Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Benihana vs. Blogger: a kerfuffle in Kuwait

“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.


  1. "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?"

    Eh? Nobody's saying a waiter or a chef should work for half their salary. That's insane. But it's in the restaurateur's interest to discount food in the first few days of an opening. It's a good way to create a feeling of goodwill between business and customer, and customers are far more likely to be understanding and helpful if they're not paying full price.

    In the past couple of months I've had excellent meals in London at Hawksmoor (50% off food) and Byron (all food free of charge) on opening nights. This is the norm in London for a major opening. In both cases the staff had been well trained and there were no problems.

    In theatre in London, tickets for the first two or three nights are always discounted, and the press night is always the 3rd or 4th performance. The actors don't have weeks to get their act together; they have two or three days.

    If Benihana are charging full price and people are walking in off the street who don't know it's a new restaurant, they're fair game. It's totally inexcusable to be anything less than prepared if they're charging full price.

    This blogger was transparent, said it was a new opening, and readers can use their brains and establish for themselves that the restaurant will probably improve. He did nothing wrong.

    Waiting a month is unrealistic. In a place like Kuwait the arrival of a new restaurant is a big deal and people want feedback asap. Heston Blumenthal's new restaurant served its first meal last night and the reviews were all over the internet within hours. They were all positive - these guys are professionals.

    If Benihana isn't ready for them on day one, it's entirely their problem. A big corporation like Benihana should have better training. The blogger did nothing wrong.

  2. I can't believe you're comparing Heston Blumenthal in London to Benihana in Kuwait? Come now.

    As for cutting prices/wages: As I said before, I agree with the idea in principle and it may work well in London where there's shitloads of competition, a savvy media and some semblance of employment law. But we're talking about Kuwait / the Middle East here. It relates more to the restaurateur than the waiter or chef. He's going to think about his bottom line every time. What if the media or public don't lap it up and it's not an immediate success? Somewhere along the line, some low-ranking staff member is going to pay for it. Or eventually the customer will.

    On the point of people wanting to read a review of a restaurant the second its doors are flung open, why should they if that review is meaningless or the only real conclusion the reviewer can make is: they just opened, there are teething troubles, things might get better, I don't know yet? Again, everything has to be done yesterday, instead of being done properly.

    Waiting a month isn't unrealistic. Many reputable newspapers manage to do it, and for good reason.

    Training staff is one thing, putting them under the pressure of service is completely different. And while I'd love to believe in fairy tales, I know from experience that it takes time for a restaurant to get to full steam. That's not excusing badly prepared restaurants, it's just the way it is. If it's still rubbish a few weeks in then give them hell.

    Do an interview with the chef or a feature on the decor if you simply must tell the world you've been there, but leave the review - an honest and fair appraisal of the dining experience - until the place is up and running normally. The restaurant then has no excuses, the review will have longevity and the reader will get a much better idea of whether this place is worth visiting or not.

  3. This was a fantastic and very fair post; honestly!
    I also like the idea to compare a new restaurant with a toothing child.

    To discount the food & bevs at the beginning, like Matthew commented does not really make a lot of sense - until an opening a owner has to put loads of money into the project and he even has often some trial runs which even eats up more cash!

    I think there are only two things to consider: The owner and manager supposed to be very flexible, collecting a lot of feedback and be generous, when it comes to complaints. "You don't like the dish? - Sorry - then it is free for you [if the diner wasn't happy during the dinner and just complaints after - we know our habibis]; and: if the marketing machine is in full swing and the restaurant is advertised cockily as latest wonder - the operator doesn't need to wonder, why the somebody is reviewing them a bit more critically.

    Thats why you have a soft opening; to keep under the radar and to get things right...

  4. Welcome, donimik. You make a good point about complaints. Many people in England would have to be smacked around the chops by a waiter before they'll even think about complaining (or tipping, for that matter), but elsewhere people don't have a problem with it. And I think restaurants should be more than willing to knock items off the bill if they're not up to scratch in the opening weeks.

    I do however think that in the Middle East, 'soft opening' all too often means 'crap opening', where the restaurant just isn't ready yet. I once ate in a newly opened Abu Dhabi outlet of a well-known steak house, and tripped over a power cable that was laid across the floor. The editor had sent me there a week after opening. Tsk, tsk.

