Restaurant Complaints: Not Just a Right, A Responsibility

The restaurant service you receive today is a direct result of our collective willingness to complain yesterday.

A complaint is the expression of grief, pain, or dissatisfaction. Generally seen as negative, complaining has actually created some amazing things.

The United States of America was founded on complaining.

In the American Revolution, ragtag bands of complainers came together to shape the future of our country and our culture.  In those days, “Taxation without representation” was the call to arms.  Thirteen colonies united in complaint that it was unfair to send the fruits of our land to a foreign nation.  It was in this spirit of complaining that Americans overthrew a monarchy and established a democratic system of government still in use today.

Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Gandhi – all “complainers”. The U.S. Civil Rights movement was a righteous complaint that was finally heard, and that helped amend more than a century of injustice.

Every inventor, innovator and entrepreneur who has ever brought something new into the world was ultimately acting out a kind of complaint, saying, “This isn’t right – the world needs to change!”

The Importance of Restaurant Complaints

Despite this proud history of effective complaining, it seems to me that today in our experience as restaurant patrons, Americans have lost our will to complain.  It’s become almost impolite to complain when we have a bad experience at a restaurant – as if, as customers, it’s not our place to judge. We have become a nation that hugs failures (like a mean ol’ grandma) because it’s more in fashion to swallow down bad service than to complain about it.

There was once a time that restaurateurs shivered at the thought of a restaurant complaint.  A complaint, in those days, like a virus, could multiply.  A complaint that was left unaddressed could metastasize into an incurable cancer on the business.  The mere threat of receiving a complaint from an unhappy customer kept service people on their toes.  My, how faint of heart we are today.

Complaining in a restaurant today may get you looked at like you’re a grumpy old man who is too uptight.  “Just relax…it’s no big deal,” your faint-hearted friends will say.

But here’s the problem with that attitude: if you’re a customer at a restaurant, and the restaurant provides you with an egregious service failure, you are perfectly right to complain.

If a waiter spills food on you, or your entrée is served at an unsafe temperature, or your salad is wilted and drowned in oily dressing, or you have to wait a ridiculously long time for a table with no communication from the surly hostess – all of these situations are well worth complaining about.

Not only do you have the right to complain, but I would argue that all restaurant patrons – especially the ones who genuinely care about the restaurant business – have a duty to complain.

That’s right: you as a restaurant customer have a duty to complain when your experience is anything less than satisfying.

When you complain about a bad experience at a restaurant, you are not being rude or “high maintenance” – you are actually doing that restaurant a favor. Every smart restaurant manager wants to hear from his/her customers – and real restaurateurs aren’t afraid to hear some less-than-positive feedback along with the cheery compliments. After all, if they don’t hear the complaints, how are they ever going to improve?

If you have a bad restaurant experience and you decide not to complain, you’re not being “polite” – you’re actually participating in keeping that restaurant from being all that it could be. By choosing not to complain, you may actually be contributing to the restaurant’s eventual decline and failure – which would ultimately mean the loss of jobs for everyone who works there, and the loss of investment by the restaurant owner. Don’t you think the owner would have rather heard some complaints along the way – that would have helped the restaurant improve – rather than only hearing niceties (“Everything was just great!”) and then losing the whole ship?

Whenever you complain, not only are you doing a favor to the restaurant, but you are also fulfilling a responsibility to the other diners who will come after you.

Tonight, as I write this, I am recovering from a ridiculous drinking experience inflicted on me by an F&B manager at a prestigious hotel in Dubai.  The manager insisted, rather belligerently, that a martini was made from a “mix” and that it should be four (4) parts “mix” to one (1) part liquor.  He thought that Martini & Rossi was a “mix” and didn’t realize that Martini & Rossi was just a ”brand” of vermouth, which is only a minor ingredient in the modern day martini.  Any current or former bartender in the world knows that a martini is more parts vodka  (or gin) than it is vermouth!  And certainly anyone in the beverage business would know that there is no such thing as “martini mix.”

So I complained to his manager, who needs to know about his employee’s cluelessness and belligerence toward a paying customer. If it were not for my complaining, this same manager would be the man to place final judgment on your issue.  So unless you want to be drinking a vermouth martini and choking down poorly cooked steak, surrounded by shabby décor and indifferent service, I strongly encourage you to join me in embracing our collective responsibility to complain.

It’s not rude, it’s not petty, it’s not “picky” – complaining is honest, honorable, and ultimately helps to create better dining experiences for all of us.