A Small Bite of Comedy to Start Your Day

I laugh out loud every time I watch this.

My favorite part is at :46 when the 2nd chef tells the server to leave the plate and stresses the “T” at the end of the sentence…like he’s about to go insane…

Books About The Biz

There are no shortages of books and other publications about (or taking place in/around) restaurants.  As someone who works in this business and is an absolute fanatic about the industry, I try to read whatever I can get my hands on; whether the weekly updates from Nation’s Restaurant News or the more esoteric reading of George Orwell’s turns working in hotels and restaurants in his 1933 classic Down and Out in Paris and London…I gain something from them all.

Below I’ve listed some of my favorites.  Check them out and see if they are some of yours as well.

The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen by Jacques Pepin

pepin

There are many reasons cooking in America has been elevated to an art form and a calling for many people, and Jacques Pepin is one of them.  He helped bring not only the passion of French cooking to this country, but the much harder to master technical skills as well.  Sat across the room from him at a perfect dinner in 2002 at The French Laundry.

Eat Me: The Food and Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin

eat me

Shopsin’s is a one-of-a-kind deli/market on the Lower East Side of New York. It’s owner, Kenny Shopsin, is famous for his surly demeanor, his promise to throw out any vegans who come in the door and his ability to not only memorize, but execute a menu that runs into the HUNDREDS of options.  Click below to see what I mean…

Click to access shopsinsmenu.pdf

A documentary about Shopsin’s titled I Like Killing Flies came out in 2004.  A must-see and you will laugh out loud at this curmudgeon with a heart (and spatula) of gold.

Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain

kitchen-confidential

For restaurant lifers like me, this was it…this was the inside joke, the wink across the room, the silent toast celebrating what only we knew.

Bourdain’s tome hit like a freight train for industry people, who upon reading for the first time, and the 2nd time and the 5th, would exclaim “YEAH MOTHERF#*&ER!” regarding the truths we found inside.

He wrote it as a love letter of sorts to the guys and gals who populate restaurant kitchens across this land of ours, and while he has moved on to different adventures on Food Network, etc, he remains on the bucket list of fellow inmates with whom I will drink a bourbon someday.

Comfort Me with Apples + Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl

Comfort me with apples                             tender_at_the_bone_reichl

The cool thing about Reichl’s work is not just the love affair she has with food and cooking but the INTIMACY with which she writes about them.  She makes you feel like you are right there, whether in her position as the editor-in chief of the now-defunct Gourmet magazine or in her anonymous, yet powerful, roles as food critic for the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times.

California Dish by Jeremiah Tower

california dish  

Jeremiah Tower was present at the dawn of what is now chef-driven dining in America.  A self-taught devotee of food, Jeremiah (after receiving a masters degree in architecture from Harvard), approached the temple of locavore cuisine Chez Panisse and its sorceress Alice Waters and began one of the famed culinary partnerships of all time.

This book is a great look back at the evolution of modern American cooking. Jeremiah eventually left Berkeley to chart his own course with the legendary Stars restaurant in San Francisco, a launching pad for many culinary superstars of the 90’s and into today:  Mario Batali, Mark Miller(Coyote Cafe), Brenden Walsh (Arizona 206) and Mark Franz(Farallon) to name a few.

Devil in the Kitchen: Sex, Pain, Madness and the Making of a Great Chef by Marco Pierre White

devil in the kitchen

If you want to know why Gordon Ramsey acts the way he does, look no further than this man.  Once one of the youngest chefs to earn three Michelin stars for culinary excellence, he ran roughshod over the competition and demanded total excellence from the people working for him. Ramsey and many other young turks grew up under his iron gaze.

While today kitchen’s are a tad more…civilized…Marco Pierre White in his heyday was someone with a singular vision and to hell with anyone who got in his way.

The Soul of a Chef / The Making of a Chef by Michael Ruhlman

the-soul-of-a-chef-138189l1                          making of a chef

I hate Michael Ruhlman.

Ok, I don’t really hate him.  I just covet his writing skills and his ability to make it all seem so effortless.  These two books did a great job of distilling down what it takes every day to be a great cook at the level successful restaurants demand.

