I was prepared to not like him. After all, Yelp restaurant reviewers singlehandedly ended the careers of many restaurant reviewers by writing for free, right? That’s what a friend said, who was once a professional critic.
And what did this guy know about writing a good review, I wondered? Not to mention, who gets to be Elite and what does that mean? A free meal?
To find out, I called Chris Sladky, 29, a Yelp Elite reviewer and software product manager, to interview him. Then he suggested meeting him for lunch. I had not thought of that, but it sounded obvious! He chose The Grocery Cafe in Oakland. We had a spectacular feast, and I learned that he wasn’t what I expected.
Here’s how this Yelp restaurant reviewer works and what he said that changed my mind:
Q. How did you become a Yelp Elite member?
A. I started doing Yelp reviews to keep track of my experiences almost five years ago, when I moved to San Francisco. About three years in, Yelp invited me to become an Elite member. Several factors influence how easy or hard it is to get into this group, such as location, for example. San Francisco’s the hardest to get into because there’s a bunch of Elites here who have written lots of reviews. They track how often you write reviews, if you’re writing consistently good reviews, and someone who’s already an Elite can invite you.
Q. How do you choose a restaurant?
A. The first thing I’ll do is hit Yelp and do research. I love adventuring to new places and trying new things. I decide what to get based on previous Yelp reviews, where I can find out the restaurant’s specialty or favorite items.
Q. How often do you write reviews?
A. I try to write at least a couple a week, as often as I discover a new place that’s noteworthy. I’m looking for someplace supercool, unexpected, or hasn’t been documented very well. That includes San Francisco restaurants, airport restaurants, and anytime I travel and find a place that hasn’t been reviewed 300 times.
Q. What if you have a negative experience?
A. Sometimes the restaurant will message me and ask what can they do to rectify it. Sometimes they’ll suggest I come back and it will be on them. If they take the time to contact me, I will usually go back on my own dime and be anonymous, and I will update my review if it was a good experience.
A lot of people are adverse to bringing up if the restaurant is doing something wrong, but I want to be as close to reality as possible.
Q. Do you always pay your own way?
A. Yes. Yelp holds special events with restaurants where Elite reviewers can sample the food and drink. But Yelp prohibits you from doing reviews on anything you get for free, including at those events.
Q. How long does it take each time to write a review and post photos?
A. On average, it’s about 15 minutes. I take photos while I’m eating. That’s enough that I’ve covered it reasonably well but not writing a huge review that no one will read to the end. I don’t do word counts but I aim for 6 to 12 paragraphs.
Q. Do you ever get feedback from Yelp?
A. I’ve never gotten anything from Yelp headquarters, other than getting to Elite status, which I assume means they’re happy with the quality.
Q. What does a Yelp restaurant reviewer such as yourself focus on in a review?
A. First, if there’s something unique or special about the place, or perfect for a certain situation, such as great late night food, or an extravagant place to take your parents. If there’s a story about something cool that happened, or my perceptions being changed, I’ll go with that.
I cover the big categories: the food and drink quality, pricing, atmosphere, service, how long to wait, whether it’s open late, whether it’s good for take-out.
Q. Do you go back and edit?
A. Sometimes I’ll take notes while I’m eating and go back at the end and work it into the narrative. Usually there’s some editing, some organizing. I’m definitely a proofreading sort of person.
Q. Do you read professional restaurant reviews for inspiration?
A. I don’t make a huge habit out of it. I aspire to be as good as the professionals. A gig where I’m paid to eat sounds awesome, but I don’t know that I’ll ever ascend to that level.
I like the reviews where they’re really disappointed more than the ones where they liked it. Like the Guy Fieri review. The pros are so eloquent when they’re slamming restaurants. Those experiences are rare, of course.
Q. How are your reviews different from the pros’ reviews?
A. I love mom and pop places or a hole in the wall. The pros tend to focus on more upscale places that can afford to have a publicity person.
Every once in a while I’ll write a review that’s more experimental or off the wall, to emulate the writing style of the pros. I try to push my limits. I know they’re not quite as entertaining or well written, but I try to create a story around it and hold readers’ attention. That’s my next goal, to work on my narrative style.
Q. Is reviewing always going to be a hobby for you?
A. Yes. I don’t ever think I’ll be good enough to be a career restaurant critic. It’s not a goal. But I definitely look up to people who can do it.
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