Walla Walla found its tourism groove when the rolling hills that once were covered in wheat fields gave way to grape growers, and rows of vines, carefully structured, took over the topography. Sitting on enormous paychecks, the Seattlites who worked at Yahoo! and Amazon and Microsoft discovered that it was a pretty drive through the Cascades or a quick flight to the tiny airport, and they could boast of their own wine club memberships, since Napa and Sonoma were booked full.
It was only a matter of time then, for a hospitality industry to respond to the need to serve the west-side tourist while they spent copious amounts of money in our little town. One of the fastest growing businesses in Walla Walla was the independent restaurant. In fact, there are no mid-range chain restaurants within the city limits; right next store in College Place is an Applebee’s, and that’s notable for its singularity of presence.
When the bottom fell out of the economy, many of the fine dining establishments closed up. Even the Microsoft executives were feeling the pinch. But time passed, and people started carving out new opportunities for themselves in the city’s downtown. A public house, a beer tavern, gourmet pizza, $9 sandwiches that boast of their hand-craftedness. In the space of one month two breakfast eateries opened up, and excited as we were, Susanne and I tried them both out to see if they would likely stick around or make it onto our dining circuit.
The Maple Counter opened first, in an old car repair shop on Alder Street. Yes, there is great food to be had there, but the environment inside is a bit overdone, more a fabrication of what tourists think Walla Walla should be, rather than what it is. Prices were geared for tourists with thick wallets, with a plate of pancakes running more than $13. It’s a nice place to get good homemade fixings, but it’s not a restaurant where the average townsperson can eat on a frequent basis.
Bacon & Eggs opened soon thereafter. Featuring Stumptown Coffee, a Portland extract, is a little bit of a thumbed nose to the Walla Walla Roastery that sits next to the airport, but I’ll give them a pass because I do like a good cup of Stumptown. Susanne, my good friend Michael, and the Wee One joined me in a breakfast during their first week of operation. Every single thing we ate there was not just good but amazing, except for some mushy challah bread French toast. We planned on telling friends to eat there, and I thought I’d leave it at that (as well as becoming something of a regular there).
I was surprised then to learn from a friend that Bacon & Eggs was getting trashed on Yelp, the restaurant and business rating Web site. Because I’m never more than six inches away from the Internet, I looked it up. An average of two stars? Why?
I read through the reviews:
Stay away from the bloody Mary. Pretty sure they put taco seasoning in it. Nasty. Food is good, lots of hipsters. LOTS.
This one gave a three-star review because the breakfast was under-seasoned—”I had the biscuits and gravy. There biscuits are great but they didn’t give me enough gravy and the gravy was way under seasoned ( a little bit of salt and pepper would go a long way.)” All the way to 5-stars? Huh?
And this condemnation, which makes me wonder if he wasn’t dumpster-diving in the back alley:
Just tried that new ‘Bacon & Eggs’ place downtown. If you refer to yourself in such a lofty title, DO NOT serve me bacon that powders to the touch from being burnt. Make sure the eggs aren’t some bland lifeless chunk of yellow. If you choose to serve me fruit with my meal, keep the mixture of rotting and freezer burnt desicated seed rejects behind your kitchen doors. Please make sure that my ice water has ice in it. Is it really so hard to see that my hash browns are still in a state of liquification that would be better suited to a decaying corpse? Ketchup is not considered a gift, do not serve my breakfast with a dollop of disappointment and hopelessness. In short, I’d like to summarize our visit in these simple words: ‘High-priced garbage, served lovingly on a plate’.
Curious. Sure, some places have a hard time in their first few weeks of service, but none of the actual people I know who went there said anything remotely like these reviews described.
I’m not a big Yelp user, but I noticed a little link that said, “filtered.” Apparently this means that the Yelp site owners are concerned as to the validity of the review—in other words, they’re on the lookout against the business owners writing their own glowing reviews. I suppose that is a risk in the let-anyone-write-a-review industry. But I noticed something odd: they were almost all 5-star reviews stuck behind the filter.
Eleven reviews that Yelp buried, leaving mostly negative and so-so reviews on the main page. That seemed suspicious to me.
Susanne wrote a nice review, and I did too, each of us sitting at our laptops in the Patisserie. I read mine aloud to two other people and asked if I missed anything, and then clicked submit. Power to the people, right? Now I could at least add my voice to the group.
Yesterday, I got an email from Yelp, to a no-reply address:
I’m writing to let you know about our decision to close your user account. Your account was flagged by the Yelp community, and our Support team has determined that you have violated Yelp’s Terms of Service (http://www.yelp.com/static?p=tos) by creating multiple accounts.
I think that because Susanne and I wrote about the same restaurant and posted 5-star reviews within minutes of each other, that we were both flagged. But there’s no investigation beyond what some Yelp manager—in this case, a woman named Miranda—determines as a likely invalid review. The Yelp hand of God reached down and obliterated my entire account without hesitation. I was a Yelp voice no more.
Now we were pissed. The mean reviewers were winning! All of the work the owners had put into their new place and childish, awful things were being said about their product and I couldn’t do anything about it?
Wait a minute, I thought moments before I gave myself a head slap. I have this blog. Thousands of people read this blog. And my Facebook, and Twitter feeds.
So let me say: I am sticking to Zagat’s and the advice that comes out of the mouths of my friends and acquaintances. More than that, there is reason to believe that Yelp is involved in actual extortion of businesses by how they manage the reviews on their site, even as one class action lawsuit was dismissed last year. Yelp is aiming to open an IPO this year, by the way. An IPO based on a business model of what, exactly?