How to deal with guest complaints amid the pandemic

COVID-19 ,

Source: Restaurant Business Online

Question:

We are a fine-dining restaurant that really never did takeout before COVID-19. We are trying our best to keep salaried managers working and the lights on, so we shifted to takeout with a big Easter weekend launch. I think we are doing a good job but just got slammed on a review site for sending out cold food (which left our place hot, but who knows how long it took to get there) and using Styrofoam packaging—when I was happy to get anything last minute from my vendor to get me through the weekend. I was smart enough not to respond in the heat of the moment, but what now? Do I respond or just take it as the cost of doing business in this terrible time?

– Fine-dining owner

Answer:

If there’s one thing we can agree on, it’s a strange and difficult—maybe impossible—time for restaurants. A lot of the standard advice I’ve given over the decade of this column doesn’t apply to our new reality.

You definitely did the right thing in not responding immediately and emotionally. Tensions are high right now, and last weekend was the perfect storm of the usual holiday drama while also negotiating stay-at-home orders, shortages, and, in some cases, illnesses and deaths of loved ones. That doesn’t make it OK for guests to lash out at restaurateurs, but it does make it more understandable—how are traditional spring holidays observed at a time when no one is allowed to engage in those commensal traditions?

Normally my advice would be to respond politely, constructively and thoughtfully, thanking the guest for their feedback but asking that in the future, any concerns be brought to you directly. I would also suggest that you look closely at your operations—are you trying to deliver menu items that don’t maintain heat well or reheat successfully? Do you need to overhaul your packaging or delivery partner? But in this case, my advice is to be proactive by educating guests about your challenges unique to this pandemic and your very good goals of supporting some of your staff—and the community—by adjusting your business model to the current situation.

We had a similar flare-up of complaints about the quality of takeout food and delivery service in my community. One restaurateur, Kim Strengari, co-owner of Conshy Girls Restaurant Group in Conshohocken, Pa., wrote an eloquent response on her social media that she gave me permission to share:

“Happy Easter, all. After seeing all the comments I thought I would write some thoughts on this new way of normal.

As an owner, this first has been financially crushing; more than that it’s been emotionally heartbreaking, to see our places void of laughter, music and joy. On a dime we had to go from full-service restaurant to takeout joint. We had to lay off 70 people, every catering job was canceled—the mass confusion of that first week was crazy for everyone.

One day you’re living your dream, the next you’re going to work in sweats, no makeup and hair in a bun.You’re used to being a giving part of your community. Now you’re putting your dignity aside and begging people, ‘Pick my restaurant, pick me!’ You don’t sleep because you’re worried about all the social media you have to think of to get people to call your restaurant. You then find yourself, all while looking fabulous, yelling people’s names up and down the street as they are parked waiting for the food.

The next day or that same night you see on Facebook all the kind souls that posted how good their food was, and you pray that it was at least edible, because in your heart you know it’s not your best showing.

You get up every day because you have a community that loves you and supports you and wants nothing more than to see you succeed, and that helps you put on new sweats and maybe even a dab of lipstick and go do it again, even though you’re sick inside at the thought of ‘what if?’ when this is over.

So yes, you all have a right to write any review you want, and this is not an excuse to serve bad food. What I would ask is you not use ‘I am never going back.’ That very line kills me, no matter what restaurant you’re speaking of. Be a little gentler in your review and give us a call and give us a chance to fix it, because right now we want nothing more than your happiness, your kindness and support. It is what makes us get up every day and fight to hold on to our dream one more day.

Be well, be safe.”

This heartfelt post was shared widely and yielded Strengari both new customers and supporters who were moved by her message and commitment as well as heartfelt long-term loyalty from existing guests. While it won’t eliminate bad reviews or future problems, my advice is to follow Strengari’s example by communicating to guests that we are all adapting and struggling with this pandemic together. After reading a post like this, I can’t imagine posting about cold fries on a review site.

More on responding to reviews here.