WHAT'S THE STORY WITH COMPLAINING IN RESTAURANTS?:THE AMATEUR food critics who post reviews onto websites and blogs would make the most acerbic of pros blush. “The main courses were disgusting. I barely managed a few forkfuls and, although the waiter couldn’t have failed to notice this, he didn’t even so much as enquire if everything was all right,” fumes one poster on menupages.ie.
“The service and food was awful. The waitress was snappy and the food came thrown on the table. At no point were we asked if everything was okay. We would have complained but just wanted to get out of there,” writes another poster about a different restaurant.
The website, which styles itself as “Ireland’s best dining guide, as reviewed by you”, has pages of venomous criticism of restaurants all over the country. What’s striking about the posts is not just their fury but their impotence. Many of those who contribute are so anxious to avoid actual confrontation that they don’t air their grievances to the waiting staff or restaurant management – the people who might actually be able to do something to resolve their problem – and end up tapping out their rage on their keyboards instead.
“I think the golden rule is that if you’re going to complain, you really should be complaining when you’re at the table,” says Conrad Howard, the owner of a popular restaurant in Cork. “Some people will leave a restaurant dissatisfied and go home to write a letter of complaint but we have lost them at that stage and there is not much we can do to resolve their problems. Decent restaurants want to hear your complaints when you’re actually in the restaurant, they really do,” he says.
He has been working in the industry in Dublin, London and now Cork for more than 20 years and says that while he has seen people’s willingness to complain increase in recent years, it is largely a generational thing. He says people in their 20s and 30s are quick to give out while their parents, no doubt recalling Ireland’s terrible restaurants of the 1960s and 1970s, mumble “mustn’t grumble” and get on with their meal.
“I think people know their coffee, their wine and their food better now than they did in the past and they have become a bit more vocal if they don’t think it is right,” Howard says.
Food critic and writer Tom Doorley agrees that younger people are more inclined to complain, but is not convinced this is a good thing. They are more vocal, he says, “but in a less critical way” and they “frequently forget to engage their brain before giving out”.
He tells of one particularly mouthy man he happened upon in a Dublin restaurant recently who was giving out yards to waiting staff because his Carpaccio of tuna was undercooked. Despite the stupidity of the complaint, Doorley believes restaurants have little choice but accept them. “Your job is to make diners feel loved and needed so you just have to take it on the chin,” he says. “People can be intimidated by the vast knowledge of the chef and indeed he may well have more knowledge but he is also running a business so has to accept that even when the customer is wrong they are right.”
He says too many restaurants owners are too defensive in the face of even the most legitimate of complaints. As if to illustrate his point, a reader contacted us recently to complain about an incredibly defensive restaurant owner she had the misfortune to come up against. In a hotel restaurant not far from Dublin, the reader decided to have the roast beef for lunch but pretty soon realised she’d made a terrible mistake. It was the texture of an old boot and, after struggling through a couple of mouthfuls, she brought it to the owner’s attention.
Apologetically our reader explained that the beef was so tough she was struggling to even cut it up. Rather than taking the offending plate away, the suddenly enraged owner grabbed her cutlery and started furiously cutting the meat into pieces to prove her wrong before storming off in the direction of the kitchen.
While customer service rarely descends to this level, many Irish diners still expect to get a negative response to complaints. “Because they hate complaining and are fearful of confrontation they gear themselves up for it,” Doorley says. “A head of steam gets built up and they suddenly explode. This is bad manners on the part of the diner. You should be polite and slightly diffident – if for no other reason than to give the restaurant room to handle it themselves.”
Like Howard, Doorley says timeliness is the key. “Very often the complaint comes too late, when the customer has eaten three-quarters of the dish out of politeness. And it is always going to look a bit strange if you complain about a meal as you wipe your plate clean with the last of the bread.”
IF A MEAL is truly terrible and the restaurant refuses to accept that it is, what rights does a consumer have? Can they just refuse to pay and storm out? Probably not, although the legal situation is not at all clear. Even the National Consumer Agency’s helpline struggled to explain what rights a consumer had when they are served poor food.
When Pricewatch rang the NCA last week, an operator initially suggested we could argue that, under the Sale of Goods Act, a bad meal was not fit for purpose or not as described and demand a replacement or a refund. However, he subsequently seemed a little unsure about the legality of simply refusing to pay and advised us to complain, then pay up, send a letter of complaint to the restaurant or, in a worst case scenario, refer them to the Food Safety Authority of Ireland.
A spokeswoman for the NCA subsequently said common sense needed to be applied to complaints about poor food and said it was not an area which falls under the Sale of Goods Act. She said it was a “complex area” but warned that consumers could not expect to get much joy from the Small Claims Court if they took an action against a restaurateur for not providing goods of merchantable quality.
Apart from reluctance to make a scene and risk being chucked onto the street by truculent restaurant owners, the main reasons many are reluctant to complain – at least early on in the meal – is out of fear that rogue waiting staff will spit in your main course. Websites such as stainedapron.com, which invites waiting staff to post details of all the horrendous things they’ve done to rude and ignorant diners, feeds such fears .
It makes for grim (and sometimes hilarious) reading but, Howard says, fears that waiting staff will tamper with food in revenge for complaints are completely overstated. “We are all human and there are no Ramsays in the kitchen wielding cleavers.
“People are jumping through all manner of hoops to get and to keep your business. They want you to be happy.”