Craig Fukutomi recalls his first Yelp review with the fond clarity of someone relating the story of how they met their spouse. We find ourselves at the Black Bear Diner in Redmond, the year 2007. The women of the world are still suffering under the autocratic regime of low-rise denim, and “Fergalicious” tops the charts. Inside the diner, though, the air has reportedly reached sub-zero temperatures.
Craig and his family huddle, shivering and hungry, not a solicitous server in sight. The kitchen is out of “most things,” and someone must fetch “pop” from the grocery store for the beleaguered customers. Craig and his family are forced to stare at their food sitting just out of reach on the warming shelf—until Craig takes matters into his own hands. He fetches the provisions himself, lest he and his kin should perish of the cold. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here, for they keep a lock on the thermostat and the pop runneth dry.
This harrowing experience inspired Fukutomi to post his first Yelp review.
More than a decade later, Craig F.—as he’s known in Yelp’s naming conventions—has ascended to a lofty position within the site’s hierarchy. He is a member of its Seattle “Elite Squad,”, a handpicked collection of influencers, rewarded for their prolific reviewing with swag and (pre-pandemic, at least) exclusive parties hosted by local restauranteurs. Some Elite Squad members have thousands of reviews under their belts and treat Yelping as a second job. Their motivations vary, but as restaurants and other small businesses struggled to survive the pandemic, the power these few Elite reviewers wielded became more apparent than ever before.
So much so that two Seattle business owners recently started a podcast entitled “Dear Elite Reviewer” that reflects on the impact of online reviews—and lets operators respond to them. “It’s really easy to get behind a keyboard and troll people,” says co-host James Lim in the pilot episode.
“It’s not who I am. It’s not the type of Yelper that I am,” says Craig F. A Boeing engineer by day, he views his engagement with Yelp as a public service, helping small business owners refine and perfect their craft. He just wishes they didn’t take things so personally.
He recalls a food truck owner who confronted him via DM after he posted a negative review. Craig F. defended himself: “All I want to do is let you know that people don’t like their fries tasting like fish.” The truck has since closed. “I’d like to think that, maybe, if he’d taken the advice of others and myself, maybe he would still be there.”
Although Craig F. might not be the sort of Yelper who would dangle the prospect of a bad review over a restaurant’s head to secure that table by the window, his Elite opinions have real sway. Yelp’s proprietary algorithm, the cryptic “Yelp Sort,” makes sure of that. It sends Elite reviews to the top, where they remain entrenched even as reviews from lesser Yelpers roll in.
Craig F. takes his Elite responsibilities so seriously that sometimes he doesn’t even post a negative review, instead choosing to directly contact the manager or owner of an establishment. But notoriously Freeze-ridden Seattleites could hardly be blamed for electing, instead, to use a platform that rewards avoidance with shiny digital badges and IRL charcuterie boards. Perhaps it’s also that Yelp, in a very calculated fashion, makes its users feel empowered in a way they don’t elsewhere in their lives. Especially in a period when so many of us feel helpless and isolated. Is it reasonable to say that, for many users, Yelp is an outlet for opinions to which the world might otherwise be indifferent?
“Yes. That’s exactly it, it’s an outlet,” Craig F. says.
The selection process for these superstar reviewers sounds deliberately vague, at least as Seattle Elite Community Manager Lauren P. tells it. Yelpers typically nominate themselves, then “an Elite Council at Yelp HQ makes the final decision on nominees.” But the community it yields can be very real. Lauren P. and her husband met the godparents of their child through Yelp, and during the pandemic, Shoreline resident Marie Beltran (better known by Yelp Elite nom de plume Marie B.) has considered it her “primary link to humanity,” the reason she is not just a “curmudgeon shut-in”.
Marie B. believes that her years as an assistant pastry chef inform fairer reviews.
“A lot of people think, ‘oh, it’s so glamorous.’ It’s not Food Network, it’s not Top Chef…If you really stay in it a long time, it’s for the love of it. It is a brutal industry.” Nasty or ill-informed reviews make her wonder, “Why don’t you walk in people’s shoes that are serving you or prepping your food?”
She moved to Seattle in 1983 to attend the University of Washington, and has borne witness to the explosion of the city’s culinary scene in the past few decades—she views herself as a true ambassador for the city.
When I called to ask about her tenure as an Elite Yelper, she was sitting on a patio in Lynnwood, traffic humming in the background. She came up from Shoreline to try Seoul Hotdog, curious as to what all the fuss is about these “Asian-style hotdogs.” Her subsequent review will note the parking availability and the challenge of comparing it to a similar spot in Chinatown–International District. In the moment, she tells me she enjoyed her dog, but that “It wasn’t anything to write home about, per se.” But write home she will.