The Making of a Chef found Ruhlman enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America to take us inside this country’s most prestigious cooking school.  His follow-up, The Soul of a Chef, details top chefs from around the globe vying for the Master Certified Chef designation. In the 2nd half of the book, Ruhlman compares and contrasts passionate cooking through the eyes of the vaunted Thomas Keller and then-newcomer Michael Symon.

Both are fascinating to read and well worth the time for a restaurant pro or “civilian” alike.

Enjoy.

The Death of Tipping In America

etiquette-of-tipping2

Perhaps nothing in the world of restaurants is more contentious (besides “celebrity” chefs and “farm-to-table”) than the topic of tipping, the practice of which is ingrained in our American culture.  We love to reward those who give great service, but do we tip the amazing barista at Starbucks who always remembers our order with the same fervor as we do the fabulous server at our fave local restaurant?  Do we like the built-in 18% gratuity on large parties, or do we think that its a devil’s bargain; the service will suck because the tip is built in?  And where does that 18% figure come from…didn’t it used to be 15%?  Wait, isn’t it 20% now?  What is socially acceptable?

Are we getting to the point where tipping, as a dining practice/social construct, is slowly but steadily becoming a thing of the past?  We are starting to see glimpses of this across the country:

In Pittsburgh, a restaurant called Bar Marco is eliminating tips and the owners are giving their full-time employees a salary, health care benefits and shares in the company.  The owners are NOT adding a service fee or raising their prices, instead hoping to raise revenue by growing their business with private parties and menu expansion.

In New York, Sushi Yashuda has eliminated tipping, believing that diners are “simply tired of the meal-ending ritual of grading a server”.  The owner feels that having to “do math” at the end of the meal takes away from the experience.  Not to mention, the provenance of his restaurant lies in Japanese customs, one of those being that service staff are compensated by their salary alone.

Closer to home, the Linkery restaurant in San Diego (now closed) eliminated tips years ago by tacking on a service charge to the guest’s checks, which was then distributed to both service staff AND kitchen staff alike.

Many fine-dining destinations such as The French Laundry and Chez Panisse have made this type of service fee a staple on their checks for years, preferring to make it not only easier on their guests, but more structured for their staff as well. The groundbreaking Alinea in Chicago has taken it a step further.  The owners, Chef Grant Achatz and his biz partner Nick Kokonos developed a ticketing system for their 3 locations (Alinea, Next and The Aviary) where diners PRE-purchase tickets to dine there.  These tickets are non-refundable, so if the guests are a no-show the restaurant (which has already prepped the food for these guests and may end up throwing some away at the end of the night) doesn’t lose money.  Nor do the restaurant’s staff, who are paid salary so are guaranteed to be compensated.

Tipping is many things: the first word that comes to mind is arbitrary.  The overwhelming majority of diners tip not on the quality of the service, but as a percentage of the total amount of the check. You don’t tip someone the same actual dollar amount at Denny’s or IHOP as you do at The Capital Grille or Houston’s do you?  Nope. The amount of the bill has dictated what you will tip, most of the time subconsciously.  The service may the same or better at that breakfast place or roadside joint, but if the prices there are less than that chain in the ‘burbs or that new fine dining spot in the city that won’t matter.  That server pushing the higher-end steaks, chops or catch-of-the-day is not trying to fatten YOU up…he’s trying to fatten up the amount of the CHECK, knowing that the vast majority of diners tip on a percentage basis.

Tips are not guaranteed.  Time and again, no matter what concept I worked for, I would get a server coming to me, distraught, because the table that they ran their ass off for, bringing multiple sides of ranch and refills, ketchup and cutlery, decided that they had just enough for the bill and nothing more. Maybe the service was poor in their eyes. Maybe they are punishing the server for the kitchen overcooking the burgers.  There’s a bunch of reasons that this might happen; suffice it to say that tipping is not a guarantee but a suggestion for some people, despite its prevalence in America’s dining culture. Perhaps some people “dine above their class” when it comes to tipping, shell-shocked by the prices when the final bill arrives.

