The Naysayers

2014.Nov.19 Wednesday · 6 comments

in Casa SaltShaker, Life

This photo has nothing to do with this post, but I've been told that blog posts need graphic content, so a soothing photo from our trip to Iguazu is provided for your enjoyment.

This photo has nothing to do with this post, but I’ve been told that blog posts need graphic content, so a soothing photo from our trip to Iguazu is provided for your enjoyment.

Given that we’ve now been around for awhile – a bit over nine years since our first trial runs at offering dinners, though still a few months shy of our official nine year opening anniversary, and perhaps because I have a listing here on the blog of places around the world that offer underground dining – I’ve become something of a “go to” person for people just starting out. It’s rare that a week passes by without at least one request for some level of coaching in “how do I get started?” “what do I need to worry about?” “do you have any advice for me on…?” And, I’m almost always happy to have those conversations, I love what I do here at Casa S, much as it’s my source of income and a business, it’s far and away more of a passion to cook for and share with people my love of food and wine.

One of the things I’ve learned to coach people in is the need to develop a thick skin. Anytime you put yourself out there publicly doing something that involves other people, somewhere along the line there’s going to be someone who doesn’t like what you’re doing, for one reason or another. And, from a large percentage of the people who I get into these conversations with, sooner or later they get back to me with some version of, “I can’t believe the email/review/critique that I got, it’s destroying me it was so nasty.” And I know the feeling. We glide along, and review after review (TripAdvisor is far and away the most common place), or feedback after feedback (via email) gives us a thumbs-up, ranging from a modest, sort of average, “we had a good time” to glowing praise. And then suddenly someone lashes out and trashes the whole thing. And it is lashing out, because it’s almost never just “I didn’t enjoy myself, it wasn’t my kind of food/wine, I didn’t like the ambiance” or something similar, it’s virtually always couched with “everyone at the table agreed how awful it was” (really, you asked everyone? at the table? in front of us and we didn’t notice?), “every tour guide/concierge/travel agent we talked to recommended against us going” (really, then why did you make/keep your reservation?).

No matter how controlled of a person you are, it hurts. The bottom drops out. You get a pit in your stomach. Adolescent insecurities resurface. It’s like being rejected by someone you steeled yourself up to ask out to the prom. No, it’s like standing in front of an audience with your child while an announcer says, “Jeez your kid is ugly, I can’t believe you have the guts to bring them out in public.” And you just know that while most of the people in the seats are saying, “Wow, that was harsh, I can’t believe he said that, and we always liked that kid”, there are at least a few murmurs of “Hmm, if that announcer guy said the kid is ugly, there must be something to it, maybe I shouldn’t let my little Johnny play with him.”

Every business has its detractors. I don’t care what field you’re in, I don’t care how good you are. There will always be people who feel the need to criticize, or worse, to tear you down. There are also times when you make a mistake and someone suffers for it and you have to take responsibility and then move on. Sometimes, you’ll never know what set someone off – were they having a bad day, were you having a bad day, did things just not click, was something actually wrong, is the review even real (fake reviews do happen – we’ve dealt in the past with competitors writing or getting someone to write negative critiques of us, we’ve also dealt with critiques that were so off the mark it was clear that the person had never actually been here).

Was there some other factor at work? We’ve gotten post-dinner homophobic rants by people who didn’t know they were going to be “subjected to a perverted lifestyle”, however they felt that manifested itself in having dinner in our home. We caught someone trying to steal from us once, kicked them out, and then they had the gall to write a nasty review about how unwelcoming we were. We had a woman write an entire negative review about how bad our stereo system was (it was a typical home unit) and how we should have a full surround system in the house “as any good restaurant does” – which restaurants? Most don’t, and, it turned out, we’d turned down an offer to install one from her brother-in-law simply because we weren’t interested in a new stereo or the expense. We’ve dealt with a party planner who castigated us for not having white tablecloths, fine china, silver and crystal, because “that’s the only way a dinner party should be given”. And look, at some level, I’m guilty of it – I write restaurant reviews here on the blog, and sometimes in online forums, and they’re not always glowing – though I do try to keep it to my own subjective experience.

