Online, everyone’s a restaurant critic and chefs pay attention

Online, everyone’s a restaurant critic and chefs pay attention

10:00 PM PDT on Saturday, July 14, 2007 
By SETH SUTEL
The Associated Press

NEW YORK – Picky eaters used to have
few choices about expressing their delight or disappointment over a
restaurant meal: Say something to the waiter, tell their friends or
fill out that little comment card that comes with the check and hope
somebody reads it.

These days, many of them are going home and firing up their computers.

Pioneered by food and restaurant discussion boards like
Chowhound.com, a handful of Web sites have taken amateur restaurant
critiquing to new levels, giving diners more power than they ever had
to sound off on what they like and don’t like. And chefs are taking
notice.

AP photo 
Jeremy Stoppelman, left, and
Russel Simmons, right, co-founders of Yelp.com say the online review
forum based on regular users’ comments "democratizes the reputation of
a business."

There’s a lot at stake for restaurants, whose reputation can rise or
fall on a strongly worded review in an influential local media outlet.
With often tight profit margins and a high rate of failure, restaurants
have keenly watched reviews in local media and now, from average users
online.

Yelp.com, a San Francisco-based startup company, has made a name for
itself as a user-driven forum for sounding off on local businesses,
especially restaurants. Yelp displays detailed information about each
commentator, including their other picks and pans, giving readers a
chance to decide on credibility.

Jeremy Stoppelman, who founded Yelp in 2004, said he came up with
the idea after concluding word of mouth was the best way to find
restaurants he liked. While they may not be professional reviewers,
Stoppelman says the volume of information makes up for the fact that
there’s not a single, professional editorial voice.

"Yelp just democratizes the reputation of a business," Stoppelman
said. "Rather than a single arbiter of taste, it’s hundreds of people
saying whether they like this business or not."

Zagat Survey, MenuPages.com and CitySearch also allow rely on user
reviews, but Yelp’s look and feel veers closer to that of an online
social hangout like MySpace.

Chefs, meanwhile, are taking note of what goes on.

"It’s input and information. We have to look at it," says Eric
Tanaka, who oversees five restaurants in Seattle. "It’s a tool for us.
Sometimes it’s flattering, some times it’s not."

Stoppelman says Yelp isn’t about "drive-by reviewing," where a new
user fire off one angry rant then move on. If anything, many of the
reviews tend toward the positive, with some 85 percent of businesses
reviewed on Yelp having ratings of three out of five stars or above.

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