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How to provide honest constructive criticism


bigkoiguy
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I live in a very small town -- with only a handful of restaurants. As a result, I REALLY want to see a new restaurant succeed. Unfortunately, I've seen dozens open and close their doors in the time I've lived here. They all had obvious fatal flaws in their food or service that would kill any restaurant anywhere. Generally, these have been run by people who've never been in food service before -- but each had a glimmer of possibility had they been well run. Furthermore, in this case -- it is not the local economy. A well-run restaurant opened last year and is booming.

So, how does a random customer like me offer constructive advice to a new restaurant without seeming like a Gordon Ramsay wannabe or a food snob?

When I know the staff is really trying - but they get virtually everything wrong - what do you say?

For example, my breakfast at a recent diner included the waitress asking me what came on the plate I ordered and asking me how much coffee was. I could see into the kitchen -- where they proceeded to burn my first plate of hash browns and over easy eggs, setting of the a smoke detector. They recooked the food - but it was still scorched a tad too much. My over-easy eggs were perfectly hard cooked. There were no coffee refills. I had to ask for silverware and had to snag someone from the kitchen for a check after waiting about ten minutes. I got so frustrated with all of this I wanted to rush into the kitchen to help!

Should I butt out? Offer a few tactful tips... or let my thoughts rip?

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For example, my breakfast at a recent diner included the waitress asking me what came on the plate I ordered and asking me how much coffee was. I could see into the kitchen -- where they proceeded to burn my first plate of hash browns and over easy eggs, setting of the a smoke detector. They recooked the food - but it was still scorched a tad too much. My over-easy eggs were perfectly hard cooked. There were no coffee refills. I had to ask for silverware and had to snag someone from the kitchen for a check after waiting about ten minutes. I got so frustrated with all of this I wanted to rush into the kitchen to help!

I have no experience in a professional kitchen, or in opening any business, and although I waited tables during the summer in college, I am therefore completely unqualified to offer advice.

But here are my worthless two cents:

It seems like this might be a new diner, and if it's not new, then the manager is probably not very good. I waited tables at Red Robin, so while they aren't fine dining, I can personally testify that the standards for the servers are very high. Asking for silverware, and having to find someone to give you a bill? That's kinda ridiculous. But maybe it was just a bad day?

I share your sentiments with some of the food trucks that have opened in my area. How do you offer sincere advice, without coming off as pretentious or arrogant? After my first experience, I sent them an email and shared my thoughts. I made sure to emphasize the good attributes of the meal, while also pointing out what I *personally* thought were flaws or deficits. I tried the same meal a little while later, and noticed that nothing really changed. It didn't bother me, since it's their business and because food preferences are just that; preferences. This is a little bit different from the technical mistakes that you described, but I think you could approach this diner the same way.

I think that you if send an honest and balanced email/letter to the owner, if they are smart and a good business owner, they will at least read it with an open mind. Tell them what you liked, what they are doing correct, as well as the problems you saw and changes that should be made. I think the main reason Gordon Ramsay gets to act like Gordon Ramsay is because of his fame and record with restaurant success, and perhaps more importantly, his restaurant failures. Without such fame and record, and due to the small-town setting, you probably want to be as kind as possible, and pick your words very carefully.

Write an email, but don't send it. Have someone else read it, then you read a few days later. Consider the letter from the diner owners point of view. Edit or rewrite any parts that might be perceived as offensive or presumptuous.

Good luck!

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These questions always seem to misunderstand the character of restaurant life at a fundamental level. Restaurants are places of work where human beings work as a team to exchange their goods and services for your cash. But, especially at start up, the kinks are nearly always a result of the first part (human beings learning how to work as a team), not the second part.

So why not do what you'd do with any other human beings: ask them if they'd like feedback on their work? If they want it, then sit down and have a conversation grounded in shared appreciation and respect -- you for a restaurant that's struggling to get it right, and them for a customer seeking to help them succeed. If they don't want it, then take your business elsewhere.

It's just a bunch of people. Treat them the way you'd want to be treated.

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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To clarify, this diner has been open about 6-9 months. They had a good crowd at first, but it dwindled in two weeks. everyone who has eaten there shares similar stories - things as simple as hamburger and fries screwed up.

Good advice from everyone though.

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FWIW, I disagree with catdaddy about reviews on social network sites (including this one). It's simply an inadequate way to communicate if you truly want to give the people at the restaurant effective feedback. When we were getting Cook & Brown going, we got lots of "reviews" on the internets and could rarely make heads or tails of them, particularly the negative ones. The ones that actually seemed honest, measured, and accurate still were not very useful because there was no context in which to understand them.

Take your feedback above:

For example, my breakfast at a recent diner included the waitress asking me what came on the plate I ordered and asking me how much coffee was. I could see into the kitchen -- where they proceeded to burn my first plate of hash browns and over easy eggs, setting of the a smoke detector. They recooked the food - but it was still scorched a tad too much. My over-easy eggs were perfectly hard cooked. There were no coffee refills. I had to ask for silverware and had to snag someone from the kitchen for a check after waiting about ten minutes.

Here's the list of possible problems I came up with:

-- inadequate front of house/BOH staffing schedules

-- lack of FOH/BOH coordination and team work

-- one crappy/inexperienced/disgruntled server

-- one crappy/inexperienced/disgruntled cook

-- lack of training on FOH P&P

-- someone in the FOH/BOH was out sick

If I don't know your context -- who you are, when you came, what you ordered, what was going on around you, whom you interacted with -- it's nearly impossible to glean which of these apply and which do not, which makes it nearly impossible to use your feedback productively. And if I have no opportunity for dialogue with you (if, that is, you slap three sentences onto Yelp anonymously and be done with it), then I can't help you help me by giving you my context.