So how to deal with it all? Early on, I tended to get a bit more emotional and often responded with my default defense mechanism, a bit of sarcasm. But in the long run, that gets you nowhere except maybe on a Gordon Ramsay makeover show. I learned to suck it up, apologize, and move on. Sort of. I still can’t quite get myself past explaining or defending us on at least factual inaccuracies – when someone makes claims about the experience that just couldn’t happen – or that’s just not true. It’s the Virgo in me I suppose. I have learned to say things without being (too) sarcastic.

Now, all this was fueled by a couple of things this week – we just had one of “those” reviews (see, that’s the sarcasm) on TA. One of the people who I coached through her opening a couple of months ago just got a vitriolic negative review after sailing through a few dozen positive ones and she was crushed. And, a couple of new folk asked me for advice on getting started – so I decided to write it all down here (ad nauseum apparently).

The thing to do is look at the overall pattern. As I said, every business gets bad reviews. If I just single out TA again, we have, as of today, 331 reviews total. 3 of them are “terrible”, 13 of them are “poor” – that’s less than five percent of those who took to the pages of TA to write up their experience – but, okay, that’s still 1 in 20 who didn’t like it (but again, only of those who took to the pages of TA to write about it – most of our feedback is via email). Another 18 are “average”, which you could take positively or negatively, or just neutrally, but even with that, that means that 297, or 90% of our reviews are four and five star. Hey, Noma, the three year in a row touted best restaurant in the world, only runs 86% of its reviews at that level, and a whopping 8% in the poor and terrible levels. Central, recently named Latin America’s best restaurant runs almost identical statistics to us.

Is that comforting? Intellectually, of course. Emotionally, of course not. I mean, that’s someone else’s kid they’re criticizing. Some restaurant owners/chefs choose to deal with it all by ignoring it – never reading the critiques – but to me, that’s being dismissive of your customers. If a professional reviewer critiqued you, you wouldn’t ignore it, and while on one level, they may be more important or at least more visible than your amateur reviewers, they’re also less likely to be your day to day repeat guests, and less likely to be out telling their friends about it. I think the latter deserve my attention as much if not more than the pros (who, so far anyway, have universally liked us).

So me, I respond to the negative critiques (and you can read my responses, should you be surfing the web and have nothing better to do with your day today), in a way that hopefully balances between acknowledging the points made and, hey, making me feel like my kid just needs braces, not a makeover. And for those of you who like us but have never taken to those pages (those of you who don’t probably aren’t reading this anyway), or, hey, Yelp even, go ahead, give us a boost, tell me my kid is okay in your eyes. And, think about that equivalence, the next time you set out to write a negative review…. Every restaurant, every business, is someone’s baby.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Jerry November 19, 2014 at 11:23

I read your blog all the time for the reviews and doesn’t it bother you that you write bad reviews of places too? A lot of people are criticising you for being overpriced and pretentious isn’t this just more of being pretentious?

dan November 19, 2014 at 12:16

Oh god, I really didn’t want to get into the specifics of the negative critiques, that wasn’t the point, and no matter how I do it, it’s going to come off as being defensive… but hmmm… This is going to be as long as the original post.

First off, yes, I even acknowledged above that I’m guilty too of writing bad reviews – though, I hope that when I do so I make it clear that I’m writing about my personal experience. I try, and think I succeed, to not generalize and claim that everyone agrees with me or that I’ve heard similar criticisms (now and again I have put something of the latter, and probably need to be more careful about that, but I also usually identify those sources as opposed to leaving them anonymous). I’ve also been more and more just simply not writing a review at all if it’s really negative as opposed to picking out one or two negative things in an otherwise decent experience.

Second, yes, I suppose in a way, writing this post is a little pretentious – but then again, so is the simple act of writing a blog – it’s an assumption that what I have to say is important enough to share with the world. That may or may not be true – but unlike, say, a critique column in the local paper that people are confronted with when they buy it for other reasons, no one has to read my blog (I’m always a bit flummoxed when someone sends me an email saying they don’t like they way I write about things and I need to change – no, just go somewhere else and read someone else’s blog).

