Dear CFL staff,
In January, I hosted a comedy show at Wild Goose Creative with the Asbestos Comedy Troupe. Between acts, the troupe took turns dramatically reading negative CLF Yelp reviews, the sketch got a ton of laughs. As a restaurateur, I expect and anticipate good and bad reviews from anyone: customers, staff, reviewers, bloggers, and media: some fair, some unfair. I’m fair game. I’m tasked with being accountable for these experiences and responding to them positively. More recently, and sometimes unfairly, anonymous reviewers go after our staff on social media now. And when it gets personal, my claws go out.
It’s happened to most of us who work in the restaurant business. If it hasn’t happened, it probably will at some point. You happily scroll down Yelp reviews looking for valuable feedback and come across a review describing you or an experience that happened on a night that you worked. You take pride in your job and you’re a good worker, you take all feedback to heart. To your horror, you get a scathing review. Worse, the facts might not even be true. You know your peers, your boss, your friends, and family might be reading the same anonymous review. You feel shame and fear repercussions for something that might not have even happened.
No bartender or cook signs up for this. While a bartender professionally mixes drinks, or a cook safely prepares a meal, an anonymous person might be reviewing and critiquing him/her publicly and not always truthfully. That’s the world we’re in, ok. However, lines sometimes get crossed. An anonymous reviewer might publicly mention the employee by name, or describe and critique what s/he looks like, what s/he is wearing, his/her tattoos, hairstyle, accent or voice, all things that have nothing to do with cooking or service ability. We don’t hire you because of the way you look. Sometimes, these ‘reviewers’ manage to shoot an unflattering photo, and in your head, you’re sure it’s destined to become the next internet meme. You might remember this person or what happened. You might agree with the review or you might disagree with the reviewer’s version of events. Sometimes, you won’t remember this person or experience at all.
Sidenote: Ever notice that somehow the dorkier we are, the more likely we are referred to disdainfully as ‘hipsters,?’ I still can’t figure that one out. I love you Dirty Frank’s, but hipster sure isn’t the first word that comes to mind when I think of any of you. Or anyone on CFL’s management team.
While valuable tools for learning about our operations, as a manager, I take anonymous complaints with a grain of salt. I always give our staff/managers the benefit of the doubt with any anonymous complaint or review. In this era, everyone is a critic and a number of issues can motivate a negative review that has nothing to do with the server or the staff on duty. Some people simply don’t like us, or what we do, or who we are, that’s just life. Some reviews are obviously written to be hurtful or rude, and they aren’t always objective or fair. I know that too. One reviewer made very disparaging comments about the appearance of one of our staffers, for three years I’ve tried to get Yelp to remove the sentence that describes the physical and disparaging comments about the staff member, but to no avail. These are not legitimate restaurant critics, these are mean people picking on a hardworking server.
I can promise this, as a receiver of more negative reviews than I thought possible: I do not jump to conclusions when I receive a negative review involving a staff member or any experience. Our managers will always share the complaints with staff involved (privately) so that staff can review the complaint and respond with any feedback. I would never put a random person’s (whom I’ve never even met and who is using a fake name) opinion ahead of my trusted, competent, and known staff. We hire carefully and I take a lot of pride in the quality of our staff. In my opinion, the customer is often right but not always. Especially when they’re anonymous.
Angry customers can be tough customers and we do our best every day to handle them professionally. We know that some folks are simply unreasonable or truly just want a free meal. Some folks like to complain for the sake of complaining. We also know and acknowledge that our restaurants aren’t for everyone, it’s impossible to be all things to all people. We know that. If we don’t have hamburgers, we don’t have hamburgers, that’s no one’s fault.
When I receive an anonymous complaint, I first review the history, reputation, experience, and what I know of a particular worker and check in with their manager before ever responding to a complaint. When we have screwed up, we own it, apologize, and promise to do better next time. We do not make our staff out to be scapegoats. If there’s a problem in the restaurant, it’s my responsibility to fix it, I know that. If we don’t believe we were in error, we say that too. Often, I have to justify and affirm why we might have kicked out someone, refused someone a drink, or didn’t honor a particular request. We are obligated to abide by a whole lot of agencies: health dept (state and local), liquor control, worker’s comp, OSHA, the list goes on. Sometimes a particular request isn’t even legal (hello, ‘I’m mad because the server told me I wasn’t allowed to take my drink outside while we wait for our table.’)
