The Yelp Elite Squad: Meet Twin Cities' Most Influential Food Critics

Online review sites shift the power of opinion from professional critics to customers

Yelp senior community manager Jonathan Truong at the Third Bird.
Photos by tj turner

A decade ago, online review sites shifted the power of opinion from critics to customers. But contrary to popular myth, the internet doesn’t run itself. In fact, it’s fueled by carefully cultivated offline communities, including the Yelp Elite Squad. What happens when these internet influentials interact in real life? 

It’s 6:30 p.m. on a Tuesday and the bar at the Third Bird is two-deep with thirsty revelers. Bartenders dual-wield shakers like Tom Cruise in Cocktail. Behind them, in the semi-open kitchen, chefs scramble to keep up with demand, pushing out deviled eggs, ham-and-mustard-seed crisps, and goat-cheese tarts with lingonberry jam. What should be a sleepy weekday has the look and feel of a hot Saturday night. The drinks are flowing. The food is disappearing. The energy tremendous. The 100 or so guests here tonight are hard to characterize. They represent a range of ages, nationalities, and livelihoods, and are united solely by the badge of their tribe: a Hello! My Name Is sticker with a red border and the asterisk/exclamation point logo for the online review site Yelp.

Anne Saxton, marketing director for Third Bird owner Kim Bartmann’s restaurant group, is pleased by the crowd: “Yelp has an audience we want,” she says. And not just because the Yelpers are fun party guests; their endorsement can have a powerful impact on Bartmann’s bottom line. A recent Harvard Business School study found that a one-star increase in a business’s Yelp rating led to a 5–9 percent increase in revenue.

At the center of the whole affair is host Jonathan Truong, senior community manager for Yelp Twin Cities. He’s dressed in a powder blue Polo pullover and boxy, navy blue pants. His Pumas are fresh. The success of the Happiest of Happy Hours @ The Third Bird is Truong’s responsibility. In a way he’s like an old-fashioned political operative, using the event to rally the base. The Yelp Elite members not only have to have a good time, but they need to be motivated to take pictures, write reviews, spread the word. Yet despite the chaos, he remains calm. Two young female guests approach Truong, who slides them a drink menu, gestures toward the appetizers, briefs them on the restaurant, then sums it all up. “Drinks at the bar,” he says. “Bites on the table by the far wall. Have fun. That’s it!”

The Happiest of Happy Hours is just the small, real-world tip of a vast social media iceberg. Some 77 million user-generated reviews draw an average of more than 140 million unique visitors to Yelp’s site each month. In 2005, a year after Yelp was founded, the company recognized that a small number of Yelpers were fanatical about writing reviews. They founded the Yelp Elite program to recognize their contributions, a.k.a. the free labor that generates the site’s content, which allows the company to bring in advertising revenue. In 2006, the first community manager was hired in Yelp’s San Francisco home base to organize events that would reward the Yelp Elite with free food, free alcohol, free music, and free swag, and the practice has spread nationally. In exchange, the Elite are expected to be active members on the Yelp website, which not only means writing reviews, but also following other Yelpers and sending them “compliments” (Thank You, Good Writer, You’re Cool); making lists (Best Scones in the Twin Cities); adding “tips” (parking lot across the street!) to a business’s page, and uploading photographs. Twin Cities Yelpers may apply for Elite status, and their requests are reviewed by Truong and other staff. Every December each Elite Squad member’s status is up for review.

Not that Truong would ever give the impression that he’s testing you; his demeanor is far too friendly and relaxed. Truong was born in Minneapolis in 1985 to parents who were refugees from Vietnam. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin at Madison with a degree in Southeast Asian Studies, he returned to the Twin Cites to get his Masters of Public Policy from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota and then consulted on a project with the nonprofit Center for Asian and Pacific Islanders. Truong visited constituent businesses and interviewed them about the barriers they faced as minority business owners. He wrote research reports and grants, but longed to do more personal writing. That’s when he discovered Yelp, which provided an outlet for both his creativity and his enthusiasm for food.

“I’d work all day writing grants and I was good at it, but the work was dry,” Truong says. “Then, at night, while my girlfriend was asleep, I’d stay up writing reviews on Yelp.”

Part of the appeal for Truong was his ability to fill what he saw as a hole in the kinds of reviews Twin Cities Yelp had to offer. “I noticed that there weren’t a lot of Asian-American men represented on the platform,” Truong says. “I grew up going to Eat Street. My family and I shopped there every weekend. Truong Thanh was our market, but it only had three reviews. I wanted to show other people why families like mine go there. Why this is the place to get everything you need for your pho. I wanted to represent.”

Yelp can provide an instant sense of belonging for a diverse group of people. At a Yelp Elite event you might meet a State Farm agent who recently moved here from Missouri; a digital marketer from Wisconsin who just bought a houseboat on the Mississippi, or a construction manager from Tennessee who’s here helping build the new Vikings stadium. When a Yelp Elite transfers from another market to the Twin Cities, Truong reaches out to them personally to make sure they feel welcome.

Truong connects with the “several hundred” members of the Twin Cities Elite Squad via a monthly newsletter he writes. He’s also expected to be a role model for what an active Yelp user should be—which includes writing in his or her own unique voice. A few years ago, Truong founded Breaking Boundaries, an afterschool program that teaches breakdancing to at-risk youth, and his very first Yelp review reflects a b-boy style you’d never see printed in Bon Appétit. “Yo, I went there and the place didn’t honor our reservations!” he complained of French Meadow Bakery & Cafe. “Word is bond, yo! Super whack!”

