How Do You Complain?

January 30, 2014 · 13 comments

in atlanta, dining out

Most of us can probably agree – going out for a meal and having a poor experience is a bummer. Aside from service blunders (a whole different topic than what I intend here) chowing on a tough, over-cooked and bland piece of chicken, suffering through limp French fries, or shelling out loads of cash for a ho-hum dish is disappointing and can change the tenor of the event.

What’s likely to be more debatable is – how to handle such a situation?

Recently a large group of friends and I went out to a restaurant, a place that has been one of my go-to’s for the last two years. It’s a pricey and popular spot which I’d not visited in many months, not since a chef change, though that was coincidental.

We had a good time – the primary point of the get-together. But I was also excited to try the food and see what they had up their sleeve lately. When I am paying $34 for an entree, over $40 after tip, I have a certain level of expectation, especially from restaurants with such reputations. (Mind you, $40 is par for the course when we are talking about steakhouses or dreary spots in touristy locations, I’m talking about a different sort of restaurant). The food ended up being a letdown – in fact, most people echoed that they wouldn’t order what they ordered again, and some were surprised about various aspects of the presentation and preparation.

That’s all I will offer about this particular meal, because I’m not interested in breaking down each dish and what each person disliked – the point isn’t to call out this restaurant. Or call them out again, rather, because the next day after my meal, I put out a tweet about my displeasure with the experience. I knew it would generate some feedback, and I’m always willing to put out my honest opinion, regardless of chefs or industry folks I know, but I always try to keep it civil and factual. This one I sort of floated out there, because I had heard murmurs of poor experiences from friends and I wanted to just toss it out there and see if anyone else would offer some opinion. I didn’t get much in the way of that, but I did get something from the restaurant and from some followers:

“Did you let your server know? Did you give us a chance to make it right?”

It’s a phrase which has been relayed to me a handful of times now, and I’ve seen chefs and restaurants pose it to others, and I think it’s completely unrealistic most of the time.

People are probably all over the map on this, but for me, I send back food or discuss the quality of my food with my server for a very, very short list of reasons.

#1 – The food is dangerously prepared. Undercooked chicken. Huge bits of grit or sand or pits in food. Anything in that vein.

#2 – Expensive foods, namely steak, not cooked to desired temperature. And even then, I only do it when it’s more than one shade different on the commonly accepted temperature scale.

That’s it. If it’s grisly, greasy, slimy, fatty, tough, chewy, stringy – that’s just tough luck. If the food is sparse, unimaginative, deceiving, boring, pretentious, tasteless, or fares better as decorative art than food – tough shit, I ordered it. I file it away – don’t order that again. Enough of these dishes at a place, I go there less frequently, maybe eventually it’s completely off the rotation unless I hear things change.

One thing I’ve never done, for any of the reasons above, is call over the wait staff. How would that play out? In what way would this begat a positive outcome?

“Uh yes, could you let the chef know that this is overwrought and a bad value for the price, and that none of my friends like to come here much anymore because of things like this?”

Yeah, that would end well. How about even a more political:

“This isn’t really what I expected and the pork was a little fatty.” OK now what? You look like a whiner and maybe they bring you something else, maybe not, either way the staff and chef probably curse your name and if it were me, I would be embarrassed that I look like “that pain in the ass snooty food guy” at the table.

Here’s what happens instead, and what I see 99% of people do, and we may all be pussies for it, but the waiter interrupts conversation and asks “How is everything?” and everyone basically nods their heads and says “good” or “great”, unless reasons #1 or #2 above have been tripped. There are exceptions to this, I know, but especially for social outings, I don’t know a lot of people who want to interrupt the meal, change the pace, and change the conversation to complain about this or that.

Here’s the rub – I am constantly seeing chefs and restauranteurs talk about how they can take criticism, and they need feedback in order to improve, but where is this feedback coming from? We have Yelp, and that’s basically a joke. The smattering of terribly uninformed and hurtful people on there destroys any credibility.

