Few things are more touchy to restaurant owners than health department inspections. Restaurant owners in cities like LA, NYC and San Francisco where owners are obligated to post a large rating (whether a number or letter) near their entrance are even more sensitive to this often charged relationship with health inspectors. Well, the relationship in many instances is soon to become even more contentious.

Yelp, never a crowd favorite among restaurateurs, has injected itself into the tense, sometimes hostile relationship between restaurants and the Health Department.

Yelp Puts Health Inspection Scores on Pages

In San Francisco and NYC, Yelp will now post the Health Inspection  scores of restaurants on their Yelp page with the assistance of these municipal health departments. Other cities will soon follow. San Francisco is doing this at the writing of this while NYC restaurants will have their health scores posted in a few weeks time. The scores will appear near the top of a restaurant’s Yelp page (see the image; note: San Francisco rates restaurants on a 100 point system).

Now, as you may guess, restaurant owners are angry, and they have every right to be. Yelp has time and again claimed to be a friend of restaurant owners. Besides, restaurant owners are who Yelp gets their advertising dollars from.

Change in Yelp’s Review Model

But this time, Yelp cannot hide behind the fact that it is the users’ fault (as they have in defending themselves against allegedly inaccurate or unfair comments). Yelp has teamed up with the health departments to publicize this information. It is particularly a cheap shot to restaurant owner because Yelp is where new customers come to evaluate places they are unfamiliar with. Studies have shown that 1 star rating difference on Yelp can affect a restaurant’s business by 5%.

Some restaurant owners point out that they are going outside their normal services. Health department scores are not customer experiences but inspections on a particular day and time. They are not averaged out, and can be quite arbitrary how a restaurant does. With a health department score, there is no room for the actual circumstances as you will not see a written summary by an inspector only a list of violations. Below is the page a customer goes to after clicking the link.

Who Is Responsible Now?

Now that the Health Department and Yelp are working together, they have not offered adequate solutions for two problems. The first is customer confusion. The second is the possibility of lag in updating (and mistakes), as Yelp Pages are seen by numerous people per day (many more than City Health Department websites).

You cannot dispute that customers may not understand the scores, and the confusion might harm a restaurant’s business. At this point, Yelp has not really dedicated resources to explaining the scores. In NYC, restaurant owners have trouble navigating the scoring part of Health Inspections (the city has an in-depth FAQ), with the possibility of hearings and settlements. If it isn’t simple for them, how are customers supposed to understand what a grade pending means?

The very simple grading systems create a massive problem when posted on Yelp as it encourages customers to make assumptions (some of which will be incorrect). Yes, you can click on the link and receive a breakdown, but many customers will not give the restaurant the benefit of the doubt. Also, Yelp does not provide the average Health Department score, as Yelp has always been an engine built on the relative superiority of a restaurant.

There may be a delay in updating the score which may harm a restaurant’s business. Whatever damage caused by the delay in Health Department updating their website will be magnified substantially.

Yelp and Health Department

This is a headache for restaurant owners. In NYC, restaurant owners already lose business when they have a B or C rating in their window. Putting it up on Yelp like kicking a dog when he is down, and excessively punitive. Unlike the original window posting campaign, it is unlikely that it motivates restaurant owners any more than they already are. City officials will not have reductions in food borne illness to back them up. In the end, it is only successful in damaging the already stormy relationships between restaurants and the Health Department along with restaurants and Yelp.