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The Yelp Guide To American Inequality

Restaurant reviews are a fascinating proxy for class, geography, and more.

When I was a kid, during family trips down from central Jersey to Maryland or Washington, D.C., we always drove past a cluster of old attached houses along I-95 in Chester, Pennsylvania, just south of Philadelphia. Long before I had any particular interest in architecture or urbanism, I felt they had a certain grandeur. Every year, sadly, they appeared a little more dilapidated, and the last couple of times my wife and I drove through Philly, I’ve noticed that some are boarded up and sagging. One is even a burned, empty shell.

I looked a few up on Redfin and found they were built in the early 1940s, and by their appearance they have almost certainly never seen a major renovation. Like an old motel with a neon sign boasting Indians or palm trees or rockets, there’s some hope that what’s inside might be a little time capsule of an earlier era. It’s likely that at least a few of the original appliances and fixtures remain. It’s not likely that these homes otherwise look like they did when America was fighting the Nazis.

If you stay on I-95, that’s all you’ll see of Chester. It’s all too easy to forget there are places behind the highways. Chester, it turns out, is the oldest city in Pennsylvania, incorporated in 1682. It’s home to the oldest courthouse in the United States. And it’s also one of the poorest cities in the state. Its murder rate sometimes makes national lists.

Perhaps the closest thing to a time capsule here is that the whole place is a reminder of America’s long-running disinvestment in heavily African-American urban communities. But there is at least one way places like this—poor, or remote, or generally disadvantaged—can feel stuck in time: their restaurants have no Yelp reviews.

For foodies, it’s second-nature to “Yelp” a restaurant—indeed, Yelp seems like just another tech firm that’s managed to turn its name into a verb. It’s a common rule of thumb to avoid any establishment scoring below a 3.5 (which excludes some large percentage of all restaurants). Yelp feels like the wisdom of crowds, merely residing in a particular app. This is mistaken.

In fact, one of my friends knows a food snob who refuses to use Google or Yelp; this fellow, my friend tells me, prefers Foursquare, which is refined, free of the opinions of the rabble and riff-raff. This is anecdotal, of course, but it backs up what the reviews themselves tell us: that what we’re reading on review sites really isn’t raw, crowdsourced information mediated through different apps, but divergent, class-driven impressions and narratives.

I’ve noted before, in an article about all-you-can-eat buffets, that comparing Yelp and Google reviews for the same establishments yields an interesting trend: in general, there are several times more Google reviews than Yelp reviews, and the overall average of the Yelp reviews tends to be about one star lower than the Google reviews. This is true for restaurants in general, and the reviews on the two sites are even more divergent when looking at poorer urban neighborhoods or remote rural areas.

In cities like Chester, you’ll find places that are obviously high-traffic establishments—sub shops, fried chicken joints, Chinese takeouts, corner groceries—with one or two Yelp reviews and a decent number of usually very brief Google reviews. In places like mostly white, rural Virginia or Maryland, you’ll find the same thing. It might be a Chinese takeout, or a general store, or a restaurant tucked into the building accompanying an old gas station.

Take, for example, New York Fried Chicken and Grill in Chester. 81 Google reviews. Yelp? No reviews. Over the three or so years this establishment has been operating, not a single Yelper ate there and found it worthy of any kind of review. Or check out Chester’s No 7 Chinese carry-out: 47 Google reviews. The business is not even claimed on Yelp, having only a bare, ghostly template page.

Copyright Google 2019/2020 (https://goo.gl/maps/STMQEe8JDfeYdCeC9)

Out in rural Virginia, you’ll find the same thing. Chosen more or less randomly from central Virginia’s vast expanse, Sonny Buck Diner, in Brookneal, has two Yelp reviews from 2018. Google? 82.

There is less divergence in rural Maryland, likely because Maryland is more than two times as densely populated as Virginia. Another randomly selected rural/small town restaurant there—Trout’s Town Restaurant—has 31 reviews on Yelp, and 262 on Google.

