The five-star, thousand-dollar post

Syracuse-area Yelp Elite reviewers hold the fate of local restaurants in their hands (and their phones)

Photo by Eaters Collective on Unsplash

The phone always eats first. Shortly after the plate hits the table, Andy Craig’s phone rises to the perfect angle to capture a photo of the food that may now be getting cold. Well, that is if he isn’t too hungry and remembers to do so. It usually takes only one try for Craig to get the photo right, but it takes anywhere from five to 30 minutes, and many read-throughs to get the rest of the review perfected in a Word document on his computer once he is back home. Once posted, hundreds of Yelp users will learn the details of his meal, and perhaps the rest of his night, before even stepping foot in the restaurant to order the same for themselves.

More than 177 million reviews just like this have been left on the platform since the site’s launch in 2004. Monthly, an average of 178 million unique individuals around the world use Yelp across platforms — mobile app, mobile web, or desktop web. On average, this group consists of college educated, affluent individuals who are anywhere from age 18 to 34 years old. Among these users on the platform are carefully selected individuals — the Yelp Elite.

Andy Craig is just one of dozens of Yelp Elite reviewers in Upstate New York. The yearly program is Yelp’s way of recognizing active community members to serve as leaders, tastemakers, and role models on the platform. Several factors are considered where elite-worthiness is concerned, including if the user has well-written reviews, high quality tips, a detailed personal profile, an active voting and complimenting record, and a history of playing well with others. But why do they leave the reviews in the first place?

Marcus Matkins is among the many Yelp Elite members in Syracuse. He started leaving reviews due to bad experiences he had in restaurants, but stayed because he realized people were actually reading the words he was writing. For no more than an hour a week, Matkins leaves his own reviews about the restaurants he visits, but he also uses Yelp to find his next move. But when doing so, he only trusts other Yelp Elite members.

“Any extreme experience warrants an extreme emotional response,” says Matkins, who has been Yelp Elite for about three years, making him weary of one-time reviewers who come to the platform to simply vent about an extreme experience.

Nearly all millennials trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations. Amid the social media frenzy millennials find themselves immersed in, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Millennials spend nearly half of their day behind a screen, according to the 2018 Nielsen Total Audience Report.

Now, people are turning to Yelp when “determining where to spend their hard-earned money. No one wants to waste their money (or precious calories) on bad food,” says Yelp Community Regional Lead Cassie Perez. It’s true, so who better to direct them then the trusted Yelp Elite?

That’s why Matkins believes reviews must be of high quality from a reputable source. When it comes to his personal reviews, Matkins believes people trust him because of his that exact status. He is known for his straightforward, blunt reviews in which a full five-star review does not come easily. He does so by focusing simply on the quality of the food and service, what he believes he came to review.

Syracuse area restaurant reviewers do not leave reviews at Yelp alone. In fact, Facebook has begun to take over the online reviewing world here in Upstate New York thanks to Utica Area Restaurant Review, which gave birth to Syracuse Area Restaurant Review, with almost 18,000 and 2,000 members respectively. Reviewers and businesses alike find a community on Facebook that they can’t find elsewhere.

Utica Area Restaurant Review started as a joke. Founder Tom Lamach and a few friends went out to dinner, and as many reviews begin, they had a negative dining experience. Joleen Ferris, a reporter at the local NBC affiliate, ran a story about the group shortly after. The exposure gained the page thousands of new members and a new admin, as Ferris felt guilty with the burden her story had brought to the page so she joined the team to help.

For a page like this, more members means more reviews which means more work for the admins to approve and sort through. Though it is hard work, that’s what differentiates their page from a platform like Yelp, according to Lamach and Ferris. On Yelp, practically anyone can post practically anything they want. On the Utica Area Restaurant Review page, any post must be approved by an administrator in order to keep the page respectful among members. Users are allowed to post a negative review, but the monitors might disable the comments to ensure a responsible environment. To them, the page is also much more personal.

Craig is one of thousands of members in the Utica Area Restaurant Review page. Often he will post his reviews to both Facebook and Yelp, though he prefers the atmosphere and environment that the Facebook page offers.

