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The week’s 5 head-spinning moments: Restaurants fight back

Restaurants often allow themselves to be used as doormats because even a righteous stance can cost business in the age of social media. Bowing and scraping is better for the top line than risking the alienation of self-anointed crusaders slinging criticism via Twitter or Facebook, deserved or not.

But not this week. Or at least not for a handful of operations that decided to run the risk of public condemnation. And, indeed, at least one of the bluff-callers caught it, big time, and with justification. Others showed a courage and conviction that was admirable. Either way, many of you might describe it as refreshing.

So breathe deeply of these bracing events:

1. Darden isn’t bullied by organized labor

As every American must know by now, the parent company of Olive Garden and Capital Grille is in a shouting match with a shareholder called Starboard Value over the company’s strategic direction. Smelling an opportunity, a group claiming it represents 7,000 slighted Olive Garden employees stepped forward with a demand that its voice be heard, too. If employees didn’t get a say in the company’s plans, the group threatened, there could be “direct action.”

It came out this week that the self-proclaimed leader of the group, which somehow found the wherewithal and organization skills to retain sophisticated publicity counsel, was a member of a union-like labor group called Restaurant Opportunities Center. The non-profit insists it’s nothing more than a benevolent organization pushing for higher wages and benefits like paid sick leave. For which members pay dues. And participate in rallies, walkouts and other standard union actions. It also seems to write press releases on the behalf of Olive Garden employees.

Heads spun when the group, Dignity for Darden, said Starboard had acquiesced to the demand for a meeting. If Starboard succeeds in winning control of the company and Olive Garden, it might have some union issues to address.

What should have lifted industry heads a little higher was the lack of a similar announcement from Darden. As of press time, it was holding firm and not agreeing to a sit-down with a wolf in a non-union lamb suit.

2. Chef shuts up bellyachers by shutting down

They cursed out the staff if they didn’t like something. And if they felt the spicing wasn’t right for Asian food, they refused to pay the Asian chef-owner. So, finally, proprietor San Tung decided he’d had enough with customers. This week he shut his SO in San Francisco, and posted his opinion of guests’ insistence that they knew better.

“…Yes we use MSG, we don't believe in organic food, and we don't give a shit about gluten free,” reportedly read the placard in the front window.

3. Chef decides his ticket system has no clothes

Selling tickets to guests instead of fielding reservations is expected to remake the way hot restaurants award their prized seats. Any fine dining place worth its sea salt just has to do it—if they’re truly cutting edge, that is.

Few chefs toe a keener edge these days than Philadelphia’s Jose Garces, so he of course bought into the promise at his new Volver, whose signatures include a phone charger loaned to the guest as one course of a tasting menu. It seemed a natural.

But five months after becoming the first Philly restaurant to take tickets, Garces is tearing them up and glaring at the arbiters of tech fashion. Buying one of the passes online could take more than a half-hour, as he heard from customers and reviewers. So he decided to risk being tagged old-school by the all-in-black set by switching to phone-in reservations, which you can’t resell on eBay.

Garces was brave enough to push back against the techno-trendinistas. But he hasn’t let up in his swinging at no-shows, either. A guest who lets a reservation lapse is charged a penalty of $75, while cancellations carry a fee of $50.

4. Sonny’s tells phone users to pack it

Well, at least for one night a month. The barbecue chain has designated every fourth Thursday as No Technology Night, which is brave enough. But it chose to announce the move as customers were drooling and limbering up their fingers for the arrival of the iPhone 6. We’re in superhero territory here.

5. 'Hate us on Yelp'

The haymaker that will likely inspire more restaurateurs to take a poke at a common adversary is probably more familiar to American operators and consumers at this point than the components of Obamacare. People I hadn’t seen since grammar school were e-mailing me to say, Hey, did you see how that one restaurant told Yelp to shove it?

That restaurant is Botto Bistro and, for the sake of those who were on a cannabis tour of Colorado this past week, it pulled off the sort of bully beat-down that we’ve all fantasized at one point or another.

The proprietors felt they were being hounded by Yelp to sign up for advertising. They feared a refusal could influence their reviews on the citizen-reviewer site. Cowed, they agreed to pay the $270 a month, only to learn the hounding was nothing more than aggressive salesmanship. It was like paying protection money, then getting robbed.

Co-owners Davide Cerretini and Michele Massimo decided they’d show how useless they found Yelp reviews and advertising to be. They asked customers to post negative reviews—“Hate us on Yelp.” The pair suggested such slams as the temperature of toilet seats falling beyond an acceptable range, or grouses about having to share the bathroom with space aliens.

Anyone who awarded the restaurant a mere single star was rewarded with a 25 percent discount on Botto’s pizzas.

Word of the program went viral, delivering far more business than an effusive Yelp review might have.

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