Social Media and Food Criticism

This article in the August 13 issue of Maclean’s magazine really struck a nerve.

It’s about people who visit a restaurant and then tweet negatively based on perceived (not always justified) inadequacies – and then the restaurants feel that they have to rush to appease this person who is trumpeting their displeasure. We have also had this experience. It’s amazing to me that people who do not bother to mention their dissatisfaction to the restaurant manager, or their server, or even directly to us via our website or by calling, will then make a sputtering fuss via Twitter or a blog  about their perceived negative experience. Of course their behaviour was perfect, so if there was any dispute at all they blame the restaurant staff and call them rude. We’ve had people who have got drunk and done terrible things and disturbed other guests as well as staff then pretended later that they didn’t do anything wrong and the police were called for no reason at all. It’s all our fault, of course! Every restaurant has similar stories.

I used to write restaurant reviews and if I couldn’t write something positive I’d skip that review altogether. Because…you don’t know. When do we feel a tweet is justified? Well…if you’ve spent many years in the industry, and you can tell the difference between a server having an off night, or the kitchen experiencing an equipment malfunction (happens all the time) and an establishment that really doesn’t care, and if you’ve spoken to the manager and he essentially tells you to pound sand, then, maybe. But not really. It’s courtesy. You didn’t like it? Don’t go back.

We really care about our food and service, so when we catch a tweet like that we do a lot of forensic work – we contact the tweeter, ask them which location they visited, when they were there, where they were sitting – because we do want to improve service and make guests happy. It’s our entire raison d’être. Why open a restaurant otherwise? But we really wish they had said something to the manager when they were on the spot, because it would be much easier to figure out what went wrong – and to make amends then and there. But it’s interesting that these people are often quite shy in person, so they’re reluctant to talk to a human being. But a vicious tweet is totally within their comfort zone because they feel safe and anonymous! Usually when we ask the manager when we’re trying to follow up one of these complaints, they will say that the table was fine and seemed to have no problems. So why the nasty remark? There’s some unjustified arrogance here. Not to mention bad manners.

1. I think there’s an inflated sense of self-importance in the sphere of social media. (Yes, I realize the irony of blogging this.) If you collect a lot of Twitter followers (here’s how hard this is: you follow people and out of courtesy they follow you back) or have people following your blog, you start to feel that your opinion carries more weight than maybe it should. We have found some food bloggers are at the point where they consider themselves very influential, at par with professional print reviewers, and they often demand comped meals, freebies, and they expect to be treated like royalty. So you wonder about the level of integrity here. Mind you, there are a whole host of food bloggers who do great work and are respected by industry professionals including us. They do their research, they generally base reviews on more than one visit, they get to know the staff, they are thoughtful and even-handed and they do not expect to be comped. When they have reservations, so to speak, about a restaurant’s performance they try to be fair and not vindictive. Plus, their writing is often delightful and inspiring.

2. The Dark Side: It appears that some Twitterers have figured out that a lot of restaurants will comp meals or provide gift certificates in order to persuade a tweeter to say something positive next time. The Maclean’s article suggests that some negative Twitterers are playing this game. If so, bad karma and shame on them!

I think that, overall, if you have a negative experience in any establishment, be it hospitality, retail, service, whatever, you owe it to the establishment to let them know first and give them the opportunity to rectify the situation. If you’re going to complain, have the guts and the courtesy to complain to someone to their face, not behind their back. If you have a positive experience, then trumpet away. I’ve written a few glowing hotel reviews for when I’ve had great experiences. When I’m disappointed, I let management know and I keep my mouth shut. I think anything else is cheap, petty and irresponsible.

(Just my opinion as a restaurant owner and as a reviewer of restaurants and hotels myself, not the official position of the restaurant. Because the restaurant’s policy is:  RUSH to address complaints, and we even appease spouters of negative social media!)

I actually wrote this post about a month ago but I didn’t post it; I consulted with some senior staff first. They liked it but I hesitated to post. But just today we had a negative tweet and it seemed like the right time:

Tweet: “still can’t get over the rude service we received last nite”

Our response: “Sorry to hear about your experience. Did you follow up with a manager in the restaurant? Many don’t and take to Twitter.”

Their tweet back, complete with grammatical errors: “we’ve talked her but she did nothing about it and left us… People have the right to know via twitter and other means.” (I love this; people also have a right to know that the twitterer’s behaviour was less than exemplary but I guess there isn’t enough room in a tweet to include that part.)

Our last response: “As you can imagine, it is very hard to follow up with so little info. If you could, please email us at….”

The manager at that location emailed us about this – apparently someone booked a large party of 8, but then arrived with 10 people. We always let people know if we need the table back for another reservation later and if they don’t like that then they don’t continue with their booking; this person was fine with it (I’m starting to think we need to make people sign something to prove that they agreed because the odd one fusses about it later). So they were late for their reservation and then were outraged when they were told that we needed the table for the next party. The person who made the reservation and agreed to the time limit then pretended that she didn’t and called the server a liar! The manager spoke with them but they were impossible to appease and were very, let’s say, difficult, so of course now our staff is upset. And then she tweets about us? Not to mention they refused the 18% automatic gratuity (for large parties) and left a $4 tip on a $200 bill.


What kills me is that the managers are being so sweet about it – they are asking that we tweet asking these people back (!!) so we can shower them with kindness and try to change their minds about us. They are bigger people than I am.

There are days when I wonder why we thought the restaurant industry would be a fun place to be. Incidents like this are destroying my faith in human nature. I know that there are some miserable people who are impossible to please and we shouldn’t worry about them, but I just wish they wouldn’t come to our restaurants and upset our staff and then say unfair one-sided things about us via social media.

OK, going to have the rest of my Sunday….


Filed under current events ranting, Hapa Izakaya-related

2 responses to “Social Media and Food Criticism

  1. Well, now that I’ve slept it off – Sunday dinner was great, but I’m so sorry the police had to be called and I promise never to act like that again….

  2. Wow, I had NO idea. The pace we’re all running just keeps going faster and faster.