So try telling that to a server in one of the tip credit states, places where restaurants can legally pay their servers an amount LESS than the federal minimum wage, as long as the combination of what they make in tips for the shift + what they make in hourly pay equals the federal minimum wage.  The only saving grace to this is that businesses must make up the difference if a server reports less tips than what would make up the pay.

At $3.02 per hour, a server in a tip-credit state performs the same duties (sidework, cleaning duties, etc) as a server in a non-tip credit state while making on average 60% less money per hour in straight pay. The menu prices in locations that are tip-credit usually not 60% less: a burger in California doesn’t cost the consumer $11.20 when it costs them $7 in Texas. So how do restaurants get away with this?  Because the law says they can.

Tipping allows owners to keep wages artificially low.  The customer is the one paying the lion’s share of that server’s wages. Rare is the business owner who will buck the system and pay their service staff anything beyond what minimum wage calls for, tip-credit or no tip-credit.  So they get the human resource benefit without paying for its actual value. 

Tipping is also a burden put on customers, who feel that societal custom dictates…no, demands that they leave something at the end of the meal for the server.  We KNOW that every server is a single mom or struggling college student and we MUST bolster their meager pay with a fat tip right??  Seriously, though, can you imagine NOT tipping at the end of the meal? Tipping is no longer something that we may do…rather something we MUST do in the eyes of society.

Being a restaurant lifer, I witness and understand both sides of the debate.  While eliminating the practice of tipping (and paying the service staff either a higher hourly wage or a salary) sounds progressive, there is no way for larger chain restaurants to absorb the increased costs without increasing menu prices…the casual full-service niche is too saturated and too competitive.  The smaller, chef-driven, “fine-dining” restaurants can do it, because they usually charge higher prices anyway for their experience, usually to cover the cost of better ingredients.

Also, will the guest’s experience suffer when that server is compensated, not by the promise of a gratuity, but by a guaranteed salary?  Tales abound of long-suffering diners who, at the hands of refined European waitstaff, put up with indifferent service and non-smiling waiters, most of whom are paid a living, non-tipped wage.  Could that happen here??

Regardless of which side you fall restaurants, for many non-college and college-educated folks alike, present an opportunity to make good money, both as service staff and as owners. Servers and bartenders are putting themselves through college, raising families and paying taxes.  Tipping also represents a way for business owners to share labor costs with their guests as a “user fee”.  Great service only enhances the ability for service staff to make even more money, as diners make the individual decision to reward that person.  It represents the pinnacle of a performance-based system:  show up, kick ass, bring your personality and energy, attend to the customer’s needs and gain the payoff at the end.

Regardless of what side you’re on, the conversation is on regarding the practice of tipping in America.

Restaurant Term of the Day

“The Grey Snail”

Also known as:  Free Shot, Mat Martini

This is the name for a shot consisting of the liquid buffet (beer foam, wine spill, liquor over-pour) that splashes onto the rubber bar mats during a bartender’s shift.  To “create” The Grey Snail, the bartender simply tilts the mat, emptying its fetid contents into the glass. This not-so-delicious gem is usually reserved for bitchy guests, as a way to punk a fellow teammate or for non-discriminating palates looking for free booze.

Let’s use it in a sentence!

“I can’t wait to see Ryan when he comes in.  He left me with the tab after work last night so he gets The Grey Snail in his water bottle later…”

grey snail shot

Dear Customer 12/19/14

You’re the douchebag guest who obviously came to the restaurant looking for two things: a great meal, and to get schooled on how to properly reward your service professionals.

After finishing your meal, you attempted to impress the underwear off of your female server with one of your business cards claiming you were senior vice-president of whatever and that she should “call him”.  You spoke so loudly about how awesome you were that her whole section could hear you. Hey, congrats! You’ve had some success in this life and you feel it doesn’t hurt your chances with the ladies.  Cool.

Trouble is, after all of your braggadocio, you decided that the combo platter of your business card AND a 4% tip on a $125 check qualified as enough to thank her for her service.  Sure, you mentioned at the start of the meal that you were on a budget.  I guess the steaks and martinis you ordered were within your budget, but an acceptable gratuity was not.  I’m sure you can figure out what 4% on $125 is, because you’re really smart.

