Eating & Drinking

Threats, refunds, and the imbalance of power in restaurants

Anonymous reviews wield huge power over restaurateurs. Here, one chef/owner talks about how he deals with complaints — and protects himself against this industry hazard.

Patrick Garland is pissed off. The chef/owner of Absinthe is talking about an incident in November of 2017 when a group of seven came for dinner — a celebratory event, as one member of the party had been awarded $100,000 that evening. But the evening quickly soured, as one of the diners sent his food back right away. (He turned down a replacement meal, opting instead for his meal to be taken off the bill.) The others, according to Garland, seemed to enjoy their meals.

But in the days that followed, the disgruntled diner rallied his relatives around his complaint campaign. Many emailed Garland directly, while some posted negative comments online. One threatened to remove a positive review he’d written previously about Absinthe — a threat made via an obscure screen shot that took the restaurateur days to decode. Their ask? A full refund.

So what does a business owner do when faced with the choice between negative publicity and losing money?

“I just refunded their money. It’s $300, and at the end of the day, it’s not worth the grief because it becomes all-consuming when people are emailing you constantly saying, ‘You suck, you suck, you suck.’

I just gave them their money back to be done with them. This is hush money. I am in no way morally or legally obligated to give them money. Everything was excellent — everyone else was totally happy. But he was a dick, and he got everyone else to follow along. They went to social media. They started giving us bad reviews. Bad reviews on social media — there’s a cost to them.”

It’s not the first time someone has complained about a dining experience at his restaurant, and it won’t be the last. Some are valid, but he also knows there are scammers out there. Indeed, nearly 10 years ago, a serial complainer was exposed in the Ottawa Citizen for her methodical fraudulent claims. The woman ultimately confessed, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen anymore.

“We had a woman two or three months ago who ordered four courses. We did our quality checks throughout, and everything was fine. When the server did the last quality check, she said, ‘Actually, I’ve made a list.’ Suddenly everything was flawed. But she didn’t give us an opportunity to fix anything.

“And I just said, ‘Make her go away. Take her bill, rip it up.’ The server diplomatically told her that the chef would like to buy her meal. And she was like ‘Oh yay!’ She knew she was going to get something out of it.

“It’s a really small segment of the population, but it’s soul-sucking. They’re treating someone in a way they would not want to be treated. Is this a value that your parents instilled in you? Do you want your children to be like this?”

Garland is quick to say that he does make mistakes, but as his mea culpa file grows, the situation is starting to grate on him.

Illustration: David Merritt
Illustration: David Merritt

 

The Mea Culpa File

“A lot of these people won’t tell you [about the problem] when they are in the restaurant. They’ll do it through email or a phone call. And that’s how I came up with the mea culpas. A $25 gift card, mailed out, with ‘Mea culpa’ written on the back so we can track them.

“I have a folder in my email that contains all the mea culpas we have ever done. I started that as a joke. As a way to say, ‘Here you go, you cheap …’ I thought it was equivalent to a rapper throwing singles in each other’s faces, kind of an insult. Like, ‘Right back at you.’ I thought people would say, ‘Really? $25?’ But people were like ‘This is so awesome!’

“But I end up winning because these are the kind of people who feel that $25 gift card burning a hole in their pocket — and they come in and spend $150. So it’s a win-win. They’re happy — 99 per cent of people who dine here are — and we don’t drop the ball twice.”

From an outsider’s perspective, the legitimacy of the complaint is indeed called into question if the complainer is willing to drop another $100 at the same establishment.

“Legitimately, we do screw up. Today was a terrible day. We had a really hard service. We were overwhelmed, and we couldn’t meet everyone’s expectations. I didn’t meet my own expectations. Today I bought coffees here, desserts there, things to say, ‘We screwed up, please have these on us.’ We give a lot of salads away, we give a lot of soups away if it’s going to be more than 15 minutes.”

Illustration: David Merritt
Illustration: David Merritt

The Good With the Bad

“The rules have changed. There was an imbalance before — I think restaurateurs had the upper hand. But now the public definitely has the upper hand. For one, there are more people running restaurants — you really have to be on your game.

“And, unfortunately, there’s a really small segment of the population that really gets off on fucking people over. It’s the internet, man. It’s been a game changer for a lot of businesses. People can hide behind their monikers. People feel they have recourse above and beyond what is acceptable.

“I don’t want to come across as being ungrateful. I try to be a good corporate citizen. I do stuff for the Parkdale Food Centre, I do things for Cornerstone [Housing for Women].

“I don’t internalize it anymore. I used to investigate and respond. I’d show my staff the email, and they’d say, ‘That’s not at all what happened.’ And it comes back to that ‘who do I believe?’ moment. I believe my server. They’ve been here awhile, they have the keys to the place.

“The more time you spend on complaints, the more you’re in that anxiety zone. I don’t want that. I’ve got a girlfriend I want to go home to, I’ve got cats, I’ve got a house, I’ve got hobbies. So I don’t bother anymore. I say, ‘Sorry you didn’t like it. Here’s a $25 mea culpa card.’

“Right now I’m down, but it’s not all doom and gloom. And you need everyone’s money. To get the good, you’ll have to put up with the bad.”