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Learning from the 2020 winners of Yelp’s Top 100 Places to Eat

Photo of Shawarma Guys from Jeff O. on Yelp

The best dining experiences don’t always come served on silver platters or decorated with caviar. Oftentimes, some of the best meals are served out of a window, steaming hot on a paper plate with a disposable spork. And it’s largely these types of establishments that make up Yelp’s America’s Top 100 Places to Eat, which recognizes restaurants that go above and beyond in their communities. We spoke with a handful of 2020 winners and compiled the top insights, stories of success, and words of positivity.

Who they are

Shawarma Guys (#1)
San Diego, California
Number one on the list in 2020 was Mediterranean food truck Shawarma Guys. Owner Bryan Zeto opened this SoCal-favorite in 2019, and it quickly gained praise on Yelp, receiving nearly all 5-star reviews in its first 500 reviews in less than a year. Yelp users rave about the food truck’s friendly customer service and the “simply AMAZING” beef shawarma.

Farmbird (#3)
Washington, D.C.
Securing the third spot on the list is Farmbird, which masters the craft of fresh, high-quality grilled chicken at affordable prices. Co-founder Andrew Harris says Farmbird is expecting to open a few new restaurants in 2021, and he looks forward to eventually welcoming customers back for much-missed indoor dining. 

Craft Pita (#22)
Houston, Texas
Craft Pita is a local favorite loved by Yelp diners for its authentic, high-quality Mediterranean cuisine. The restaurant was founded by first-generation Lebanese-American Rafael Nasr who is passionate about sharing his heritage through his food. Nasr shares that Craft Pita is most proud of its customer service, high-quality fare, and friendly environment.

Otis (#36)
Brooklyn, New York
The neighborhood cocktail bar and restaurant was opened in 2017 by chef Scott Hawley and his wife Michelle Lobo-Hawley. Otis is loved by the community for its quaint ambiance, comfort food, local brews, and craft cocktails. Previously listed in Yelp’s 50 Must Try Restaurants in NYC (Winter 2019), Michelle says Otis is thankful for the support received by its Yelp community.

Gotta B Crepes (#38)
Evanston, Illinois
Ryan and Kathia Jones created Gotta B Crepes in 2010 when they started serving crepes to neighbors and friends on their front porch. Growing up in Mexico, Kathia inherited her culinary gift from her grandmother and mother. After serving at the local farmer’s market for eight years, Ryan and Kathia opened up their first restaurant in Evanston. 

What were the results of being featured on this list?

Shawarma Guys
It changed my life and business at the same time. There was a drastic increase in business from day one. The day it was published we had lines of 50 to 100 people at a time. It was crazy. My goal when I first opened was to get on that list. I focused on giving good service and giving good food.

Craft Pita
It brought the biggest single sales increase to our business of any piece of press we have ever gotten—period. It was a double whammy because it was the beginning of the year. Since it was early January, people are usually trying to be pretty healthy and might be more likely to try a Mediterranean restaurant. Between all the press from being on Yelp’s Top 100 and the new year, our sales went up 25%. We always knew that Yelp was a tool to help make us successful by getting feedback from guests, getting good reviews, or getting our name out there, but we never thought something like the Top 100 would get us some serious sales. It was an amazing thing to happen to us. 

Otis
Yelp has been our primary means of getting the word out about our existence. It was tremendously helpful in terms of having new people hear about us. We definitely owe a lot of our success to Yelp and the fact that we’re still standing all this time later through the pandemic. Within Yelp communities themselves, we always get a surge of interest in January from people who haven’t previously heard about us, and it’s because of that list. 

Gotta B Crepes
It was pretty fun. The day we found out I was on the phone with my dad. My brother Kyle called to share that he saw we were on the list. It was after the holidays, and we were just starting the year off. The recognition was really nice because we’ve never had any kind of recognition like that, and this is our tenth year in business. It was really surprising, and we were just grateful to be recognized for what we love to do. 

How did you manage an influx of sales from an operational standpoint?