Five dollars.

So let’s add up the hour and a half she spent taking care of your table:

$5 tip + ( $9/hour minimum wage in CA x 1.5 hours ) = $18.50.

Now subtract out what she will tip out to the bar staff (1% of sales), the busboys (1.5%) and the food runners (1%) = 3.5%. 3.5% x $125 meal check = $4.40.

Subtract that amount from the $18.50 and you get $14.10.  But wait! Income taxes for her will take out 15% of that ($2.10) so this leaves $12.00.  Twelve dollars.

(Good thing she doesn’t live in a tip credit state like Texas where servers get paid $2.15 per hour. Using my calculations above:  

$5 tip + ( $2.15 tip credit minimum wage in TX x 1.5 hours ) = $8.23.  

Tip out of 3.5% to the bar, bussers and food runners, based on $125 check still amounts to $4.40.  $8.23 – $4.40 = $3.83.

Take out 15% taxes and you’re left with $3.26.  For an hour and a half of hard work.  Ouch.)

THEN, in pure creeper fashion, you went home and found your server (who has a very uncommon first name) on a social media site and proceeded to ask her out!

Points for boldness: 100

Points for jackassery: -1000

I’m not sure how it works in your circle; perhaps the “party favors” you date on a regular basis appreciate your fumbling attempts at trying to be The Man.  But your server is a college-educated woman working two jobs ( one of them a non-restaurant, white-collar position ) to pay off school loans.  She is literate, funny and sophisticated.  She won’t be doing this forever, but she needs her server job to make her life work right now.  Most importantly, however, she has no time for someone playing at being a baller but can’t back it up.

I hope you enjoyed her scathing reply back to you on that site, to which you backpedaled saying that “you thought you left more” and that you would come back to the restaurant and make it up to her. No dude, she doesn’t want to see you after you stalked her online. She doesn’t want your charity. What she wants is for you to understand how you made her feel after she took amazing care of you.  She’s not for sale, and to us, she’s worth more than you are.


Coming soon to This Restaurant Life:  The Death of Tipping in America

New Restaurant Boogie

san-fran-night

In 1995 I was offered a chance to move to San Francisco to open a new location for the Planet Hollywood chain.  A chance to finally live in California was not something I wanted to pass up so I accepted, despite having never been to that famed city.  Looking back, I’d not visited Tulsa or Dallas before moving to either of those places, so I figured what was one more leap into the unknown.

July 4th weekend found us on the road.  All of our belongings had been sent ahead by movers, paid for by the company. We packed the car with personal stuff and clothes, snacks and maps.  Go west, young man.

In Abilene we stopped for fireworks to light off in the desert, dancing around like shamans under silvery sparks.

In New Mexico we made our way to Santa Fe for an amazing meal at dusk, knowing we may never be this way again.

In Arizona…

In Nevada…

Finally turning North onto the I-5, we drove through California’s concrete South, its verdant middle and into its Northern half, hanging a left at Tracy and snaking our way into the East Bay.

Like it was yesterday, I remember driving that night onto the Bay Bridge.  Starting on the Oakland side, the bridge then glides down to Treasure Island, rises again above the bay and then slopes down offering a first glimpse of SF.  The car was silent as we took in the Transamerica building, Coit Tower, the “Port of San Francisco” sign.

We don’t belong in a place like this, I thought…this peninsula of towers and hills and fog. We were used to flat plains and baked sun.  We hesitantly made our way to the hotel, secure only in the fact that we were strangers in a strange land.

Eventually we found an apartment in a building next to the Fillmore Auditorium or “Fillmore West” as they called it, Bill Graham’s legendary music venue. Small and cramped given all of the stuff we brought, but a world away from where we’d been.

I made my way to the restaurant to meet my new bosses and see what I would be doing there.  Having been the bar manager in Dallas, I was told that I would be occupying the same position in SF.  Immediately, I began contacting local vendors to equip us with supplies for opening day.   What I couldn’t find, however, was the pear brandy.