While I’ve just noted a handful of establishments here, this pattern holds pretty firmly. However, if it seems too anecdotal, here’s a finding that backs up the phenomenon further. Navigate to a rich community—I chose Napa, California—and suddenly, the reverse is true. I chose two Napa restaurants at random. Ca’ Momi Osteria had nearly the same number of Yelp and Google reviews; Eiko’s Sushi had more Yelp reviews. Yelp reviews, in other words, closely correlate with affluence.

Obviously, then, one explanation here is factors like class and geography. Yelpers, according to the company’s own public data, skew young, educated, and affluent. While age is the most evenly distributed, two thirds of users are under 55, and 29 percent are under 35. The other numbers are astounding: 82 percent are college-educated or above, and over half make more than $100,000 a year.

It almost goes without saying that such a user base has exactingly high standards for restaurants, and seeks “experiences” over bare consumption. A Chinese take-out joint or a roadside diner, in the eyes of a Yelper, is a chance to critique the texture of the lo mein noodles and the variety of cheese on the burger. Yelp, and its elite cousin Foursquare, encapsulate not the wisdom of crowds, but a very particular set of class-based expectations and attitudes around food. 

Copyright Google 2017/2020 (https://goo.gl/maps/bJXYPoZYuB32ZSJb7)

A 2013 piece at the Asian-American magazine Hyphen touched on this. The Korean-American author wrote, “If my dad could write a Yelp review of Super China Buffet, he would simply say: ‘Good variety, good value!’” That, incidentally, is how a large percentage of Google reviews go. But, the author notes, “The negative Yelp reviews of Super China Buffet, marked by their (classist) foodie sensibilities and English fluency, are decidedly not written by immigrants who go there for Thanksgiving.”

But there is another explanation, and that is corporate concentration. A slew of Google apps come pre-loaded on roughly half of America’s smartphones, because Android (while actually an open-source operating system) is sponsored by Google. This is a variety of what antitrust hawks call vertical integration: the operating system and the business review platform are owned by the same company, and therefore the review platform competes on an uneven playing field with other review platforms—like Yelp. It’s not surprising that Yelp’s user count would be lower, and that there might be some selection bias in who bothers to download an additional app.

There is a broader point here, though, about the nature of trends and information. Affluent urbanites who travel out to the countryside may find old fashioned restaurants, with their midcentury TV dinner aesthetic, to be stuck in the past, but the opposite may be true. Perhaps food trends and the breathless coverage of the food-focused media have passed over an overwhelming majority of the American landscape, even if the people who live in trendy food cities constitute a plurality of the American population.

Perhaps there is a whiff of entitlement in all of this restaurant culture, as the expectations of fine dining have been pushed into ordinary restaurants by tech, television, and fierce competition within the industry. As I noted in a piece about Gordon Ramsay’s television drama Kitchen Nightmares, perhaps we simply expect too much. Sending back a dish, berating a waiter, or complaining that the make-your-own Bloody Mary bar is missing the wasabi-infused gherkins is not crusading Ralph Nader-style consumer advocacy. It is privilege. And before we called it privilege, we called it being spoiled.

In a few years, the current decor of the faux-local “gastropubs” with Edison bulbs and exposed brick, or the lunch spots with garish exposed steel and ordering areas resembling slaughterhouse queues, will find itself in the garbage. But No. 7 in Chester will probably still be turning out sweet and sour chicken, oblivious to what Yelpers think about the starchy neon dipping sauce, and Sonny Buck Diner will still be slopping down plates full of the best sausage gravy you’ve ever had, “plating” aesthetics be damned.

If you consider Yelp to be a map of America’s restaurants, it is a dismal map: one which erases the poor, the remote, the rooted, the traditional. It is a map in which the joints frequented by working families and disadvantaged people of color largely do not exist. It is a map which not only reflects but reinforces our triple, intertwined plagues of economic, geographic, and racial inequality. Perhaps some of the owners and patrons would rather that affluent folks not “discover” their decent, unselfconscious eateries. But they would likely find it rather funny that Yelpers might equate the absence of a restaurant on the platform with its non-existence. It would be kind of funny. But it would be sad more than anything else.