The Best Defense Is a Good Offense

By: Patrick Maguire

Book Chapter: Confronting without Confrontation

Posted: 03/15/2010

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,

The Management.

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”.

5 Responses to “The Best Defense Is a Good Offense”

  1. Lou Warren says:

    Love the pre-emptive strike….it puts the power into the right hands.

  2. epices6 says:

    The proliferation of customer review sites, such as Yelp, Citysearch, and Trip Advisor, is general, a good thing. That does not mean that many people writing there are totally unreasonable and seem to have a personal axe to grind because of some perceived slight that befell them at the restaurant. Like reading statistics, such outliers should be discounted. The shrillness of their language is always a give-away that the opinion(s) voiced are not based on thoughtful reactions to food and service, but a type of scream therapy for deeply unhappy and insecure people. On the other hand, there are some really good regulars that write for such sites. I, for one, have based restaurant choices on the reviews of some Yelp participants and fared very well with their advice and descriptions (this is especially true in regard to lesser known so-called “ethnic” cuisines).

    As for the restaurants, if they are interested in what customers think of them (and many could care less), they might validate some of the thoughtful reviews, including well-founded criticism, or debunk the inappropriate ones (as I wrote above, usually those discredit themselves). One of the problems I see is that the overall rankings of restaurants is determined by averaging out the ratings they receive, stars, or points, and in that respect, the angry one star maniac (who often sends the same review multiple times) will have an effect on the restaurant that greatly exceeds the validity of his or her “review.”

  3. Alex Lincoln says:

    I am somewhat immune to the public,and their immature ranting and raving about all of the things that they would do differently or better. However, here at the club, we encourage members to fill out a comment card addressing these 3 things.

    #1:Please tell us about the quality of your food today.
    #2:Please tell us about the quality of your service today.
    #3:What would you change about your experience here today.

    The majority of the people who have a problem, don’t tell, an M.O.D. when it happens. What they do is wait for this card, completely bash, trash, and destroy the entire establishment through a little piece of paper. The problem with this is, the G.M. accounts for every card. So whether I have a personal relationship with a member or not, or if I am on good terms, it doesn’t matter. Our staff is always guilty until proven innocent. See the problem lies here, the kitchen does genuinely make mistakes, however, the only person that the customer ever sees or deals with, is the server. If the server takes too long to put a ticket in, if the server didn’t catch a modification, or a preference, or if the server just plain forgot something, it still reflects negatively on the kitchen. It’s harder to be mad at a giggly, little teenage girl, than it is to be mad at a bunch of tattooed, guys that you can see through a little window in the back. Often times they will complain about their food and their dining experience, but give excellent marks to the front of the house. “It took too long”, “I asked for no olives and got olives”. All of the things that could have been prevented with timeliness, organization, and proper communication. The G.M. receives countless emails over the course of a week, discussing these very topics. The kitchen is always where the blame falls. I am the first guy, being the chef, that he wants to get some answers from. It just seems like an outlet for people that can’t express themselves in person. Maybe a lack of eloquence, or fear of spit in their food. I dunno. I have an open door policy on my kitchen, anyone, and I mean ANYONE, is allowed to come back and tell me what they think. What they want changed. Why they are happy/unhappy. It just makes me sad to see the de-humanization going on. If people spoke to each other like humans, as Patrick referenced in the post, the world would be a much better place. I take enough pride in what I do, and respect enough people’s opinions, to know that maybe my way isn’t the best way. I am always willing to listen, modify, and accommodate to give the member the best possible experience.

  4. Kim M says:

    How appropriate now that Yelp is in the news. There is a lawsuit brought by a dozen or so companies – some Yelp advertisers, some not. It alleges Yelp sales representatives indicated to businesses that they could alter site listings to help advertisers and harm non-advertisers, and that Yelp has actually done so.

    Lesson learned — if you are inclined to read postings, read it all and from a variety of sources…there are at least two sides to every story!

  5. Kerry says:

    I don’t know how I feel about the “preemptive strike” as described above. It almost seems petty, as though the restaurant is lowering itself to the status of the irrational, complaining customer. Restaurants should not have to defend themselves for not going to illegal lengths to please customers. I’d rather read about a really cool new menu item on a restaurant’s page than see the page used in a reactionary, negative way. Ignoring assholes should be your best defense.

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