Recently, a veteran LA Times restaurant critic, S. Irene Virbila, was dining at Beverly Hills' Red Medicine restaurant when a co-owner took her photograph, then kicked her out. The co-owner then put her photo on the restaurant's Tumblr site, without her permission, and banned her from the restaurant. The owner claimed it was because he did not like her reviews.
Instead of using the opportunity to showcase the strengths of their restaurant, Red Medicine ownership chose taking petty, unprofessional action against someone doing their job. This is just one more public misstep by restaurant management in handling critics, both professional and amateur alike. As social media evolves, and with it, the spread of public forums for critiquing restaurants and other services, some restaurants are choosing to evolve with it. Some are not, and I for one can't understand that. What are restaurants trying to hide?
Restaurants have an amazing opportunity to engage diners by using online and social media. Professional critics' work is more widely disseminated on the Internet, and amateur conversations about food abound throughout the blogging community, which is raising interest in food and restaurants. At the same time, restaurants can utilize the benefits of free exposure through engaging potential diners through Twitter, Facebook, and their websites. I follow many of my favorite dining spots on Twitter, and am often persuaded to drop by for a meal when a chef tweets about a menu special. Chefs and restaurants doing it right know that these instantaneous word-of-mouth opportunities can be priceless.
Unfortunately, some restaurants don't get it. They view social and online media as the peanut gallery. In some cases, they're right. Yelp has taken a lot of heat for it's often uninformed, unfair criticism lobbied by people who give unfair reviews that have nothing to do with the intention of the restaurant. However, all restaurants have a choice in how they respond to this kind of Internet attention.
In the case of Red Medicine, Virbilia was no uninformed hack; she's a 16-year veteran critic. Instead of bringing their A-game after recognizing her, management threw a tantrum. Perhaps this had to do with the fact that Virbilia and her party hadn't been seated 40 minutes after their reservation time. Either way, there's a reason it's called the "hospitality" industry. When faced with the possibility of evaluation, why wouldn't you do your damnedest to make sure you showcased the very best of your restaurant? I'd argue that all diners deserve this, not just critics. But no diners, particularly those who have done nothing egregious on their part, deserve the type of treatment Red Medicine levied on Virbilia.
When restaurants engage in this type of behavior in response to even the possibility of criticism, that signals to me that they're not up to par. They are not proud of the food and service they are providing customers and don't want anyone pointing out the flaws they know they possess. And it's too bad, because feedback like Virbilia's can be invaluable in improving a restaurant's operations.
However, we as diners, can't control how restaurants treat customers. We can only choose where we spend our money. For some of us, dining out is a luxury, and we want to ensure we have a great experience. So how do we use social media to help us do this, while making sure we give restaurants a fair shake? Here's a few tips:
- Make sure you "get" what the restaurant is trying to do. I often see Yelp users bash fine dining restaurants for portion size and being too "fancy." Sometimes, that's kind of the point. Many fine dining restaurants use the very best available ingredients, strive for creative and inventive dishes, and encourage diners to eat multiple small courses. You might not like that or want to spend your money on that and that's okay. But it's unfair to criticize a restaurant for doing what they set out to do just because it's not your thing. Conversely, you wouldn't ding a gyro place for not serving the finest filet on bone china. Try to have an idea about the intent of the restaurant by reading good reviews, then evaluate based on this.
- Be a good diner. Just because you are a customer doesn't mean you get to be a jerk. There's a certain level of good behavior that will help foster a good relationship with both your server and a restaurant. If you mind your manners, you don't give a restaurant the opportunity to dismiss their errors by pointing out your own bad behavior. Patrick Maguire has a good list of suggestions here.
- Give the restaurant a chance to address your complaints before you crow about it all over town. Everyone has a bad night, including restaurants. If something is not up to par and you feel comfortable doing so, ask to speak to a manager after your meal. This gives the restaurant immediate feedback and time to remedy the situation. If you don't like the idea of this, perhaps send a polite e-mail with your concerns to the restaurant the next day before you post gripes on Twitter, Facebook, or Yelp.
- Give the good with the bad. If you try a new restaurant and like it, let your server know. Let the restaurant know. Let Twitter and Facebook know. This, too, opens up lines of dialogue between diners and restaurant management.
Do you use Yelp or sites like it? Have you had good or bad experiences with restaurants using social media?
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