“Waiter, where's my pie crust?”
“It’s a soft opening, sir.”
The “Kuwaitgate” restaurant blogger saga has prompted me to say a few words on food bloggers and restaurants.
In case you didn’t know, a blogger in Kuwait (www.248am.com) wrote a slightly unfavourable review of newly-opened Benihana, the well-known Japanese restaurant chain. The restaurant responded by taking legal action. You might be in favour of the blogger, or even the restaurant, but in my opinion both are at fault to some extent.
Let’s look at it from the blogger’s side first. If a blogger is serious about reviewing restaurants and wants people to take those reviews seriously, he should never review a place that’s just opened (unless invited to do so). Wait at least a month before going in there and letting off your six-shooters.
The reason I say this is because almost every restaurant in the world needs at least a few weeks to get up to speed - just like you probably did in every job you started.
As someone who’s reviewed restaurants professionally, I have occasionally been sent to a restaurant too soon by an editor. The verdict was always the same - there were teething troubles, it might get better, it might not. It was a pointless exercise.
There was no sense at all in reviewing the place, since it might improve over the coming weeks - or it might even get worse - but the review would remain online for months, perhaps a year, without a clear and definitive judgement. Or with an unfair one.
Better to give the restaurant a short grace period, then any judgement you make will be based on a restaurant that’s functioning as well as it’s ever likely to.
Newspapers like the New York Times give a restaurant a grace period before reviewing. They’re a reputable outfit, wouldn’t you say? If you want your blog and reviews to be taken seriously, you should perhaps do the same. In the Kuwaiti blogger’s defence, he did state that the restaurant was newly opened. But he carried on regardless.
You may argue that if a restaurant has opened to the public, and it’s charging full price, then it’s fair game. Perhaps. As someone who’s been to far too many brand new restaurants, I know to avoid a newly opened place for at least a month, whether I’m reviewing it or not.
You may call for the restaurant to charge a reduced rate if it’s on a ‘soft opening’. Maybe you have a point. In fact that would be a good idea. But remember those first weeks in your job? Did you work for half your salary? So why expect a waiter to do that, or a chef, or a restaurateur? There’s a case to be made for restaurants - especially ones in the Middle East - to train their staff properly, so that they can hit the ground running. I support that. But I’ll be giving any new restaurant a few weeks to get its act together all the same if I’m reviewing it - and especially if I’m paying for it.
Perhaps it’s a symptom of today’s society: we all want instant gratification, we want everything now. Be smart - resist all temptation to visit a new restaurant in its first month. Leave that to corporate lunchers who can slap it on expenses.
I think I’ve stressed the point enough.
Which brings us onto the restaurant. Benihana Kuwait might feel aggrieved that a blogger can say nasty things about its food just after it’s opened. But blogging is just the modern-day equivalent of word of mouth - it just shouts louder. Just think what all the other people who dined at Benihana in its opening week thought about its food, and told their friends.
The way to deal with this was not by threatening the blogger, who has a perfect right to say whether his meal was good or not. They should have left a message on the blog, explaining that they weren’t quite up to speed yet, and inviting the blogger back to the restaurant once things were better. The blogger would no doubt have returned, written a much more favourable update, complimented Benihana on its excellent customer service and everybody would have lived happily ever after. Blogs can help restaurants too, you know.
Instead, Benihana have decided to drag this through the courts and drag its own name into the mire in the process. It will not win itself any friends by doing this. It has already won itself a load of negative publicity, when it could all have been so different. Conversely, the blog has had great publicity out of this.
It’s an example of disastrous PR. Yet all food bloggers and restaurants can learn from it.
Benihana should drop their case immediately, say sorry and invite the blogger back to the restaurant for a slap up meal. We all know passions run high in the restaurant world, but it’s time to cool off. In fact I invite them onto this blog - neutral ground - to initiate the peace process. Prove to everybody that - like all restaurants - all it needed was a few weeks to start firing on all cylinders. Then you’d have a happy restaurant, a happy chef, a happy food blogger and a happy social networking community.
Everyone’s a winner.