A brief history on this stuff. Legend has it that Arnold Schwarzenegger, one of the celebrities behind Planet Hollywood, was a HUGE fan of this obscure elixir…an aged brandy that had the distinction of having an actual pear IN the bottle.  His personal bottle supposedly traveled from opening to opening like some crazy talisman, bringing good luck to all.  Further legend had it that the bar manager of each location (see: me) was in charge of making sure that the bottle made its way to the opening party.  Failure to do so would result in a lifetime of company obscurity.

So there I was, in a new city, with new vendors, trying to make a new home and getting ready to open a new location in two days, suddenly getting this question:

“Hey dude….did you get the pear brandy?!”

“Pear brandy??  What are you talking about?”

“Arnold’s pear brandy!  It HAS to be here?!”

“Ryan, I don’t know what you’re talking about!  What fucking brandy?!”  He then proceeded to tell me the story…

SO, I exclaimed in my head, what you’re saying is:  I need to drop everything I’m doing about getting supplies for the opening, stop interviewing and hiring the 150 people we needed, quit getting the offices set up AND fend off an increasingly irate girlfriend who was having to do ALL of the unpacking at our new digs.  I need to stop doing all of that and track down a single bottle of what evidently was the Holy Liquid Grail.

Damn.

A quick phone call was made to the Reno location, site of the most recent opening. When that search yielded no fruit (pun absolutely intended), I called the home office in Orlando, desperate for leads.  I was given the name and number of the head beverage guy for the company and placed a quick call to his office.

“Hey, its Dave Lory in San Francisco.  We are opening in 2 days and I’m trying to find some pear brandy stuff for Arnold? Does that sound at all familiar?”

There was a part of me that wondered if I was being had…if the restaurant gods were having a little fun at my expense. We’ve all been there, right?  Tell the new server to go next door to TGI Friday’s to borrow a “bag of steam” for the espresso maker? Make the new hostess ask the executive chef for a “french fry ruler”?  Tell the new busboy to empty all of the hot water from the coffee machine (which will never empty as its attached to a main water line.  The unfortunate rube in this situation will stand there for an hour trying to get the last of the water out….). Perhaps all of my past transgressions in the interest of comedy were coming back to haunt me.

“No, its real, and you better find it!  Try the Beverly Hills store…” and then he hung up.  I swear I heard laughter at the end.

A call to Beverly Hills finally got results. Yes, we have it, the bar manager said.

“Can you PLEASE overnight the bottle, dude?  I will owe you 1000 favors.”

Not a problem.

The next morning, which was opening day, I received a FedEx package.  I opened the box slowly, treating it like the Ark of the Covenant.  Inside I found this:

pear brandy

 

I wiped down the dusty bottle and label.  I had done it, I thought, giving myself a silent attaboy.  Now I could get back to the 746 other things I had to do.

That night, as celebrities arrived for the opening, I searched for Arnold, to let him know that I, Dave Lory, intrepid adventurer and finder of lost artifacts, had the goods.  There was Bruce Willis autographing hats for the kitchen guys.  And over there was Sylvester Stallone, holding court with a bevy of beauties. But where was Arnold?!

Eventually I found him getting ready to walk outside and wave to the fans behind the barricades set up along Stockton Street.  I tore up the stairs in pursuit.  Mr. Schwarzenegger, I called out breathlessly.  His ever-present bodyguard tensed up as I approached.

“Just so you know, we got your pear brandy in,” I said nervously.

“The what?” he said in his thick Austrian accent.

“The brandy with the pear in it…it’s here for you”.

He looked at me and cocked an eye.  “That’s great, kid”, and moved towards the door, not giving a rat’s ass about my accomplishment.

