Today, Yelp announced the national rollout of its LIVES program, which posts restaurant hygiene scores alongside other basic info about eating establishments (via The New York Post).
Not everyone’s happy about this. Especially the restaurants.
Yelp started the LIVES program in 2013 in the company’s hometown of San Francisco. To expand on a national level, Yelp teamed up with HDScores, who reportedly has data on almost 1.2 million U.S. restaurants.
This could be a big win for consumers. After all, nobody wants a side of salmonella poisoning with their huevos rancheros. And while some states require by law that restaurants post their health grade in the window, much of the granular information is hard to find. As Yelp writes on its official blog:
“Unfortunately, this information is often buried on clunky ‘dot gov’ websites beyond the easy reach of consumers. Or equally inconvenient, it’s accessible in the offline world, displayed somewhere in the physical business, and not always obvious to the diner.”
Yelp wants to change that by pulling information like inspection type, number and type of violations, and score over time from government databases and making it easy to read online:
On the other hand, it could just be another way for Yelp to needlessly ruin the reputations of restaurants. The San Francisco rollout of LIVES was met with some controversy, since SF’s flawed health-inspection system is well-documented and scores could be outdated and not reflect the actual state of a restaurant. But the casual diner looking for a meal isn’t likely to factor that in when they see “Customer Alert: Poor Food Safety Score!” next to a listing. Yelp and independent restaurants have never been great bedfellows anyway. Complaints against the site run the gamut, from the potentially harmful filtering algorithm to accusations of extortion.
But Yelp’s not going anywhere anytime soon, so if you’re an independent restaurant owner, it’s advisable to arm yourself with tools that can make a business more ready for a visit from the health department. Last year, the FDA released software to help businesses better comply with regulations. There’s also a growing number of apps, of varying quality, that cover everything from food temperature and handling to training staff on best practices. These can help restaurants minimize the risk of getting a poor health-inspection score.
Underscore that word “minimize,” though. Health departments around the country are famous for being fickle and sometimes downright unreasonable. Plus, as others interviewed by the Post worry that Yelp, being a business and not a health department, won’t understand the nuances of some laws and violations. There’s also an added complication that restaurant-inspection laws and scoring varies from state to state. NYC, for example, uses a letter grade system, while Washington DC doesn’t follow a score system and instead files reports. How Yelp will standardize this information and make sense of it for the average person looking for dinner remains to be seen.
As of today, Yelp LIVES is focused on restaurants in California, Texas, Illinois, and Washington, DC. It will roll out updates to other states over the coming months. As to whether or not the program will meet with success in these areas, consider the grade still pending.