Wednesday, July 26, 2017

I've Eaten at THAT Memphis Cafe

Confessions of a Buttholegate Customer

I confess. I’ve eaten at Imagine Vegan Cafe, the Memphis restaurant at the center of controversy and last week’s biggest internet story. And not just once or twice. I’ve eaten there several times. I’m actually a repeat customer. (Don’t judge me!)

If you don’t know what Buttholegate is, let me bring you up to speed. Essentially a customer left a bad online review in which she claimed a naked baby (the owner’s child) with allegedly dirty feet climbed up on the table the customer was eating at and essentially displayed…. posterior.

The restaurant owner took it as a personal attack on her children and responded in an extremely hostile manner online and in local media. The operator went so far as to deny they were even a business at all and declared they were not at all interested in whether they made money or continued to have a customer base as a result of the fallout.

Some internet wiseacre thought up the “buttholegate” moniker and the #buttholegate hashtag and story went wildly viral. You can read the whole sordid saga on Vice or Thrillist. Or any number of other websites.

Of COURSE this sort of story could ONLY come out of Memphis. The city, smack dab in the middle of the “Dirty South,” is famous for its gritty, hard-nosed and sometimes off-the-wall character. The Memphis Grizzlies' “Grit n Grind” style is synonymous with the personality of the town itself. Only outsized characters in such a place could produce not one, but TWO eccentric kings and an even more eccentric prince.

Self-proclaimed alien and perennial mayoral candidate Prince Mongo. Photo courtesy of Mongo's campaign facebook.

Photo by Stephie B.
That character is precisely what I love Memphis for and why I’ve spent so much time there over the years—often at a now-defunct dive called the Rally Point in which beer-swilling punk rockers would spit lager on me while I played in one of my bands. (It would probably be viewed in the same light as New York’s famous CBGBs if only any of the bands that came out of it would’ve gotten famous.)  

So I admit, due to my personal relationship with the beautiful trainwreck of a city that is Memphis, I’m not the most objective person to speak on this story. But I can at least lend you some first-person perspective on the Cafe at the center of Buttholegate.

I first went to Imagine several years ago when it was just starting out in its original location. It was weird because the restaurant was also the owner’s living room. Toddlers were watching children's programming on TV and their toys were scattered about their area. The dining area was superficially separated, but it still felt a little like you were invading someone's personal space and made for a slightly awkward dining experience. I chalked it up to quaintness and character. But at that time, an all-vegan restaurant was a niche market that only they seemed to be filling, and I liked the concept. It was obviously a mom & pop operation, and I’m always in the corner of the little guy and want to see local businesses succeed whenever possible. I have eaten at Imagine several times since then, and their current locale is set up much more as a conventional restaurant. I’ve never had an experience I would consider bad.
Photo courtesy of Trip Advisor

My support of my own region and moms and pops everywhere notwithstanding, I have to side with the customer on this whole sordid mess. It’s true kids are funny and they do wacky things all the time. It’s true that even the best parents can’t always control their kids. I can certainly recall moments of being a tiny terror my own mother had to deal with. But the restaurant operator's anger is really misdirected. The customer wasn’t blaming the kids. The complaint was the inappropriate response to the kid's behavior and a perceived lapse in supervision. The owners’ response to the online review and subsequent online comments were wildly inappropriate. This was a textbook case study of what NOT to do in a case of customer dissatisfaction.

The only appropriate response in such a scenario is: "We're sorry you felt your experience was sub-par. If you come back, your next meal is on is. Contact us at xyz and let us know how we can resolve your issue and improve our service." The customer is always right. (Even when he/she is wrong. Which is admittedly frustrating as hell sometimes.)

I'm perplexed why the operators seem so adamant Imagine is not a business when it clearly is. What does it communicate to your employees about job stability when you broadcast to the world that you don't care if you're not making revenue? What does it communicate to guests about your professionalism if you broadcast that you don’t see yourself as a professional? If you truly have no interest in hospitality, you may need to rethink why you're in the hospitality industry in the first place.
Photo courtesy

David Lee Roth once said, “If you stick your head above the crowd, sooner or later someone’s going to try and throw a rock at it.” Unfortunately, scrutiny and constant criticism is part of the gig when you operate in a public sphere as a restaurant does. Or for that matter, a pizza magazine. Believe me, I get earfuls of opinions from folks in our industry all the time. Some of them carry more weight than others.

But ultimately, if you don’t at least consider whether an argument has merit, the butthole may be you.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Walking a Mile in a Grouch's Shoes

"Hell is other people." That's the famous, oft-quoted and oft-misunderstood line from existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre's play "No Exit."

It's usually thought to mean that the company of others invariably will grate on your nerves and drive you crazy. There is some truth to that (and if you don't believe me, try going on vacation with your in-laws.) But as Sartre himself explained, "That does not at all mean that one cannot have relations with other people. It simply brings out the capital importance of all other people for each one of us."

Reality is a subjective thing. As Obi-Wan Kenobi's wise ghost explains to Luke Skywalker upon being accused of lying, "Many of the truths we cling to depend up on a certain point of view."

It's entirely possible that in a given scenario, you can be 100% in the right, yet someone who disagrees with you may not necessarily be wrong. I once worked on a project for an artist who was once part of a band with a hit record. The band fractured when it split into two camps and a party who outwardly exhibited every sign that they no longer wanted any part of the band filed a lawsuit against remaining parties over a document they never signed.

From point of view of the party I knew, they didn't feel they needed the consent of someone who had completely withdrawn from the entity and no longer wanted any part of it. From the other party's point of view, they were miffed an agreement that could affect their intellectual property would be negotiated without their input. Much bitterness ensued and the end result amounted to both camps essentially losing a bunch of money to a bunch of lawyers. Who was right? Both parties felt they had a point. But neither ultimately accomplished anything except making all parties involved financially poorer while fattening the pockets of litigators. It was an unfortunate state of affairs that probably got chalked up in the music rags as the old cliché of "creative differences."

Perception is reality. If you have done your best to provide quality service and product to a customer who still has a complaint - you have done your part and you may be 100% right. However, that customer has a grievance whether real or perceived. If they perceive a grievance, it's real to them. It's worth time investigating the nature of their complaint and understanding how they are seeing the situation. Even if you ultimately find there is nothing you could've done better, there may be something you find you can change about the way your customers perceive your quality of service or food.

I can't count how many pizza operators feel they have the best pizza out there. And they may all be right.....from a certain point of view. After all, taste is completely subjective. I'll give you an example: For a variety of factors, I believe Queen's Brian May is the best guitarist of all time....but you probably have your own opinion on the matter. (Feel free to comment why I'm wrong.)

The more often you can put yourself in someone else's shoes and understand differing points of view, the more you get out of your own bubble. The wider perspective you have on the world, the better. Knowledge is power. But beware of going TOO far down the rabbit hole of appeasing cranky customers. You can only please SOME of the people SOME of the time, after all.

Ultimately, this is all marketing really is: communicating the right message to the right people at the right time. And recognizing you might be right, but still be wrong in someone else's eyes can help you refine your message, or deliver it in a different way.