I cannot keep a secret. If I find an amazing restaurant tucked away in Mayport, I will tell everyone. If there’s a fantastic new bar in Riverside, I will make sure you know about it. I probably come across like a late-night infomercial … “Do you hate bland and repetitive evenings out? I’ve got a solution for you!”

I enjoy (admittedly too much) being the resident guide for my friends. So, I was a bit miffed to find they were getting their latest foodie recommendations from none other than Yelp, a website built on user-generated reviews. Google I understand … but Yelp? What is this? 2009?

Enter Jo El Snyder, a reviewer extraordinaire and member of the Yelp Elite. Yes, this is a thing. And no, it’s not some secret organization. Anyone who crafts well-written and insightful reviews can be nominated to join the Yelp Elite. The perks of this membership vary, but can include exclusive parties with catered food and/or drinks. In many cities, there are Yelp community managers whose main priority is connecting the online participants of Yelp IRL. According to Jo El, being a part of the Yelp community in Jacksonville has allowed her to make lots of great friends.

That was the general tone of the many “Yelpers” I interviewed. The website has allowed them a platform to share and plan experiences. Between recommended lists and forums of active users, one can quickly locate the best place for [insert whatever food item you currently want].

Yelp 2

However, I’m a cynic and at this point, Yelp sounded a little too good to be true. So, I reached out to the people on the other side of the table — the restaurants. Specifically, I sought out newer local businesses that I knew to be really good. Was Yelp equally beneficial to them?

Grace Forgette of the ever-delicious Sub Cultured was in favor of the site. A small sub shop located near Mayport, almost a quarter of their customers referenced Yelp as the reason for their visit. Dan Altman, owner of the The Loving Cup Hash House, admitted to having customers come in because of Yelp, but he was worried that the site didn’t require more of reviewers. His suggestion, “Perhaps a double check-in [to the business] before anyone can leave a review?” Chesley McCormick of Backyard Pops was a little more excited about Yelp’s potential. While his handmade popsicle company only has a few reviews so far, he said the handful of people he has met from the local Yelp community have been the most vocal and helpful in spreading their name.

The feedback from all these folks leaves me excited. First off, people are using their power for good. Yelp actively creates an environment to enlist and encourage good reviewers. Second, this means that we, the locals, have another way to keep our favorite places around. Spread the news of good businesses via a review on Yelp, or Facebook, or Google … whatever you prefer. And last but not least, I now have a new goal of joining the Yelp Elite. Fancy private parties, here I come.