Free Food, or I’ll Yelp

Some users of Yelp, the reader-generated review site, may be demanding comped meals from restaurateurs in exchange for good reviews, San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Michael Bauer reports. Bauer says he’s gotten complaints about this from restaurant owners, and he quotes Marsha McBride of Café Rouge in Berkeley as saying, “Customers have begun threatening to ‘Yelp’ the restaurant if their demands are not met. Cafe Rouge experienced this phenomenon twice within the past month when comps were demanded with the threat that a harsh review would follow on the Yelp website if we didn’t comply.”

“People do follow through on their threats as we have witnessed,” she added.

What’s the solution? Bauer suggests asking the person requesting free food for a business card. “The goal is to get as much information about the person as you can,” he says, suggesting that if a negative review does appear, the restaurant can contact Yelp to have it removed. Of course, it’s not clear how effective this tactic would be, since, as Bauer notes later in his blog entry, Yelpers don’t have to use their real names, and “the website’s ability to control the situation is limited.” Yelp editor-in-chief Nish Nadaraja, however, assures Bauer that the company takes these things seriously.

Bauer’s blog entry is just the latest salvo in the ongoing newspapers versus Interwebs versus restaurateurs critical hoedown. Newspapers are confused by user-generated content, restaurateurs feel powerless in the face of anonymous reviews, and citizen reviewers want the most bang for their buck.

As salvos go, though, this is a pretty weak one. Anyone could threaten a business with any form of bad publicity to get a comp. This is not a Yelp phenomenon. And the fact that the restaurant mentioned encountered a couple of bullies doesn’t mean that all Yelpers are mad with Interwebbian power—it just means that jerks are out there. Do those jerks really have the ability to break a well-regarded, longstanding business with their posts? It’s hard to imagine, considering Café Rouge’s generally glowing Yelp coverage.