The Best Defense Is a Good Offense
By: Patrick Maguire
Book Chapter: Confronting without Confrontation
Opening and operating a successful and profitable restaurant takes an extraordinary amount of hard work. If you’ve never been part of opening a new restaurant, it is a frenetic, frightening and fantastic experience. Everything is in a constant state of flux, and you’re always a phone call or moments away from disaster. (Licensing delays, kitchen meltdowns, delivery issues, construction catastrophes, and inspection issues, to name only a few.)
According to AA Gill, restaurant critic for The Sunday Times, 80% of independent restaurants fail within the first three years. In addition to the daunting odds stacked against them, restaurateurs also contend with an exploding number of amateur, know-it-all, online critics. Many of the entitled posters are anonymous, and naturally they are all experts at running a restaurant…
I’ve been an avid reader of restaurant reviews over the last several years. With sites like Citysearch, Chowhound, Yelp and OpenTable, anyone with internet access can broadcast an opinion to the world with very little effort. Some amateur reviewers do a tremendous job of considering all facets of operating a restaurant when posting their reviews. These folks are extremely thoughtful and fair, even when posting a very negative review. They’ll give a restaurant the benefit of the doubt, especially if the ‘problems’ they cite are not personally offensive, insulting or egregious. (Service issues at a new restaurant for example.) These reviewers have credibility because they care about restaurateur’s reputations and know that livelihoods are at stake.
Unfortunately, there’s a brigade of very irresponsible amateur reviewers who omit critical details when trashing a restaurant. Either they didn’t get their way, didn’t get something for free; or they instigated the problem. I’ve witnessed several exchanges between posters that eventually revealed “the rest of the story,” exonerating the restaurant, only to have the entire thread removed by the moderators of a site. I understand why most of the consumer sites side with the posters, but the credibility of the sites comes into question when moderators censor truths supporting restaurants and their personnel.
Some sites do offer restaurants an opportunity to share their side of the story. However, most have restrictions on how restaurants can respond and limitations on what they can respond to. The reality is that most busy restaurateurs don’t have time to respond to every inaccurate, negative comment made about their establishments. They’re too busy running their crowded restaurants!!
I’m going to discuss this topic at length in my book, but a couple of things happened over the last few weeks that I wanted to share.
I was enjoying dinner at the bar one evening when I heard a customer ask a host the dreaded question, Could I speak with a manager, please? The gentleman who asked for the manager met some resistance from his dining companion, but he remained firm and suggested she wait in the foyer if she didn’t want to hear the conversation. When the manager arrived, the customer looked him in the eye, introduced himself, calmly voiced his concern, and explained why he was leaving without eating dinner. After what looked like a productive conversation, the customer took the manager’s business card and shook his hand again before leaving. A class act.
Of course many customers race home to their keyboards and unmercifully rip restaurants to shreds, without the decency of giving the restaurant the benefit of the doubt, or an opportunity to right a wrong by speaking up when something happens. Great restaurants will do everything they can, within reason, to convert customers from guests to ambassadors. It was refreshing to see a customer step up and do the right thing instead of bombarding the Internet with “Never going back,” or, “Worst night ever,” next to the restaurant’s name. The customer who spoke up to the manager could end up become a loyal regular because he did the right thing.
Lastly, I’ve noticed a trend on facebook lately where more restaurants are posting about bad customer behavior immediately after it happens, before a customer can launch an attack. Here’s an example from one of the best restaurants in Boston that is extremely diligent about the execution of their food and their commitment to hospitality and great service;
Dear table X. We are sorry you needed to make a scene and storm out because we wouldn’t serve drinks to your underage child. No need to hurry back.
Very truly yours,
This preemptive strike is brilliant, and inoculates anyone who might see a negative comment about the restaurant with “the rest of the story.” I recommend more restaurateurs follow suit and remember that the best defense is a good offense!
Interesting side note: According to Wikipedia; AA (Adrian Anthony) Gill was once ejected from one of Gordon Ramsay’s restaurants, along with his dining partner Joan Collins. Ramsay’s reason was that Gill had written a review of his restaurant that covered his personal life more than the food, including calling him a wonderful chef, but a “second-rate human being”.