A Cry for “Yelp”: The Fading Luster of Today’s Food Critic

The Esteemed Food Critic?

“In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends.”

Those are the final words from food critic Anton Ego in the animated film Ratatouille. Pixar’s 2007 smash hit film chronicles the efforts of an inexperienced chef who teams up with a highly skilled rat (yes, rat), as the two set out to impress famed and feared restaurant critic Ego—France’s top restaurant reviewer whose columns can determine a restaurant’s future success or failure. The character Pixar created is a stereotypical portrait of what one would imagine a food critic to be like—elitist, intimidating, hard to impress and cold. Although Pixar is able to capture some of the essence of a critic, (albeit stereotypically), the reality is that in today’s egalitarian society of food criticism, we have all assumed the role and subsequent power of Anton Ego. So, with the rise of services like Yelp, just how relevant are food critics?

As Yelp reviews have given some unknown restaurateurs a fighting chance, while causing irreparable damage to others, professional food writers seem to have lost their luster. With the click of a mouse or the tap of an app, we can scroll through a bevy of food options, sort and filter according to price, distance, rating and category. In this digital, “push button” society, who needs the critic when the number of Yelp stars defines a restaurant’s worth? It’s time to face the facts: more often than not, we choose dining options without first seeing them through the artful lens of a true food critic.

We Are All Critics

It’s been six years since Neal Gabler published his article “Everyone’s a Critic Now” in the Post and Courier, but like a fine wine, the words have only gotten richer and truer with age: “The point isn’t that the traditional critics are always wrong and these populists are right, or even that these comments are overwhelmingly negative or invariably take on the critical consensus,” writes Gabler. “More often than not, they aren’t and they don’t. The point is that authority has migrated from critics to ordinary folks, and there is nothing—not collusion or singleness of purpose or torrents of publicity—that the traditional critics can do about it. They have seen their monopoly usurped by what amounts to a vast technological word-of-mouth of hundreds of millions of people. We live, then, in a new age of cultural populism—an age in which everyone is not only entitled to his opinion but is encouraged to share it.”

The critic is you. Is your minestrone soup cold and filet mignon overdone? Did your waiter take your order with an attitude and fail to refill your Diet Coke quickly enough?  Thanks to the internet, you can now praise or shame just about any establishment that exists—whether it be a mom and pop restaurant, a fast food chain or an entire city (seriously).

Yelp Does Move the Market

With that said, Yelp ratings do move the market. In fact, there’s research to back it up. According to Robert Rector of the Pasadena Star News, two UC Berkley economists surveyed 300 restaurants in San Francisco and studied the impact of Yelp ratings on each restaurant’s evening reservation rates. The economists found that an uptick from 3.5 to 4 stars led to a 19 percentage increase in each restaurant’s sellout rate. “But of even greater interest, Yelp, like Jonathan Gold [restaurant critic of the Los Angeles Times], has boosted egalitarian dining,” writes Rector.

Yelp lists its top 100 places to eat in America annually, and this year, number one was a no-frills, hole-in-the wall Italian deli in Montgomery, Texas called Tony’s Italian Delicatessen owned by “Hootie and Marry,” which offers a small selection of hand-crafted sandwiches made from scratch.  The second choice was a family-owned deli in Hialeah, Florida called Franky’s Deli Warehouse, followed by an Afghan bistro in Springfield, Virginia. Not a single pearly white linen tablecloth.

What Does It Mean for Us?

So, what does all of this mean for us as PR and marketing practitioners? Well, for one, it means that food news staffs at traditional media outlets are shrinking, with fewer and fewer restaurant critics and many outlets consolidating their food departments. It also means that when conducting outreach, whether it be foodservice or consumer-facing media relations, we must appeal to the masses. And, perhaps most importantly, it means that each and every one of us has the power to influence public opinion and the platform to report, review and reach a target audience.

Check, please.

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