But who does the restaurant deem credible? If I did stop during my meal and give feedback, how would that even go up the proper channel, and when it goes there, would they consider me someone who doesn’t know what I am talking about? Maybe I don’t, but there are people who do, and where are their opinions going? They are going online, or they are going to each other via word of mouth. The one place they probably aren’t going is to the restaurant or the chefs, which is the funny part. There are restaurants we all know are likely to fail, and I bet there are people who work there who don’t have a complete picture of why, but there are customers who know.

I don’t think diners want to be negative or critical, I know I don’t. I’m always excited to see what they have to offer, to see what professionals can do. I do wish there was a better way to offer feedback, the kind you would give a friend over a beer, or at least some way that didn’t involve associating myself with Yelp, and without isolating the experience on my blog which gets at least a small amount of carry which could be damaging.

I don’t have the answer, and this has just been bugging me, and I wonder how other people handle these situations. What do you do when one of your favorite places drops the ball a few times? Do you let them know, or do you tell your friends, “That place is really going downhill”? I feel there must be a better solution.

  • Alison Scootee

    I always Yelp it. I’m Yelp Elite which I know isn’t REALLY anything but it’s important to me, and I take it seriously. I have fun with my reviews, but I leave honest feedback both positive and negative. I agree with you–in no case would anything good happen if you gave review-like feedback to a restaurant while you were there. I have emailed and called management before which usually goes over relatively well, but I save that for severe service failures.

  • Pingback: How Do You Complain? — Eat It, Atlanta – Atlanta Restaurant … | Know What You Eat()

  • http://mydarlingmydear.blogspot.com/ tamara

    I typically don’t complain, but I also don’t tend to eat at higher-end restaurants because I don’t have the $$ and not many cater to vegan diets. I also Yelp, and will leave a bad Yelp review, which I know is pretty divisive among chefs/the greater food community. I have sometimes called or e-mailed after a bad experience, but I never find that to be a particularly satisfactory route. I thought your interaction with the restaurant’s owner (leaving the name out intentionally) on Twitter (sorry, couldn’t help looking!) was interesting. However, surely most chefs wouldn’t have taken note of a random tweet that didn’t tag the restaurant if it weren’t written by someone with a solid reputation in the local food scene (as you have), so I think the situation with that fairly lengthy Twitter conversation is a bit unusual.

  • Sally

    I had an undercooked filet at a high end ATL restaurant which I would have sent back (I’ve never done that) because I took about a minute explaining to the server that I know all chefs want to serve (beef) filet rare, I can’t eat it. I said please bring it medium rare.. red is fine. Out it came and that sucker was blue and cool in the center, since our server never came back to check on us, my husband switched entrees with me. When she came to the table to remove the dishes she asked how it was, I told her the pheasant was great. She asked had I not ordered the beef and I said yes, it was cooked to rare. This is what gets me: she said “Next time order it well done” That used to be our go to for special occasions, easily dropping over $100 each time. We haven’t been back since.
    At our neighborhood bistro – nothing fancy – we are such regulars that we talk to the owner or the chef who comes out to check on us. It’s easy when you’re a regular and always honest and pleasant. We give them both positive and an occasional negative.

  • http://www.foodiebuddha.com Foodie Buddha

    You complain by telling the waiter or waitress that everything is great, get up, go home, and write a snarky review under an assumed name while trashing everything from these people’s competency in their chosen profession to their belief system and overall levels of intellect (or lack thereof). or at least … that’s what i thought you were supposed to do.

  • Chris M

    If you aren’t happy with something in your dining experience, you should absolutely let your server or a manager know. As someone who has been in this industry for ages I can assure you that I would never want a guest sitting and stewing over something that they didn’t enjoy. If something comes out cooked improperly, we would love to fix it. If it’s not a problem with the execution and you just don’t care for it, be honest, and we can probably find something that you’re more in the mood for. It’s all about your tone and choice of words. Don’t be insulting and remember that everyone’s tastes are different. The dish you’re complaining about might be my personal favorite, just as something that you enjoy might not be delicious to me. The last thing you should do is let everyone think everything was fine, pay your bill, and leave, only to write a scathing review when you get to the parking lot. It’s passive aggressive and childish. I’ve had more guests become regulars and return based on how an unhappy visit was handled well. Give us a chance to show you real hospitality.

  • http://www.eatitatlanta.com jimmy

    Chris – I’m with you in concept.

