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 her...um…. 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 DavidLeeRoth.com

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.

No comments:

Post a Comment