Yukonomist: Whitehorse through the eyes of an app

You probably don’t use an app to decide where to dine out in Whitehorse.

But many visitors do. They’ve been trained in the big city where there are so many choices that word-of-mouth and your personal experience can’t keep up.

Deciding on a restaurant with your friends quickly turns into a session where everyone is looking down at apps on their phone until someone finds that perfect Ethiopian restaurant with lots of stars, vegetarian options and enticing photos of the food and ambiance.

I checked out what the Whitehorse restaurant scene looks like on apps such as Google, Yelp, Trip Advisor and Open Table.

Most, but not all, restaurants show up on most of the apps. The Kind Cafe shows up on Google as a cafe, for example, but not on Yelp or TripAdvisor. Some restaurants, particularly if they are in a hotel, don’t show up in some Google Maps restaurant searches.

However, it’s the internet so some caution is in order. As I write this on Saturday morning at -23 C after a big snowfall, Google tells me the Smoke & Sow food truck opens soon for lunch in Rotary Park. The dot for Tonimoes on Trip Advisor shows the restaurant is in the parking lot of the Visitor Information Centre near Hansen Street, rather than at Front & Main.

Many Whitehorse restaurants have not “claimed” their listing on Yelp and TripAdvisor. As a result, the photos, reviews and details are provided by internet users. Some of the wilder reviews and complaints are unanswered by the owners, something that many Outside restaurants try to do.

Interestingly, Asahiya Sushi is one of the more proactive local restaurants on Yelp. I clicked on a Main Street restaurant whose unclaimed Yelp profile was rather thin, and a little box marked “You Might Also Consider” popped up with info on Asahiya, its 4.5 star rating, a positive user review blurb, and a map link reminding me it was only 0.3 kilometres from the restaurant I was looking at.

Another popular app is Open Table. I know some foodies in the big city who dine out often and are constantly flipping to Open Table on their phones. You can quickly filter for different kinds of restaurants nearby, check out the reviews, see if a table is available and click to make a reservation.

I checked Open Table for dinner for two at 7 p.m. one Saturday night. Only two restaurants show up (Earl’s and Boston Pizza).

Then there’s Uber Eats, which delivered food to 15 million users globally in the last quarter of 2018. Many use it to find a local restaurant that will deliver. Fortune reported that in mid-2019, it was delivering for 220,000 restaurants in 500 cities. Uber and Uber Eats remain unavailable in Whitehorse, although it’s interesting to note that Uber has started operating in Fairbanks.

As complicated as it is for diners, the number and complexity of these platforms also create new opportunities and headaches for restaurant owners. In addition to the existing demands of running a restaurant, now you are expected to manage your profiles on multiple rating sites, respond to customer complaints and questions, and even sometimes deal with competitors posting fake reviews.

And once you take control of your restaurant’s listing, you’ll be bombarded with ads to buy ads.

Choosing the right approach for these apps is a difficult decision, since when a diner walks in the door it’s hard to tell whether they found you on Yelp, heard about your cuisine from a friend, or just happened to walk by.

It depends heavily on your restaurant. If you have an established restaurant that is consistently full, you can do less. If you are in start-up mode or a challenging location, it might be worth investing more time.

A Harvard Business Review article by Michael Luca looked at the problem in 2016. Luca used a big dataset of Yelp reviews and Washington State restaurant tax data. He found that a “one-star increase in Yelp rating leads to a 5-9 per cent increase in revenue,” on average.

Importantly for Yukon restaurant owners, he also found that this improvement was strongest for independent restaurants. In fact, he found that market share for big chain restaurants had declined compared to independent restaurants. The effect of Yelp and other apps can’t be proved, but the hypothesis is that these platforms make people more comfortable about trying a new restaurant.

In the old days, people would often choose a chain since they didn’t know whether the independent restaurant down the street had good food and service. Today, they can quickly check the reviews and feel comfortable trying something different.

For busy restaurant owners, all this means it is probably worth the effort to do the basics. Create accounts and claim your restaurant pages on Yelp, TripAdvisor and Google, then invest a small amount of time making sure nice photos and the right details are uploaded. Being properly profiled on Google Maps is important. You might even link to Open Table, so digital foodies from Toronto have more than two choices when they visit Whitehorse.

As for Yukon diners, if you want to encourage the local restaurant scene, I’d suggest leaving a review as well as a tip after dinner.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist and received the bronze for Outstanding Columnist in the 2019 Canadian Community Newspaper Awards.