Shawarma Guys
The first couple days were really hard. From the year before, we experienced almost a 200% sales increase. We went from having two people inside the food truck in the kitchen to having 4-5 inside that little truck. I had to hire people on the fly. People were waiting an hour to order and then another hour to get their food. We had to calm the line down. 

Craft Pita
We’re a new restaurant so we spent the first six months of our business getting our name out there. The Yelp Top 100 brought in a large influx of new customers because the Houston Chronicle picked it up as well as other local newspapers and food bloggers reposting the article. We really had to go through the nitty gritty of introducing new guests to the menu and asking ourselves, “How do we go over our spiel? How do we make them feel welcome and steer them toward the most popular items?” Where we really saw a boost in sales was at dinner time. We’re definitely a lunch spot. We’d been waiting for dinner to pick up in January and February. After the article came out, our dinner sales went up. 

What guidance do you have for other businesses who may be featured? 

Shawarma Guys
If you’re on the list, you’re doing something right. The best advice I would give is to keep doing what you’re doing. Just do it bigger. If you’re gonna be busier, make sure your quality doesn’t drop and that your customer service doesn’t drop. Make sure everything’s the same because people are going to expect more out of you.

Craft Pita
Prepare a press release immediately. Try and collect as many emails or contacts as you can from local press bloggers—from their website and social media. No one’s going to give you their contact information, so you have to go out and hunt for it. My sister does our marketing, and we blasted it over email and every single social media tool we have—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn. If you make this list, you cannot promote it enough. You have to do it. It will help you get the ball rolling, and you’ll be rewarded. 

How did your community respond?

Shawarma Guys
The community was happy for us. We’re a little community in South Park, San Diego. It’s a new up-and-coming community. It brought people to the area. When people were waiting for their food, they went down the street to get drinks at the bar or go shopping inside stores. They loved it because it brought business to them too.

Farmbird
We’re fortunate to be a beloved restaurant. We have a lot of support from the community, the neighborhood, around the restaurant here. A lot of our customers dine with us very frequently and that keeps us in business. We’re incredibly honored. We had a few people come in excitedly being like, “Holy sh*t. You guys were named one of the best restaurants in the country. That’s crazy.” There was a little bit of a sense like—the secret’s out.

Craft Pita
Everyone was so proud of us—especially our regulars or people who had already written a review. When you’re a champion of a restaurant or a local business and they get recognized, you feel like you’re part of that. I think people became even bigger fans of us who were regulars and helped spread the news even more. It was definitely a big deal in our community.

Otis
Most of our customer base is from word of mouth since we don’t do any marketing. It’s a lot of people telling their friends about it. We’re just a neighborhood spot. But after the Yelp list comes out, we definitely get a slightly different crowd for a short while. People kind of just come in to see what the big deal is or what the fuss is about. People might even be a little bit more scrutinizing or have higher expectations. 

Gotta B Crepes
Kathia had an interview with Univision for their print publication. From that they came to us for an on-site interview, which was a segment aired about Hispanic entrepreneurship. Kathia’s from Oaxaca, Mexico. In February, they came to the kitchen and filmed her making the mole, which her grandma had taught her. That was a great opportunity.

What makes your business Top 100-worthy?

Shawarma Guys
Our customer service. We treat everybody like family. People love people. You can come in here one day and come back a month later, and the majority of the time people will remember your name. People like that. They like to be remembered. They like to be treated well. Customer service and food are the top two things that keep your business going.

Farmbird
Our food at our price point is the best food you can get really anywhere. What happens at Farmbird every day is radically different than what happens at most other limited-service restaurants that are selling food for the same prices that we do. At Farmbird, we’re an only from-scratch kitchen. We don’t have any commissaries. We’re a standalone restaurant. Every day, we get a ton of raw vegetables and chicken at our back door. We cut it all up, treat it, and prepare it really carefully. Then we serve it fresh. That isn’t what happens in most places but it is what happens at Farmbird, and that’s unique and special.

