“I think this place is going to have an identity crisis,” says Carol K. as we settle into our booth at the trendy River North steakhouse STK, seated a dinner roll’s toss from where a DJ will play ironic ’90s tunes later that evening. She picks up the menu and studies it. “These are not 20-something club prices. This is an expensive restaurant.”
It’s late October, and tonight marks the third time that 50-something Carol has tried to dine at this Vegas import since it opened a few weeks earlier. On the previous occasions, the black-cocktail-dress-wearing crowd clustered near the Kinzie Street entrance turned her off. “It didn’t seem like my scene,” Carol says. Which explains why we’re dining at the early-bird hour of 5:15 p.m., amid corporate suits blowing their expense accounts on dry-aged beef. She wants a distraction-free experience so she can finally log a review on Yelp.
“Everyone has been asking me, ‘Have you been to STK yet?’ ” says Carol, who wears a stylish leather jacket and resembles the actress Allison Janney from The West Wing. “I try to review hot new restaurants as soon as I go. Because people want to know.”
Our server, Eric, appears, and after patiently listening to his shtick about the shellfish platter and the shaved truffles, Carol politely takes command. She peppers him with questions: What’s your favorite thing on the menu? What Cabernets do you have by the glass? Is the walleye really from Lake Erie?
In the four-star (out of five) review she will post a week later, she will note that Eric was “AMAZING!” and give the restaurant props for everything from the perfectly medium-rare sirloin to Eric’s on-the-money recommendation of the banana cream pie. But she’ll also call out the “almost over the top” ambiance and inform her readers that, despite the four stars, she might not return anytime soon. “I already have my favorite [steakhouse],” she writes, “and it doesn’t come with a club scene.” An STK representative will send her a personal thank-you note, and her online followers can breathe a sigh of relief: Now that Carol K. from Yelp has weighed in, they can finally make their own decisions.
To some, Yelp’s amateur reviewers are the scourge of the Internet, self-important trolls who, for example, blast a critically acclaimed Mexican restaurant for not offering free salsa and chips. (True story: See Cantina 1910 in Andersonville.) To others, they are reliable, democratic barometers of a business’s worth—social-media-era critics who, to paraphrase Yelp’s motto, serve up real reviews by real people. Ninety million reviews, in fact, in the third quarter of 2015 alone, up 35 percent from the same period the prior year. These posts give the low-down on not just restaurants but dry cleaners, air-conditioning repair services, doctors, car dealerships, and—on the more esoteric side—public restrooms and prisons. (Side note: If you ever find yourself locked up in San Quentin, check out the “large outdoor yard” and don’t miss the cafeteria’s beans, which have a “subtle, smoky flavor.”)
Within the community of Yelp reviewers, or “Yelpers,” are a subset who, because of their prolific (some might say obsessive) postings, have developed a particularly avid following. In Chicago, the queen of these is Carol K. (Like the other high-frequency posters featured in this story, she asked that her last name not be used, preferring the semianonymity provided by Yelp’s first-name-plus-last-initial format.) Since 2007, she has logged more than 2,500 reviews. That’s an average of nearly one a day, and 200 more than anyone else in the Chicago area. She doesn’t know that she has achieved this status until I tell her, but she appears delighted. What does it mean to her? “I think it means I eat out way too much,” she replies with a laugh.
On her Yelp profile, Carol describes herself as a “consumer of life.” And she certainly consumes a lot of it. She lives in west suburban Hinsdale and, until early 2015, was a senior-level marketing executive for McDonald’s Corporation. She has also worked as a marketing consultant in the restaurant industry. When I ask her if this poses a conflict of interest with her Yelp pastime, she flatly insists it doesn’t: “I am a consumer first and a marketing person second, and that is how I approach all my reviews.”
Whether you buy that or not, her fans trust her. She has accumulated 1,101 “friends” and 192 “followers.” The latter category is a Yelp feature users can employ to push certain write-ups to the top of their search results. (If a follower clicks on Volare Ristorante Italiano, up pops Carol K.’s take on the Near North Side eatery’s four-cheese risotto: “Absolutely delicious!”) Her inexhaustible reviewing has even garnered her a sort of microfame: People sometimes recognize her from the thumbnail-size Yelp profile image. Not long ago, she was at the bar at the Near North Side restaurant MK when she noticed three people a few stools away staring at her. One woman finally approached. “You’re Carol K. from Yelp, aren’t you?” she asked.
“One of my friends coined the phrase that I’m the best-known unknown person in Chicago,” Carol says. “I’ve always been an influencer. But I never thought I would be in the position where all of these people reach out to me for my opinion. That blows me away.”
So what motivates her to post so many reviews? “It’s not like it was a conscious choice. I think it’s the combination of passion—I love to go out, and I love to write—and I feel that snowballed into people having an expectation. It sounds pompous, but people care where I send them. People have come to—‘rely’ is probably too strong of a word—but they have come to expect great restaurant recommendations from me. Not only what restaurant to go to, but what they should order. If I tell them to go to Tanta, my next sentence has to be: ‘And make sure you try the ceviche.’ ”
Her reviews are by no means limited to dining. On her homepage, she links to a list of the best tours of Sydney, Australia, for example, and under the header “Things No One Wants to Talk About,” recommends funeral homes. (She gives five stars to a cemetery in the suburbs of her native Detroit, which she hails for its “immaculate grounds” and “competitive prices.”)
