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August 16, 2022

It’s been a hellish few years for restaurant workers. So, in theory, wanting to publicly honor the hosts, bartenders, and servers who have kept us fed and boozed-up through the pandemic seems like a great move. But while the idea for these awards is exciting and different, restaurant workers aren’t thrilled about who’s behind them.

On August 3, Yelp announced the Servies. These are “the first-ever awards solely dedicated to front-of-house staff” working in the United States, the user generated reviews platform proclaimed via blog post. Applications are now open and anyone can nominate candidates for the awards. Finalists will be selected by a panel of judges based on some (totally quantifiable) criteria including “flexibility, positivity, dependability, and memorability.” The public can vote on their favorite nominees over two weeks in September.

Winners are set to be announced sometime in October and will receive what Yelp describes as “the prize of a lifetime.” That translates to a Visa electronic gift card preloaded with $3,000; a pair of slip-resistant work shoes from Snibbs; and a gold trophy featuring a muscular-looking pointer finger balancing three dinner plates, a design that would induce stress in any server.

The news has been met with a collective eye roll from the very people Yelp hopes to award. Of the restaurant workers I spoke to for this piece, most see the reviews platform as one of three things: harmful to the industry and its workers, kind of irrelevant, or both. The idea that these awards would exist is fine—valid, even. But the idea that they would be bestowed by Yelp is oxymoronic. You know, like a certain international peace prize founded by the same guy who invented dynamite.

The Best Host award—for “the ones who keep their cool when a customer is complaining”—ignores the fact that those very same diners may well go home and write eviscerating Yelp reviews. The Best Vibe award—for the “teammate that can put a smile on any face”—fails to acknowledge the recent deluge of bad customer behavior in restaurants. And Best Hustle—the team member who never bats an eye “when things get too crazy”—seems blind to the fact that front-of-house staff are fleeing the industry in droves because…things are getting too crazy.

Yelp isn’t for people who work at restaurants, it’s for people who go to them, says Connie Wang, the 44-year-old owner, host, and server at Jackrabbit Filly in Charleston, South Carolina. “I know very few owners or staff who actually read their Yelp reviews,” she says. “It’s just too demoralizing.”

If nominated, Rashaad Jones, a 37-year-old former captain at Eleven Madison Park in New York City, says he would decline an award from Yelp. Jones can’t imagine any of his colleagues would accept a Servie either—mostly because it’s coming from a platform that’s not considered a friend to the industry. “Yelp helps no one,” he says. “We have to move on from it.”

Restaurant workers don’t expect Yelp to fix the great challenges of their industry—nor is that what these awards are promising to do. But some of the categories read as pretty tone deaf, especially at a time when food staff are more frequently enduring rude and entitled customers, their tips seem to be getting worse, and staff shortages are making day-to-day labor a grind for the employees still showing up every day. Against that backdrop, Yelp’s “prize of a lifetime” looks a little silly.

Workers need health care, 401(k)s, higher salaries, paid time off, and sick days. “We don’t need to know which bartender has the sickest fedora,” says Carson Hiner, a 28-year-old server and beer buyer at Fradei in Brooklyn. In Charleston, Wang isn’t going to nominate any of her staff. Though she does think her team would find it hysterical if a colleague won a Servie—the stuff of a forever inside joke. “Like, we would definitely make them posters or T-shirts for the staff party.”

This isn’t the first time the somewhat controversial realm of food awards—like the James Beards and the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list—have been critiqued for being out of touch. There’s no doubt we should recognize the hardworking people who underpin the great pleasures of our lives. And probably Yelp’s marketing team genuinely thought this was a nice idea. But we should also “consider the source” of food awards, says Jones. And maybe treat this particular lot with a dose of one-star skepticism.

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