Archive | November 2012

Help Me Help You.

There are very few things I can think of that strike me harder than complaints without resolution.

It’s my job as a maitre d’ – I am a firefighter without the hose and physique. My job is to extinguish fires while they are still in the sauté pan, and before they spread to the rest of the house. These problems range in size and issue – from the paycheck that didn’t have the right number on it for one of my colleagues to the guest that is angry about the check being delivered when he expressly asked for the same to not happen. I have had guests spit in my face, call me names, threaten to protest outside of the restaurant, and a number of other things that I will stop listing for the benefit of anyone that may be reading this – but never have I been unable to solve whatever issue is truly at the core of my area of responsibility for the complaint. Didn’t like your table, even though you made a reservation 20 minutes ago? No problem. Next time you’re in, I’ll make sure that I help you call earlier, and I will give you whatever you want. Didn’t like your server? No problem – I’ll make sure you have another one. Had to park too far away? I’ll park your car for you.

This is what I do. It’s all I do, and precisely why I wake up in the morning.

Because of this desire to host my guests, I am unusually baffled by anonymous, angry complaint posts on what the internet has sensationally provided as a forum for the same. On too regular a basis, there are guests that feel the need to write rather extraordinarily long and viscous “reviews,” then copying and pasting the exact same thing on as many different websites as they can. Diatribe, really – and I use the term with respect – that is almost always wrought with frustration or anger. Complaints that are thinly veiled, highly exaggerated, and completely without any recommendation for a solution, other than “we’ll never go there again,” or to slap the restaurant with one of any number of tags that would discourage another diner from making this choice.

The problem is that, much like Jerry Springer’s show, it is little more than fodder for the masses that read through the tremendous amount of garbage material on the internet any given day. The behavior is little more than commiseration, if anyone will listen, but it is not a “review” – rather, it is a litany of babel. On a regular basis, I tell my staff that if there is an issue, they should bring it up and offer a solution. If they’ve not thought that far ahead, then it may not be worth bringing up just yet. In the same sense, when a guest, based on their perspective, labels a “flaw” in a restaurant according to having no experience whatsoever in the restaurant about which they are speaking, it’s hard to take very seriously. This is raw ignorance results in the formula that Professor Michael Wesch, when discussing cyber-bullying,  describes as “[perceived] anonymity + rare and ephermal dialogue + physical distance = hatred as public performance.” Truly, negative and anonymous comments to anyone is little more than bullying. Especially when these same “critics” never asked anyone for help.

Think about this – what is the point of a “review”? Is it meant to make the restaurant better? To let the ownership know that you are upset? To give an objective interpretation of the place? One founder of an internet blog mentioned that he sees the need for the reviews from “peers” to be an “exchange of thoughts and ideas” about restaurants, where customers can help others make decisions about where to dine. That’s a false hope, since I won’t eat scallops no matter how delicious another reviewer says they are. And, quite frankly, when a reviewer gives their “opinion” about something, it’s as subjective as the day is long, so why does it really matter? What’s the point of doing something that results in nothing?

If, on the other hand, it is meant for true feedback, why then do these guests hide their names? Why didn’t they try to solve the problem, rather than complaining to people they will never meet or see? In the long run, these reviews are simply bad for business. Not my business, by the way (anonymous angry reviews with no desire for a solution are worthless to me), but business in general. Negativity breeds the same, and communities fail because of the cesspools from which this line of thought is bred. In the same breath that people complain about not having any great dining options, they will slam a new restaurant because they don’t like the trout dish. Logical? Only if you factor in a complete lack of respect and regard for a business, and even then hardly. Practical? Absolutely not. If you are one of a thousand people that does not love the bread we serve in a restaurant, your opinion certainly matters, but we must find something special for you, because 1,000 trumps 1- there is no business sense in changing everything for one person’s feedback alone. Most of the anonymous complaints revolve around the displeasure derived from the fact that the business plan wasn’t written with that person in mind – “the (blank) was awful. So was the (blank).” This runs contrary to the people that love it – so is it that it’s awful, or that you just didn’t like it? There’s a huge difference – one is world-wide unanimity, the other is one’s opinion. In fact, in the result, nothing is solved, nothing is bettered, and the only relief is the narrow, feckless thuggery of having told someone off if they happen to actually read it. To make matters worse, it is demonstrated that there is no regard for the solution when I write to a guest to express my apologies, hoping that we can talk in some more detail about what was said – to no response. If our having served you an under-temped cappuccino was so awful, imagine how being trashed publicly – then completely ignored – must feel.

I know that sometimes, people just like shouting at the rain. I also know that competitors in our field sometimes like to write reviews too, in order to negatively affect another business, though completely contradictory to the principle of the community we all work so hard to create. However, in general, there simply isn’t enough thought put into the actions – there is no way that someone can expect another to react positively to such behavior, and definitely not with the open ears and heart for change. It’s the old saying that you will attract more flies with honey – and in these instances, the opposite pile ends up being the offering. A restauratuer is very uninterested in babbling rhetoric that does nothing for them – ultimately, an angry post results in absolutely nothing at all. More people will react to constructive criticism than angry ranting – that is a fact dictated by human nature. In a recent instance, a guest complained that they left before eating because they didn’t like that they were “shoehorned into” their table, a middle among three small deuces in the back of our restaurant. We were rated by this guest as one star (out of four) even though there was no food, service, or wine provided – begging the question, then – why did you rate anything at all? I asked the same to the guest, we had an exchange of emails, they came back, and updated their review. This is how these things should work – there should always be an offer and opportunity for the chance to correct an impression. There should be dialog. As professionals in this world, we know that the business is tough, and that you have other places you could go as a consumer. We wouldn’t open our doors if we didn’t want your business, because none of us are under the delusion that we’ll make millions doing it. We do it because we love hospitality, and we love cooking and pouring wine for you. Per that social contract, if you will, the least you could do is open up to the chance that maybe I wasn’t trying to burn your house down when my server handed the menu to a man before a woman. There may have been no malice in our having served you the Beaune instead of the Pommard. There is a chance that I don’t plan to steal your car even though I mis-pronounced your last name. All these details are important, to be sure, but is an attempt to negatively affect all the livelihoods of the people you didn’t even meet a fair price for a restaurant to pay for having made even the worst of these transgressions, or is the person just trying to destroy a business out of spite?

I have made mistakes on every continent. Like I tell my staff, however, I try very hard to make them only once. As a lifer in this business, I also know that a first impression is what many people consider the most important – I might suggest, though, that there is a fine line between a true “review” and “hatred as public performance.” If one writes so scathing a review as to throw the old “no one should ever go there” or “a waste of money,” they are doing so without having gotten to know me, and that means that we have both made mistakes – which are, nevertheless, easy to fix. Write to a manager, a maitre d’, an owner. Search for a solution – if altruistically to help the business, but even if selfishly, to help the business understand what you want. If that falls on deaf ears, then warn the public, and I will help you – a real restaurant will do everything they can possibly do to make you happy, or at the very least explain why they can not. A poor review for a place that did not know what you wanted – delivering what they thought you wanted – is simply the wrong, poorly thought out reactionary answer to a question that no one asked, and is as unfair as unjust. In fact, it borders on cowardice, were it not just plain old bullying. What’s the point in writing anything if you don’t want to participate beyond just telling the world that you’re upset?

I want to please everyone with everything I have. If, in my restaurant, you have left without being happy, then you don’t know me and I don’t know you – which we need to rectify with a conversation – because this is what I do.

Maybe considering that we haven’t found a solution, it’s not be worth writing about. Not just yet.