Truong’s French Meadow review is not particularly informative, but his subsequent missives combine his personal style with more service-oriented writing. His second review, of Tacqueria la Hacienda, contains a charming anecdote about the cultural scene there and tips for what to order. Read Truong’s reviews today and they’re the perfect blend of personal and helpful. Because it’s Yelp, he’s not under any pressure to conform to the usual rules of food criticism, to cover the splashiest dining rooms and the most talked-about chefs. Community managers don’t guide or shape Yelp contributors’ reviews and the site happily accepts write-ups on the smallest holes in the wall. “They don’t care how I write as long as it’s me,” he says. “They want me to be authentic.”

Truong’s approach echoes Yelp’s tagline: “Real People. Real Reviews.” But this slogan has proven difficult for the company to fulfill. Fake reviews have plagued the site from the beginning, which Yelp counters with a proprietary algorithm designed to filter out the phonies in order to prioritize the ones it deems most trustworthy. The company has also filed a lawsuit against YelpDirector, Revleap, and Revpley, companies that allegedly write fake positive reviews for various businesses. To further combat fraud, Yelp requires Elite Squad member profiles to contain the member’s real first name, real last initial, and a real picture of him or herself. Yet while Yelp says it’s committed to accuracy and integrity, business owners still grumble about anonymous negative reviews they suspect were written by someone with an axe to grind or which are plagued with factual errors. Review sites of course aren’t alone in combatting this challenge: It’s the inescapable nature of online commentary, from digital news sites to Facebook.

the happiest of happy hours @ the third bird, photos by Hung Le from ownly photography

Many Elite Yelpers at the Third Bird soirée, at least, seem to take their role in the process very seriously. Rakhi Nikhanj, a patent lawyer, let her Elite status lapse last year because she was too busy and says she won’t reapply unless she can put in the time. “I would feel guilty getting all of the benefits without contributing,” she says. Kohleen Liddell, an Elite Yelper for six years, makes the time to revise draft after draft of her reviews, much like a professional food critic. She also says she tries to go into a restaurant or business with an open mind. “Three stars is theirs to lose,” she quips.

But Yelp also has image problems outside the Elites’ control. In 2010 Yelp was the defendant in a class-action lawsuit claiming that the company extorts businesses into paying a monthly fee in exchange for burying or removing negative reviews. The case was dismissed, but the ill will against Yelp remains in the form of anti-Yelp websites and a Kickstarter documentary called Billion Dollar Bully. As the community manager, Truong says he doesn’t get involved in ad sales. He does, however, reach out to local business with advice on how to get the most out of the website. Truong says he encourages businesses to go through the process of “claiming” their page, which allows them to respond to reviews, whether they are negative or positive. For Truong it all comes down to basic customer service: Take the high road on complaints and be grateful when you’re praised. Not everyone takes his advice about responding to negative reviews. “Some business owners don’t care,” he says.  

Yelp’s power frustrates some businesses owners, who feel persecuted by the almighty and unknowable algorithm that dictates which reviews are included into their score or not. (At the macro level, reviews on Yelp are overwhelmingly positive; 42 percent are five-star reviews, 25 percent are four stars.) Even the Yelp Elite must live with a certain amount of mystery, as there are no clear rules for attaining or maintaining your status. (Kayleigh Winslow, PR specialist for Yelp, says in an email, “We just know it when we see it.”) For an enterprise built on the back of ones and zeros there seems to be a lot left to chance.

at the macro level, reviews on yelp are overwhelmingly positive; 42 percent are five-star reviews, 25 percent are four stars

Even Jonathan Truong’s path to the community manager’s position was more happenstance than planning. After Truong started to post his Yelp reviews on Facebook, a friend who thought his writing was funny pointed him toward a job opening for Yelp’s Twin Cities community manager. “I read the job description,” Truong recalls. “It called for social media, event planning, and working with businesses. I thought: I’m already doing it!”

After a series of interviews and tests, he was hired. One of the things that cinched it for Yelp was Truong’s natural and sincere sociability. “Even if it weren’t my job I’d be out meeting new people anyway,” he says. “This was something that came up during the interview process. They asked what I liked to do with my free time. I told them that I like to go out and meet new people.”
After less than two years in the role, Truong’s success as the Twin Cities’ community manager has led him to a bigger market. He’s moving to Atlanta where he will manage that city’s Yelp Elite Squad. Meanwhile, here in Minnesota, the company is finding another active Yelper with the right blend of online and offline skills who will pick up Truong’s mantle and lead the Twin Cities group, someone who can inspire the Elite with the passion of a fanatic and the effectiveness of a machine.

Tips from Local Yelp Elite

photos courtesy participants

Stephanie K.
Favorite burger: The Vincent Burger at Vincent
Favorite dessert: Cocoa & Fig macarons
Tipping policy: It ranges from 10-20% based on how likable the server was and how much I perceived they worked.

Lorraine N.
Favorite breakfast/brunch: Good Earth
Favorite coffee shop: Swede Hollow Cafe
Hidden gem: Swirl Wine Bar in Afton—it’s a little on the outskirts of the Twin Cities, but worth the drive.

Kara D.
Favorite cocktail: The Yes, Please at Libertine, a lemon-drop martini with salted caramel foam
Favorite late-night spot: The 1029 Bar—the Smack Shack kitchen is open until midnight, and drinking with the regulars is entertainment in itself.
Dining-out pet peeve: Servers with an unprovoked terrible attitude—hey, no one forced you to choose this job, but someone sure
as hell is paying you for it!

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