Scratch My Back

I suppose that the arrangement is not so new.

I give you extra this, and a little free this, and the next thing I know, you’ve written a perfect review about the restaurant in which I work. In fact, most recently, a company has made a “Reviewer Card” that brings to the service staff’s attention that, in fact, they are a “review writer,” with as much or (more usually) as little experience possible, both in cooking and writing. $100 dollars to flex this muscle. The owner of the company defends it, saying that it’s a “head’s-up for the restaurateur.” Isn’t the presence of the diner, what with the internet “foodies” these days, warning enough?

I’m going to offer the benefit of the doubt, for just  a moment, to the boorish, dolt mentality that invented this sub-concept from its head principle of bribery. Am I giving myself away too soon? Has my thesis yet become evident?

The service that you receive in my restaurant, from my colleagues, will be the best that they have to offer every day. The food that you will receive from my Chef, having looked at and touched every plate, will more than likely be to his or her rather exacting standards, and the view out of any window will be exactly what it was when we picked this location. Are you insinuating, perhaps, that a free bite or two of food will somehow make any of those things better? I’d be amazed that your brain has enough energy to power your legs to carry you into the building if you find that to be true, especially with the knowledge that I have joined you in the shady bribe attempt to get your clearly skewed “praise” posted in a place where people may or may not read it, and so at the expense of the business that I am trying to build. If the best you have for me is to blast your negative opinion (so strong, in fact, that it could have been swayed by a mouth-full of free food), then bring it on.

I suppose the opposite could be stated as well, in that it would be easier just to give that freebie, in hopes of not having to deal with the opposite nonsense. What’s the point? Where’s the incentive to work hard for the rest of the 18-hour day to only throw our hands up and succumb to the bribe? Recently, a first-time diner offered that they were disappointed that they were not offered an amuse bouche, as was an author of a recent review (note, please, that an amuse bouche is something that we will regularly offer to our return guests as a thank you for the same return – and the author of the review had been in no less than 5 times). I explained how we generally handle that particular free item, to which he responded that he “may not come back, since he didn’t get [an amuse bouche].” Furthermore, maybe he would write his own review, and add that the restaurant “plays favorites, and you have to know somebody if you want something for free.” Aside from thinking I might show up at his house the following day to ask for some free stuff, with whatever other intelligence I could muster, there were no words coming out of my face. It was one of the more ungrateful, shameless things I had ever heard, but it’s epidemic – if you have a restaurant, you should give things away.

I don’t agree.

It’s true, there are guests that will get a little bit more than others from time to time. This is an inevitability that comes with many visits more than status – our return and local guests are paramount to us, just like you would more than likely make a different dinner for your new fiancee’s parents than you would for your roommate. It means no lack of love for the roommate, but you put different investments into different things. That’s just what we do. Anyone has to do the practical math, though – giving things away to excess (which often means without a solid ROI justification) is one of the three reasons that restaurants go out of business. I’d call that not a good idea.

To insinuate that, because you might write a non-professional hobbyist review, I should give you better service or something extra is dumb. Silly, foolish, ignorant and dumb, and the Card is empowering the same imbecilic and entitled view. Every one of my guests should experience and demand hospitality – and most of them do, without the threat of a review, but with the threat of not returning. Just like the president would rather have my vote than my affection, I would rather a return guest than a good review. Danny Meyer, who has forgotten more than I will ever understand about how to do this job, once said that he would “rather be the favorite restaurant than the best.” Don’t get me wrong, I’ll take a good review any day, but from a guest that feels we deserve it, not one that was compensated to write it. To do that would be a disservice and slap in the face to the hundreds of hours that my kitchen staff spends cutting crazy little french-techniqued vegetables in the kitchen. It would cheapen the training that the service staff pains over, the hours spent poring over the reservation list, and more importantly, would be offering off our soul – the soul of the kitchen, for what will surely be a fake, poorly written review. Keep it.