    But one reason I wrote this is because I don’t think most people want to take action during a meal. They are nervous or fearful of conflict, because I’ve definitely seen servers or even managers handle the situation negatively. And many people just want to enjoy their meal the best they can with their company and move on. Of course that’s not to say that all restaurants will handle it negatively.

    I am thinking next time I am going to try to interact and provide feedback during the meal and see how it goes. I know a lot of that hinges on how I do it, respectfully, and as you say, tone matters greatly. It’s so easy to set off a conversation on an unintended path, and that’s sort of what I’m talking about – most people don’t want to mess with it.

    And I agree re scathing reviews, but welcome to the internet age…

  • SES21

    Chris, I 100% agree with you – not as someone in the industry but as a customer! I believe I should give you the chance to make it right &, if it’s something beyond what a server can/will handle, I don’t hesitate to ask for a manager, although rarely the chef. (IMO, it’s the manager’s job to take care of *me* & the chef’s to take care of the food.) Sometimes it’s more about how you handle my concern than the original cause that influences whether I continue to patronize your place or not, as well as how vocal I am about it.

    Unfortunately, more people are vocal when it’s negative than positive…yet we personally would prefer people let us know when we’re doing something right than always/only telling us what we’re doing wrong. Same goes for praise in public, criticize in private (yes, you can give your negative feedback at the venue but you don’t have to do it in such a loud voice that other tables hear you). Don’cha just love human nature?!

  • SES21

    You can’t control what other people will do but you can set a positive example & possibly influence them with your behavior &, in your case, your writing. Honestly, I think you blew it on this one. This is the first time I’ve ever read your blog, should I not give you any feedback then just go away & tell others you don’t know what you’re talking about? I don’t think so! I suspect some (many?) people come here becaue you make good sense – you set the tone. Perhaps it would’ve been better if you’d really gotten into the meat of this post the way you ended it or maybe just left out the middle altogether so you could encourage discussion about what’s the most constructive & productive way to complain. Kudos, though, for not naming the restaurant or getting bogged down in the details of the dishes!

    When I have a problem with my meal, I don’t even wait around for the server to come by & check; I make a point to flag them down. If you wait for them to check, it may be too far into the meal to comfortably ask them to fix it because the rest of your party will finish eating long before you do. If it’s grisly, greasy, etc, how do you expect them to find out they have a supplier issue? If it’s not up to your expectations (did they show you a picture of it first?), how are they supposed to know that? They’re not mind readers & they’re not going to get better if they don’t get feedback – both positive & negative. Why do you suppose that the restaurant industry has the highest incidence of failure of any business you can get into? Probably because people don’t – for watever reason – give them their honest feedback & give them a chance to make it right or improve their food. Here, you can have your soapbox back now….I’m done with it.

  • http://www.eatitatlanta.com jimmy

    Everyone’s different! I happen to think you are correct in much of what you say…but that doesn’t change the fact that many, many people do not like to speak up, for varying reasons. Thanks for offering your input. I did want conversation and to hear other perspective, and am glad to hear it, even if you think I blew it. Whatever it is.

  • SES21

    “It” was your negative rant in the middle, about what you never do, that came in between setting the stage & asking what others do. You set the tone & it didn’t come across, to me at least, as one that would encourage discussion & finding a better way.

    My “not up to expectations/picture” comment, BTW, was to point out that you shouldn’t have to eat the food or the cost if you didn’t see a picture of what you were getting first & would/should have known better than to order it.

  • Alison Scootee

    Based on this interaction alone, I can tell you I would not feel comfortable speaking up about a negative anything if you were working.

  • MSA

    I too hate to complain. It rarely goes well. My food would have to be damn near inedible in order to send it back. One of the main problems I have is when the wait staff or manager asks me what I want to do to remedy the problem. I don’t know! You tell me! What are my options? I’m just hungry. Or when they want me to recount the many things wrong with the plate. Then argue that I’m wrong. It’s uncomfortable, it disrupts my conversation and mood. It makes me seem petty and whiny. In my negligible opinion, the problems can most often be solved by the expediter. If the plate gets past them to the table… I guess I’ll be eating, paying and going somewhere else in future.

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