The Best Way to Handle Restaurant Complaints

It starts with a complaint. No restaurant enjoys hearing they have failed their guests, and many choose to ignore the pain and move on. 

Why is this? It’s multi-faceted. There are so many moving parts to running a restaurant, it leaves owners with little time and energy to personally address a complaint – and avoiding them is impossible, no matter how much training you provide your staff and how well-managed your restaurant is. Your team is only human. Even the best make mistakes.

Add to that the profound changes brought about by Social Media. Twenty years ago, if a guest had a complaint, he or she would bring it to the attention of management. Now, they often skip that step altogether and go online to write a scathing review. It can feel like the restaurant equivalent of living in a war zone. The noise is deafening. While most reviews are constructive and legitimate, online access to having one’s voice heard has also opened the door for people who want to award your restaurant with a one-star review for having a dish they subjectively feel is ‘too bland’ or ‘too spicy’ for their individual taste.

It’s easy to understand why restaurant owners take the path of least resistance. Yet they are missing an opportunity.

What happens when you address the problem immediately and make every guest important? 

Owner Sr. Ernesto Delgado makes an effort to answer each review, especially those that are negative. Why? It’s an opportunity to make customers know they are heard. To acknowledge their less-than-ideal experience, and let them know he is always trying to improve service, food and training. While customer complaints are few at Mayahuel, they do occasionally occur.

A recent complaint is a relevant illustration. A guest of Mayahuel, who had been here many times, called ahead to order her dinner to go. The order was taken by a hostess, who got distracted with groups arriving to be seated and more phone calls. She forgot about the order.

The guest, Gabriela, arrived expecting to pick up her dinner and leave. Instead, she had to wait many minutes for her meal. In downtown Sacramento, this can mean a larger than desired parking fee as well as the frustration of waiting for a meal that should have been ready to go.

Gabriela handled the situation with class. She reached out to Sr. Delgado to advise him of the problem. He makes it clear he appreciates guests reaching out when there’s an issue – after all, an owner can’t be everywhere in the restaurant at all times. How can you correct a problem or provide additional training unless you know?

He invited Gabriela and her boyfriend to return for a complimentary meal. He served them personally. Afterward, she wrote a five-star review of her experience. She feels she was heard and her complaint taken seriously. She also has a new sense of loyalty and a personal understanding of Sr. Delgado’s desire to amaze guests with service.

What are many restaurants missing by failing to acknowledge complaints?

  • The opportunity to create (and keep) a loyal customer. Most people can understand that mistakes occur. How the restaurant handles it afterward is essential.
  • For those who choose to go directly to Social Media, rather than contacting an owner, answering the review with a sincere desire to do better publicly makes it clear to others the owner cares. How you handle negativity can actually bring new customers to your restaurant.
  • For those few reviews that aren’t legitimate (for example, individuals who give a scathing review to a restaurant they’ve never visited), responding publicly and sincerely makes it clear to other readers what actually took place.
  • It gives the restaurant a chance to use the example in training the team. In great restaurants, training is ongoing. When mistakes occur, everyone can learn from them.

Not surprisingly, when you ask most restaurant owners if they care about the guest experience, they’ll say ‘of course!’. But how is their lack of response to problems interpreted by guests?

We asked Gabriela to share how she feels when a restaurant doesn’t acknowledge a problem. Her answer? “I feel certain they simply don’t care enough about my business.”

And at Mayahuel, understanding our guests and giving them the best of what we have to offer is the most important take-away of all.


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