"If you're thinking of venturing into Ida Claire anyway, and ordering something relatively simple and straightforward, like a muffuletta sandwich (how can it miss?), hear this: It was the foulest thing I've tasted in some years, eliciting from my dining companions a string of invective that can't be printed in a family newspaper."
–Leslie Brenner, the Dallas Morning News
“There is no such thing as bad publicity” might apply to some industries, but it doesn’t apply to the hospitality industry. A critic’s scorn can spell total ruin for a restaurant.
In the past, food critics were multi-disciplinary, qualified individuals – in both food and writing – with delicate, refined, and trained palates. They’d long familiarized themselves with the science of taste – many having worked in hospitality for years. They’d cloak themselves in disguises so as not to be recognized, like the New York Times’ Ruth Reichl, for example, who used to moonlight as Brenda, ‘a red-haired aging hippie’, Chloe ‘a blonde divorcée’ or, rather oddly, her deceased mother Miriam. The hidden identities of food critics meant that they could experience the most average representation of a restaurant possible.
But all this has changed, from the qualifications to the disguise. Beyond the traditional food critic, there’s the secret shopper, the food blogger, the Instagram celebrity, and of course, the Tripadvisor contributor, none of which require any pedigree or acclaim to be heard by the masses – or if not the masses, the hungry potential patrons looking you up on Yelp. In fact, a single Yelp review can have a 5-9% impact on revenue.
Everyone’s a critic these days. The smartphone might as well be a megaphone – anyone with access to a Wifi connection can make a lasting impact on future guests or “would-have-been” customers. Since today’s food critic can take the form of an undercover newspaper journalist, a secret shopper hired by corporate to evaluate your staff, a blogger, a social influencer, or a restaurant review site contributor, here are four ways beyond taste to critic proof your restaurant, no matter which type of critic happens to walk through your doors.
“A manager came to our table to check if we realized the shrimp wouldn’t be shelled. We said we did, but he still thought we might be happier with shrimp balls. We assured him we could handle the shells. A few minutes later, our server came out just to be sure we understood that the shrimp would be served whole.
When they arrived — one on each plate for the five of us — the manager snapped on rubber gloves like a doctor preparing for a proctology exam and went from person to person to shell the prawns. I think they were surprised that we actually ate the crunchy legs and picked the meat out of the heads.”
Perhaps the staff in this instance recognized the food critic and believed to their own demise that they were providing exemplary service or going the extra mile. What occurred as a result of ineffective listening? The critic felt coddled.
You can prevent this by creating a culture of empathetic listening in your restaurant.
Empathetic listening is defined as, “paying attention to another person with empathy [emotional identification, compassion, feeling, insight].” Encourage your staff to listen to guests and create a professional rapport with them instead of attaining a check-the-box, list-the-specials, take-the-order, deliver-the-food, clear-the-plates mentality. By listening to the needs and refining your table-side intelligence, servers will ensure that every guest leaves satisfied.
Part-in-parcel with empathetic listening means giving service staff the space to listen. This means automating processes like order taking and bill splitting, which otherwise occupy both brain space and time. By removing that operational to-do list, front-of-house staff can focus on what matters most: listening to the needs of their customer. Without the distraction of manually inputting information into stationary computers, penning modifications onto chits, or remembering that extra water, service staff can stay present and actively engage with their guests, providing a better service experience for everyone.
“Draining off the gluey, oily liquid would have helped a mushroom pot pie from turning into a swampy mess. I don’t know what could have saved limp, dispiriting yam dumplings, but it definitely wasn’t a lukewarm matsutake mushroom bouillon as murky and appealing as bong water.”
Ouch. What a zinger. And a great reminder that nothing should leave the kitchen unpretty, period. In today’s digital culture, any dish can be turned into an ad – or a warning. This is especially true because the public can see a real-time picture or video of your product.
“13% of those who have dined out in the past month and use social media have posted a food or drink picture to social media, which equates to approximately 29.2 million hungry amateur food photographers.” A search on Instagram for #food brings back some 180,000,000 posts. #foodporn clocks in at almost 85,000,000 and #foodie at 30,000,000 posts. There’s even an Instagram page dedicated to terrible looking food.
What this means for you? Ensure that before your food goes to the table that it would make a great photo. It’s a good test for general presentation given the likelihood that some of your menu will end up on social media, one way or another.
"Through the window I can see Kimchee, a Korean restaurant, directly opposite. I dream about being in there. But I’m not. I’m here, at Pret A Manger, trying to have a good night out over an utterly inappropriate bottle of Prosecco. As to the kale and cauliflower macaroni cheese, I genuinely do not understand how anybody in the food business can taste that and think it's a good idea. It needs to be put in a burlap sack and drowned in the nearest canal."
Mistakes happen. Palates can be finicky, and so can people. The point is to turn the experience around.
70% of buying experiences are based on how the customer feels they are being treated. With that in mind, a great piece of industry guidance is that as soon as you get the feeling a dish is about to be returned or the customer is displeased, pick up the plate immediately. This gives the guest the impression that they have nothing to worry about, that their issue is being taken care of, and that they don’t have to feel negatively about returning their dish, no matter if you or the kitchen think their meal is up to standard. Of course, make sure to verbalize the assurance that you’ll bring them a new or alternative dish and take care of the issue.
In addition to this, front-of-house and back-of-house politics can get complicated. Back-of-house may feel like the dish shouldn’t have been removed, while front-of-house staff are being instructed to make sure the guest leaves happy. Management needs to ensure that staff doesn’t feel segregated or opposed; customer service isn’t a case of customer vs. server vs. chef – it’s a case of making sure the customer goes home happy. After all, stats show that if you resolve a complaint in the customer's favor, there’s a 70% chance they’ll do business with you again, whereas 86% would not because of a bad customer experience unresolved.
Streamline Operations to Enhance Communication
“Pretty looks aside, Farmer’s Daughter has some serious identity and behavioral problems. First is timing. One night it takes 50 minutes to get our starter, six shucked oysters I later learn the server forgot to ring in. The $17 charge remains on the bill.”
The path to smooth operations is paved with fast service, a warm atmosphere, accurate, accommodating staff, and clear communication between servers, the bar and the kitchen. But how exactly does one ensure that this is happening?
In the past, old legacy systems forced servers to input orders into solitary, brick and mortar machines from their scribbled notebooks. The chance of a communications error was exacerbated because of these fragmented systems that relied on the server’s mind to translate hieroglyphics into the computer, complete with modifications, seat specific orders and one divided bottle of wine.
With today’s mobile POS solutions, orders go from tableside to bar and tableside to kitchen, with no lag. A mobile POS also allows hosts to stay organized and prioritize so that even when your restaurant is full, hosts can better estimate wait times and set reservations.
Preparing for restaurant critics can feel overwhelming and a constant battle against catastrophe, but remember, when things do go right, they can make you rather than break you. As renowned chef Marco Pierre White once said, “It was only after Egon Ronay delivered a superb review of Harvey’s a couple of months after we opened that the restaurant became a massive success.”
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