Mary Vescio, the front of house manager at the family-owned and -operated Franklin Hotel restaurant in Rome, NY, also notices the community these pages have created surrounding her restaurant.

On platforms such as Yelp and Google, Vescio says as a business owner, she focuses on posting pictures of food, the menu, and the restaurant itself due to maintaining relevance of her posts. A daily specials menu posted to Google today might be seen by a user two years down the road. On Facebook, where the Franklin Hotel sees most its online reviews and interaction, Vescio tends to post those daily specials. This strategy keeps the restaurant fresh in the consumer’s mind, as it will appear in their daily Facebook feed, but it also fosters a conversation where customers can comment and interact with the restaurant and each other.

This user-friendly platform also caters to the median age of The Franklin Hotel’s customers, approximately 40 years old, where they are already spending a lot of their time. Users check Facebook for a variety of reasons throughout the day, and do not necessarily open the app to find out information about the restaurant.

Also, interacting with customers on Facebook tends to be much more personal. Full names attached to profile pictures of one’s children leave the reviews. They might even be your neighbor or your brother’s best friend’s mom. At the very least in Syracuse, a smaller city, the name can usually be tracked to at least one mutual friend. This connection is one that Google and Yelp cannot foster as the sites are typically a one-touch platform in which users must choose to go to Yelp to seek out information about a business, leaving room for further anonymity.

Online reviews on Yelp give these semi-anonymous individuals the power to make or break a restaurant’s success. Wayne Barnes, a professor of law at Texas A&M who is currently writing a paper analyzing the legality of online reviews, explains that just one review can mean thousands of dollars to a restaurant. Whether this be positive or negative, the stakes are high. More so, a Boston Consulting Group studyfound that small businesses with a free business owner’s account saw an average of $8,000 in annual revenue from Yelp.

Just a few years ago, businesses had the right to censor the online reviews placed about their business, or restrict their existence altogether, to combat any potential implications of a negative review. This rule was often hidden in the Terms and Conditions that, let’s face it, no one reads. But in December 2016, Congress passed The Consumer Review Fairness Actstopping this practice, protecting the right to share honest opinions about a business’s products, services, or conduct on any platform, including social media.

The clause, if enforced, didn’t seem to help businesses anyways. Union Street Guest Housewhich used to operate in Hudson, New York (almost a three-hour drive east from Syracuse) closed after fining guests $500 for negative reviews — though the rule was posted on their website.

Now that everyone has the freedom to review, Upstate New York businesses feel the impact. Owner of XO Taco and Original Grain, Chis Bily, explains that keeping current with them, no matter the platform, is extremely important to his businesses.

XO Taco, which opened last fall, remains in the developing stages of setting its reputation in the area, a time in which online reviews play a large role in shaping the business. Bily and his team try to respond to each review, positive or negative, to ensure the customer’s ultimate satisfaction. According to Bily, their goal is to hear what worked so they can continue and what didn’t quite work so they can improve. Online reviews provide the platform for XO Taco to do just that.

Also among the Yelp Elite squad is Samantha Hughes, whose 2018 Yelp Elite debut was in Syracuse, where she grew up and attended college, but has since moved to Alexandria, Virginia. Her Yelp reviews, about five per month, are overwhelmingly five-star reviews which serve as a nostalgic way to keep track of her whereabouts, but also to help businesses either improve or retain their star rating. As a digital marketer, she often works with businesses who are trying to improve their own rating on Yelp, so she understands the impacts that reviews have on local businesses. She’d rather build businesses up by leaving a positive review. She finds more joy in that rather than sharing negative experiences. “In a world today where so many people are hateful I think it helps the kind ones to stand out a little more,” Hughes says. In fact, she is not alone as 68% of Yelp reviews are four or five stars, a result of reviewers’ passion about sharing their love for local businesses, according to Perez.

Like Hughes, all Yelp Elite reviewers carry personal reasons for reviewing. It doesn’t matter if they want to create community, become an expert, or build up businesses as much as they tear them down. Thousands of dollars lie in their hands as they make their decision — how many stars will they give?