Written in the Stars

Inside Austin's Yelp Elite

Illustration by Jason Stout/Thinkstock

Unsolicited advice for Monday night entertainment: Pick any notoriously industry bar in town, find a table full of cooks recently released from the back of house, and ask them their opinions about Yelp. Then sit back with a Lone Star and watch the fireworks until last call. Anyone who is familiar with Yelp, which is to say everyone, has a very specific stance on how they feel about the review giant as a business and a commodity. Even the most anti-Yelp will begrudgingly admit that they've used the service to decide what to order from a restaurant they've never been to.

But how did a crowdsourced free service get to be a multimillion-dollar empire? There are plenty of beasts of burden – the average person willing to share their opinion. And within that number, there is a core group willing to dedicate themselves to a cause for which they do not get paid, spending hours of their personal time and money in the pursuit of notoriety among the everyman. Enter the Yelp Elite.

Yelp does not have a clear definition of what an Elite member is, nor is there a specific set of parameters to become an Elite. The recruitment strategy seems to be a three-pronged attack: 1) Exclusivity. Yelp says the "in-the-know crew reveal hot spots for fellow locals and are the true heart of the Yelp community, both on and offline." 2) Friendship. Yelp promises "nifty new friends, über-local gatherings, [and] invites to fun (and free!) parties at least once a month." 3) Cachet. "As one of the area's best and brightest urban adventurers," flatters Yelp, "you'll act as a local authority and role model for the Yelp community. Elites yelp like nobody's watching, but really, millions are."

Gauging that one can sort by Elite member reviews, the average user is encouraged to believe in the Elite's value as a source, perhaps even entertain the concept about becoming an Elite themselves. To get that honor, one must either nominate oneself or be nominated by someone else. From that point, it goes to a council comprised of Yelp employees from the San Francisco office. The council also reviews current Elite members' statuses for renewal every year. Those ratings of  "Useful," "Funny," or "Cool" from the wider community go into consideration when the council makes its decision.

In Austin, they have approved a diverse group in all but perhaps socioeconomic status (it takes serious money to participate in Austin's restaurant scene). I meet with Amber D. at the wine bar at Whole Foods Market's flagship Downtown, two glasses of wine in front of her. "I like to pretend I'm on Real Housewives," she says as she offers me the last bite of her candied smoked salmon. She casually introduces me to the men sitting next to her. "These guys are regulars," she says, before going into last night's adventures. "I was on a date at qui last night with a guy from Sweden," she admits. "I'm pretty hung over."

The wine helps lubricate her for gossip. Within 15 minutes, Amber reveals dirt about lecherous men on Yelp looking for dates, women exposing affairs with other Elite members on Yelp's Talk Forum, and DYL (Destroy Your Liver) parties that are part of UYEs (Unofficial Yelp Events). Despite that, she still has loyalty. "I have Yelp to thank for having the confidence to write and allow myself to be creative," she explains, saying that Yelp led to her own blog and work for the back page of The Onion. Like many people I'd meet after her, Amber says her eight years with Yelp has been life-changing.

It's easy to see the appeal. At a recent official Elite party at Fork & Vine, held to celebrate the opening of the new patio, Kelly S. (even the employees go by first name, last initial), Austin's Com­mun­ity Manager, greets me with a huge smile and a warm hug. She certainly knows how to be a good host. Within the first five minutes of arriving, I already have a plate of food in one hand and a glass of wine in the other. She quickly runs me through the gauntlet of notable Elite members, introducing me to restaurateurs and sommeliers, greeting other people with more hugs, all the while still interacting with me and describing all of her duties as the only Yelp community representative in Austin. I'm aware of the seduction, but I'm ready to buy in. Grilled oysters await, perfectly cooked tenderloin, scallop tacos, and drinks.

There, I meet all kinds of Yelp members including Suzie G., a Black Badge Elite (someone who has been Elite for 10+ years), and Jeremy S., who is also having his first Elite party experience. Leila R. yells "Yelpfies!" before snapping a photo for the website. And then there's Jack and Veek N. – the undisputed ambassadors of this community. In 2009, Jack and Veek N.'s house burned down on Christmas Day. Upon learning of the tragedy, the Elite community came out in droves, bringing clothes, gifts, and support. An Elite member helped them design their new house, and another Elite member helped them construct it. The goodwill is commemorated in a wooden plaque that reads "The House That Love Built." The Yelp flower is embossed on it.

Not every Austin Elite member is as devoted to the social aspects of the community, however. Some, like Diane N., are mostly interested in having an outlet for their foodie hobby. She moved from Houston about five months ago, transferring her membership to Austin (Elites have full benefits in other communities, even if just on vacation). Diane and her husband, Jimmy (a frequent plus-one, but not a Yelper himself), take their role as critics seriously. At Sa-Ten, they split the Chicken Katsu meal and carefully halve the portion after taking a couple of photos. Both try a bite of their respective halves, and Jimmy concludes, "It's rare to get good Asian food and good coffee at the same place."

That sort of bonhomie is commonplace; Amber D. says most of the Yelp Elite have a tendency to write nice reviews, wanting to veer away from turning Yelp into a "burn site" for people who just want to complain. She is very adamant that the Yelp community generally is not entitled. But, she has seen some changes during her long tenure at the site, and sees some differences between new school vs. old school Elite. She says things have become "cliquey" like high school, with "cool kids" and "not-so-cool kids." She dishes on an Elite friend that she introduced to the site two years ago. "I've created a monster," Amber admits, saying the friend "outs" herself to business owners in order to gain favor. (The friend herself declined to be interviewed.)

The distrust of media was fairly common, too. Two members wanted to know my angle before agreeing to talk. My first attempt to attend a Yelp party as a plus-one was even thwarted by Yelp higher-ups. The corporate reluctance is understandable; Yelp has been the subject of several negative pieces in recent years and an as-yet-unreleased documentary, Billion Dollar Bully, has attracted considerable press. But among Elites, the concern hits closer to home. At least one well-read blog discusses them like they are some Internet-age Opus Dei.

Criticism or not, business owners are reluctant to alienate Yelpers. Tiffany Russell, co-owner of Gourmands, takes the time to respond to every Yelp review individually. "We've always been really fortunate to get great reviews," she says, "but I wanted to make sure we got in front of it." Even with the bad reviews, Russell says, "Everyone messes up, everyone is human; we use [them] as a learning lesson." Even those restaurants with the "three-star kiss of death" (as Jack N. describes them) play ball. Only one of the three-star rated restaurants (a local chain) I reached out to agreed to talk at all, and that was on the condition of anonymity. Russell says the day after they declined marketing with Yelp, they got their first bad review. "I think it was totally coincidental," Russell admits, "but we were a new business, and we were feeling a little sensitive to that at the time." (At least one Harvard Business School study debunks the idea that businesses have to pay to play.)

And many businesses are more than glad to host the Yelp Elite in the same way they would court food bloggers. Parties allow business owners to, say, get word-of-mouth out about a fine-dining restaurant tucked into a strip mall, or a head chef to try out specials or introduce a menu. Sommeliers often showcase an array of wines from a single company. Reviews are not allowed, but everyone at the Fork & Vine party left with a $10 gift certificate. Whether they grant stars or not, it's still good to be Elite.

The Best of Austin: Restaurants ballot is here! Nominations can be made now through Monday, August 22, at midnight. Vote now at vote.austinchronicle.com.

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Tiffany Russell, Gourmands, Fork & Vine

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