According to Carol, the power of her praise is so strong that servers and salespeople have received employee-of-the-week honors and cash bonuses after she’s given them a shout-out online. (On the flip side, she says, she never calls out a bad server by name—even when a manager pings her via Yelp for details. “I don’t want to kill anybody’s career.”)
Carol recalls one particularly pushy manager of a downtown rooftop bar who, after she gave his place just two stars, offered to comp her drinks if she would change her rating to five stars. She declined, but after two more emails from the manager, including one in which he asked for coaching on how to get five-star Yelp ratings, Carol returned to the bar a few weeks later. Her new review still came up short of five stars, but she did note improvements that had been made.
“If I have a problem at a restaurant, I don’t use Yelp as a hammer,” Carol says. “I do this for fun. But with it comes responsibility.”
One of the biggest gripes against the 12-year-old site is that it’s impossible to know whether the reviews on it are real or if PR flacks (or, conversely, disgruntled employees) planted them. Yelp uses its own proprietary algorithm designed to weed out what the San Francisco–based company deems “unrecommended” reviews and pushes them to the bottom of the list.
But that is not enough for Janet E., a 35-year-old South Loop resident and zealous Yelp poster who patrols the site as a cybervigilante of sorts. If she discovers a one-star review that she perceives to be a vendetta (for example, it harps on personal or irrelevant details) or a five-star review that reads like an inside job, she’ll flag it for the higher-ups at Yelp. “You can tell when [a reviewer] has it out for someone,” says Janet, “because what they are writing is not beneficial [to anyone]. They are not providing any useful information about their experience.”
She considers the nearly 1,800 reviews she has written since 2008 to be a “public service,” evening out the corrupted takes. “I try to review every business that I come in contact with,” she says. “Any business at all.” And she means it. Over the years, she’s sounded off about her local Dunkin’ Donuts, UPS Store, Internet service providers, dermatologists, airline shuttles, furniture stores, online auction sites, and much more, including her experience in the audience at a taping of Steve Harvey’s talk show, which she gave three stars.
During our conversation, the diminutive Janet won’t share much about her occupation, except to say that she is an employee of the federal government. (She claims she can’t provide details “for safety reasons.”) But she does allude to a connection between her day job and her mission to keep Yelp clean. “I feel like I’m keeping up the integrity of Yelp. And that’s important to me.”
But why does she feel so devoted to the site? Janet credits Yelp with persuading her to change her mind when she was considering moving back to the Bay Area, where she’s from. “Yelp is what exposed me to Chicago,” she says. “I enjoyed the things I read about it on Yelp and started contributing, and then [my reviewing] started expanding from there.”
The tag line on Janet’s profile page reads: “When in doubt, Yelp it out!” And that’s the mantra she follows. When she can’t find a review for a particular business or event, it bothers her. So much so that she’ll often hop in the car to get the skinny herself, whether about a food truck or an adventure travel show, so she can get the word out in the Yelp-o-sphere. “I want other people to be aware of whether they should take the time to visit,” she says.
Several of Janet’s write-ups, including a fastidiously detailed recap of her visit to the dentist and a glowing account ranging from the free parking to the lack of funky smells at Chinatown’s Hong Kong Market, have garnered a Review of the Day (ROTD) badge. This coveted status symbol is awarded based on how many fellow users show appreciation by clicking the “funny,” “cool,” or “useful” buttons that appear at the bottom of all reviews (and that I’d never noticed until researching this article).
“I try to be as detailed as possible about anything that I think other people would be concerned about,” Janet says. In fact, she often has trouble containing her reviews to Yelp’s 5,000-character limit. In her write-up of an 11-day tour of Ecuador and the Amazon, for instance, she painstakingly described her insect battle at the hotel (“I have never killed so many bugs in my bedroom in my life”) and let her readers know that “poop bags” are a good idea because flushing toilet paper in small Ecuadorian towns is a no-no.
Janet has traveled to more than 37 countries and aims to visit at least three a year. But she never takes a vacation from Yelping. From her trip to Ireland, she chose to post pictures not only of her favorite platters of fish and chips but also of the hotel toilet and ironing board (the latter from multiple angles).
In all, Janet estimates she has logged at least 400 hours on reviews. “It is exhausting,” she says. “I’ve spent a lot of time writing reviews, a lot of time taken out of my life. And I don’t get paid for it. It’s all volunteer work, really. But it’s something I enjoy.”
From the beginning, Yelp’s founders saw the value in stoking the egos of the most avid reviewers. This explains why, shortly after launching in 2004, the site introduced the Yelp Elite Squad program, which recognizes those who are dedicated to writing quality posts. Their reward? Colorful badges on their profile pages and access to exclusive parties, restaurant previews, and other special events. Last fall, for example, Chicago’s Elites enjoyed an intimate sneak peek and menu tasting at the newly renovated Cafe Spiaggia on the Mag Mile.
