Birdie G’s in Santa Monica wasn’t set up for takeout in mid-March when its owner, Jeremy Fox, began serving his comfort food in to-go cartons. “We were just drowning,” the chef says. “I didn’t train for this in culinary school.”
One customer acted as if it were business as usual when he ordered matzo ball soup and publicly shamed Birdie G’s for not giving him enough broth — on Yelp, with a one-star review and a photograph to prove his point.
“I completely agreed it was not enough” broth, Fox says. What was the right amount for his restaurant bowls looked skimpy in takeout containers. In normal times, he says, “a plate coming back to the kitchen was like being stabbed.” Staff would be “ashamed, and disappointed that we disappointed you.” And now? “We’re just trying to do our best while our lives are on the line, and we’re losing money.”
Restaurateurs from around the country say they’re largely heartened by the response from customers in the midst of a global pandemic. “The support from the city has blown us away,” says Suzanne Humphries Evans, who co-owns Automatic Seafood & Oysters in Birmingham with her husband, chef Adam Evans. They spent their establishment’s first anniversary, on April Fools’ Day, in their empty dining room, serving takeout.
But not everyone has been kind. Their thrill over being nominated by the James Beard Foundation for its national best new restaurant award has been tempered by grumbles from a few people who have thrown the news back in their faces, Humphries Evans says.
Possibly unaware of uncertain food supplies, some customers want to know why the menu isn’t larger. One groused that his takeout was “messy” and “overpriced” and demanded not just a refund but a gift certificate. The restaurant offered to provide dinner another night, but the patron, who threatened to air his grievances in public, refused. Automatic gave him his money back and offered an appetizer and dessert in the future. “We’re doing everything we can,” Humphries Evans says. “Sometimes, it’s not pretty.”
And sometimes, such as when they are fighting for their futures as never before, it’s simply not fair to restaurants.
For as long as I’ve been writing about the industry, I’ve thought of myself as an advocate for diners. Consumers’ time, money and attention have long been foremost when I tap out a rave, a rant or something in between. Since the coronavirus pandemic, I’ve had a change of heart. Rest assured, I’m not going soft, or abandoning my constituency. I’m just not writing about places that aren’t good (or better), and I’m offering a highlight reel of dishes that travel best from Point A to Point B. Star ratings have no place in these surreal times, and I have no idea when I’ll use them again. The middle of an earthquake is no time to issue a report card.
Controversial as it has been in the restaurant world, Yelp declared in March it had zero-tolerance for anyone claiming to contract covid-19 from a business or complaining about a restaurant being closed during what would be its regular hours in ordinary circumstances. In a May blog post, the company reminded users to be understanding of the struggles of one of the hardest-hit industries. The company’s message came after Prince Street Pizza in New York lambasted a customer for a 1-star review two months earlier. “Just know if your Yelping during a time like this there is special place in hell for you,” the restaurant posted on Instagram.
Some diners still want it to be all about them. Giant in Chicago has been dark since mid-March. Even so, the delivery service Caviar continued to promote the restaurant, which resulted in a customer encountering a locked door when she came for pickup one night. She let Giant know she was outside, and despite circumstances, chef Jason Vincent says she emailed to say, “hospitality still has to be a first.” One of his partners apologized and said Giant was indeed closed, to which the customer responded that other people were also outside the restaurant: “I’m not the only one affected.”
Peeved at the time by her lack of understanding, Vincent says the story is “quaint” in light of the subsequent worldwide protests following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. “We’re in a more important time now.”
“People are snapping. I understand. We are empathetic with that,” the Chicago chef says. But, he says, “everyone is on edge.”
Restaurants that are still with us, operating on onion-skin-thin margins, can’t afford to lose even a single sale now. The staff at JuneBaby in Seattle were taken aback when a customer returned his order because he thought it would have to be reheated at home. The meal was fully cooked. “He claimed not to have pots or pans or even a microwave oven,” says chef-owner Edouardo Jordan.
With more people than ever ordering carryout, chefs scrambling to figure out what works and without the assistance of servers, there is an added dash of uncertainty. “What people read and what they understand” from a restaurant’s website don’t always mesh, says chef Eric Ziebold of the upscale Kinship in Washington.
Before the pandemic, one of his waiters might have pointed out to a diner ordering three portions of his popular roast chicken that each was a whole bird, enough for two or more people. But when a woman ordered it to go recently, she wasn’t put off by the cost — each chicken costs $45 — but by the abundance. “What am I supposed to do with the leftovers?” she asked Kinship.
The restaurant describes its current selections as the kind of food the owners might serve at home. The theme brought out the vinegar in one patron, who let the restaurant know he didn’t think corned beef and cabbage was something a Michelin-rated establishment should ply. “Maybe he thinks I’m eating Dover sole with lobster beurre blanc at home,” Ziebold says.
As always, diner feedback has brought about restaurant changes large and small. Birdie G’s now makes triple the amount of broth for its matzo ball soup, says Fox, whose exchange with the original complainant resulted in the Yelp review being deleted and the poster apologizing online: “We should be supporting each other right now, and I should have given you the benefit of the doubt, especially in these trying times.” Kinship now offers more thorough reheating instructions and uses color coded dots to specify which containers of food are supposed to go together, a detail I wish more restaurants used. (Not complaining, just saying!)
Automatic Seafood & Oysters couldn’t have predicted the feedback it got from a customer who ordered peel-and-eat shrimp — and then was surprised when her shrimp came in their shells. No biggie. “She’s been back several times,” Humphries Evans says. And for that, the owner is grateful.