The idea that diners need to come into restaurants with more respect has gained traction over the pandemic, a period that has seen a rise in impatient, prickly, demandingand abusive downright behaviour. But as the adage “the customer is always right” loses steam, where should restaurants draw the line?
Here Jones shares his perspective on the pros and cons of researching diners, the perils of restaurant reviews, and what factors he takes into consideration before canceling a reservation or blacklisting a customer.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
When did it first cross your mind to research your guests ahead of time?
I was in Spain with my wife in 2005 and we were going to a fine dining restaurant for dinner. The waiter says, “What do you guys like?” I go, “Whatever, we eat everything.” And the menu came, and they’d obviously Googled us because it was tailored to each of us individually. It was amazing. So after that we would run names through Facebook, just to see if there’s anything we could do to amplify the experience. The more information we have, the better job we can do.
And that idea morphed into research that was also designed to keep guests out of your restaurants?
Yeah. We had a specific situation around 2015 where a group of people were going on both Yelp and TripAdvisor to leave scathing negative reviews. These were patently false negative reviews. They stand out because every other review we had then was four and five stars. And suddenly, there’s all these one-star reviews. This felt vicious. This was, like, an internal thing. This was restaurant people going after other restaurant people or something.
So how would you actually go about researching your guests?
We’d run their phone numbers through Spokeo and then try to find them on Facebook. We used Facebook just to see their general demographic—like old, young, East Coast, West Coast. We weren’t looking to get rid of anybody there; we were more looking for information to make them happy. Then we would try to find them on Yelp and TripAdvisor.
Supporters of these platforms would argue that leaving reviews, good and bad, is the whole point of them. How do you think diners should be sharing their opinions?
Well, if it’s a real negative review, we reach out to the people and apologize.
The thing that makes me crazy is that people won’t tell me in real time when something sucks. I want to put a questionnaire on every table because that invites criticism. If something isn’t up to standard, I want to know. This past Sunday we had a guy who’d been with us forever and he sent his pancakes back and went, “These are not Cachagua star pancakes.” He was right. But when guests won’t say anything, then they have a negative impression of us going forward.
It’s a weird situation, where you want to encourage people to share their views, positive and negative, like if there’s something wrong, but you don’t want everybody going off about everything online.