Speak up: Why chefs want more complaints

Image: Jason Crosby Image: Jason Crosby

I have a bad habit of never complaining at restaurants. Maybe it’s my British heritage. Brits don’t like to draw attention to themselves. When asked, “How is everything?” a Brit could be choking on a poisoned, flaming shard of glass while being pummeled by the bus boy, and would still muster: “Jolly good, thanks.”

Why do I call this habit bad? Well, almost any chef or restaurateur will tell you that they wish their guests would speak up when something is wrong. “We are in the service industry,” said Harrison Keevil, who owns Brookville restaurant with his wife Jennifer. “So if someone is unsatisfied I want to remedy the problem to the best of my ability.” 

Donnie Glass, chef of Public Fish & Oyster, agreed. “It’s an accountability system for all employees,” he said.

Of course, chefs know that you can’t please everyone. “Some people don’t want to be helped and have had a bad experience and there is nothing we can do,” said Keevil. The challenge, said Glass, “is to read between the lines of a complaint to determine if a change in procedures is necessary.”

Yet, as much as chefs wish their guests would complain more, some admit that they rarely do so themselves. “I never complain,” said chef Angelo Vangelopoulos, who owns The Ivy Inn with his wife Farrell. Keevil is the same way. “Something has to be really bad for me to complain,” he said. “If a place is so bad…I just won’t go back and give them any more money.”

What might explain chefs’ do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do approach to complaining at restaurants? Perhaps it’s the same thing that makes me reluctant to speak up: the aversion to making people feel bad. “I take a lot of pride, joy and happiness through cooking for people, and if I have let them down, I feel awful,” said Keevil. Who wants to make someone feel awful?

I learned my lesson back in 1999, the first time I wrote a complaint letter to a restaurant. It was my favorite Charlottesville restaurant ever. Yet, it had an off night. A very off night. And so I wrote.

Just days later, I received a heartfelt, two-page, hand-written response from the chef-owner. “I can honestly say that nothing hurts me more than knowing I let down a customer,” he wrote, “especially one who thought so highly of my restaurant.” Of his absence that night: “I suppose it’s the same feeling as leaving your kids with a babysitter only to have them get hurt while you are gone.” And, later: “I am more sorry than this pen and paper will ever show.” But in closing, as hurt as he was, came the chef’s appreciation: “Thank you for bringing this to my attention.”

Ouch. I haven’t complained since.

And, I’m not alone in my reluctance to make a fuss. In fact, customer complaints can be so rare that some restaurants adopt cunning methods to detect guest dissatisfaction. “We watch for plates coming back into the kitchen,” said Vangelopoulos, “and when we see that a guest has left a large portion of their meal uneaten, we make sure to follow up quickly.”

Here’s the thing. Most chefs and restaurateurs don’t go into the restaurant business for money. They do it because they love to take care of people, with food. The knowledge that they have disappointed a guest can literally cause them pain.

Of course, it is possible to alert a restaurant of a problem without being an ass about it, and perhaps without causing pain. Since both the guest and the host want the same thing—the guest’s happiness—it’s not really complaining to identify room for improvement. Done graciously, it is just a way of facilitating a mutual goal.

Critical to all of this is timing. “It boils down to the Don Corleone School of Retail,” said Tomas Rahal of MAS Tapas. “You want bad news fast so you can take care of it.” Glass agreed: “The quicker guests can point out a legitimate flaw, the quicker we can fix the problem and ensure it doesn’t happen again.” 

Conversely, the last thing a chef wants is for a guest to stew over a bad experience, go home, and vent on the Internet for the world to see. This seems a lose-lose-lose. The chef is hurt, the restaurant’s reputation tarnished, and the guest missed out on the chance for a better experience.

“If you (the guest), don’t make it clear to us (your host) what it is you’re displeased with,” said Glass, “at least do us the decency of not trashing us online about it.”

Complaining online instead of in the moment deprives restaurateurs a chance to fix what’s wrong and make a guest happy, which is all they wanted in the first place. And, it’s all any guest should want, too.

So speak up. Nicely.

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