Craft Pita
We’re service leaders. We make sure that we walk you through the menu. We make sure you’re greeted, and we say goodbye before you walk out the door. We try to make a connection with every person that walks in our door. I think that’s what really got us on the list. People don’t write reviews for good food—they write reviews for good experiences. Secondly, we’re the only Mediterranean restaurant in Houston that locally sources their food. We source from local farmers, bakers, and ranchers, so the quality of our food speaks for itself. Mediterranean food is really simple. We use high-quality ingredients, and it really stands out. Third, we have a really great environment—a nice, interior-designed restaurant. It’s clean. Between good service, quality, and environment, I think that’s what put us on the list for sure. 

How do you navigate customer feedback that you receive on Yelp?

Shawarma Guys
We mainly use our Yelp Page to respond to the bad reviews. Before the Yelp Top 100, I never received a one-star review. After you get on it, people are going to judge you a lot harder. But, if someone has 100 positive reviews and they see two negative reviews—they’re gonna go off the positive reviews, not the negative reviews. Everybody is going to get negative reviews, so try to build up your positive ones as much as you can. If I go look at someone’s Yelp Page, I’ll go look at the positive reviews; then I’ll look at the negative reviews; and then I’ll look at the positive reviews again. The positive reviews outweigh the negative reviews. 

People who are working hard for their business—this is what you should work for: to get on this list. Some people don’t care about the reviews, but at the end of the day, that’s what’s gonna help your business. Nobody’s gonna go somewhere with one 2-star review. So try to give your best customer service and best food. 

Craft Pita 
If you’re a business owner, I’d recommend downloading their Yelp for Business app and setting up notifications for reviews. I reply to every single review. The second I get it, I drop what I’m doing, and I reply. That’s what we do service-wise. I make sure to let every single guest that we receive their feedback, and I want them to know that it’s important.

Yelp is at its best when people want to tell other people how great they felt at the restaurant. The reason why we made that list is because of our team’s service. People don’t just write reviews for good food—that’s an expectation. When you provide a nice environment and A+ service, people are going to write about a good experience because of how it made them feel

Gotta B Crepes
It’s unfortunate to hear negative feedback, but it’s also a blessing to realize what we can do to be better. There’s a fine line between people just trying to get others to try their restaurant to give them a review versus sincerely doing what they love. Over the years, we recognize that anyone can leave a review. The point is that by doing something you love, it doesn’t matter if they do or not. We recognize for every 8,000 crepes we make, we might get one review. You can’t sit there and fine tune your service or your food for one person. Yelp kind of has our same philosophy. If you want to use it, here it is. If not, we’re still going to do what we do. 

What makes this list unique in comparison to other top restaurant lists?

Farmbird
I think we are a relatively accessible restaurant, and that’s something we’re very proud to be. Most people can eat at Farmbird, and that’s not true for a lot of the restaurants that get most of the press. We don’t have any Michelin stars, and we don’t sell a $300 tasting menu, so it’s cool to be honored in this way. When I think of many of the restaurant honors, I think of more expensive restaurants. The Yelp list bakes in some price sensitivity, which is neat because we’re really proud of the food we serve and the service we deliver at Farmbird.

Gotta B Crepes
The way we saw it was that it focused on a lot of hard working people that may not have the means to be part of a bigger corporation or bigger group of people doing things foodwise. It focused on the people putting together their passions with a family or a small group and pursuing their love for feeding people, the service, food, or both. We were honored to be part of that group. 

Sometimes people have never experienced a crepe, so they think they’re all the same. Having the opportunity to make someone their first crepe and introduce them to the way we cook and the way we like to treat people are some of the best practices that you’d expect during a traditional dining out experience. That’s where people rely on Yelp—as opposed to the Tribune or other companies like that—because it gets to the heart of the people rather than who has the largest marketing or public relations budget to reach somebody. It’s a very energizing community. When we go out to eat, we like to find people that love to make what they’re making. The list lets people know what those places are. You can have anyone make a recipe and it’s fine, but it’s really those experiences you’re looking for that are unique and one-of-a-kind.

Photos from Yelp

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