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Restaurateurs, bloggers and customers do a lot of lashing out online

We had a problem, and it was Mrs. Lieberman.

“She always sticks her gum under the table,” I complained to the restaurant’s owner as I again found myself down on my hands and knees with a putty knife, scraping gum from under the Liebermans’ regular table.

As a waiter at this upscale French restaurant, I knew the regulars well enough to recognize sweet-faced Mrs. Lieberman as our gum culprit. She always came in merrily chewing. She and her husband asked for the same table. They didn’t drink. They split their entree. They tipped in the 10 percent to 15 percent range. Nobody ever wanted to wait on them.

“I’m going to tell her next time she comes in that she can’t put her gum under the table,” I said to the owner.

“You’ll do no such thing,” she shot back at me. “We don’t talk to regular customers like that.”

That was 25 years ago, when a wall of decorum separated customers from staff.

These days … not so much.

If you follow news about social media and online antics, then surely you caught the story of Andrew Capron, the owner of Boners BBQ near Turner Field.

Capron, incensed by the behavior of customer Stephanie Stuck, took to his restaurant’s Facebook page this month to vent his rage in the foulest of language. Stuck, he claimed, behaved rudely, left without tipping and then took to Yelp, a restaurant review site, to complain about the restaurant’s food and decor. (Stuck maintains she did tip.)

The event made national news and was called one of the great social media blunders of the young new year. Soon after news of Capron’s rant blew up on Twitter and various corners of the Internet, he regretted his actions and posted an apology to Stuck.

“I am truly sorry that I did that; there’s no excuse for my behavior,” he said the next day by phone. “I acted out of the heat of the moment.”

However, there was another event that happened that week, and it says something about the relationship between restaurants and their customers in the age of social media. You probably did not hear about this one, however, unless you follow the small demimonde of Atlanta online restaurant criticism.

A local food blogger named Ted Golden decided to post a 2,300-word review of the new Indian restaurant Cardamom Hill on his blog, Foodie Buddha, based on one meal on its second day of operation.

While many people do rush reviews of new restaurants during their inaugural days of operation in order to get the news online first, most follow an unwritten code of behavior — commenting on the decor and menu selection in an expository rather than critical way. Anyone who has worked in a restaurant can tell you the first week or two of operation is no way, no how representative of what the restaurant will be like once it gets up and running.

But Golden had no such compunction. He liked some dishes and hated others, launching into his review by opining “there’s a lot to be smoothed out” at this restaurant. He complained of a “sad assembly of fried peas and sweet potatoes” and a kind of south Indian dish called a thoran, which he found “technically flawed by excessive use of coconut.” (A quick Google search reveals that this dish is, in fact, defined by its use of coconut.)

He concluded, “[L]et’s call a spade a spade and make mention of the fact that beyond the hype and fluff, there’s some in-progress food being served in a not quite up to snuff service environment. “

Golden is known in Atlanta for delivering such withering assessments of new restaurants based on one meal during their first days of operation. When I asked why, he responded via email, “I have a response to that question, but there’s no quick simple response as to why I do what I do.”

He’s far from alone. Sites such as Yelp and Urbanspoon welcome such early reviews. Many are written in all capital letters and recount service slights and problems in grim detail.

Elsewhere, there are sites where waiters complain about regular customers and sites where they complain about celebrities they claim to have waited on. There are sites where customers can read through reviews before clicking a “reserve a table” button.

There is some legitimacy here. I like reading some anonymous commenters and some bloggers if their methodology and tone suggests they have given the restaurant a fair shake and they know what they’re talking about.

But I’m left with the feeling that all this lashing out is often just a temper tantrum. That, or it is directed as much at the writer’s cronies as it is at the servers or customers in question. The art of give and take between business and consumer seems to be on the outs.

I can remember the first time Mrs. Lieberman came in after I flagged her as the gum depositor. The restaurant owner personally escorted her to the table with a warm, welcoming smile and grabbed a beverage napkin from the bar on the way.

“By the way,” she began sotto voce, “I noticed you were chewing gum …”

- by John Kessler, Food & More blog

(Note: Since this column talks about anonymous ad hominem ranting, commenting will be closed.)

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