Saturday, March 6, 2010

An Unwelcome Guest

It's official, I have earned a food writer's Red Badge of Courage: I have been banned from my very first restaurant.

News of the banning came to me yesterday not from the restaurant itself, but from a friend who is a reader and occasional commenter. Many, many months ago, he and I agreed to meet mid-way between Cleveland and Akron to exchange some freshly baked bread I had made for him. He suggested that we stop by a restaurant that he had eaten at once before and wanted to try again. Being that there was no seating available in the restaurant, we took our order to go and found a local park in which to eat it. Afterwards, we parted company and I came home and wrote up my review of the food. The article itself posted in late 2009 and with it came what I would consider a normal amount of traffic from my devoted readers. After several days, the number of requests for that particular piece fell off, as I would expect them to.

Fast forward to around a month and a half ago, I experienced a sudden three day surge of page requests for this very same restaurant. It wasn't until I started digging around that I realized that a nationally televised talk show host had identified not only this restaurant, but a very specific menu item as being his/her favorite. Apparently this served as very effective advertising for the restaurant as my stat numbers surged. Unfortunately, since the restaurant did not have a website of their own, the next most relevant link appeared instead: A link to my piece. Not only that, but I had eaten and reviewed the very product that the talk show host had promoted on the show.

Eventually, the clamor died down once again and I stopped seeing search engine links from people trying to find the restaurant. I don't know if the restaurant in question hadn't thought it might be a good idea to turn one of the available Internet search engines onto itself until yesterday, but when they did, they found a link to the nationally televised talk show and directly beneath that one, a link to my article. The connection to my friend comes from the fact that he had not only left a comment on my review, but also left a business card with them during the original visit (for possible future-related work). For reasons that only the restaurant's owner knows, he decided to call him. In my mind, that was a mistake.

It won't shock many of you out there reading this to know that if you share your opinion on a public forum like a blog, you are bound to have lovers and haters. Talk about something on which everyone has an opinion, like food and restaurants, and you are guaranteed to ruffle a few feathers. While I would love to say nothing but positive comments about every food experience I have, it would not be an accurate representation of the reality of food service and restaurant scene. As it turns out, there have been thankfully few completely negative reviews. In most cases, a restaurant will do some things right and some things wrong. I decided early on that I would point out each side as both are important to understanding how well the business is meeting the needs of its customers. And in the end, a restaurant is a business like any other and if they are not selling a product or service that customers are willing to buy, they will eventually close.

No attempt was made by this restaurant to contact me directly. I purposely listed my email address in my blog template so that every single article available on this site has at least two links. Additionally, since I allow anonymous posters, no one has any excuse for not feeling like they do not have the ability to reach me. Since I actively moderate the comments to make sure that they stay on topic and relevant, I read every single comment. In fact, the moment anyone posts a comment to any blog entry, I am immediately notified by email the contents of the new comment and to which entry it was made.

I feel quite bad that my friend and commenter had to field a phone call by an irate restaurant owner. My friend told me about the incident not because the owner told him to, but because he thought that I should know about this exchange of information. While the restaurant owner did not specifically forbid my friend from returning, I have been officially labeled persona non grata and asked to remove the offending restaurant review. At the same time, the restaurant owner also expressed the desire that I should review them again to give them another shot. I'm sorry, but if I'm not welcome to walk through your front door, then how exactly will I be able to pick up my food?

I am more than happy to provide constructive feedback with the management of any restaurant and I am willing to return for a second visit to see if the experience has been improved. However, banning me from your restaurant and demanding that I take down what was not even close to being a scathing review does not cut it with me. In my opinion, the proper way to handle this would've been an email or comment such as:

"Hello, my name is Mr. X and I am the owner of Restaurant Y. I noticed from your review that you didn't have the kind of positive food experience that we want all of our customers to walk away with. I would really like to open a dialogue with you about your concerns and resolve them to your satisfaction. Finally, I would appreciate the opportunity for a second chance and invite you back at your convenience to give us another shot."

THAT, gentle reader, is an appropriate response. And one, quite honestly, that I would've taken in a very positive way and gladly worked with the owner to help in what ever way I could. Contrary to this restaurant's belief, I want the locally owned independent restaurants to not only survive, but also thrive. For God's sake, the constant homogenization of the American culinary scene is a threat that is poised to erase every major city's individuality. These local restaurants are what makes Cleveland ... Cleveland! There is a reason I choose not to write about Appleby's and The Cheesecake Factory.

Many of the closest friends with whom I have confided about this event have asked me to name the restaurant. I could do that. But I won't. Writing this blog was never about engaging in a pissing contest with anyone else, be it a person or an entity. Of course, intelligent dialogue is always encouraged and appreciated, whether you agree with what I have to say or not. Unfortunately in this case, the only dialogue that happened was through a third party. I don't know whether the restaurant owner who contacted my friend was a technical Luddite or simply didn't want to confront me directly, but the act smacks of a lack of professionalism.

Will you, gentle reader, be able to figure out which restaurant I've been talking about this entire time? I've left enough clues that if you are moderately driven, I am not doubtful that you may be able to find the exact entry. I stand by what I wrote then and I stand by it now. If you don't like what I had to say, that is certainly your prerogative. But instead of turning a negative situation into a downright awful one, at least have the forethought to try and improve it to the best of your ability. At least make an attempt.

Finally, as for the entreaty to remove the allegedly spurious review of the restaurant from my blog? I'll keep it family-friendly and simply say, I don't think so.


Phil R said...

That's really too bad Tom. Poorly handled all around by the restaurateur, when he should have perceived this as an opportunity to make a correction and learn from it. Our local restaurant scene is so vibrant right now that the choices are almost endless, and very, very good. Keep up the good (and impartial) work!

Anonymous said...

dammit Tom, I recall the post even down to eating at the park, but for the life of me cannot remember the name of the place. are you going to make me go through all your past posts (which, admittedly is not a bad way to spend some time) or can you e-mail me with the name of the place (pretty please).

I agree with Phil R and probably a bunch of other people that the restaurateur handled this very badly.


Tino said...

@Phil R: I couldn't agree more. With the fall of traditional food critics and the rise of social media, blogs, and the Internet, even the smallest of voices can be as important as the more well-established ones. While I don't propose that I am bigger than my britches, clearly I do have readers out there who make recommendations to their friends.

@Karen: LOL! That made me laugh. Hopefully the restaurant in question may take away some public relations lessons from this experience, too.

BONNIE K said...

What an asshole. I think he should have added a comment to that post, with the words you suggested.

Liz said...

Naturally, I HAD to go back and look. And, re-reading your post (if it's the one I think it is), I think you gave a fair assessment. Some good things, some that could be improved, and mentioned some inconsistencies that you wouldn't have known about had they not been in plain sight. They could have taken the experience and made some improvements and ended up with an advocate!

If nothing else, it's a lesson in why-you-should-make-your-own-website.

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