After a successful trial in San Francisco, the pop-up notifications will flag restaurants with poor health grades.

By Mike Pomranz
Updated January 27, 2020
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Despite its power over many people's dining choices, Yelp's standard “out of five stars” rating doesn’t always tell the whole story. Maybe it’s a churrascaria and you’re a vegan? Maybe it’s a pizzeria and you have an irrational fear of circles? Or maybe something else is happening behind the scenes: like the eatery’s health standards aren’t up to snuff?

In recent years, Yelp has been adding hygiene ratings (among many other points of information) to its restaurant listings, information that is now reportedly available in over 30 states. Including this data seems to make sense: If these scores are intended to be public, why not include them on Yelp? But now, the site is going a step further. According to Nation’s Restaurant News, Yelp has added “Health Score Alerts”—more eye-catching pop-ups—for restaurants with poor health inspection results in Chicago and Los Angeles. It’s kind of the digital equivalent of having a guy at the front door saying, “Hey, I’m just making sure you saw this health inspection sign.” Apparently, Yelp has trialed this system in San Francisco since 2015, and based on its success, the company has finally decided to add more cities.

Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

In its support center, Yelp explains, “Health Score Alerts are placed on the Yelp pages of restaurants and other dining establishments with the lowest recent health inspection scores for a given inspection jurisdiction (for example, a city or county) within the last six months… This allows consumers to make more informed choices about where to eat and may reduce foodborne sickness.”

Specifically, NRN states that in Chicago and San Francisco the alerts are added for eateries in the lowest percentile of health scores. In Los Angeles, they apply to any restaurant with a letter grade of “C” or below. Yelp writes, “The only way to remove a health alert from a business page is to improve the underlying health department food safety score such that it is no longer among the lowest in the area.”

Jeff Wang, who owns both the food truck Yum Dum Truck and the restaurant Modern Asian Kitchen in Chicago, told me he was “indifferent” about Yelp’s new move since everyone has to abide by these rules regardless. Still, as is the case with many restaurant owners, he was skeptical about Yelp in general. “This is just one more scare tactic that Yelp uses,” he told me via email. “Their whole platform for restaurants is driven by fear: Fear that your profile won't be seen; fear that your rating will decrease; and now fear that your health score will be made public.  I don't think it's necessary to put ‘alerts’ on Yelp because at the end of the day, it draws attention away from what's important and the reason for users go to Yelp in the first place—the best local restaurants—and creates one more thing for us to worry about. It's already a very difficult industry which is becoming more and more difficult every day. This seems like another way to alienate the restaurants.”

Michael Roper—who’s owned the Chicago gastropub Hopleaf for over 25 years and has over 2,000 Yelp reviews—also expressed skepticism over the accuracy of the new feature. “Many of the times when inspectors find violations, they are things that are quickly fixed like having an ice machine serviced,” he told me via email. “I’d hate for a place to have a black cloud hanging over it for something that was quickly fixed and may have never put the public in any danger.”

Additionally, Roper was concerned that if a mistake did occur, Yelp wouldn’t put in the effort to fix it. “We have had some issues recently with completely false information on Yelp about our delivery options (we don’t do it) and being a good place for kids (we don’t allow anyone under 21 to enter) and we had a very hard time correcting them,” he explained. “In the meantime, people kept ordering food for delivery and bringing kids in only to be disappointed.”

Still, though restaurants might be wary of the program, Yelp points to numerous studies showing how it's been able to improve health inspections and reduce cases of foodborne illness by adding this info. Just earlier this month, Yelp touted the results of a forthcoming study showing how, after Yelp began publishing health inspector information in Louisville, Kentucky, the city saw fewer restaurant violations and incidents of food poisoning.

As spokesperson Kathleen Yiu stated to NBC Chicago, “The Health Score Alerts program is part of Yelp’s commitment to empowering and protecting consumers by surfacing important information on local businesses they typically can’t easily find.”

Of course, in cities like L.A., health grades are pretty apparent. But in cities where health scores aren't so readily visible, Yelp's new alerts could test the limits of "ignorance is bliss" dining.