the year of the karen

Ask anyone who works at a bar or restaurant what they think about Yelp reviews. They might as well rename the website “The Karen” because it is dominated by opinionated, entitled blowhards screaming poorly written opinions out into the void and thinking that their words matter to anyone but themselves. Most people I know who work in hospitality treat them as a joke. It’s amusing because people will often punctuate the end of a confrontation with a bartender or manager that they plan to leave a Yelp review. As though that is a threat. One woman I know owns a bar in Brooklyn and she prints out and frames her worst review every month. She calls the writer the Yelper of the Month and her regulars point and laugh at the framed notice and curse the reviewer’s name as they down shots.

People who know me well know that I don’t shy away from conflict and have subsequently developed a reputation for hot-headedness in my twenty plus years in hospitality. So, yes, I’ve generated my fair share of Yelp reviews. However, I have mellowed significantly since my role has changed in the business and I am no longer actively engaging with the general public as much. My energies are put to far better use writing scathing business emails anyway.

The image that comes up when you Google “angry emails”

Whenever someone leaves a new review on my business’s page, I receive a copy of the review in my email. Before COVID, I became accustomed to a few email alerts to arrive sometime between 4 and 6 a.m. on Sunday morning. This is generally when someone would leave a drunken scrawl (probably while in the backseat of an Uber or while squatting shoeless and swaying on the sidewalk) about their experience during the wee hours of a Saturday night. They usually describe how awful the place is because they wouldn’t get served after last call or complain that their underage friend wasn’t allowed in with their fake ID and that they planned to sue us for infringing on their rights. You know, normal Saturday night stuff like that. 

Since the business has been shut down during COVID, I have been blissfully relieved of these review alerts. That’s about the only good thing that has happened from our time of closure. We haven’t been open for over four months, and have yet to return to outdoor business as we weigh the risk vs. reward calculus of operating under the new regime of ever-changing regulations. But, that’s a story for another day.

Now, for those of you unfamiliar with how Yelp works, businesses have absolutely no say in having their business being listed on the site. This means that even if you don’t want to participate in the platform, you cannot opt out of having your business listed. If you wish to engage with customers on the platform – something Yelp associates regularly try to sell to me as a good way to improve reviews and, therefore, our relationship with our customers – you may choose to pay an exorbitant fee to Yelp. Doing this will “boost your standings” (whatever that means) and also permit you to reply directly to customers who leave reviews.

When I was first promoted from bartending to management, I discovered that we had spent over $10,000 to Yelp in the first two years we were open for this very purpose. There is no qualitative way to determine if that money ever turned into customer satisfaction or sales and it seemed like a waste of money so I called to cancel our paid subscription. After much haranguing with a Yelp representative, I expressed that it would actually be more worthwhile for them to remove our listing from their site because of the hassle it causes and even offered to pay them to remove us since it would be money better spent. She was not amused.

I went on to explain to this same Yelp employee that I believe it was a waste of time and energy to respond to every person that left a bad review of the business. To me, it vindicates a person’s sense of privilege. It’s like engaging with every Karen in the world and thinking it will change them. It will not. The customer is not always right. If someone has valid feedback to provide, there are far more effective ways of communicating than ranting on a public platform. And, I certainly will not pay thousands of dollars to burden myself with the Sisyphean onus of acknowledging every idiot with access to Internet. She became so frustrated with our conversation as I slowly unraveled the pointlessness of her daily work (which I sensed she wasn’t that invested in anyway) that she canceled our subscription and promised to never call me again.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t sometimes wish I could respond to some people.  In fact, I have a collection of emails and Yelp responses that I have written and never sent. It’s in a folder called “Unsent” in my email box, so when I die, you can access it and read it if you want. Honestly, sometimes, it just feels good to get the words out. I don’t necessarily need the person to know what I have to say back to them. I don’t think it would make any difference in either of our lives.

I received an alert today that someone had left a Yelp review at 1:55 pm. My email inbox is usually pretty light on Sundays and, as I said, we haven’t operated since March, so it was a surprise to see that someone had written something. I have to say, it caught me off guard to read his words and I didn’t think much about it at first. However, it kept nagging at me for hours after I read it. Not what he said, but more the act of him writing the words and that fact that he chose to do it today. Something about this bothered me so deeply that I decided to respond. 

So, here it is. I am writing this here knowing he will probably never read it and not really caring either way. Now we can both say we have pointlessly yelled into the void today.

Dear Jeffrey –

You are everything wrong with this country. Allow me to explain.

You woke up today. Maybe you had a late breakfast. Some toast and fruit – something light since it’s over 90 degrees out and it will remain a state of sweltering heat for the next several days. That is, if you are in New York. Let’s assume for the sake of this practice that you are in the same New York City oven as I. You, too, are enjoying the rotting garbage air and egg-frying pavement that this fine city offers for several weeks every summer.

Since it’s Sunday and you have a normal work schedule (again, I am making assumptions about you), you are not working. You have the day off. So, maybe you read the paper this morning or scrolled through Instagram and cleaned your apartment. Maybe you played with your cat or went for a walk.

And then, sometime around 1:55 p.m., you decided to leave a Yelp review about a place you visited one time four years ago. Maybe you were talking to someone on the phone and you were reminiscing about Fashion Week 2016 because you saw something that reminded you of the Valentino show with the sparkly silver numbers. Or maybe you did go for a walk and you happened by the Meatpacking District and saw my business. You would have seen that it is currently still boarded up and empty as we have been for four months now. Maybe seeing that bright red awning made you recall a night – your “worst bar experience ever.” Whatever the reason, you decided that it was so important that you just had to leave your third ever Yelp review today.

And, I just have to ask . . . why?