  5. Dominik - It makes perfect sense to discount food for the first few days or week. It happens in many other industries - new magazines or newspapers giving away their first issue for free, new West End or Broadway plays discounting the first few nights, football teams playing pre-season friendlies at reduced prices. It's very normal for new businesses to have opening offers.

    Discounting food for the first few days and publicising your trial week accordingly also brings in punters, creates word of mouth, and helps get the staff up to speed. In many cases, it makes business sense. And it creates an environment in which staff can make a few mistakes because customers understand they're not paying for the final product.

    A restaurant has the right to a soft opening period as long as it's not charging full-price. If they're charging full-price the customer has the right to expect full service. And therefore the restaurant is ready to be reviewed.

    I can't see why you're making excuses for these people. A soft opening without discounted prices is cynical bullshit and a total con. Journalists should be going into these places and exposing their lack of preparedness.

  6. "Journalists should be going into these places and exposing their lack of preparedness."

    That would be a separate story in itself. But not a restaurant review. A review should inform the reader about whether a place is any good or not. It's not an exposé on restaurants that open too soon. Otherwise almost every review would have the same conclusion.

    What good does it do someone who reads a review to know that, in its first weeks, a restaurant wasn't quite there yet (a bit like most restaurants, really) - especially if he finds the review six months after the place opened? He wants to know what to expect of the fully functioning restaurant.

    Nobody's making excuses. But nobody is forcing you to go to a new restaurant either - just like nobody forces you to have a dish from the specials menu, even though it's fish left over from last week.

    Like I said, to avoid spending money on a restaurant that isn't 100 percent ready, don't go there until after at least a few weeks. Then, if it's rubbish, you can slag it off all you like.

    For what it's worth, I'd love to see restaurants charging half price for a soft opening. I'd love to see all restaurants hit the ground running. That would be an ideal world. Trouble is, the world we live in is far from ideal - the existence of a Jamie Oliver restaurant in Dubai confirms that dreadful fact.

  7. You make some interesting points here...as a customer I would never ever have thought of delaying going to a new restaurant so it could get its act together. Benihana is a worldwide chain however and ok let's not compare it to Heston but how about Naked Pizza - another rapidly expanding chain which opened here in Dubai recently. They are so marketing led it almost eclipses the food! They advertised 'come on down during our soft opening' and many people reported the experience (not all good). The launch event was not all smooth but there was such a buzz. Many people wrote about it including me and although not all my remarks were favourable they reposted it on their own website. They take the rough with the smooth and engage - NP is firmly on the map in Dubai.
    Mark's experience is so extreme though - at least by covering his experience in the public domain the chain had the right of reply (unlike all the people who just moaned about it to their friends). The fact that they have chosen to reply using legal means is like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut - and has much wider implications on freedom of speech and big business.

  8. I agree that Benihana handled this all wrong from the word go. They might be regretting it now, but they won't want to lose face by putting a halt to proceedings.

    I support the fact that the blogger should be able to say what he wants. But it raises an important question about restaurant reviews, what they should be and what purpose they have. If you rush in days after opening, then your review will be inconclusive, yet it'll be online for months, years, with the same inconclusive verdict. Reviews - especially those on blogs - will be more credible and useful to the wider web community if the reviewer has held back for a while, let the dust settle, and seen the restaurant as a settled operation that's well into its groove.

    Big openings - which restaurants invite press and bloggers to - do not tell the story of how a restaurant performs when Mr & Mrs J Bloggs visit on a Tuesday night, after the restaurant's been up and running for a few weeks. That's what I want to know about when I'm making my judgement of a restaurant by reading a review. What's the normal, average, everyday service like? If I'm parting with my hard-earned, I want an accurate review to tell me it's worth going.

    Sadly, Benihana's actions have told me more about the restaurant - and why I shouldn't go there - than the initial review did.

  9. Good Morning! Please could you send me your email and address so that we can invite you to food events and invite you to review the restaurants we represent? Thank you in advance, Gemma (gemma@dpq.ae)

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