We all know that we are all human, no one is perfect, and even the best workers have bad nights, make mistakes, or are misinterpreted by our customers. It’s up to management to diagnose and address problems (if there are any), and fix things so we are poised for success the next time. Anonymously and publicly berating our staff isn’t going to yield any respect from me. Operating honestly, openly, respectfully, and with care are important to me in life and in our business. If you are employed with us, I respect you and will always treat you as such.
That said, complaints/reviews/comments can be useful. Here’s some ways in which comments/negative reviews have been helpful and constructive:
1) We are often alerted to problems we wouldn’t otherwise know about. For example: At one of our locations, we had an inconsistent policy related to seating for large groups. One host would wait for the entire party to arrive before seating them while another host would seat as they came in. A customer who comes in often with large groups was understandably frustrated because the policy seemed to change each time he came in. This issue was easily remedied with a clear policy at that location regarding seating large groups. We learned the importance of good policies, no one was at fault but management.
2) We learn about our staffing needs. If food is consistently slow at a certain time of day, there’s probably an underlying problem. Most often: our staff needs additional training or we need to add staff on during peak hours. With the ebbs and flows of an independent restaurant business, this happens. Often.
3) We learn to train more effectively. If the same complaint comes up more than once, it might mean that, as managers, we need to do a better job effectively training our staff. If the review describes the server as ‘rude’ or ‘rushed,’ we can look at sales, maybe we’re simply understaffed and the server was understandably overwhelmed. We try to read into what the underlying issue is. If the server is rude, we’ll address it. Often, though, the situation has more to do with the experiences that we have created, and the interaction is often a symptom of a larger problem.
4) It shows management where we need to lend resources and support. For example, bartenders are trained to not accept certain forms of ID for liquor purchases due to the heavy hand of the Ohio Dept of Liquor Control. Understandably, a customer whose ID is denied per our own policies gets upset sometimes. The bartender is doing his/her job only to get yelled at by a customer, s/he can’t win! As a result, we implemented the bi-annual liquor training with the Dept of Liquor in order to empower our staff. Staff learns the law directly from the agency regulating us and can then professionally respond to customers from an informed place. Staff still gets yelled at, sure, but they now can confidently assure the customer what the law says.
5) They provide insight on what we need to be learning/doing. We invest a lot of money in training every single member of our kitchen to become ServSafe Certified, the five year certification program recognized by all of state, local, and federal health organizations. We are only legally required to train one person per shift. As the number of common food allergens increases at an alarming rate, we learned that we need to insure that every single person handling food in our kitchen is ServSafe certified and informed on how to handle food safely.
6) We identify problems faster. Customer reviews can sometimes alert us to problems we might not otherwise know about. We are open 7 days a week, there are people in our building sometimes 20 hours a day, a lot happens in that time. No one of us can be on top of everything that happens in our locations. Management depends on feedback from staff and customers to learn and grow.
My goal is simple: Be great at what we do and put our best selves forward in any given situation. Will we fail sometimes? Absolutely. And when we do, we’ll talk about it, apologize, fix the problem, learn and grow, do better next time, and move forward honestly.
If you’re losing sleep recently about a bad Yelp review, shake it off. If it’s true: acknowledge, embrace, and accept the learning opportunity and grow from it, no matter how big or small, and then shake it off. If it’s not accurate or if it’s just plain mean, pour a drink, confide in a friend or manager, then shake it off. I’ve heard from three staffers in the past week who were personally hurt by comments they read about themselves. They weren’t the first or the last to feel how they did. I’ll invite you guys next time I do the dramatic reading comedy, you might like the stress relief. If nothing else, our skin is growing thicker in all this.
Onward and upward.
Respectfully and gratefully,