Thriving in the crossfire: Yelp's woman in Seattle

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Yelp reviewers sometimes knock even the best restaurants.

Throwing yourself into the lion's den isn't for everyone. But that is pretty much Katy Hewitson's daily job as the public face of in Seattle, probably the most controversial institution (after the health inspector) in the restaurant industry.

She approaches her job, officially termed "community outreach," with the full knowledge that the site is hated by many, but she believes that their animosity can be turned around by the sheer force of her relentless cheerfulness. She doesn't sell ads; she teaches business owners how to tame the rough beast of social media, how to encourage the good and manage the inevitable bumps.

She approaches her work with the good-hearted innocence of a child and the confidence of a wizard.

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Katy Hewitson Credit: Ronald Holden

Yelp is now 10 years old and a ubiquitous feature of American life, all the more important because we're eating out more than ever. Yelp's stats are impressive: More than 130 million unique visitors a month in the U.S. alone, 57 million reviews. Yelp itself isn't the arbiter but the forum where the merits of an establishment are laid out, played out, flayed out by hordes of (some would say) liars, beggars, tramps and thieves, or expertly dissected by a swarm of (what others might call) discerning, everyday critics who provide the authentic vox populi.

Either way, Yelp provides a platform from which to view and admire the train wreck.

Some surprises to be found in the mangled mashup of boxcars and parlor cars, by the way:

  • Restaurants account for only 1 in 5 Yelp reviews;
  • Two thirds of them are four- and five-star ratings;
  • Four out of 10 Yelp users make over $100,000 a year;
  • About a quarter of all reviews are for shopping;
  • Most readers put more credence in the content of a review than in the rating.

Yes, there are algorithms written by Yelp engineers that flag reviews suspected of being hit jobs by competitors or puff jobs done for pay; Hewitson says she doesn't have anything to do with that part of the company. On any given day, some 40,000 reviews are held up or removed by Yelp staffers, due to the unfathomable algorithms or because of flags from customers or business owners.

Hewitson came to Seattle eight years ago fresh out of college (U Mass, Boston) for a job in tech, fiercely determined to take full advantage of her newly adopted city. It was a propitious time. Various guidebook-style websites (Citysearch, Urbanspoon, TripAdvisor, OpenTable) were adding user comments to their directory listings, with Yelp users in particular taking passive-aggressive advantage of their anonymity to complain about the slightest perceived insult to their self-centered sense of entitlement. (Waitresses who don't refill water glasses are targets of particularly vengeful bolts of wrath.) In 2009, she became the public face of Yelp in Seattle, the one whose job description is "community engagement," not sales (definitely not sales) but liaison with consumers and business owners, sponsor of public and private events, and author of a newsletter with some 650,000 readers.

“I'm a Yelp educator for business owners and Yelp users,” Hewitson explains. “I'm a moderator, I'm an event planner, I'm a social medial/marketing manager, I am an editor/copywriter for our Newsletter, and I'm a role model for our site and go-to person for help with the site and how it works.”

Yelp, which will list any business with a street address, has 10 times the number of visitors as travel-focused TripAdvisor, Hewitson claims. (Parenthetically, fully half of TripAdvisor's top-dozen Seattle restaurants are in the Pike Place Market; Ellenos, a Greek yogurt counter, stands at the top of the rankings.) Yelp listings cover 30 countries; the site gets 150 million unique visitors a month. Like a tour guide showing off backstage secrets to theater buffs, she reveals the inner workings of the site to business owners, showing them what they can do on their own, for free.

The irony, of course, is that it's no longer enough for a restaurant owner to serve a killer carbonara or an artisan to fashion unique leather goods; they have to learn a whole new set of skills to fight back against social media. Friends can't be too fawning lest they get screened out by Yelp's inscrutable algorithms. You have to guard against sabotage from competitors; even your own customers can turn on you at any moment. No wonder it's harder than ever to run a restaurant.

The courts have spoken: The reviews themselves belong to their creators, not to Yelp. There's never been a case proving that Yelp “fixes” or downgrades bad reviews in exchange for advertising. But there's still a cloud of skepticism and ill feeling about Yelp by businesses that feel victimized by unfair, inaccurate, spiteful or mean-spirited reviews.

One case in point: Mondello Ristorante in Magnolia, a 30-seat café; owned by Corino Bonjrada, where his mother, Enza Sorrentino, prepares dishes from her native Sicily (Disclosure: I once worked for the family). Solid four-star record, with plenty of “I hear you” feedback from the owner to reviews both positive and negative. (“We're sorry we didn't knock it out of the park for you,” is a typical response to a disappointed review.) Funny story earlier this month:Aalong comes a dude from Brixton, in the United Kingdom, who proceeds to trash the place, complains of rude treatment from owner's daughter (she doesn't work at the restaurant), crappy lasagna, no water refills, etc. After much bafflement, it turns out that the guest was writing about a very different Mondello — in London. Bonjrada's social-media monitoring service (Main Street Hub out of Texas, which costs $300 a month) responded after a couple of days: “We're sorry you had a poor experience at Mondello. We're glad it wasn't the Mondello in Seattle!” Within hours, the entire thread had disappeared.

In Greenwood, Paola Corsini doesn't bother responding to negative reviews for her cozy Turkish eatery, the Olive and Grape. Most of the comments are four- and five-star reviews, and the occasional one- and two-star complaints seem to be from self-absorbed grouchs. “They'd complain even if they were at Canlis,” she says.

Not quite as generous in spirit is Ted Furst, longtime presence in the local restaurant scene (Campagne), owner of Le Grand Bistro Americain on the Kirkland waterfront. “Yelp is one of the tools we use to listen to our guests,” he says, “even though there's not much you can do about a petulant, anonymous one-star review.” Furst prefers the reviews on Open Table because he can identify details right down to the order and  the server — and address whatever problems seem real.

Hewitson hears the frustrations, and is reminded of her own family's commercial ventures. Her older brother is following in dad's footsteps as a pharmacist. She says, "I would never do anything to hurt small business owners."


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ronald Holden

Ronald Holden

Ronald Holden is a regular Crosscut contributor. His new book, published this month, is titled “HOME GROWN Seattle: 101 True Tales of Local Food & Drink." (Belltown Media. $17.95).