The slow death of a restaurant - and why complaining is good.

Like most British people I used to look on in admiration when I saw someone making a polite but firm complaint about their meal.

An American friend of mine manages to flag the waiter and have them take away and replace the offending item with barely an interruption to the flow of our conversation.

It works for her. She never experiences that feeling you get when you hand over the money for a meal (and probably even pay the service charge) that was just bad from start to finish.

But that’s not why I’m suggesting you complain. I want you to complain when things go wrong to benefit the entire restaurant industry and all of us restaurant goers.

There are so many ways in which we help restaurants by complaining (when justified), and I’ll deal with others in future posts. Today I want to discuss The accumulation of compromise. Also known as – getting slacker every day.

Picture this: You go to a new restaurant and order the beef chilli - it’s stunningly good. Chunks of gently pulled, meltingly tender beef in a rich gravy that just seems to layer and interweave so many flavours it makes you grin as you eat it. The corn tortillas are soft and supple and actually taste of corn!

Mind blown.

You tell all your friends, and a few weeks later you’re back with some chilli-loving pals telling them “just you wait – it’s the best chilli you’ll ever eat”. Except it isn’t. It’s kind of OK. But it’s not the same. It’s spicy and the meat is sort of tender, but the layers of flavour just aren’t there.

You don’t say anything. Maybe the chef was having an off night. You pay the bill and leave.

You go back again a few weeks later and…what the hell? It’s crap from start to finish.

What went wrong?

You didn’t complain. No one did.

In that first month the chef poured his heart and soul into creating the finest beef chilli in the land. He used 6 varieties of dried and fresh chilli and he fried that beef until it was a dark caramel colour, then cooked it low and slow until it was juicy and you could cut it with a spoon.

People loved it. And then one day he was too busy to colour all of those chunks of beef, so he just chucked them strait in with the chillies and stock. No one complained. Huh, he thought. Why waste my time frying all that meat if no one even notices. He’s only human, he’s tired and he’d like an easier working day.

Those Mexican dried chillies are really expensive and grinding them is a total pain so one day he just chucked in some chilli powder. No one complained. Huh, he thought.

And the expense of those fresh corn tortillas…

And then one day he takes a step back and realises, the compliments aren’t coming anymore and they’re lucky if the restaurant is half full most nights. 

But by that point it’s too late.

They say that the reason it takes a few weeks to learn to drive a car, but many years to learn to pilot a ship, is feedback. Turn the wheel of a car and the change of direction is instantaneous. Turn the wheel of a ship and it can take a long time for the direction to change. This makes the learning process very difficult. It’s hard to link actions to consequences when there’s a big gap between them.

Restaurants are ships. A change of direction doesn’t happen quickly. You don’t go out of business from a few bad meals or dodgy compromises; partly because you don’t serve the same people every night.

Even your regulars probably only come once a month, and they’ll give you at least one more chance – so it can take months of cutting corners before a restaurant will start to notice that things aren’t quite right. And longer still before the reputation of the restaurant is so damaged that the management is forced to take notice.

And by that point it’s too late. It’s like the captain of an oil tanker trying to turn the wheel 50 metres before the harbour. It’s a disaster movie and everyone knows how it’s going to end.

You don’t owe your local restaurant anything, and it’s not your job to guard their standards. But I think the more good restaurants (and successful businesses) in a city the better.

So please, let the server know when the meal isn’t good, and tell them if it was better last time.

Chefs are pretty good at ignoring complaints – but if every customer is saying the same thing, the message will sink in, and you may just be saving their restaurant.