Authenticity and Authority on Yelp
No compliment on the online review site Yelp is as highly esteemed as being dubbed “authentic,” and that authenticity is routinely linked to restaurants’ material spaces. An Oakland reviewer believed herself transported to another place, concluding that “i looked around the restaurant and noticed how well the place is decorated…felt like i was back in thailand (ive never been, but i felt like i was there maybe?).” Yelp reviewers fancy they are unlocking a hidden consumer geography: In the class and ethnic niches of neighborhoods outside bourgeois comfort, yelpers discover dishes, spaces, and new experiences. However, the search for an authentic burrito or an urban “dive” may tell us more about yelpers than it reveals about foodways.
Yelpers stake their claims to authority by capturing dimensions of authenticity that often include material descriptions of space. A Mexican grill review waxed rhapsodic that “The meticulously painted walls and ceiling, accompanied by fountains and trellis, will make even the least-cultured of individuals feel as if they’ve just stepped into an authentic Yucatecan [sic] bodega.” Many Yelpers echo that an appropriately appointed ethnic restaurant sweeps the guest to that distant place: in one Moroccan restaurant in Indianapolis, for instance, “When one steps into the restaurant, he would almost feel as if he had been magically transported to the streets of Casa Blanca [sic].” A review for a Mexican restaurant in Indianapolis pinned its authenticity on its materialization of the Mexican immigration experience, indicating that “The decor is authentic: homesick people putting things on the walls that remind them of home.” A review of a German bakery in Indianapolis pointed to the store’s décor, indicating that “The lunch fare is a 3 star since its fairly simple. However, what makes it a 4 star is its authenticity as well as the numerous knick knacks and [sic] hoarder would love to have.”
Yelp is simply one of many web sites that allow users to assess consumer goods and services in the internet public square. Meredith Kuehn’s 2011 dissertation argues that sites like Yelp “capitalize on the productivity of users who create discourses through and about local consumption by voluntarily rating and reviewing local businesses and services.” Kuehn argues that Yelpers aspire to be citizen-consumers seizing power over consumer symbolism and returning it to the users themselves. However, Kuehn is wary of the limits of such empowerment: she is critical of the literal “architectures of participation” that Yelp pages provide; she is circumspect about how Yelp and similar sites focus on “the local” in ways that elide global consumer structures; and she warns that Yelps’ focus on “lifestyle politics” risks reducing citizenship to shopping.
Yelpers’ search for local authenticity reflects a distinctive demographic that is affluent and well-educated: In 2013, for instance, 38% of yelpers made more than $100,000 a year (another 27.9% make $60,000-$100,000); 47% had some college education and another 18% had some grad school; women account for 56% of users; 60% of Yelpers are in households without kids (US average is 50%); and 12% of yelpers are Hispanic (compared to 9% of US population), 6% are Asian (4% nationally), and 72% are White (slightly lower than the 76% of US population that is White).
Yelpers’ invocation of the “authentic” seems to imply something uncorrupted by the mass marketplace or outside everyday consumer experience. Much as Kuehn argues, Yelpers fashion a confluence of locality with authenticity, celebrating community venues that at least implicitly contrast to the mass dimensions of consumption (e.g., restaurant chains). Numerous McDonald’s restaurants are reviewed in Indianapolis, for instance, and many are launching points for a host of predictable critiques. One reviewer dismissively proclaimed “Meh, It’s a McDonald’s. It lives up to their corporate standards”; another succinctly concluded “McDonalds is McDonalds”; and one Yelper indicated “It’s McDonald’s. They pretty much have it all figured out by now!” A few are somewhat more moral criminations, such as the review of the chain’s restaurant in the Riley Children’s Hospital that laments that “Nothing says hypocrisy and irony more than a fast food restaurant at a children’s hospital. Hooray for childhood obesity! Hooray for corporate America!” Where local and ethnic restaurants are esteemed for being “authentic,” that term is nearly never wielded to analyze McDonald’s.
