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How To Complain

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A friend of mine, a chef I very much respect, put this on Facebook in early November after receiving a less-than-stellar online review.

It got me thinking about the symbiotic relationship between restaurants and their customers and how the veil of the digital world between them is fraught with danger.

Customers might feel cowed being on someone else’s turf. I feel as awkward in some restaurants as anyone, and this is my job. But the favor is always and forever in the customer’s advantage.

Think of it this way: a customer may not want a restaurant to go out of business, but he or she can certainly survive it. A restaurant, however, cannot survive without customers.

Complete Satisfaction

Let’s dissect a bit of what the chef wrote, because I think it is both wrong and right in a few places.

The term “completely satisfied” stuck out to me, because there have been meals I loved when I didn’t reach that blissful state of nirvana.

Complete Satisfaction sounds like something you get on a yoga retreat, not in a restaurant. Sometimes your water glass goes unfilled. Sometimes your steak is a tad overdone. Sometimes the chair is uncomfortable and the conversation at your table is dull and the speakers are playing a song you don’t like.

Which of these do you complain about? And to whom do you complain? It’s not your server’s fault the steak is overdone. And he or she likely didn’t choose the soundtrack or the chairs.

I think we all struggle with the urge to say, “Everything’s great!” and just get on with our night. But that’s selfish and self-destructive, all at once. Because you’re putting off an uncomfortable situation for momentary relief, forestalling development and improvement on the part of the restaurant.

Most chefs and restaurateurs do want to know if there’s a problem. It’s not pleasant to receive criticism, but that’s the only way many of us can get better. If you don’t know there’s a problem, how can you fix it?

But if they want to know about problems, why are they against reviews? I think it’s partly the same reason most of us don’t want to be reviewed at our jobs — fear.

A review can be constructive or it can be vindictive. It can offer compliments alongside complaints or it can be a diatribe that seeks only to tear down and destroy.

But the real problem with a review is that it is eternal. There are all your problems, put on display to the world before you even knew they existed and it stays there long after the problems are addressed. That is mortifying and frightening.

“Is this how everyone feels? Are we doing a bad job? Will the restaurant close? Am I a bad chef?”

Is it easier to hear it in-person? Not always. But the chance to make it better helps.

Complain the Right Way

Simply knowing that you should air your grievances face-to-face doesn’t make it any less difficult, so how about some tips? And if they get mad at you, just blame me. I’m used to it.

  • Choose the right time. Depending on the issue, when you complain makes a big difference. If your steak is not cooked correctly or there’s an item missing from your order, bring it up as soon as possible. Sometimes a server forgets or gets overwhelmed or the expo station sends out the wrong item. But this is an instance in which a swift, polite word can resolve the issue. Telling someone your steak was cooked wrong after you’ve eaten the whole thing isn’t going to be taken seriously.
  • Tastes differ. There’s a difference between not liking what you ordered and something that seems wrong, like a rotten or other “off” flavor. When something tastes like it’s gone bad, tell the server immediately. If that’s the way the dish is supposed to taste, you might request a replacement. If it’s simply not exciting or the seasoning is wrong, but not in a way that makes it inedible, you can tell your server when they ask how everything is. Be clear if you’re looking for a replacement — if it’s just the way it is, getting the same dish made again won’t make a difference — or if you’re fine with it and just wanted to make a comment.
  • Don’t lie. Don’t do it. If you ordered one thing but decided later you wanted something different, don’t try to Jedi mind trick your server by claiming you were brought the wrong item. Be an adult. Accept the mistake.
  • Be polite. You’re a person. So is your server. So is the chef (I hope). As people, try to be empathetic and understand how you would feel if the tables were reversed. With that in mind, be polite. Be kind. Be understanding and forgiving and all the things you’d want if you were the server or the chef. Attitude makes a big difference.
  • Things get heated. Sometimes being polite doesn’t matter. Sometimes a server or a manager or an owner will escalate things with words or volume. That’s not cool. If you feel unsafe while making a complaint in-person, make that complaint from a distance. That might include a phone call, an email or an online review. But if you’re complaining online, go back to tip #3. Be honest. As soon as you stray from the truth in order to make your side more sympathetic, you’ve lost. The evidence needed to refute a lie might not occur to you, but a business owner who is trying to defend the restaurant won’t hesitate to find a way to vindicate their reputation.
  • Be specific. As long as you're being honest, let's go one further and be a good reviewer while you're at it. Point out the good and the bad. Admit your own mistakes, if you made any. Specificity it key. Just writing "BAD" in all-caps doesn't help anyone.
  • Be open to a resolution. Isn’t that what we want? Isn’t that the point of the complaint? If the businesses reaches out, be willing to reach back. If they are willing to change something you point out in an online review, be willing to change the review to reflect that. But if a restaurant tries to contact you to make things right and you ignore them, then what is the point? Reviews aren’t there to hurt businesses, but to give others an idea of what they are dealing with. A business that legitimately does a bad job, doesn’t try to make it right or acts dishonestly deserves to be called out so others can avoid them. But if someone makes a good faith effort to improve, that’s something to celebrate.

About the Author

Founder and Eater-in-Chief of I Ate Oklahoma, Greg Elwell has been reviewing restaurants and writing about Oklahoma’s food culture for more than a decade. Where a normal person orders one meal, this guy gets three. He is almost certainly going to die young and those who love him most are fairly ambivalent about it. You can email Greg at greg@iateoklahoma.com.