Complain, but don’t be a complete pain

Food reviewer WENDY JOHNSON starts her column this year not about eating, but about complaining!

SURE, some people know how to complain, but here are some real social media examples I just can’t swallow:

“I didn’t like the crème brulé’s burnt topping.” Duh, “brulé” means burnt.

“I didn’t like any of the desserts.” Good onya for trying them all.

“The watermelon soup was too chilled.” Why not whack it in the oven for an hour?

“My coffee was pathetic.” What does that mean?

“The staff weren’t trained.” Not a single one? Did you read their credentials?

It amazes me that anyone would rely on such bad-tasting commentary, especially when posted by those who remain anonymous, have no professional writing or food experience, and who are not held accountable for factual accuracy. I’m told some of the writers are even disgruntled former staff.

I’ve spoken to many restaurateurs over time and the reputable ones encourage constructive feedback from diners.

Pat Trimboli, who has been in the biz for yonks and picked up many awards along the way for Mezzalira and Italian and Sons, admits hospitality isn’t perfect.

“We’re increasingly scrutinised even though we’re an industry that is on-demand every 15 minutes, all day, every day,” says Pat. “We operate with a clock ticking on our shoulders and a human element. Customers don’t always understand this.”

Pat says the industry needs to embrace social media, but is concerned when it becomes a vehicle for those who want “to hide and sabotage rather than give open and informed opinion”.

“I’m not saying ‘poor us’ … This is the industry I’ve chosen and there’s no excuse for poor food or service. But it’s the way the feedback is provided, and by whom, that becomes important.”

Sam McGeechan, co-owner of The Artisan Restaurant in Narrabundah, agrees. He prefers customers to raise concerns during their visit, so staff can offer solutions.

“There’s no hesitation for us. If we can remedy a situation we will and we use constructive feedback to continually improve. There’s not much you can do to resolve issues after the fact, however.”

Sam recommends being specific about concerns, as well as realistic and fair. “One customer booked lunch for four and arrived an hour late with an additional person,” he says. “We were packed and couldn’t fit them in. The customer went online and said we weren’t accommodating.

“Another customer ordered scallops, which we prepare medium rare. She wanted them well done, so we obliged. As an owner, I dealt with her personally to rectify the concerns. But the customer still posted online that the scallops were underdone and that a personal apology was expected. I thought the situation was resolved before she left the restaurant.”

Pat says it’s also important to give a restaurant a chance to explain its position on what a dish is and how it’s prepared, so potential concerns can be addressed upfront. One customer at Italian and Sons said she wouldn’t have ordered risotto if she had known there was so much rice in it.

Some customers unfairly interpret genuine explanations about the integrity of a dish as bad attitude. “While many thank you for explaining,” says Sam, “others find what you say defensive, no matter how polite you are.”

So how do you “complain” when things aren’t going according to your plan? Here are six top tips:

  1. Say something on the spot (or call the restaurant soon afterwards), and be precise and considered with your language so the restaurant can engage and offer solutions.
  2. Be polite and establish subtle eye contact with staff – standing on a table and snapping your fingers while foaming at the mouth doesn’t cut it. You look like a fool and achieve nothing more than disturbing other diners.
  3. Remember that owning a few fancy cookbooks, subscribing to “Gourmet Traveller” and shopping for regional produce at the markets does not an expert make. Chefs and hospitality professionals are trained, and the good ones have extensive knowledge. You’re not always right even though you’re paying the bill.
  4. Ask questions if you don’t understand something on the menu, to avoid the risk that you might not like a dish or an element of the dish. Quality staff delight in answering questions and sharing what they know.
  5. Also ask about, and listen carefully to, what the restaurant says about the way they prepare food since there’s often “method in their madness”. Low-fat kangaroo, for example, gets tough when overcooked. That’s why it’s served rare. Some pasta is al dente for a reason.
  6. Don’t eat your entire meal and then complain it was inedible and demand it for free. That’s just too much for any restaurant to bear.

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