'Taking advantage of this crisis': Why some restaurateurs are lashing out at Yelp, GoFundMe

Restaurant and bar owners were blindsided by the fact that Yelp and GoFundMe had set up fundraisers for businesses without their permission.
/ Source: TODAY

Local restaurant and bar owners have been hit hard by coronavirus, but last week, many were also blindsided by fundraiser campaigns that had been set up for them without their permission.

Yelp, in a partnership with GoFundMe, created fundraisers for local eateries in a bid to help owners, chefs and food service workers in a time when many have been forced to close their doors or switch to offering only takeout. In a blog post, the companies announced their plans to match $1 million of the donations generated, offering $500 grants to businesses that raised at least $500. But the idea backfired, as may business owners were shocked that this had taken place without their input.

Nick Kokonas, co-owner of The Alinea Group and founder of the reservation system, Tock, spoke to TODAY Food about how he first learned there was a GoFundMe link on the Yelp page of his Chicago restaurant, St. Clair Supper Club.

"One of our regulars at The Alinea Group restaurants emailed me expressing surprise that we set up a GoFundMe and asking how they could help," said Kokonas. "I replied that we didn't and she sent me the link. At first I thought it was an individual scamming us and the public until I dug a bit deeper and realized it was Yelp and GoFundMe doing that on a massive scale."

Kokonas took to Twitter to express his frustration, demanding his restaurants be removed from the campaign and even floated the idea of suing.

Other chefs such as J. Kenji López-Alt took to Twitter to explain why restaurateurs and bar owners might object to these automatic fundraisers.

Still, not all businesses had a negative reaction to the fundraisers. Bravo Bites, a Fresno, California-based food truck, tweeted out words of thanks.

In response to the situation, Yelp issued an official statement that TODAY obtained, saying that their collaboration with GoFundMe was rolled out quickly in order to best help struggling restaurants and that their intentions behind the fundraisers were good.

"On Tuesday, Yelp announced a partnership with GoFundMe to provide a fast and easy way for people to support their favorite local businesses by donating to a GoFundMe fundraiser directly on the Yelp pages of eligible businesses," read the statement. "In an effort to get businesses help quickly and easily, a GoFundMe fundraiser was automatically added to the Yelp pages of an initial group of eligible businesses, with information provided on how to claim it or opt out should a business choose to do so. However, it has come to our attention that some businesses did not receive a notification with opt-out instructions, and some would have preferred to actively opt-in to the program."

Speaking to TODAY, Flora Theden, senior manager of consumer communications and PR at Yelp made it clear that "Yelp does not benefit financially in any way" from these campaigns. (According to its website, GoFundMe charges a fee of 2.9% plus $0.30 fee per donation. Users can choose to leave a tip to help them cover operating expenses.) Theden said that when they heard the negative feedback, they took down the links and pivoted to opt-in only.

"There are no GoFundMe links on Yelp pages at this time," said Theden. "We have paused the automatic rollout of this feature, and are working with GoFundMe to provide a seamless way for businesses to opt into the program moving forward."

"For any businesses who opted-out or decided to delete their fundraiser, we have returned the donations to the donor," she said. "For businesses that have not yet claimed their fundraisers, we're giving them a week to claim them before deleting the fundraiser and returning the donations. Businesses that have claimed their fundraisers get the donations."

Still, Kokonas and many other restaurateurs were disappointed with the way Yelp handled things.

"They backed away quickly because they knew it was wrong and they got caught," he said.

Kokonas said that the best way for people to help their favorite restaurants is by ordering food where it's available.

"Those that have set up pick-up or delivery options are doing what they can to feed people," he said.