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Little Rock Restaurants Try to Learn From Critics

4 min read

Everybody’s a critic. That’s not news to the restaurant industry. But with the Internet and social media, every restaurant customer — whether professional reviewer or amateur — can access a potentially worldwide platform. And that’s something the business takes seriously.

Online review sites and social media take word-of-mouth advertising, the most effective, to a completely different plane. Thirty-four percent of diners say that information on a “peer review site” — think Yelp or TripAdvisor — will likely influence their decision about whether to visit a restaurant, according to a National Restaurant Association survey.

We visited recently with a few central Arkansas restaurateurs about how they respond to negative online reviews and complaints.

Capi Peck, president of the Arkansas Restaurant Association and co-owner of Trio’s Restaurant in Little Rock, agrees that such reviews are influential. She or someone on her staff checks the restaurant’s Facebook page several times a day, as well as Twitter, for commentary, positive and negative. In addition, she’s alerted when a review posts to TripAdvisor.

The restaurant has a policy regarding online complaints or bad reviews. “Our policy is to stay calm, not react immediately and meditate on it for a little bit,” Peck said. Then she or someone in upper management at Trio’s reaches out to the poster. “We try to create a dialogue with the person.”

Trio’s will ask for a telephone number or email to continue the conversation offline. “And we’re usually successful if somebody has a sincere complaint,” Peck said. “If somebody doesn’t respond, we know they’re just blowing hot air.”

Peck would much prefer for diners to make their complaints known while they’re at the restaurant rather than waiting to post online, “which I think is a little passive-aggressive. Why not address that right here when we can fix something?”

And sometimes, the complaints are silly. “We had somebody complain about their gazpacho being cold,” she said. “You have to be tactful because maybe not everybody knows that gazpacho’s supposed to be cold.”

Trio’s, Peck said, empowers its staff to do what’s necessary to resolve a complaint, whether it’s comp a dish or a meal. “And we ask them to always come and get the manager because sometimes it’s maybe just a personality conflict, and it just takes a second person to sort of defuse the situation.

“We really look at it as a learning opportunity,” Peck said.

Mark Abernathy, owner and executive chef at Loca Luna and Red Door in Little Rock, agrees that he and his staff can learn from negative comments. “Sometimes it does show a weakness, something that we need to work on.”

But he has a problem with the power of the quick and cutting quip. “If you added up all the negative and positive reviews on every single website for my restaurants over the last 10 years combined, it would still be less than one-half of 1 percent of my market,” Abernathy said. “It is a teeny, tiny percentage of our diners, yet people somehow put stock in it. And that’s a huge mistake.”

Amber Brewer is brand manager for Yellow Rocket Concepts, responsible for Big Orange, Local Lime, ZaZa, Heights Taco & Tamale and Lost Forty Brewing. It’s her job to monitor online complaints and reviews. Complaints prompt immediate action; reviews — “we take those with a much bigger grain of salt.”

Yellow Rocket’s policy regarding complaints is clear: respond, reach out and recover. The team responds publicly in the same forum in which the complaint was made, encouraging the diner to contact Yellow Rocket privately, “so that we can really understand the nature of what happened.”

After that, managers visit with the employees involved to get their side of the conflict and then develop a response. That often includes an invitation to revisit the restaurant, possibly for a free meal, depending on the nature of the complaint.

“Once we get into the recovery phase and talk to people privately, if we get back in touch with them and explain to them our plan of action and talk to them about that experience … a lot of times it leads to them being more satisfied, more engaged with us and more loyal,” Brewer said.

“I’d like to think that in a community like Little Rock … that over the years you earn a certain trust,” Abernathy said. “And I’d like to think that that transcends a bad review now and then, whether it be on the Internet or from the media. I’ve gotten glowing reviews through the years, and I’ve gotten a few zingers. And honestly, the zingers, once I got over being pissed off, they were pretty fair. Nobody likes to ever be criticized but sometimes it’s fair. Sometimes it’s not.”

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