If there is a date marking the end of the era in which the customer is always right, one candidate would be March 30, 2013. That was when Jen Agg, owner of the excellent Toronto restaurant The Black Hoof sent the following tweet during restaurant service: “Dear (almost) everyone in here right now. Please, please stop being such a douche.” How can the customer always be right if sometimes being called a douche?
We recently ate at The Black Hoof, and the food and hospitality were both outstanding. One of the best dishes we’ve had in recent memory is The Black Hoof’s smoked sweetbreads, fried and served with a house-made hot sauce — which the manager paired perfectly with a glass of slightly off-dry Riesling. Given our own enjoyable experience with the staff and food, our suspicion is that customers at The Black Hoof on March 30 were indeed behaving poorly. And, all Ms. Agg did was point that out. As she explained in a follow-up tweet: “People can be publicly rude to servers, but we have no right to be publicly frustrated with that behavior?”
Of course Ms. Agg has every right to go public with her frustration with customers. Whether it is good business is another question.
A London incident late last year serves warning. On November 7, 2012, Michelin-starred London chef Claude Bosi reacted to a blogger’s negative review by tweeting at him: “Nice way to gain respect with chefs…!! I think your a Cunt and this its personal sorry…!! [sic]” Soon after, other London chefs joined in, and likewise called the blogger a “cunt,” and even adopted a Twitter hashtag for their cause, #chefsunite. The backlash may have backfired, though, as many accounts of the spat have been more critical of the chefs than they have been of the reviewer. Some customers have vowed not to visit the restaurants of the chefs that they perceived to be ganging up on the reviewer. Similarly, some customers reacted negatively to Ms. Agg’s tweet, with one blogger responding: “Good Ol’ Toronto Customer Service.”
In short, tensions between customers and chefs/restaurateurs seem to be rising, or at least reports of them are. If so, it’s fair to ask why, and whether this is a good trend or a bad one.
One culprit is surely the rise of online reviews, such as Yelp and Trip Advisor. The mere mention of these websites to some chefs triggers an involuntary sigh of exasperation. On the one hand, these fora do provide customers an outlet that they have never had before. Customers disgruntled with spending a small fortune on an unsatisfactory meal used to have little recourse but grumbling about it to their spouse during the drive home. Today they can reach thousands, or even millions of potentially sympathetic readers, simply by typing out a few words and then pressing “ENTER.” Yet, this outlet also gives customers more power than ever before. It even gives power to non-customers, too. Anyone can post a negative on-line review of a restaurant, even of one they’ve never visited.
Beyond the financial implications of this power is the concept of “respect,” which is often mentioned in reports of spats between chefs and customers. Some chefs demand respect of on-line reviewers. Meanwhile, some on-line reviewers and bloggers desperately seek the respect of chefs, hoping to elbow their way into the food scene.
All of this may stem from one major change that has hit the restaurant world over the last few decades: the explosion of food. Years ago, it seemed a stretch to have an entire cable network devoted to food. Today, that almost seems quaint. Food shows are everywhere. And, food mania is too.
Perhaps, then, food has displaced customers. In today’s food-obsessed world, it is the food — not the customer — that is always right. Thus, if a customer complains about the food, there must be something wrong with the customer, not the food, which is unerring. Food lovers ourselves, we are not inclined to complain too loudly about this development. The food-crazed culture means more access to better food than ever before.
But, perhaps today’s chefs and restaurateurs would be wise to heed the words of a chef who grew up in a less food-manic era than today, Albert Roux, the legendary 77-year old Paris-born chef and restaurateur who trained many of today’s celebrity chefs. Roux opened the London’s Le Gavroche in 1967, which would become London’s first restaurant to earn a single Michelin star, then the first to earn two, and then the first to earn three. Last year, Roux was asked for his opinion of the role of restaurant critics today. His response:
I think using the word “critic” is wrong. I would rather find a word that describes how they inform people of their views. And I think it is essential in our free society that they have the right to write whatever they have experienced. They have their place, and it’s good to talk about food. In the end though, the customer is the ultimate judge of what he eats.
Or, perhaps you’d prefer the more direct advice from London chef/writer Luke Mackay, offered in response to last year’s spat:
Here’s the truth: if you cook nice food you’ll do well, if you don’t you’ll close. If you demand the “respect” of your customers you are a self-important idiot who has positioned the art of cooking up there with fighting in the trenches or treating the sick. It’s not. It’s cooking.