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Election predictor cracks the Yelp review code

• A new way to analyze Yelp reviews • Servers call out bad tippers • Upselling in fast casual • The latest food mashup • Food trucks as sanitary as restaurants

A data-driven search for the country’s best burrito discovers new ways restaurants can analyze their Yelp reviews.

Election prediction ace Nate Silver and the number crunchers who work at his FiveThirtyEight website have a side project going: they want to discover America’s best burrito. The crew has already sorted through all 67,931 U.S. restaurants that serve burritos (an exact number, the site claims) to come up with the 64 competitors now facing off in the FiveThirtyEight Burrito Bracket. In-person taste tests are ongoing; the winner will be announced soon.

Whether you serve burritos or not, Silver’s ability to demystify the way Yelp reviews work in aggregate is impressive. Among his discoveries: “Popular restaurants tend to attract a wider and less experienced set of reviewers,who may view the restaurant differently and be less predisposed toward liking it,” he writes. “In addition, my research found that the volume of reviews—and not just the average rating —was a fairly powerful indicator of a restaurant’s likelihood of appearing on ‘best of’ lists as prepared by professional food critics and may therefore serve as a useful proxy for ‘expert’ judgment.”

Silver also came up with a formula that predicts what a restaurant’s average Yelp review will be going forward—in layman’s terms, more is better. Check out all of .Silver’s mind-numbingly extensive methodology.

Nobody wins when when servers extract online revenge by calling out poor-tipping customers.

If you need a topic to discuss at your next employee meeting, think about giving your restaurant’s social media policy a quick review. Your point of emphasis: waitstaffers are free to gripe about lousy tips,but doing so publicly via social media can make both the restaurant and the employee look bad—and cost the complaining server their job.

That’s what happened to a Findlay, OH waitress who went on Facebook to grouse about the 10 percent tips amounts customers left her at the Texas Roadhouse unit where she worked. One of the alleged undertippers named in the post, took a screenshot of it and brought it to restaurant management’s attention. The result: the waitress, Kirsten Kelly, lost her job and the restaurant got a black eye in the media.

The chain’s official statement on the incident: "Texas Roadhouse does not tolerate offensive language towards guests, whether it occurs online, offline or even in the parking lot."

Full-service lite: The fast-casual segment is still on a growth trajectory, but at least one concept is experimenting with a way to wring more cash out of customers while they are still eating their meals.

Noodles & Company is fine-tuning a service format that will prompt customers to spend additional money after they’ve received and paid for their initial order. The 394-store fast casual giant will add one “server” per unit at dinnertime whose job it is to circulate through the dining area and ask guests if they’d like to order anything else. If customers opt for an upsell, the server brings the additional item to the table. The payoff? Noodles & Company expects a three percent boost in same-store sales. Under test since 2012, this service model is scheduled to be in place systemwide by the end of 2016.

Just in time for summer’s silly season comes a food mashup that almost makes sense—S’mores French fries.

Ask any state or county fair vendor: when summer heats up, so does the market for over-the-top food concoctions. Customers flock to items that would be dismissed as nutritional nightmares at any other time of the year. What sells best: anything that’s deep-fried or densely sweet and gooey.

So why not both? That’s what the proprietors of New York City restaurant Sticky’s Finger Joint is doing. It now features S’mores Fries—French fries topped with homemade marshmallow sauce, homemade chocolate sauce, tiny marshmallows and small graham crackers. The big market so far: late night binge eaters. 

What else might work? Consider a few of the items vendors will be offering at the food-forward Minnesota State Fair later this summer. Likely winners: bacon wrapped turkey leg, beer gelato, chocolate dessert salami, Jell-O Salad ice cream.

From a food safety standpoint, food trucks are just as safe as, or perhaps outright safer than, brick and mortar restaurants.

In the wake of the much-documented propane explosion that injured 13 people in Philadelphia, food truck operators should brace themselves for a new level of scrutiny from both local government officials (including the fire department) and insurance company inspectors. But be aware that a major new study that compared food truck food safety practices to those of restaurants found that food trucks were safer. The number of violations in six of the seven cities analyzed as part of Arlington, VA-based Institute of Justice’s “Street Eats, Safe Eats” study were lower for food trucks and food carts than for restaurants. The differences were “statistically significant,” said the report.

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