The opening night went off without a hitch, and the bottle of pear brandy never moved from its vantage point on a shelf behind the bar.  Eventually, I forgot about the bottle and focused on getting the place cleaned up so I could meet up with the rest of the team getting pleasantly tossed at a local bar.

planet SF

SF was an experience I will never forget, and remains one of my favorite places to visit.  The city has more history and experiences in it than I was able to absorb in my 16 months there.  Some memories:

A Thai restaurant called New Delhi was our watering hole of choice. Many were the nights we would land there to discuss the events from our shift, drinking from cold bottles of Singha and sharing tandoori platters.  I remember sitting by the front window, watching as the fog slowly enveloped the city at night.

newdelhiresthey

Driving my new Jeep Cherokee with MANUAL transmission up and down the hills of the city.  I had purchased it during my year in Dallas and had no idea that 8 months later I would be white-knuckling my way up and down steep avenues, double-clutching like a madman. Soon, public transportation would be the desired choice.

street_big

Salt-water fishing on my 30th birthday.  Well…everyone EXCEPT ME fished while I hung my head over the side of the boat and prayed for death.  Mel had procured the trip as a present and I eagerly accepted.  Unfortunately, the night prior I went out with old friend Chalmers for cigars, cocktails (including “Tosca-cinos”:  Armagnac, bourbon, chocolate ganache and steamed milk, made famous at the Tosca Cafe in SF) and shared memories of our mutual time in Tulsa.  Brian rolled me home around 2am to a alarm that went off at 6am. Mel got us to the docks while leftover booze calmed my hangover. Not for long.  As the boat pulled out away from it mooring, I felt the queasy start of something unfortunate.  Flash forward to me curled in the fetal position in the cabin, rising only to hurl evil from my body, then back down in a state of shame. Eventually I rose to try and make the best of the trip only to find we were headed back in.  The trip was over.

member-one-sea-sick

Riding bikes on the Embarcadero sidewalks, moving past Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf, listening to seals and sea lions barking in the distance.

CA_SF_172_street_sign_the_embarcadero_san_francisco

Getting tattoos at a tiny shop on the Height, sober as a judge and with no regrets. Visiting that same area a few months later the day that Jerry Garcia died, August 9th, 1995.

jerry

Late night cab rides and stories, sharing both.

Finding $10 in a pants pocket while scraping by check-to-check living in one of the most expensive cities in the country.  I was making a salary NOT commensurate to our living expenses; Mel was waiting tables while finishing her degree. Finding that small fortune we would go downstairs to the coffee shop for two cups of their weak brew, then walk up Fillmore Street towards Pacific Heights, window-shopping with the salty bay breeze on our skin, feeling like kings.

If you haven’t been, go.

Enjoy.

Author’s note:  The title of this story is a riff on the Grateful Dead song “New Speedway Boogie”, one of my all-time faves.  I tried to juxtapose the title with my time in SF (the band’s home for many years), my being there when Jerry died and the ever-present SF fog that is strangely outside my SoCal home at this moment.   A rare cold day in these parts, perfect for writing.

The Devil is in the Details: Yelp and the effect of review sites on restaurants

yelling

Ask industry people about restaurant review sites like Yelp, Urbanspoon, Open Table and Chowhound and you will get seemingly disparate responses:

“Nothing but self-entitled hipsters pretending they know food…”

“A good way to measure yourself against the competition…”

“Management uses it to punish the staff…”

“Keeps restaurants on their toes…”

“Mess one small thing up on their meal and all of a sudden they write that everything sucked, that I was the worst server ever, that I should be fired…all for forgetting a refill…”

“Nothing but rabid frothing at the mouth…”

“Unscrupulous business that offers positive ratings for ad buys…”

Food writing, and in a larger sense, the work of restaurant critics, has been around a long time.  In fact, I read (kottke.org) where the first N.Y Times restaurant review was published January 1st, 1859.  It two parts, it detailed the directive from the Editor-in-Chief of that illustrious paper to an unnamed gentlemen to “go and dine”.  What then followed was a fairly positive review of the legendary Delmonico’s:

“Once you let Delmonico have your order…you are safe.  You may repose in peace up to the very moment when you sit down with your guests.  No nobleman of England–no Marquis of the ancienne noblesse–was better served or waited on in greater style than you will in a private room at Delmonico’s.  The lights will be brilliant, the waiters will be curled and perfumed and gloved, the dishes will be strictly en regle (“in order”) and the wines will come with the precision of clock-work that has been duly wound up.

