How to properly complain at restaurants
When done right, complaining can benefit both the diner and the restaurant
The market research firm Nielsen reported last year that eating out at restaurants has become routine among people living in Metro Manila. Specific numbers from the report will tell you as much: People in the National Capital Region dine out of their homes an average of 42 times a month, or almost twice a day. It’s a trend closely attributed to a number of factors, among them the metro’s worsening traffic and the increase of online information about new restaurants and food offerings.
These pieces of information are somewhat unremarkable in that they’re to be expected—people will naturally do what they can to adapt to their regressing environment. In this context they’ll often have to eat out (or at least more than they’re willing to) simply because terrible traffic has made home cooking almost impossible.
The more useful data point here has to do with the second factor, or the wealth of online information about food. Social media posts, feature stories, food blogs, and restaurants reviews have been gaining traction as one of the most favored forms of food media, just slightly behind television ads. What this means is that the opinions of diners, may it be in the form of a Yelp review or a Facebook post, are now more than ever impactful—perhaps to the extent that it can make or break a restaurant’s reputation. With that influence, however, comes a rule that most Filipino diners don’t acknowledge as much as they should: Before posting a scathing review, it’s a diner’s responsibility to first raise their issues with the restaurant staff; complain in person before complaining online. If done properly, complaining will leave both restaurant and diners better off:
TIMING IS KEY
The best time to raise a concern is as soon as possible. Good restaurateurs and managers want to know right away if something is wrong so they can fix it immediately, especially since—because of social media—word gets out fast. It doesn’t make sense to complain about a dish when you’ve already eaten most of it, because how else can the staff make up for their error when it’s, in a way, already too late? As the Times restaurant critic Giles Coren once wrote: “Once you walk out of the door, it’s over.” Which is to say both the diner and the restaurant are left worse off: The former has an irreversibly bad dining experience, while the latter is robbed of the chance to improve itself.
This should go without saying: Be polite when raising your concerns. Remember that certain things are not your server’s or the manager’s fault. For example, if the issue at hand is undercooked chicken, don’t blame the server. Tell them instead to let the chef know about the problem. Similarly, if the problem has to do with your drink it’s best to talk directly to the bartender or the sommelier. Another thing is specificity—the more specific you can be with the resolution you can propose, the better. For instance, instead of saying “the food is cold,” say “I’d like this heated up, please.” Saying what you want instead of what you don’t ensures that no additional problems are created.
Leaving a restaurant without raising your concerns and then proceeding to write a negative review is unfair to both you and the restaurant. By doing this, you’re not letting the establishment learn about and fix their deficiencies, and you’re also preventing yourself from leaving the restaurant satisfied.
DON’T MAKE ASSUMPTIONS
Not all restaurants allow for dish replacements, so if they don’t automatically offer to replace your dish, it’s best to ask if that’s an option. Also, know that this is an area that requires a lot of good judgment on your part: If it’s not within reason, you probably don’t deserve to have your meal replaced. For example, if you ordered some soup knowing full well that it has some basil in it and remember that you don’t like basil right when you’re already halfway through the soup, you may want to think twice about asking for a replacement.
ON RETURNED ITEMS
You don’t need to pay for that dish you took a single bite of and proceeded to return. Management normally takes out returned items from the total bill, so should you see a returned item on your bill, you may politely point it out to your server.
FEEDBACK IS WELCOME, BUT IT’S NOT ALWAYS RIGHT
It’s true what Union Hospitality Group’s Danny Meyer once famously said: Customers are not always right, but it’s important to always make them feel heard. Feedback (which can come in the form of complaints) is always welcome, but know that they’re not always valid. For one, there can be times when the complaint stems from a customer’s misunderstanding of the preparation standards for a certain dish. Good restaurants are always seeking to improve their food and service, so they’ll of course be open to constructive criticism, but remember that there’s always going to be room for human error.
DON’T SAY NOTHING AND THEN WRITE A MEAN REVIEW
It’s worth reiterating: Leaving a restaurant without raising your concerns and then proceeding to write a negative review is unfair to both you and the restaurant. By doing this, you’re not letting the establishment learn about and fix their deficiencies, and you’re also preventing yourself from leaving the restaurant satisfied. So use your right to complain—but do it properly.
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