Dine and Whine

I pulled this morsel from chef Graham Duncan’s blog “From the Kitchen: Graham Duncan” and couldn’t resist throwing in my two cents.

The “dine and whine” has become the new “dine and dash” except instead of sneaking out to avoid paying for a meal(which in some restaurants it becomes the obligation of the server to pay for the meal)patrons sit right there in the restaurant and tell the restaurant management to their face that they are going to walk right out of the there without paying for a damn thing and there is nothing the management can do about it. Every restaurant manager is very familiar with this scenario, the “take care of my check, or else”, or else I will tell my friends not to come here, or else I will tell your boss that you didn’t treat me like the special person I am, or else I will go home and write on my blog (some clientele, I have heard, even post negative reviews on Yelp with an iPhone, while they are still sitting at the table in the restaurant, complete with photos!)that this restaurant sucks because..(insert complaint here) i.e. cold food, ditzy server, loud table next next to yours, the busboy didn’t smile at me, the hostess did not know my name, etc., etc.

Or for the cowardly that want to play this game, they go home and write a negative review of the restaurant on Yelp.com (and pretend that they are a real restaurant critic) and they will invariably, if the restaurant wants to stay competitive, be invited back “on the house” and get their butt kissed in the process. Either that or the restaurant can pay yelp to cover up negative reviews, which could be considered mildly unethical, at best. I have experienced, in my time in restaurant management, complaining patrons get their meals comped(paid for) and an invitation to return gratis, bring in six of their friends and drink top shelf drinks and eat lobster tails and steak on the restaurants dime.

I LOVE Graham’s topic! I was horrified when I first saw how blogging became the free needle and syringe for injecting  personal opinion into the bloodstream of public opinion.  Paid restaurant critics were feared enough (think Antono Ego from Ratatouille) but now every hack, wanna-be critic has a forum with equal credibility via the web.  Yikes!…and Ouch!  How can we stop them from ruining our reputations/careers/livilihoods?  Then I took a deep breath and gave it some thought…if anyone and everyone can do it, is anyone listening to them? If so, who gets listened to?

“Honest, instant information” is supposed to be the mantra of the information age…yet it isn’t so honest…it’s just quick and voluminous.   The more there is, the more it mimics society…where’d we ever get the idea that  it has to be honest?  If 30% of our society is dishonest and self serving then 30% of all blogs/reviews/rants are dishonest and self serving.  We should trust our customers to filter the data like they filter every decision they make every day.  One complaint about raw chicken in a sea of compliments on the same chicken dish will be mentally kicked out by the consumer.  However, multiple complaints about raw chicken means you have something to fix in your restaurant…and you’d better do it fast.  This is brilliant stuff!

Google is wrestling with “data manipulation” now.  They’re freakishly protective of their algorithms to sort out which websites are relevant to the search topic and which are not.  Even so, marketers, paid advertisers, and website developer hacks (read “me”) have done remarkably well to stay hot on their heels…so Google abandoned “keywords” as a means to determine content value.  Computers are “rule based” and the schemers (marketers/advertisers/etc.) just figure out ways to break the rules.  Truly all that Google…and the rest of us…want is good content . No cheating.  Give us the good stuff and we’ll decide for ourselves.  Google’s efforts give us reliable, objective searches for what we are looking for and we reward them for it by making them the search engine of choice.  Natural selection.

We should trust our customers to sort through the data and separate objective criticism from whining or freebie hunting. Managers should take complaints seriously but pay special attention to those that are communicated directly to the store…to a person not a computer.  All phone calls should be investigated carefully, and I believe, handled quickly, erring on the side of the guest when uncertain what to do.  Face it, American restaurants represent a unique retail phenomenon… consume the product, say you don’t like it, get it for free, and maybe get even more on top of that for free!  Try that at Best Buy.  Ahhh but what are we selling in restaurants? A widget? A cut of meat? Nope.  It’s an experience.  It’s about warm fuzzies and if people don’t get warm fuzzies when they dine in our restaurants, they complain.

Complaining about food in restaurants is a favorite past time because we all want to be schmoozed.  Give it to them.  All interpersonal interaction should be appreciated for what it is…a guest who has taken time to share their experience with us in a constructive way…in a way that allows us solve the issue and demonstrate true hospitality.  Go overboard to protect this guest and give them the lovin they crave.   They’re the ones who likely have a real complaint.  The blogs and Twits and Yelps should all be gathered and used.  It’s great data!…but should be filtered for repetition so we can act on real patterns and resolve real issues.  Don’t, however, waste your time reaching out to professional whiners…it’s too late and you’ll likely never make them happy.  Graham has done an excellent job identifying who they are…they don’t confront in person…they do so from behind a computer keyboard.

Not all electronic reviewers are whiners but all generally have a history… an account on Yelp or other traceable depositories for their rants.  If their post looks legit (ie – there are other comments like it and/or they don’t have a record of whining), post a comment back to them, thanking them for their opinion and vowing to investigate and resolve the issue so it never happens again.  Your street cred, as a restaurant, will have a very good chance of skyrocketing by showing you care.  If their collection of reviews exposes them as a whiner, ignore them.  Chances are, the consumer’s Bulls–t detectors are working just fine.

You’ll waste too much time and money chasing whiners when you could use that time to make yourself available to your staff and your customers so the issues don’t happen in the first place.

Ray Camillo – Founder & CEO, Blue Orbit Restaurant Consulting

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