We miss the mark from time to time. Our reviewers make sure we know it. Angry, anonymous posts aside (for which I have very little love, too…), less-than perfect reviews – when honest – give us important fine-tuning data that helps us to improve daily. This is something that is invaluable to us – and, while I would always prefer to hear, in person the same day, feedback from guests, I have to believe that the general public is too smart to think that we’d only have all perfect reviews from every diner that ate here.

And frankly, I wouldn’t want that either. The moment that I could ever become so good that there was no reason to improve, there’s be no reason to go to work. There are many easier ways to make a living than this damn business, and improving, challenging, and growing are three of the five reasons to stay in it. I’d have to leave the business entirely.

Only then, since I’d know everything, would I go get myself a Reviewer Card.

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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.

When I Grow Up

I’m asked almost every day what I plan to be when I get a “real job.”

If you’re not one that works in restaurants, you may not understand why this is so interesting a question. In fact, if you work in “the industry” as a means to another end, you may not understand either.

Thing is, it’s not your fault.

The way that the restaurant business is viewed by a large majority of people who either dine or work in one is as a pass-through – a place that you will land in for some time, and probably not return. Whether a post-grad JD waiting for Bar results, a high school student wanting extra money for a telescope (too obscure?) or a regular dining customer, many people consider a restaurant to be a transient thing, something through which they flow like pollen on a waterfall. A major flaw, however, is in the fact that a business so driven by third-party satisfaction is ever possibly presumed to be completed by anyone with such an attitude. That is, how can you achieve a level of greatness in what you do if you are not completely committed to it for the entire time that you do it? And if you’re not interested at being great while you do it, how then will you master the pieces of your “real job,” making up the sum of parts, that you find less enjoyable than others?

In the hope of excellence, there is the occasional bump in the road that drops us directly onto our asses to remind us that we are very little different than the animals from which we evolved. We are very able to be humbled, and yet resilient enough to get up and correct, even better ourselves forward. This is an amazing task for a species – yet we settle so often at the precipice of mediocrity. And why? Because of the great lines such as “it’s not my job” and “I don’t plan on doing this forever,” the same transient behavior has started to mirror the transient perception – that, in fact, it’s ok to only care about a job in hospitality only so much. Don’t take it too seriously, because you’re not going to do this forever.

Interestingly enough, it’s these people that get stuck doing it forever. They are the ones that, bitter about their job, sink into a pit of gossip and anger, complaining about everything that takes place in a restaurant, and all the people that work there. From the start to the end of the shift, there’s nothing they’d rather do less than work – and this translated to their guests as well – leading to a worse tip, leading to more bitching. Wouldn’t you know, when the time finally comes to find another job, the mentality does not change, but the position DOES. So, as the gossiping crap-attitude continues, eventually this person is let go from the company that, regularly, is driven by type-A personalities that have no interest in that bullshit. What’s left? Back to the restaurant business. The world of forced hours, and random days off. To the person forced back into the world they hated, the word “hospitality” does not exist in any form, as it’s too choc-full of altruism for someone to understand, and doesn’t offer enough commiseration for their needs.

My feelings on this are strong, because so too are my feelings on professionalism within the industry. The pride with which some of us try to hold ourselves, in this world of such low expectations for service, defines many of us, and our inability to convey that with fellow restaurant employees – nothing should take priority over the moment in a restaurant, and the moment should be entirely about your guest. It’s a zen moment when you capture, as many of my friends have, that feeling like the table, station, or floor is yours. You are invincible because your guests want for nothing. You are invincible because they will come back to let you care for them again and again, and even pay you to do the same. This is what we do. To become intoxicated with the endeavor to succeed by creating an experience, and satisfying desires of your hosted guests is to know what it means to be a true restaurant professional, and not a wandering mercenary en route to to something “better” or more “permanent.” Done right, there is nothing that is either.

I may be asked almost every day when I plan to get a “real job,” but I’m not so sure I need one.