So this is the scenario: You go out for dinner at a nice local spot, you order drinks, then food, then your appetizers come out and you dig in. A few minutes later, your server comes out and asks you, “how are your first few bites?” You smile and tell him everything is great. After your main courses arrive, another quality check; again you reassure them that everything is lovely. Your server notices that you aren’t really eating your food, just picking at it, moving it around on the plate. Your server mentions this to the manager who comes by to check on your meals. You assure them that everything is perfect. Maybe you make up an excuse like a late lunch or that your eyes are bigger than your stomach. You order dessert, couple of coffees, pay your bill and leave. Then, as soon as you’re nestled in the safety of your car, you take out your smart phone and tweet about how lousy your experience was. Maybe you get rude and nasty or maybe you just use words like “disappointing” or “underwhelming.” By the time you go to sleep that night, you have posted critical reviews on Urbanspoon and Tripadvisor.
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I am a big fan of social media. I use it all the time. Every time I go out to eat I am tweeting my menu choices with amateurishly snapped food shots. I almost feel an obligation to my followers to let them know what I am eating. Weird, I know, and sometimes I let my food get cold ‘cause I am busily typing on my phone. But I get it. What I don’t get is why people feel free to say online what they are too timid to say in person.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not immune to this impulse either. I often find myself complaining online about one thing or another. I wish there was a window that pops up every time you press ‘send’ chiding you to think twice: “Do you really want to say that?” Sometime complaining online actually works. We were in San Francisco, our luggage had travelled somewhere else. A few well-placed tweets and our bags were located and were being delivered to our hotel in Napa.
Maybe it’s the anonymity of the internet that gives us the freedom to complain. I have thought that if you had to use your full names on all your online accounts, you would be far more polite. A recent study has shown that it is the lack of eye contact that makes it easier to be harsh with others when you are online. Whatever the reason, I think every time you post something on line, I think you should ask yourself, “would I feel comfortable saying this to the recipient in person?”
I have no issue with customers complaining. I don’t like it, it makes me sad sometimes, but I understand its importance. My concern is with how and where you complain. When you complain on Twitter or Yelp, it’s too late. You are not giving the restaurant the opportunity to address your concerns. The reason restaurants do a quality check, is not just to be polite or to interrupt your conversation, it is so they can find out whether you are happy with your meal. If you are not, the server has a chance to catch this and correct the problem right away. Every restaurant’s goal is to have you leave happy. People tell me they don’t want to cause a scene. I think it is funny how we don’t want to make a scene in front of a handful of diners, but we have no qualms about making a scene in front of everyone with access to the internet. But anyway, advising your server in a calm and respectful way that your steak is overcooked or that your pasta is bland will never cause a scene. Your server will quietly whisk your plate back to the kitchen and then “politely” ask the cook to remake the dish or to make a replacement. Although he may be frustrated at his mistake, the cook will then have to opportunity to correct it and ensure that you, the customer, are happy. If you have a concern that your server is unwilling or unable to address, by all means ask to speak to a manager. Give them the opportunity to correct the problem.
Complaining while you are still in the restaurant is the best thing you can do, it allows us to try to make you happy before you leave. If for some reason you really don’t feel you can do this, the next best thing you can do is to call or email the manager or owner later that evening or the next day. This gives us the chance to talk about your concerns and learn from them. Random posts on twitter might make you feel better in the moment, but really don’t benefit anyone.
And finally, I want you to think about the people behind the restaurants. It is a tough business. We work very hard for not a lot of money. Restaurant owners have homes and kids and mother-in-laws, just like you. We are all saving for our kids college fund or shelling out hard earned dollars for goalie pads, just like you. It would be great if we were able to always be firing at 100%. But cooks and servers are human. We have off nights or even just individual dishes that we just don’t get right. So, when we make a mistake, you don’t need to trash our reputations for everyone to see for all time. Let us fix it. If we then refuse to address your complaint, then feel free to fire up the old “interwebs” and trash us to all your friends and followers. Just don’t start there. And when you tweet, ask yourself, how would you feel if you knew that the chef’s son or mother might read your complaint. Be honest, but be nice.
Alexander Svenne is the food writer for Spectator Tribune and chef at Bistro 7 1/4. Follow him at @ChefAlex
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