The Reluctant Gourmet Food

When the customer isn’t always right

The most common threat hurled around at restaurants in India nowadays isn’t, “Don’t you know who I am?” any more. It’s, ‘I’m going to leave you a bad online review.” Photo: AP

The most common threat hurled around at restaurants in India nowadays isn’t, “Don’t you know who I am?” any more. It’s, ‘I’m going to leave you a bad online review.” Photo: AP   | Photo Credit: Don Ryan

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Online forums give diners a platform to share their restaurant experience. SHONALI MUTHALALY finds out what happens when they take it too far

The chefs are fighting back. It’s about time.

The revolution seems to be beginning on TripAdvisor. Though I suppose it won’t take long for them to storm all the other bastions of spoilt, entitled, despotic diners: from self-indulgent food blogs to fiery Zomato forums. Let’s pause for some inspirational background music and the rumble of Winston Churchill: “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.” Chefs: Grab your forks and dust off your keyboards. You have nothing to lose but your rating.

This conversation used to be about bullying food bloggers. Talented chefs with years of experience were nonplussed by the viciousness with which they were attacked by self-styled “foodies”, when a rash of bloggers erupted about five years ago. Of course, there are plenty of excellent food blogs out there. As the Internet has proved, everyone is entitled to an opinion, and every opinion is entitled to an audience. It’s what was happening behind the scenes that was troubling. A blogger mafia demanding free meals in exchange for good reviews. Pompous — and usually spectacularly uninformed — opinions up for sale. And tediously boring online arguments in food forums.

Then, this bevy of endlessly petulant customers realised a more effective way to threaten chefs and restaurateurs. After all, what is the point of posting your angry, badly-punctuated opinions on a blog read by just five people, one of whom is your mom. Instead, they flocked to popular online forums and unleashed the vitriol there. The most common threat hurled around at restaurants in India nowadays isn’t, “Don’t you know who I am?” any more. It’s, ‘I’m going to leave you a bad online review.”

At this point, let me state that I use most of these forums, and love the fact that they are so interactive. I skim through customer reviews whenever I make an online booking, whether it’s for a hotel or a product. It’s really the most efficient way to decide where to stay and what to eat in a new city.

The last time I was in Mumbai, I went to a friend’s house for pre-dinner martinis. (Yes. We’re fancy like that!) As the crowd decided where to go for dinner, I pulled my phone out of my handbag and tapped on a file filled with food apps. The host rolled his eyes and sighed. “You do realise this is your problem, right?” he said, adding “When most people land in a new city, they download Tinder. You get on Zomato.”

In my defence, I am not the only one. Sites that crowd-source online reviews are getting increasingly popular because they enable us to see beyond pretty, PR-driven, photoshopped images. According to TripAdvisor, the website reaches 340 million unique monthly visitors, with its 385 million reviews and opinions. It touches 6.6 million businesses and properties in 135,000 destinations. Out of this, 4.1 million are restaurants. Sites like this make writing reviews so easy that a huge number of people participate. On TripAdvisor alone, more than 255 new contributions are posted every minute.

Fortunately, most sof these sites also provide a space for a rejoinder. A space that was ignored by restaurateurs for a long time. When they did begin to respond, following that old adage ‘the customer is always right’, replies were uniformly meekly apologetic and unfailingly polite.

Till they snapped. I notice restaurateurs on my Facebook timeline applauding an online article on a woman who writes a negative review on TripAdvisor and gets “owned” by the restaurant. She complained about paying two dollars for a cup of hot water with lemon in a review titled ‘Over-priced and very rude staff’. The owner replied by meticulously breaking down the cost of ingredients, staff salaries and restaurant overheads. He concluded by saying “Perhaps, the rudeness that you perceived in me was triggered by the disrespect that I perceived in you by your presumption that you could use our facilities and be waited on for free.”

He’s not the only one fighting back. And, for a good reason. I spend a day combing through customer reviews to understand why they bother chefs so much, and I’m startled by how easily people get offended. Of course, it is perfectly within your rights to complain if you have a bad meal, or are badly treated; but from the looks of it, some people complain just because they can.

In Mumbai, a customer in a tiny diner is angry because his thali “had unappetising vegetables like potato, cauliflower, bhindi...” For added effect, he continues, “Above all, waiters inattentive, un-bothered, mannerless, pushing the table while passing by (sic).” Let’s face facts. Thalis have potatoes, and waiters can’t fly.

Annoyed with a rooftop bar, a customer writes, “A typical place where the wannabes of Bombay gather and hang out to show off that they have a cigarette in their mouth and are capable of polluting the air quite well while nursing an exorbitantly priced drink in their hand (sic).”

In Delhi, a trendy young bar is reviewed thus: “You will find most of the “wanna-be” crowd there. This place is for people seeking validation from others... If you are self-assured, then it is not for you.”

Oh dear. Apparently, social media is the last refuge of the self-assured. At a swish Mumbai Japanese restaurant, the writer — presumably a Marxist with a company credit card — calls the clientèle “ignorant rich with a palate destroyed by the onslaught of over-spiced food.”

Waiters aren’t spared. One diner complains about his waiter’s expression saying, “He just seemed angry throughout the time he served us and had a “whatever” expression on his face.” Another grumbled: “The place was buzzing on Christmas Eve and so was the manager... He threw away my protein shaker saying it smelt of alcohol — it did, but was empty.” Which raises the obvious question: Can I blend my whey protein with whisky too?

Waseem Ahmed, the owner of a restaurant in Coatbridge, Scotland, is one of the many restaurateurs who has decided that enough is enough. He’s getting famous for his rejoinders.

Curious? Here’s a sample: “Rather than go into the minutiae of your written excrement masquerading as a review, may I simply express my hope that you were able to set aside the money we took off your bill for the inedible curry towards a personality transplant. Cheaper still, a brown paper bag over your head will also do the trick.”

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Printable version | Dec 16, 2019 12:49:15 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/Food/When-the-customer-isn%E2%80%99t-always-right/article14628541.ece

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