“If you pay your money like a gentleman, you will be fed like a gentleman, and no mistake…the cookery will be superb, and the attendance will be good.  If you make the ordinary mistakes of an untraveled man, and call for dishes in unusual progression, the waiter will perhaps sneer almost imperceptibly, but he will go no further, if you don’t try his feelings too harshly, or put your knife into your mouth.”

Flash-forward, 185 years later, and this is where we have landed:

“I would rather pay $5 to chew on an old lady’s chin mole than eat this ever again.  A pure disgrace to a city that prides itself on pizza that doesn’t taste like a llama’s genitalia…”

“If you’ve been here, you probably have Hepatitis…”

“Just kneeling on the sidewalk outside and licking it will give you the same experience as eating there.  Well, ok, to be fair, the sidewalk will probably make you less sick…”

And this gem:

“The only thing this place has going for it…they sell condoms…”

These are all real Yelp comments.

That escalated quickly…

The Internet has enabled its users to become instant pundits, to allow for anonymous critiques of what we see, read and buy.  This is mostly positive as it allows us to quickly share information between friends and people whose opinions we respect.  This helps us decide to spend our time and money on this movie or that restaurant.

The dark side of this is when review sites are used as a sledgehammer on relatively innocent businesses and their employees.  Comments run the spectrum from character assassinations to outright lies.

There was a restaurant that recently began to add a “tax surcharge” to it’s customer’s bills due to the upcoming Obamacare rollout (as you know, businesses with more than 50 employees have to provide coverage).  So, one disgruntled patron started a campaign to attack the restaurant’s new policy asking everyone to leave a negative review and one-star rating on that restaurant’s Yelp page.

The tornado of abuse that followed was staggering.  People from all over the country, 95% of which had never even BEEN there were telling this guy what a piece of shit he was, that his food sucked and the service even worse.  Did he ask for it by playing a little political roulette with the surcharge?  Maybe…but here was a guy whose livelihood and that of his family AND his employees were dependent on that restaurant attracting customers.  I guess it stuns me how easily one can hide behind a keyboard and monitor and decide to wreak havoc.

Yelp, the most popular of restaurant/retail review sites, is scary in that respect.  They are facing multiple lawsuits from restaurants and others who claim that the review site bullies them into advertising through fraudulent bad reviews written by Yelp.  Even worse is the accusation that Yelp embarked on a Mafia-style “protection” racket: advertise with us and we will suppress negative reviews coming your way.  Don’t, and who knows what might get through.  Not surprisingly, a cottage industry has sprung up offering to “clean up” your online reputation and help scrub away bad reviews.  Check out such online sites as Revleap or YelpReputation to see what I mean.

A few days ago I was looking at Yelp doing some research for this piece and I noticed that most chain restaurants such as Cheesecake Factory or BJ’s have the same amount of stars for every location.  In other words, the Cheesecake Factory in Las Vegas has 3.5 stars, as does the one in Costa Mesa, CA and the ones in Dallas, Chicago, everywhere I looked.  They all have 3.5 stars.  Does this mean that CCF is so amazing in their operations that the experience is the exact same in every location? (Full disclosure:  I used to work for CCF.)

I think not.

I’ve operated restaurants for years and can tell you that the new location of a business that opened a month ago won’t have the same level of execution as one that’s been around 10 years, has seasoned staff and a regular clientele.  Does this mean that there is some collusion between the business and the review site?  I don’t know, but its something to think about. (I think they would collude to a higher rating than 3.5, but I digress.)

Some businesses have gone in the opposite direction and begun to campaign for one-star reviews in the spirit of  “can’t-beat-‘em-so-we’ll-make-a-mockery-of-the-process!”. Check out Botto’s Italian Bistro in Richmond, CA.  The owner even offered 25% off a pizza purchase to anyone giving a negative review and one-star rating.

It worked.