Yelpers circumspectly skirt the mass consumer experience, betraying a deep-seated desire to see taste as the confirmation of discerning individuality. Yelpers reporting on upscale chains like Red Lobster, for instance, seem compelled to rationalize their foray into the banal. Reviews of a local Red Lobster opened with atonement: e.g., “I’m not a fan of chain restaurants, as a rule”; “OOOOK, I will start by saying that I’m embarrassed to be writing this review, b/c I feel like I have really good taste in food and restaurants, but I’m pregnant, so my cravings control my life. I find this to be the only acceptable reason it is OK for me to have enjoyed such a fabulous (though overpriced) meal!!”; “What can I say? It’s a chain I have been going to since I was a child, and it’s dependable”; or the pretentious defense that “I’ll start by saying that I normally avoid chain restaurants….. But a Christmas Gift card is a Christmas Gift card. . . On the whole, Red Lobster serves as a reminder to me as to why I try to patronize locally owned and operated establishments. As I browsed the menu the prices of their dinner items are competing with local restaurants that I know are much better so the value aspect is also a fail for this chain. Unless I receive another gift card from someone who doesn’t know me very well…. I doubt I would ever go again. And even then I might be tempted to regift it.” Yelpers seem unwilling to concede that mass-produced foods and the chain experience can be good or even preferable to some consumers, instead eager to distinguish their own discerning tastes.
Many Yelpers link a restaurant’s authenticity to its placement on the cityscape. A reviewer for Indianapolis’ King Wok, for instance, rationalized her praise by indicating that “I know I have set foot in an authentic Asian place when I see it is located in an multi-ethnic strip mall (African store and also Indian store); plus the décor is at best 80s’ flash to 90′s chic.” The “strip mall” trope is commonly invoked by Yelpers turning their fellow explorers’ gaze back toward hidden gems in their midst. Such reviews often start with a Yelper’s apology for venturing into banal suburban spaces: An Indianapolis reviewer opened by warning readers “Don’t be put off by the small sign, the tiny door, or the slightly shabby looking strip mall it is in.” A reviewer for a Filipino restaurant and grocery in California acknowledged that “Yes I know, the location and the store itself is, well how do I put this nicely, really ugly? … please don’t disregard this place because of the location and the hideous decor, but give it a try and you’ll probably find that diamond in the rough as I’d like to call it.”
The “dive” restaurant has now secured its own allure as a space without culinary pretension or false style that caters simply to taste. One Indianapolis reviewer indicated that a chicken place “is a dive, located in a strip mall. No, to call it a strip mall is too generous–it’s just a parking lot with two stores. . . So don’t go for the environment – it’s borderline ugly.” Another indicated that “This place has just about everything a reputable rib joint should have – tender and flavorful ribs, an old school smoker out back, picnic tables in front, and a borderline unsafe location.”
Yelpers often proudly announce their bravery venturing into the hidden city, with one reviewer warning: “Initial impressions… Kinda sketchy. Neighborhood was fine during the day but I probably wouldn’t be there late at night.” In 2011 a New York Yelper asked for restaurant suggestions based on his experience that “People often ask me, `Joe, what is the most dangerous restaurant in Chinatown? I want to see Triads argue with guns drawn.’” A California Yelper’s Moroccan restaurant review opened by warning readers that “The surrounding of this restaurant was kinda ghetto.” One Illinois review was even more intimidating, noting that “Very unsafe neighborhood. Someone just got shot to death inside this very restaurant. I also felt very unsafe walking around here.”
Authenticity is provided by venues that break with the ideological picture of affluent White merchants in settled parts of the city. The line between culturally introspective ethnic food consumption and awkward xenophobia is ambiguous, leading one 2011 Mexican restaurant reviewer to muse “authentic? Well the Frito Bandito himself was dining during my visits(s).”
Michael B. Beverland and Francis J. Farrelly
2010 The quest for authenticity in consumption: Consumers’ purposive choice of authentic cues to shape experienced outcomes. Journal of Consumer Research (36)838–855. (subscription access)
2013 “Food tells a story”: Consumer Narratives, Yelp, and the Rise of an Urban Creative Class. Paper delivered at Invisible Designs: New Perspectives on Race and American Consumer Capitalism conference, Chicago, Illinois.
Kathleen M. Kuehn
2011 Prosumer-Citizenship and the Local: A Critical Case Study of Consumer Reviewing on Yelp.com. Unpublished PhD dissertation, Penn State University. PDF download
Thomas W. Leigh, Cara Peters, and Jeremy Shelton
2006 The Consumer Quest for Authenticity: The Multiplicity of Meanings Within the MG Subculture of Consumption. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science 34(4):481-493. (subscription access)
2011 The Othering of food in touristic Eatertainment: A netnography. Tourist Studies 11(3):253-270. (subscription access)
Shengnan Zhao, Deepak Chhabra, Woojin Lee, Karla Scott, and Erin Johnston
2013 Experiencing “Otherness” in Ethnic-Themed Restaurants. Unpublished paper.
Guadalajara Grill image from Zachary_O