Just walk into the place, ask for the manager or owner, and see if they want to talk. It's really that simple.

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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It sounds as though this place may be beyond help. However, if the town has few other options and it's a matter of more than just the owners (and employees) being hurt if it closes, I might consider an anonymous letter.

Up front I would explain my that my motivation was for the welfare of the town, and that I knew of many people who would like to be regular patrons if some things were fixed. Then on with the specific constructive criticisms - which I might consider limiting to the essentials at first.

It might wind up being binned, or stuck in the owner's head. But it might also be taped to a wall or even prompt proper action. In any event, you tried.

And if you can find any positives to compliment them on (if only the fact that the business they chose to start, is in fact, desired by the community), it might make the pill easier to swallow.

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Another option occured to me and I'll mention it, not because it's something I would do (I definitely wouldn't), but because - to me at least - it's entertainingly devious and over the top.

So they've been losing customers and are likely having financial issues. So a one time catering gig could be attractive, right? Something like "I'd like you to cater a breakfast for my used car sales people as a reward for the increase in last month's increase in sales".

If they bite, now you're in control. At that point you can clearly outline your expectations and hold them to their word. If you want, you can instruct every cook and server. Afterwards, if they come through, you can say "Man, you need to put this on your menu!"

And then you can go back and if that dish isn't up to snuff, you can say, "Hey, this isn't like it was at the sales breakfast". With the prospect of losing potential future catering gigs, it would carry a lot of weight.

And while I present this as devious diversion, quite honestly, it's a way of focusing the owner on a single customer and learning from that experience.

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From reading the original post, it seems like many of the problems stem from untrained employees and owners/managers with little experience. One feeds the other, I guess.

Experienced restaurateurs are reluctant to start up in small towns for a number of reasons: Availability of trained employees is a big one, small pool of customers to draw from is another, and liquor is a harder sell as many customers have to drive much further--no taxis or busses to catch.

I'm sure the owners and /or managers are aware of their problems, or they should be....

As an owner myself, I appreciate honest criticism from customers, and I know only honest ones will bother to point out my shortcomings, those who don't care just won't come back and won't bother to say anything.

It's a tough call.

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To clarify, this diner has been open about 6-9 months. They had a good crowd at first, but it dwindled in two weeks. everyone who has eaten there shares similar stories - things as simple as hamburger and fries screwed up.

Good advice from everyone though.

I'm confused as to why you would want this restaurant to stick around?

Seems like there is good reason the crowds thinned so quickly. No one ever went back. There is a difference between getting one or two small things wrong and being a complete train wreck from start to finish. While I agree with Chris Amirault that 6-9 months isn't always sufficient time to work out ALL the kinks of a place, I don't think 2 years is required to hone on systems to cook burgers, eggs, and hash browns. 6 months should be plenty of time to start humming along in most restaurants. One year tops. Hell, most places don't even make it to two years.

Being in the business, I have some measure of sympathy and empathy for restaurant owners, especially "mom and pop" type places. But someplace that can't get the basics right, or even close, probably wouldn't benefit much from criticism from you, no matter how polite or well intention it was.

You could try leaving this at their entrance:

http://www.amazon.com/Running-Restaurant-Dummies-Michael-Garvey/dp/0764537172/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1334485783&sr=8-2

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BMDaniel: You have a point. There is gentle criticism - but this would essentially be scathing. My guess is that the owners have probably already heard plenty from other folks, but haven't taken the advice (at least I hope that's the case). As the damage is probably already done (due to this being a super-small town), I'm inclined simply not to say anything (and not go back).

Qwerty: Interesting idea -- not sure if I have the nerve though!

As far as why I want it to stick around -- it's simple -- the town needs a diner and the people that run it are nice folks who I hate to see fail. This particular town has no fast food or chain restaurants and very few local restaurants in spite of demand. In the late 90s, this location was the hotspot in the center of town, always crowded. The business was sold successively to two more owners that ran it "okay" for several years (CISCO type food - nothing spectacular, but great for a quick breakfast or 9:00 pm meal) and, in spite of mediocre food, it still did okay. Unfortunately, two years ago, the building was sold in a nasty divorce and the occupants kicked out -- allowing the buyer to open their own diner, resulting in the farce that remains.

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I lived in a small town in Ontario, Canada for 7yrs. The town was connected to many small towns. I cooked a lot because the restaurants sucked. I probably thought they sucked more than most people because I didnt grow up there and I wouldnt eat a spagetti sauce that came out of a can. A Greek restaurant opened in a neighboring town. We went there and I ordered a slouvaki sandwich. It did not come with tzatziki sauce. If you wanted that, you had to be an extra .75cents. I sent the owners an anonymous letter telling them that the customer would not get the full experience of the sandwich if they didnt order the sauce and I know some people might not want to pay the extra money. I gave them a few other hints as well.

In my town, a fish and chip shop( take away only) opened on the corner about 3 doors down from my house. The fish was great, however, they would put the fish and chips in a box and seal it up. By the time you came to pick it up, it was a soggy mess. I told them that they should not seal the box to allow the steam to escape. They were thankful I gave them that tip( I dont know why they didnt think of it themselves). I think for the most part, its not what you say, its how you say it.

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I too live and dine in a small town. I have also watched bad restaurants come and go, hoping against all reason that they might actually some day get it. I am now of the opinion that a quick death is to be preferred. Hold a nice wake and hope the next contestant might know how to cook and or serve. Criticism is for a less than good reduction of the demi, not how to avoid turning my meal into charcoal. Translate the parade of horrors you described to any other profession and you wouldn't be talking "how do I give them gentle and loving criticism" it would be more like who wants to call the cops first or where the hell are the state/federal regulators? Those are clear indications that those people should not be allowed into a restaurant - not even to eat.

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