Category Archives: Hapa Izakaya-related

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 hotels.com 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.

Wow.

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….

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Filed under current events ranting, Hapa Izakaya-related

Behind the scenes at Hapa: the big kitchen meeting

Now that we have four locations of Hapa Izakaya, and a fifth opening in Toronto, we are moving towards further standardizing our menu. We started with a few pages that were consistent at all locations and then each location would have its own “fresh” section of specials that they developed independently. Some specials became so popular that we moved them to the “ground” menu so that we could offer them at all locations. But as our audience grows wider we are moving towards more standardization. Which also means reviewing each location’s rendering of ground menu items and deciding which is the best and should become standard for each location. This was not an easy meeting. I was prepared to come, take pictures with my groovy new camera and external flash, and maybe taste a few things, but I was not prepared to preside over something like a Japanese version of a Pillsbury Bake-Off. I adore our staff and the last thing I would want is to cause hurt feelings! Creative people, they are so sensitive! But fortunately our kitchen guys are pretty practical too.

So if you’ve ever wondered what a restaurant kitchen meeting is like….it’s actually pretty fun, the tasting ones anyway. The downside for me is that a lot of it takes place in Japanese which I don’t speak. Justin translates for Kevin (General Manager) and I and the guys use English when they can, and it’s always really cute when they express themselves in English. We needed to discuss a few practical things first, like pricing, and that’s never very interesting. We managed to spend 10 minutes discussing the cutting of tofu and the recipe and presentation of agedashi tofu, which is a deep-fried tofu dish with dashi, one of my daughter’s favourites and mine. But then the guys went to the kitchen and began the cook-off! I love watching professional cooks at work – their movements are so fast and sure and their timing is always absolutely spot-on. They let me take a few pics in the kitchen while they worked. I know I’m the owner but I don’t presume (not much anyway). I ask first before I intrude into my staff’s working space…and OMG, it’s hot in there.

We had a tough time deciding on one salad dressing. All four locations do a similar citrus-soy dressing and they’re all really good. (I copied down my favourite dressing recipe to use at home but will test it out before I post it because the guys make dressing in litre amounts so I need to cut it down considerably.) We ended up choosing the simplest dressing; it’s harder to screw it up when there are fewer ingredients and the difference wasn’t noticeable to anybody who isn’t a cook. But we had to eat a lot of salad to make this determination!

Trying out the salad dressing

Back to the kitchen….

Cutting scallops at the speed of light…

Scallop Tartare: chopped scallops, bacon, karashi mustard mayonnaise, wonton chips – but it’s ungarnished as it’s for tasting purposes only. Usually this would have some kind of fluff of alfalfa sprouts, some finely julienned radishes, that kind of thing.

Pork Belly

Pork Belly Lettuce Wrap, with crispy wonton bits, apple-yuzu jam and pickled red onions

Pork belly is extremely tasty, but I must confess: it’s not my favourite dish, because I am kind of fat-phobic. For some reason butter and cream are ok, but meat fat, no. It’s not elegant to chew at it like a rat, trying to avoid the fatty parts, so I leave this to Justin. The flavours are divine, though.

This is one of my favourite dishes:

(heavenly choir sings a chord) Polenta Fries!

Did I say I was fat-phobic? The hypocrisy! Well, it’s not meat fat. These are totally worth the calorie count. Crispy light tempura surrounding melting, hot, cheesy, creamy corn goodness? A little shmear of arugula gel for a touch of tartness? A drizzle of balsamic reduction adding its sweet acid to the mix? What’s not to like? Oh, right, the mile I’ll have to run to compensate for the calories. This is one reason I don’t drink: because I want those calories for things like pasta and cupcakes.

Beef Short Ribs, mmmm

We had to eat a lot of short ribs to determine which marinade was best. Tough call!

One of Justin’s favourite lunch items:

Halibut Taco: tempura halibut, housemade bacon, lettuce, tomato, shoestring potatoes, roasted jalapeño tartar sauce

Ishiyaki is a rice dish that is presented in a hot stone bowl: the ingredients are mixed at the table and allowed to cook a bit further to create yummy crispy edges. We have a few incarnations of this dish, some are vegetarian, involving mushrooms, some have pork in them, this one contains very tender braised beef:

Chipotle Beef Curry Ishiyaki

Mixing ishiyaki

Hapa Hot Wings, served with lemon wedge and fire extinguisher

Meeting over, only 2 hours later than anticipated. Beer time!

Who stayed until the end of this post? You get the recipe for the awesome Citrus Soy Salad Dressing which I’ve been figuring out as I work on this post:

Citrus Soy Salad Dressing

  • 3 T. olive oil
  • 2 T. Japanese soy sauce (not the dark Chinese kind); we are actually using gluten-free Tamari at the restaurants now but that’s up to you
  • 2 t. sugar or agave syrup
  • 1/4-1/2 tsp grated lemon rind
  • juice of 1 lemon (about 2 T.)
  • 3 capers
  • few sprigs parsley (this is a tough measurement; if you packed it together it would probably be less than a tablespoon)
  • 2 T. minced yellow onion

Give it a whiz in a food processor. If you don’t have a food processor just chop the solid ingredients very finely and shake in a jar. We serve this dressing with our Sashimi Salad and also our Midori Salad (simple green salad). You know I’m going to try it with quinoa to make a kind of Japanese quinoa salad. Stay tuned…

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Filed under Hapa Izakaya-related, Recipes