angry written responses to recent low-starred reviews have gone viral.
Meanwhile, Yelp says it has stepped up efforts to remove unfair reviews and it is encouraging its diner-members to show compassion for restaurant owners before they push the publish button.
The Brownings own 10-year-old The Flying Pig Pub & Kitchen in Oceanside and 5-year-old TownHall Public House in Vista. For them, the struggle to keep the doors open is a real and daily battle. Sales are down 60% at both locations, and recent low-starred Yelp reviews have hurt business. One diner complained about the Flying Pig's phone being busy due to a rise in takeout orders. Another said his pork chop wasn't piping hot when it reached the table. And a third was unhappy with their table on the patio at TownHall. Roddy Browning said his efforts to have Yelp remove the most unfair and dishonest reviews has been unsuccessful.
"We may miss steps of service here and there but we're constantly trying to pivot to make it safe. If you feel you need to write a Yelp review, first look in the mirror and ask yourself, 'is this going to help this struggling small business?' If you really want to help us, tell us when you're there, or call us or email us so we can make it right. We are listening. We are all listening. Don't shame us on the Internet. We need the help right now."
Since March, California has led the nation in restaurant closures. According to a national survey released by Yelp late last month, 15,770 U.S. restaurants permanently closed between March 1 and July 10. In San Diego County, 226 restaurants have closed for good since the pandemic began, Yelp reports.
To clarify the challenges they're facing to survive, a growing number of restaurant operators are publishing replies to negative reviews they receive on Yelp.
A few weeks ago, an "Elite" Yelp member named Amanda L. wrote a scathing 2-star review about Parc Bistro-Brasserie in San Diego's Bankers Hill neighborhood after she and three girlfriends showed up without a reservation at the full restaurant on a Saturday evening. The writer made jokes about the advanced age of the people dining there and implied that the owners were sexist in turning her party away.
In a written response, manager Samatha Scholl told the reviewer she should be ashamed of herself for making fun of elderly people who are most at risk during the pandemic. She also wrote that Parc Bistro is running at 25% of capacity and was completely booked the night of their visit.
"We are all going through a difficult time and we at Parc Bistro are so grateful for the clientele we have, no matter what their age. To make fun of people because they are old? Really? REALLY? Grotesquely immature and wildly inappropriate," Scholl wrote in the post that earned an outpouring of community support when a reader posted it on the Facebook group page "Eating & Drinking in San Diego" days later. Yelp officials reported that the writer of the post, Amanda L., took it down herself.
Anderson Clark, the co-owner of Common Stock restaurant in the Hillcrest neighborhood, also took a reviewer named Lisa D. to task for a 3-star review she posted on March 18, one day after the county ordered all restaurants and bars to close. Her review was based on slow service she experienced during a visit to Common Stock the weekend before, when restaurants were already feeling the impact of a sharp decline in business.
Clark responded to the review, which has since been deleted, writing: "Normally we would apologize for your less than perfect experience and try to invite you back in for a meal on us. However, since you are the type of person sitting here (on March 18, 2020, in the middle of a national crisis) contemplating what rating we deserve on Yelp, as we face the most existential crisis we have (and perhaps ever will) in the restaurant industry, we hope you don't come back."
And Martin Blair, owner of Kansas City Barbeque downtown, politely wrote an explanation of the county's face-covering mandate to an Arizona tourist named Alex B. who opened his 1-star review on June 20 with the words: "Gotta be the worst place to visit in California yet." The review ended with Alex referencing the 1st, 5th and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution on how the restaurant is breaking the law by forcing people to wear masks. After being alerted to the review by the Union-Tribune on Wednesday, Yelp officials swiftly removed it.
Lidiya Kravchuk Harvey, director of brand strategy for the San Diego-based restaurant company Puesto, has written responses to several negative reviews since the pandemic began in order to educate both the reviewers and others who may read the posts. The first negative review to roll in after Puesto closed its restaurants March 17 was on March 18. It was a 3-star review from a writer named Jasmine who complained that she missed the La Jolla location's quick-service, Chipotle-style format — which Puesto discontinued in favor of full, sit-down service in 2013.
"Seven years later you're frustrated about a business model that we changed in 2013? I understand if you're frustrated about something we did two months ago, but why would you do it now?" Harvey said on Thursday. "We literally don't know if we'll survive, and with reviews like this you just dumped all the salt in our wounds. Normally we address these reviews privately and have a 'customer's always right' approach, but I wanted to start addressing these publicly because people have no idea what we're going through."
Puesto operates seven restaurants statewide, including three in San Diego, two in Irvine and two in the Bay area. Two have been closed since March due to a lack of outdoor seating. Last month, Puesto opened its long-anticipated Mission Valley Cerveceria location, where they have set up patio seating with umbrellas in the parking lot. Cool night air and heat waves have led to several bad Yelp reviews, along with complaints about long wait times for parties who arrive without a reservation, Harvey said.
"We have metrics and predictions about how long a party will sit, but right now all bets are off. People don't have other things to do so we found that predicting wait times is incredibly challenging," Harvey said. "A lot of people are dining for longer. We won't make people leave after 90 minutes. That's not us. But some people are coming and sitting for three to three-and-a-half hours."
Harvey said she has had very good response from Yelp when she has alerted them to negative reviews on issues that related to face-covering orders.
"I'll give them credit," she said. "We're just enforcing whatever the county and state tell us and they've been responsive and good about taking those down."
In March, Yelp updated its content guidelines regarding reviews published during the pandemic to give struggling businesses some breathing room.
In an email to The San Diego Union-Tribune, a Yelp spokeswoman said that Yelp has instituted a zero tolerance policy for claims in reviews about businesses changing their operating hours, being closed during regular operating hours or that criticize pandemic-related safety rules. Automated algorithms flag questionable reviews and they are then evaluated by a human content moderator. As more restaurants have reopened since May, Yelp has recorded a rising number of reviews it has removed.
In July, Yelp added "ghost text" in the text box that members will see when they begin writing a review. It strongly encourages them to keep in mind that many businesses are struggling to stay afloat in these uncertain times. There's also a new pop-up notification that all Yelp users will see when they sign into the site, reminding them to consider the circumstances the restaurants are facing when reading negative reviews.
Browning said there are several reviews he has asked Yelp to take down without success. He said some Yelp reviewers embellish what they write to add more drama to their story but he has witness statements and video recordings that prove some of the reviews are outlandish falsehoods. Thanks to loyal customers and federal Paycheck Protection Program loans, he and his wife expect their restaurants will survive the pandemic. But he hopes Yelp reviewers will put down their poison pens in the meantime.
"We're going to make it," he said, "but these people aren't making it any easier."