What’s Taking So Long? Is it Yelp’s Fault?

People bashed us on Yelp

The Yelp button no one wants. Thanks Photoshop!

I have done a lot of complaining both online (here and here) and offline about restaurants that take way too long to open. Every time the news breaks that a new bar, restaurant, coffee shop etc. is coming to Alexandria, the owner sets an approximate opening date. “Before Christmas,” they say. Or “early spring,” another promises. The store front is renovated, the “help wanted” sign goes up, everything appears to be ready…. but why is it not open!? The promised opening flies by and anticipation turns into irritation.

I proposing a theory. I know nothing about running a restaurant, but it’s America, and I can spout off my unfounded ideas if I want to.

I’m blaming it on Yelp. The website and mobile app has alerted me to countless new dining options, weened me off guidebooks and helped this chronically indecisive diner figure out what to order. However, I now think it’s time for it to shoulder some blame.

Often when a new restaurant opens, it gets slammed on Yelp. Reviewers complain mercilessly about the disorganized service, the long lines, and shortages of popular menu items. From a reviewer of the new Pork Barrel BBQ:

Two stars: “the service stunk, through what appeared to be a combination of cluelessness and lack of effort.  Any place would still be working out the kinks but they don’t seem to care, and they don’t seem to have thought a lot of things through.”

Two stars: “This place is not quite there yet.  They were missing a lot of items such as the sausage and their BBQ nachos.  So like what other people mentioned, you just have to go back in another month to see them when they’re at full operation.”

From the early reviews of nearby Del Ray Pizzeria (which is currently packed every night of the week and was recently visited by Obama):

 One star: “Awful.  We went in hoping for a good local pizza place serving New York-style pizza.  We left with a disgusting pizza that would have been perfectly serviceable in a school cafeteria.  If we had any food at home, we would have chucked it, but we made it through a couple of pieces before our revulsion overcame us”

Two stars: “Bottom line is that the food was mediocre at best. You can get substantially better food for much less money elsewhere. They are going to need to seriously step up the quality of their food if they are going to last in Del Ray.  The service needs ALOT of work, and the decor / atmosphere is pretty bad/ lacking. It really is like eating in a stark high school cafeteria.  The place also seemed confused. Restaurant? Sportsbar? Both?”

I don’t fault the reviewers. When you have to brave DC crowds and prices to experience a new place, you expect the same quality from a newbie restaurant as from a seasoned standby. But on Yelp (and other online reviews sites), early one star reviews can drag down the rating permanently and harsh words can discourage new customers. For bars and restaurants in the DC area, the Yelp page of a business is often the second search result in Google. And if the place doesn’t have a website, it will be #1.

The online critic phenomenon discourages restaurants from opening until they are 100% ready. The stakes are too high. The staff must be fully trained, the menu perfected and all the kinks smoothed out before they open their doors. Unfortunately, the delay game is a Catch 22. The longer diners wait for a new opening, the fussier they become. After months and months of dilly dallying, reviewers still jumped all over Pork Barrel and H Street’s Beirgarten Haus.

So as I await another long-anticipated Alexandria opening, I grudgingly can imagine what’s taking so long. But Society Fair did promise us a “Christmas opening,” after all.  As the weeks spin by, food bloggers’ posts and staff Facebook updates just feed the hype. I start to expect more and more. Finally when the doors do open, I will be there with everyone else — nitpicking with the best of them. And everything we say will be found by Google.

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