KONA, Hawaii -- Albert Vasconcelles was fishing one day in February 2014 when an employee called with strange news. Da Poke Shack -- Vasconcelles takeout eatery in Kona, Hawaii -- had just been named the No. 1 restaurant in the US by Yelp. The employee thought it was a crank call.
"I was like, 'ah whatevers,'" said Vasconcelles, in a Hawaiian accent. Then, he said, he went back to fishing.
But Vasconcelles got another phone call -- this time from Yelp. The online reviews site confirmed that Da Poke Shack was indeed the highest-rated restaurant on its list of the "Top 100 Places to Eat in the US."
Da Poke Shack isn't some haute cuisine restaurant with white tablecloths, fine wines and a reservation wait list. Like the name implies, it's a hole-in-the-wall lunch spot. It overlooks a parking lot and dishes up traditional Hawaiian food -- most notably poke (rhymes with OK). Poke consists of chunks of raw ahi tuna tossed with seaweed, kimchi, sesame seeds and other ingredients.
Da Poke Shack's rating reflects the way Yelp is supposed to work, the company said. On average, 142 million people visit the website each month to write and read consumer reviews. These reviews aren't meant to be professional evaluations of businesses -- rather they act as consumer tips on a number of things, including dishes, service, price, locale and vibes.
"People are looking for great local businesses," said Darnell Holloway, Yelp's director of Local Business Outreach. "They're looking for that unique mom-and-pop place where they can have a different experience."
Founded in 2004, San Francisco-based Yelp has grown from being an email service for swapping recommendations to one of the country's most popular websites for reviewing restaurants and other businesses. Last year was the first time the company published its list of top US restaurants.
Although the site has millions of users, it's received flak for publishing some seemingly untrustworthy reviews -- overly negative on the one hand, or suspiciously positive on the other. Some businesses complain that too much rides on Yelp reviews, which have the power to make or break them. Case in point: Da Poke Shack.
Da secret sauce
To get to Da Poke Shack you have to drive to downtown Kona. And keep on driving -- past the tourist shops selling chocolate-covered macadamia nuts and kitschy Hawaiian shirts, and past people frolicking at Kamakahonu Beach. About three miles from downtown, you'll end up on a strip of road lined row after row with apartment buildings. There, amid a sea of nondescript condos, you'll spot the sign: "Da Poke Shack, Yes We're Open."
Walk inside, and you'll see a big glass case with half a dozen kinds of poke: there's the "Wet Hawaiian" with scallions, sesame oil and kukui nut oil; the "Shack Special" that's sweetened with honey and miso; and "Pele's Kiss," with Hawaiian chili and habanero peppers. A poke bowl comes with a third of a pound of poke, rice and a choice of side. Cost depends on the market price of the fresh fish, so a bowl can be anywhere from $8 to $13.
Daniel Burgo, who works in back slicing vegetables, said Da Poke Shack makes authentic poke with yellowfin ahi that's right off the boat -- never frozen.
"It's not like candlelight dinners or anything," he said. "We just cook what we'd eat at home."
Vasconcelles said tourists make up roughly 90 percent of his customers. But that's not who he thought his clientele would be when he opened five years ago. "We honestly thought we'd cater to local people," he said.
At first, business was slow. Vasconcelles would sit in back with his co-workers, drink beer and dream up new poke recipes. But then tourists started trickling in. And then more came. This had Vasconcelles scratching his head. So he asked how they heard of Da Poke Shack -- they said Yelp.
"I didn't even know what Yelp was," he said.
Vasconcelles didn't know it, but someone had written a Yelp review of Da Poke Shack in 2010. That kicked off the restaurant's Yelp page, which other people read, adding their own reviews. Soon hundreds of people had written comments raving about the "Wet Hawaiian" and "Pele's Kiss."
Ben Miles wrote his five-star review in March. Like other tourists, Miles found Da Poke Shack after turning to Yelp for recommendations on local sushi spots.
"After looking at the photos I knew it was the top spot I had to hit up when I got to the island. I dropped my bags off in my room and I went straight there. I was on the late side, about 10 minutes before closing," Miles said. "As my daughter and I ate outside, people kept showing up to find it had already closed, they all had this sad look of disappointment."
Da Poke Shack's prime rating among Yelp users makes sense to Forrester researcher Collin Colburn. This is because Yelp isn't for people seeking "hoity-toity kinds of places," he said. It's for the average consumer.
"[Yelp users are] younger; they're tech savvy; they like using their phones to find places," said Colburn. "It seems like this restaurant happens to hit all the right spots for the average consumer."
Pretty soon Vasconcelles figured out how to log on to Yelp and add contact information and shop hours. But as a self-professed computer novice, he still kept a minimal presence on the reviews site. To this day it's still low-key -- Da Poke Shack doesn't pay for advertising with Yelp and doesn't have any "people love us on Yelp" stickers on its restaurant walls.
Vasconcelles' life has been a whirlwind since he got Yelp's call last year. Da Poke Shack's top rating has been the subject of news stories that, in turn, generated more customers. In the early years, Vasconcelles said he was ecstatic if he did 50 orders a day, now he averages 100 sales per day and often reaches 200.
"I'd say for the first six months, it was like double everything," Vasconcelles said. "It's definitely a double-edged sword. It's good because it gets us out there, it's publicity, but we had people expecting way more than we were."
People started calling for reservations and dinnertime hours, which don't exist, and then negative reviews also started rolling in. Some people complained the only place to sit were two outside picnic tables. Others claimed the prices were too high, and some reviewers said the long line wasn't worth it. Those negative reviews stressed Vasconcelles, he said. He also feared competing restaurants were writing disparaging comments.
Before being named the highest-rated restaurant in the US, Da Poke Shack had an average of five stars on roughly 600 customer reviews. It now has an average of 4.5 stars on nearly 1,000 reviews.
"Anything that brings more attention to your business puts you under the spotlight," said Gartner research director Jennifer Polk. "People will look for things that are wrong."
Da Poke Shack isn't the only business that's had its ups and downs with Yelp reviews. Hundreds of small-business owners have railed against the company's rating system. They say bad reviews somehow filter to the top and good reviews get hidden. That complaint, in fact, has been the focal point in a series of class-action lawsuits filed against Yelp, most of which have been dismissed.
In January, Yelp released its "Top 100 Places to Eat in the US" list for 2015. This year Da Poke Shack ranked No. 51 -- primarily because Yelp changed its methodology. Instead of basing the list on the highest number of favorable reviews over the last 10 years, as it did in 2014, Yelp looked at reviews from just the last year.
"We switched it up in 2015 because we wanted to shine a light on up-and-coming local restaurants," said Yelp's Holloway. "Other places to eat may have gotten more attention from Yelp reviewers this year, but that doesn't take away from how great Da Poke Shack is. It's clearly still a favorite."
This year, Copper Top BBQ in Big Pine, Calif., won the No. 1 spot in Yelp's top-reviewed US restaurants. When the owners found out, they called Vasconcelles for advice on what to anticipate.
"People are gonna expect the world because Yelp deemed you No. 1," Vasconcelles told them. "It's good, but you gotta take the bad with the good."
Updated May 12 at 4:15 p.m. PT to update Yelp's average monthly unique visitors from 135 million to 142 million.