Okay, hmm… to get into the specifics or not? I debated about this internally before even writing the piece and decided not to, but I’d already done my research – so, I’m going to put it out there and then drop it (hopefully).

“A lot of people”… Who exactly? Again, less than 5% of our reviews are negative (on TripAdvisor), a whole 16 people, plus 18 who gave us average ratings (essentially another 5%). And 331 reviews on TripAdvisor are only a small percentage of the 10,000+ people who have dined at Casa SaltShaker over the last nine years.

Two people said I was pretentious. Two. Two others thought the whole experience was. Pretension, without wanting to get pedantic, implies that I or we are holding ourselves out as more important than we are. I guess that gets back to what I said about blog writing above – perhaps the mere fact that we exist is in that way a pretension. But then, that would be true of every restaurant and chef on the planet. We don’t claim to be a world-class or five-star place to eat, yet a couple of people criticized for not being so. That’s not pretension on our part, it’s unrealistic expectations on theirs – and I really don’t mean that sarcastically, it’s just clear they didn’t know what they were getting into before they came. (I had an emailed conversation with one person about me being pretentious and he said it was because I wore a chef’s jacket, and therefore that created the expectation of being served world class food. Really? The guy in your local diner wears a chef’s jacket too – they’re comfortable for working in the kitchen and are flame retardant. He said mine had my name embroidered on it. Yup, it does. It was a gift from a past customer who thought I should have one. But you see how silly some of this gets?)

More concerning, nine people said either I, Henry, or we, were unwelcoming. About half of those complained that I didn’t spend enough time at the table talking with them and “hosting” the dinner. Again, expectations – we make it clear upfront that I’m going to be in the kitchen cooking – still, I come out and talk about the food and wine as we serve each course, and after dessert is served pretty much stay out at the table chatting. On Henry’s part, he speaks limited English – and at least two people complained that he didn’t engage them in conversation and was only talking with other people, despite the fact that they spoke no Spanish – he was talking with the people who did speak Spanish. A couple of people didn’t like that we leave people to introduce themselves around at the beginning of the evening rather than facilitate introductions. That’s true – I mean, we don’t just point and say, “go over there”, we walk people into the living room. Bluntly, if you’re not sociable enough to introduce yourself at a dinner to the other guests, why are you coming to share a dinner table with other guests? I’m not going to hold your hand and take you around to each other person – first off, I’ve only just met you at the same time, second off, this isn’t kindergarten (yes, that was sarcasm). No wait, that’s not fair. Most kindergarten kids happily introduce themselves around and get right into playtime with each other, with no adult assistance.

Another nine (actually, it may have been the same nine) think we’re overpriced – one person even claimed we’re way more expensive than any of the other closed door restaurants. We’re actually pretty inexpensive by international standards, even at official exchange rates the 550 pesos you’re paying is roughly $65 for a five course home cooked meal and wines, and at the “blue rate” that drops to barely over $40. As to our compadres in the business, we’re more expensive than some, we’re less than others – a couple of places charge in US$, around 70, which is more than us, clearly, and one place that more than one person has cited to us (not directly on TA, but in other forums) charges the same as we do, but gives a six-course menu… except their price doesn’t include the wine, or any other beverages, or tip (which they ask for – we don’t).

Three people felt rushed – two of them at the end of the night, to leave, one of them during the pacing of the dinner. Pretty much all of our dinners take the same amount of time. A half hour for mingling at the beginning (if you’re late, you may feel rushed because everyone else has already spent 20 minutes mingling and are ready to sit and eat), roughly 2 to 2¼ hours for the five course meal, and then 30-45 minutes afterwards for coffee and chatting. People arrive around 8:45 and leave around 12-12:30, its rare that that deviates by more than a few minutes one way or the other. It’s, I suppose, subjective – some people want to linger longer (we don’t ask people to leave, and every now and again have had people stay until as late as 1 the morning).

A couple of people don’t like our apartment decor. What can I say?