Mud started being flung from all directions and Botto’s eventually got their single star. Now:  which of those reviews were fake and which actually listed valid complaints against food and/or service?  Who knows for sure, but thats the problem with review sites like Yelp.  There is little to no apparent accountability.  Anyone can go online and be an assassin.

I have first-hand experience with guests who have come into my restaurants, had a minor service glitch or seemingly innocuous food problem, only to go online that very night and write the most amazingly one-sided, arrogant and patronizing crap about the business and the staff.  One of them went something like this:

“They were too busy…” (It was on a Friday night around 7:30).

“I hated my dish…” (She had modified the dish almost to the point of being unrecognizable to the original).

“ I didn’t want to tell my server that I didn’t like the dish because I didn’t want to cause a scene…”   (Hey, its ok to OWN your experience and let us know that something is off.  Give us a chance to fix it!  Otherwise, you’re just whining…)

“The manager didn’t comp our entire bill…”  (This usually means the table wasn’t fully prepared for the menu prices.  This is a nice way of saying that some people go out of their way to try and get stuff for free at restaurants).  

“This was the worst meal ever…”  (No, it wasn’t.  But you’ll say that in order to have the guest services department of the company send you comp cards).

I had visited this table a few times that night, once because of the dish that she “hated” and another to follow up on the replacement dish.  At no point did she seem upset to the point of shrieking, which is how her review came across.  In fact we talked about being parents of boys and which football team we both followed. And I did comp her meals, both the one that she didn’t like and the replacement. But somehow, she felt it necessary to “teach us one” by writing such a poor review.

Some restaurants have responded by disciplining service staff for poor reviews. This can have a drastic impact on their income as servers are moved to smaller or lower-traffic stations in order to “teach them one”…in other words, punish them for the perceived infractions.  Tell that to single mother of three…

They say that even bad PR is still people talking about your business, and you can never have enough of that.  But when patrons tell falsehoods about their experience in order to receive free stuff OR pretend to have some strange power over the business, that publicity crosses the line, especially when others look at those reviews and make decisions on whether or not to spend their money there.  Restaurants have a big failure rate, especially in their first two years, and negative buzz about a place can have a deleterious effect on an already Herculean endeavor.

Enjoy.

Restaurant Term of the Day

“COUGAR WATER”

This is another name for Kendall Jackson Chardonnay, the many glasses of which are consumed by women over the age of 40 who may be on the hunt for fun and companionship.

Let’s use it in a sentence!

“Frank, do me a favor and grab me 4 extra bottles of Cougar Water out of the cooler.  Looks to get busy later”.

cougar

Dear Customer 11/4/2014

You’re the 45 year old man whose daughter date didn’t have her ID with her last night.  Hey, we all forget things at the house:  keys, wallet, dignity.  No worries.  But when you devolved into a total douche screaming at me about how she’s old enough and how you know the owner and how blahblahblah.  Sure, she looked “around” 21…but you can bet I won’t ever risk serving someone underage.  Nor will I allow my bartenders or servers to take that risk.  Threaten us all you want with unemployment or a plague of locusts…still not gonna happen.

Here’s some info for you, sir.  Section 25658(a)(b)(e) of the California Alcoholic Beverage Control Act states that “a minimum $1000 fine and 24 hours of community service” is the penalty for “a person who furnishes alcohol to a minor”.  It further states that if this minor consumes the alcohol and “causes great bodily injury or death to themselves or others, the furnisher faces a minimum 6-12 months in county jail and a $1000 fine”.

Yeah I see my employer being ok with holding on to my position for 6-12 months while I’m in jail after I let your giggle box on her teeter-totter heels drink Cosmos and then wrap “Daddy’s” Beemer around a 12-year old kid riding his bike home from a friend’s house.  I see my wife being ok with our financial status being shot to shit and having to take care of the kids by herself because I couldn’t say no to someone who couldn’t produce a valid ID to drink.

You know what?  Go out to the car and bring her ID back and I’ll buy your first round. It’s not in the car?  I’ll write you a rain check for those freebies for next time.  Meanwhile, go to the beer store, pick up some booze and take her back to your place, you old pimp you. Realize that in today’s world, there are rules and we have to follow them same as you.

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