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The week’s 5 head-spinning moments: Fighting back, round 2

Two weeks ago, Head-Spinners nearly had to be Medevac’d to the Cirque du Soleil Chiropractic Clinic because of the noggin-rotating instances of restaurants telling longtime bullies, “Not this time.” Little did we know those extraordinary lash backs were the start of something bigger, a match set to the tinder of frustration, anger and outrage at what the industry is expected to endure with a smile. We’re in the midst of a revolt, people. 

Consider that Texas Roadhouse filed a lawsuit in the days afterward against the Equal Employment Opportunities Center, challenging the agency to exercise the sort of fairness it professes to extract from businesses. If you’re going to accuse us of something, the suit charges, then we deserve to know who’s behind the allegations, and what you know.  Just like you, we’ll use the legal process to make that happen.

But that was just the start, as head-turning developments of the past week readily attest. Consider how the industry called the bluff of parties issuing these threats:

1. “Do it or we’ll destroy you on Yelp.”

A couple wanted a restaurant in Kansas City to deliver dinners to them while they were attending a late-night business meeting across the street. The restaurant, Voltaire, explained that it doesn’t offer takeout or delivery because its food doesn’t travel well.

Unacceptable, the couple railed, adding that they know what a restaurant can and can’t do. After all, said the female half of the pair, they eat in New York City restaurants all the time. And they were certain the specialties of Voltaire would fare just fine in a takeout container.

The pair blatantly threatened to denounce the place on Yelp if they weren’t obliged. And did they mention that the male of the pair was a lawyer?

The restaurant wouldn’t budge, so the couple made good on its threat. The woman’s review was entitled, “Most unfriendly and arrogant restaurant in Kansas City,” and concluded, “I would not give this restaurant even one star.”

As the couple apparently hoped, the posting went viral, but not because of their vitriol. “The tale does not end as most do,” noted Eater.com “Voltaire restaurant's ownership didn't just sit back and take the abuse. They fired off a sassy response of their own.”

The restaurant scripted a mock dialogue where the roles were reversed and the establishment had approached the lawyer in the pair for legal help with a divorce. The counselor explains he’s a tax attorney, not a divorce lawyer, but the restaurant retorts, “I don’t care…I want you to handle my divorce…I’ll pay you, it will be fine…I told you I’m a chef, right?”

The response concluded with a pointed jab at the woman: “We will let you know if we decide in the future to practice divorce law, I mean, provide takeout food.”
Eater termed it “an epic takedown.”

2. “We can unplug the sign, you know.”

Imagine that you’re okay with paying one of the highest rents in the country, a charge in the neighborhood of $2,300 per square foot to renew the lease on a big space you’ve occupied for 30 years. The pens are out, the 10-year lease extension is ready to be signed, but the landlord blindsides you with a potential deal-breaker: You’ll have to pay a separate rent for your exterior sign.

That’s the situation that came to light this week in New York City, where a landmark McDonald’s on Times Square is being squeezed to pay for an exterior sign that befits the area. Granted, the marquee is just as arresting as the ones fronting nearby theaters. But it’s attached to the building, not freestanding, and it’s an icon of the Great White Way.

Still, the landlord reportedly contested, the sign could be rented to a third party as advertising space for a bundle. Why should it forego that revenue? McDonald’s should pay a premium for the marquee.

Rather than pack up and look for an off-Broadway venue, the franchisee turned to the courts for some protection. It’s asked a judge to keep the sign out of the lease negotiations.

3. “You’re society’s dead-end employer, offering dead-end jobs to dead-end people.”

If there are restaurateurs who’ve never inferred that putdown, they’re probably new to the business. Veterans will be heartened by what Starbucks is doing to counter that popular condemnation of working in restaurants.

This week the coffee giant revealed that it would pick up the $15,000 tuition of 700 employees who were accepted to take junior and senior-level online classes from Arizona State University. Another 300 employees will get up to $3,000 to supplement what they pay for freshmen or sophomore level classes.

Another 800 employees have been selected to participate in the program, but haven’t yet chosen their schedules.

Best of all, Starbucks told the media this week, 8,000 applicants cited the new tuition assistance plan as the reason they approached the chain for a job.

(A head-turning teaser: Look online next week for Restaurant Business’ conversation with the first student to be enrolled in the program.)

4. “We’ll call the shots, or you’ll be avoided.”

Restaurants are not only refusing to accommodate customer requests they deem inappropriate, but are winning favorable attention for their efforts. On Thursday, an honor roll of non-obligers was issued with a degree of fanfare by Urbanspoon, the Yelp competitor that’s similarly used by some malcontents to post their screeds. The spotlight this week was on restaurants that draw fire because they don’t care if customers disagree with how they operate.

“You can’t always get what you want,” Urbanspoon advised the public in releasing its list of what it calls the nation’s 35 strictest restaurants. Particular notice as given to the Bone Garden Cantina in Atlanta, which zealously upholds a stated policy of “Our restaurant—our rules.” That means no customized orders, no lingering at the tables, and don’t even think of asking if there’s a kids menu.

5. “Pay your fees and shut up.”

If universal healthcare is a social boon, why shouldn’t society shoulder a bigger part of the financial burden? That’s what a growing number of restaurants in the Los Angeles area are unabashedly telling their guests and the public at large. What looked initially like a gimmick—tacking a surcharge onto guest checks, with an explanation the funds would be used to fund employee’s health insurance charges—is burgeoning into a standard operating procedure.

According to local press reports, at least a dozen high-profile restaurants in the area are charging the 3 percent surcharge, following the lead of a few places in San Francisco and elsewhere.

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