A couple of people didn’t like their co-diners. Again… what can I say? In both those cases, interestingly, their co-diners didn’t like them. Go figure. (Interesting feedback to compare here and here (the 2nd guest writeup in particular).

Food and wine. The first is by far the biggest complaint – seventeen people who found the food not to their tastes – roughly half of those thought it was just average and the other half actively didn’t like one or more courses. Some of that may be their tastes, some of that may be a poorly cooked portion of something that we served, some of that, like the guy who complained that he got fried chicken “which is nothing special for Americans”, is just silly (he didn’t even get fried chicken, he got parmesan crusted chicken in a tomato, chili and olive sauce). One criticized a fish dish because it tasted fishy and seemed slimy – but failed to mention that she was a vegetarian who hadn’t told us she was a vegetarian until after her food was in front of her, and then nibbled at it and pushed it away – yet, having served her fish earned us a “poor” rating. Still, it’s something I pay close attention to and critiques of the food, whether in a negative overall review or in a positive one often lead to changes in a dish. It’s also one of the reasons we stopped, years ago, doing the “themed menus”, which often involved cooking things I wasn’t familiar enough with to do justice to them.

Wine is the weirdest one for me – yes, it’s all a matter of personal tastes as to what one likes or not. And my tastes in wine pairing are simply that, my tastes. But the claims on the part of a few of the eight people who complained about our wine choices that we serve cheap, low quality table wines are simply nonsense. Anyone can look at the wines we serve – they’re posted on our menus week after week – they’re all good or great quality wines, and they’re certainly not cheap. At the same time, again, looking at the pricing, it’s not like we’re charging an arm and a leg for them – we basically just break even on the wines at wholesale cost, not even retail. And those who complain that we don’t pour big enough pours, two things – first off, for a table of ten, we go through around eight bottles of wine per night, and second off, refills are free – and virtually every night someone will ask for a refill of one or another wine, and receive it, no questions asked.

Finally, there are just random things – the woman I mentioned in the post who complained about our stereo system. A guy who “proved his point” by noting that a) no one asked for seconds of any dish (who would at a restaurant of any sort, and especially in a multiple course tasting menu?), and b) that no one asked to see our cookbook to buy (we don’t have one, so even had someone asked, we couldn’t have shown or sold it to them). Hell, there’s even one negative review that goes on for about six paragraphs (like me, only fewer!) about some guy’s objection to the fact that I respond to negative reviews rather than let them stand by themselves – he says I might be influencing the readers of those negative reviews to make them seem less negative and that’s unacceptable!

Okay – I’m exhausted. Enough. For me anyway, topic closed.

Ken Sternberg November 19, 2014 at 14:07

A thick skin, indeed, Dan. I think it helps even more to turn off any emotional reaction to unconstructive or nasty critics. Easy to do, huh?

You’re on the mark about looking at the totals. If one out of every 150 people have a negative comment, I wouldn’t worry. If it were one in three, I might start looking into it. You know from this as well as all your restaurant experience that there is no pleasing some people no matter what. A surprisingly high number of people, as a matter of fact.

As to your own reviews, I’ve never found them to be mean, cutting or insulting. If service is slow or inattentive, that’s not an insult. If the food is bland or poorly cooked, that’s an observation I want to hear before I consider eating at that restaurant.

Illegitimi non carborundum.

dan November 19, 2014 at 14:27

Well, once or twice

jennifer rose December 2, 2014 at 23:26

I’m chiming in late, Dan, but this blog post is absolutely on point. You’ve written what few have had had the cojones to say. Casa Salt Shaker is more than just a very good meal; it’s a delightful private dining experience in comfortable and attractive surroundings. You and Henry are excellent hosts who know how to be gracious and friendly do your guests without trying to become their new best friends forever. Everything is served up in just the right measure. I applaud and appreciate your efforts — and your candor. Keep up the good work.

dan December 3, 2014 at 09:13

Thanks Jennifer! And we don’t even mind becoming BFFs if things head that way – we’ve ended up with some wonderful friends from all over the world who started out as guests, or cooking school students, over the years, who we stay in touch with regularly, and/or see socially.

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