Some liken the squad to a secret society, and the fact that Yelp uses what it calls its Elite Council—made up of Yelp employees—to select participants certainly feeds this perception. First off, you must be nominated. Or you can nominate yourself. Beyond that, the criteria are shrouded in mystery. “There’s no hard and fast rule—you kind of know it when you see it,” says Danny Wurst, Yelp’s Chicago community director. “But they’re not only the most active contributors. They’re also the role models for the site.” If they are “authentic” in their reviews and demonstrate good “behavior” at Yelp events, Wurst says, “then they have a pretty good shot at being recognized by our HQ.”
Of course, Elites sometimes fall short of their elevated responsibilities. Five years ago, a Yelp email was leaked that hand-slapped those in New York for stampeding hors d’oeuvre–carrying servers at events, likening their actions to an “Animal Planet feeding frenzy.”
In contrast, the 200-plus Chicago-area Elites who gathered for a November event at Rural Society, the Argentine steakhouse attached to the Loews Hotel in Streeterville, were incredibly well behaved. They ranged from millennials in blazers and Chuck Taylors to khaki-clad middle-aged professionals. This being an event wholly for chronic oversharers, the path to the free buffet was illuminated by the glow of dozens of cell phones snapping shot after shot of high-quality food porn.
Shortly after I arrived, I spied a familiar face at a table covered with blank Yelp-branded name tags. She grabbed one and wrote “Carol K.” on it, but not before pointing out that mine was filled out wrong. “You are giving yourself away,” she said, instructing me to use “Rod O.” so that I would blend in. Over the next three hours, I overheard conversations about Yelpy topics, including laments about the site not allowing reviewers to submit half-star ratings and the creepiness of being recognized in public based on your avatar.
“I loved your review that was written in the form of a sonnet,” Carol K. told Nishan P., a 44-year-old from River North, whose Yelp tag line states: “If I wasn’t an astrophysicist, I’d be a party planner.” Nishan told me that after he moved here from the West Coast, he developed a close network of friends within the Yelp community. A few years later, several of those Yelpers stood up at his wedding.
While waiting in line for food, I struck up a conversation with David P., a Northwest Sider who works in the medical field. He’s been a member of the Elite Squad for only about a year. “I started slowly,” he said. “The next thing you know, I’m taking pictures of everything.” I asked how it felt to be selected for the Elite Squad, and his face lit up. “I was like, ‘I finally made it.’ ”
Jacob J. has been a member of the Elite Squad since 2006, yet his sensibility is anything but. The 38-year-old Indian American from Rogers Park refers to himself as a “proletariat foodie.” A scan of his reviews—he’s cranked out more than 2,300 since 2006—shows a penchant for Asian cuisine, dive bars, and mom-and-pops of every variety, from fish shacks to diners. “It all started with this restaurant in my hood,” he says. “They were going through a hard time, trying to get business. So I thought, They are a local restaurant—why don’t I just write a review for them?”
He has continued to support the underdog since. “Avec has a thousand reviews,” he says. “They don’t need my extra review. But these other places out there, maybe somebody like me goes in, has a great experience, and writes about it in a way that captures people’s attention? That might be of value.”
If there’s one area of expertise that makes Jacob J. stand out from other Yelpers, it’s his reviews of Chicago-area gentleman’s clubs. In his exhaustive write-ups, he lays out helpful details such as which places serve the best watered-down drinks and which have the most affordable lap dances, as well as how much to tip the bouncers to get a stage-side table. Plus, readers can enjoy his entertaining take on the “friendliness” of the talent and the quality of their pole performances. (In one review, he compares a stripper’s stiff movements to those of the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz.) “If you are going to spend $30 for a cover charge, you should get your money’s worth,” he points out.
It’s hard to argue with that logic. Or with the fact that Jacob is providing a service. (God knows how many bachelor parties he’s saved.) “I’m living my life, and I’m Yelping about it,” he says over a meal at Bernie’s Lunch & Supper, a decidedly nondivey Mediterranean spot in River North. (A strip club once stood on the site, he notes.) He treats Yelp like a blog. “My dad always kept a journal to catalog his life,” he says of his immigrant father. “He likes looking back at his memories. And I do, too. At some point, I started writing these reviews, and I input a portion of my life. It’s cool to look back at these places I’ve been to.”
As he’s posted more and more reviews, his writing has matured, too. “When I first started, I didn’t realize I had anything to say,” he recalls. “But a voice inside told me to keep writing.” While his colorful, blunt style remains (he chastised one establishment’s “bad, boring, poor excuse for Korean BBQ”), he has become increasingly concerned with sentence structure and grammar—which is kind of amazing in this era of emoticons and 144-character shorthand.
In fact, his Yelp postings inspired him to go back to school for a communications degree, with a journalism minor, at Northeastern Illinois University. He currently manages his family’s residential real estate properties, but ultimately, he envisions parlaying his reviews into a PR or advertising job. Or maybe something in social media.
“I’m sure God has some purpose for me,” he says, “and it’s not writing about strip clubs.”