What in the name of all that is good and plenty are you hoping to achieve in stating such an absurdly unimportant opinion out into the ether about a place you visited so long ago that Trump was either not yet president or had just entered office (you never specified which Fashion Week you meant)? A place that it seems you only visited once and of which you appear to have a pretty vague memory. I say this because you lacked much description beyond “pretentious and annoying” which are wholly unspecific adjectives and can describe almost any place in Manhattan as well as most of Brooklyn.

I wonder what precisely made it the worst bar experience of your life since you chose to point out that the service was “fine” and the drinks “were fairly priced” because to be the worst bar experience ever, it seem that those are two factors that should at least be below average. “Fine service” and “fairly priced” drinks are generally characteristic of good – or at least okay – experiences. Certainly not one of the worst experiences ever.

Setting that aside, you did point out that it was “way too crowded” with “models” (your quotations, not mine) “trying to be seen” and that this made it one of the “worst bar experiences” you’ve had as a “New Yorker” (my quotations, not yours.)

Do you realize how much money people would pay right now to be in a crowded bar with reasonably priced drinks and people who look enough like models that you could at least describe them as such using quotation marks?! Sure, that’s probably not what I would elect to do right now, but look at the news, buddy. People are absolutely yearning to have this kind of an experience again. More so, people are wishing experiences like that could be so commonplace that we would have the luxury to complain about them again.

I feel it’s important to note that I had to self-edit in that last paragraph because I almost fell back on lazy literary hyperbole and wrote, “People are dying for these experiences.” I think it’s imperative to point out that people are in fact dying right now. The whole reason I am sitting here writing this missive to you and not changing a keg or running food to a table is because my business is closed due to a global pandemic that has killed over 600,000 people worldwide. As I write this, almost 150,000 Americans are dead and millions have been or are infected. A quarter of the American working population is out of work. Fifty-three of those people are my employees, and yes, I include myself in that number.

San Francisco.

Add to that, we are in the midst of a significantly impactful racial reckoning that includes rampant police violence, daily protests, and confrontations that deepen the daily divides in the American population. There are secret police unlawfully arresting and attacking protestors in Portland, Oregon. Black men are being found lynched and their deaths are being quickly written off as suicides. There’s a genocide happening in China. The whole West coast of the United States is engulfed in fire and we have done nothing to impede severe weather due to climate change – in fact we are far outpacing the worst case scenarios of global warming. There are still children in cages on our border. Russia paid bounty on American soldiers’ lives and the president of the United States has not yet said a word against that act of barbarity. In fact, corruption and greed is running rampant in a wholly unchecked Trump administration and there’s a strong chance his cronies will subvert our election and the last frail tendrils of democracy holding our nation together may be snapped in November.

The reason I say that you are everything that is wrong with this country is that despite all of the suffering and death happening now, despite the economic turmoil of millions not having enough money to pay their bills or feed their families, you must be absolutely unchanged. Sure, maybe I don’t know you well enough to make a statement like that. But, you chose to infect my consciousness with your irrelevant and witless commentary today, so I get to make broad assumptions about you based on a few pithy words you wrote on my Yelp business page.

I say you are unchanged because only an absolutely dull, self-obsessed, mediocre, directionless muppet could be existing in the Gehenna we are in now and think that their time is well spent leaving a one-star review about a business that cannot be made any worse than it’s current circumstance. You are effectively kicking someone while they are down.

And for what? A cursory search (or a wild guess) would reveal that the business isn’t even open for people to attempt to walk in it’s doors, so you aren’t even influencing an option that can be selected at this time. In fact, I don’t know when or if it will reopen and I certainly don’t foresee a day any time soon that it – or any other legitimate establishment – will responsibly allow itself to be described as “crowded” again. Since I can only glean meaning from the few negative descriptors you utilized in your review, your strongest argument is that it was “too crowded” when you visited. Well, I can confidently state that teeming with bodies may never be a reality for us again. So, why would you feel it necessary to tell people about an experience from many years ago that you didn’t like which may never be replicated again? Just to make us all feel bad?

I don’t know you. I can honestly say I don’t ever want to know you. You have lived through the last four months that I have lived through and somehow you have not been humbled by the same torment of destruction I have witnessed and felt. Anyone who has meaningfully experienced the first two quarters of 2020 would not have wasted a minute of their current daily life writing an immaterial opinion on a trivial website to no good end.

In the months of this pandemic, I have come to understand how much time I used to waste. How much I took for granted. How much we affect each other. How much we rely on people we hardly know or never see. How precious time is. How unimportant so many things are that we choose to occupy our minds.

So, actually, it’s a good thing you chose to leave that review. Because as I write this, I realize that you forced me to confront this demon once again. The one that taunts me into engaging in pointless arguments with valueless people. That demon has followed me for a long time. It’s brought me to tears at times because as much as I feel emboldened and justified by the tangle of conflict with people who deserve to be confronted with pointed wrath, it always leaves me feeling regret about my actions. I would often feel such shame that I cannot just rise above these kind of moments and let stupid people continue on with their stupid lives without my commenting on their stupid stupidity.

But, not anymore.

You are everything wrong with this country, but I am not. And I will not be. There will be a day again in the future when my business will be operating at full speed and thriving once again. There will be a day when we will be safe to gather together in crowds and breathe the same air without fear. There will be a day when evil will not dominate the highest office of the land and the brightest and most brilliant among us will be respected and valued and trusted to lead. Fools will not be suffered. Karens will not be entertained.  

Brass Monkey will be crowded with every kind of person (even those who wish to be seen and viewed as models) and we’ll charge them fairly priced drinks and provide fine service. And I’ll be laughing. I’ll be grateful for it all. And none of this will matter just as you don’t matter. Your words will be another scream into the void and I will not be listening.