Tampa Bay restaurants learning to deal with online realities

Bella Brava, on Beach Drive in downtown St. Petersburg, maintains social media presences on Facebook and Twitter.

LARA CERRI | Times

Bella Brava, on Beach Drive in downtown St. Petersburg, maintains social media presences on Facebook and Twitter.

She wasn't a happy diner. A mixup in a reservation led to an angry confrontation, ruining the evening for her party of five. Rather than complain to the owner, she took to the Internet.

"I will never go back. Three out of three times the poor service has ruined our meal,'' wrote "Kay" in a Web post about Nitally's Thai-Mex Cuisine in St. Petersburg.

Nitally's co-owner Ally Valdez responded with his own critique — of her.

"First off, we've asked you before not to come back as you tend to be pretty rude to not only our wait staff, who really do bend over backward even for (jerks) like you … ,'' Valdez wrote on Urbanspoon.com. "You also tend to be rude to the owners, which I am one of. … Honestly, we have better things to do than criticize every negative posting on this or any other website.''

Whatever you think of his response, Valdez's experience illustrates a new reality: Restaurateurs are investing more time dealing with customer complaints that spill out on the Internet for all the world to see.

While social media sites such as Urbanspoon.com, Yelp.com and Facebook offer inexpensive ways for restaurants to market themselves, they also give customers a platform once reserved for professional food critics.

"Everybody's a critic,'' says Chris Ponte, owner of Cafe Ponte in Clearwater. "Which they all have the right to be, but when you start posting it's a little difficult. I would prefer a letter from someone who is disappointed, but it is what it is.''

• • •

Most restaurants have websites where they post menus, daily specials, videos and directions. But this is usually a one-way form of communication.

An increasing number of restaurants have joined social media sites, particularly Facebook and Twitter, which give customers a chance to talk back.

The cyber tool cuts both ways.

"I was just in St. Pete over the holidays and had two delicious meals at BellaBrava,'' wrote Karin White Conway, one of many who went onto Bella Brava's Facebook page to praise the downtown St. Petersburg restaurant on Beach Drive. "Thanks for being the highlight of my trip!''

It's not all hugs and kisses, though.

"Dear BellaBrava servers: please, when I am your last table of the night … please, do not try to rush me out the door. Leaves a bad taste on what was otherwise an enjoyable dinner,'' wrote Derrick Calandra.

A Bella Brava manager thanked him and apologized: "I am terribly sorry that you had this experience.''

Not all criticism draws a response.

"If it's a critique or something that could make us better, do we take it into account? Absolutely,'' said Bella Brava co-owner Mike Harting.

But harsh critiques on open forums such as Urbanspoon are ignored. "They're not the kind of discussions you want to have on an open forum,'' he said.

Most restaurants are still feeling their way, making up rules as they go.

"Communicating with our franchisees has been a real challenge,'' said Sandy D'Elosua, national director of public relations and social media for Front Burner Brands, which has 143 Melting Pot restaurants.

Many franchise owners and managers had no idea what was being written about them in cyberspace, so D'Elosua showed them examples at an annual meeting in Orlando.

"Quite honestly, it was shock and awe,'' she said. "Their heads were just spinning with how much information they didn't know was out there.''

Hired in 2009, she developed the company's first-ever policies and procedures on social media.

One rule: Don't delete customer complaints posted on Facebook. "This is a medium where you have to be transparent,'' D'Elosua explained. Besides, deleting posts angers the customer who wrote them, prompting more complaints.

Another rule: Don't ignore complaints. In what she calls "customer recovery,'' she and her staff investigate online complaints, talk to the restaurant's staff and try to reach out to the customer.

"It's so much easier to recover a guest if you let them talk,'' D'Elosua said.

If a complaint requires a response, she said, don't argue with the customer. "It's very easy to get defensive,'' she said. "It's human nature.''

• • •

Small, independent restaurants have a harder time keeping up with the firehose of information gushing out on the Internet, especially Twitter.

"To do that … you really would need somebody full-time sending stuff out,'' said Walt Wickman, chef and owner of the 40-seat Walt's Seasonal Cuisine in Dunedin. His wife, Jane, handles the restaurant's Facebook page, but they have no time for Twitter. Walt's has been rated No. 1 among Dunedin restaurants on TripAdvisor.com, and Wickman encourages customers to write reviews there to maintain his rating. But he doesn't respond to online reviews.

"We got a couple negative ones and I thought people were just being vindictive,'' he said. "Why give them the satisfaction to think that they negatively impacted us?''

The online world is still relatively new to restaurants, especially in the Tampa Bay area. Even Ponte, who runs one of the top restaurants in the area, launched a Facebook page only in the past year. "We waited to see how it would pan out,'' he explained. "You have to have someone on top of that every day.''

• • •

Most restaurateurs see more positives than negatives in the online world.

And while everyone is a critic now, the plethora of information makes opinions of professional critics even more important, said Brooke Palmer, who handles public relations and marketing for Bern's Steak House and Sidebern's in Tampa, two of the region's most highly regarded restaurants.

"I still think that's your go-to,'' she said of professional reviewers. Many anonymous critiques by diners are inaccurate, she said.

"They don't even spell Bern's right,'' she said. "Our restaurants are going to stand on their own merit. If a diner is going to take stock in what one negative person says on yelp … then that's a shame. You need to look at the 85 other reviews that are fantastic.''

Both restaurants have websites and Facebook pages, and Bern's is developing an iPhone app. "If you know how to use Facebook and the tools that come along with it … it can be very valuable to a business,'' Palmer said.

While many restaurant owners would never argue with a customer in a public forum, they might privately wish they could do what Nitally's co-owner did.

Valdez agrees that the Web is a double-edged sword, "but one we enjoy walking on, since it has been mostly helpful, even if hurtful at times.''

People who read online reviews tend to be an educated bunch who take what they read with a grain of salt, he said.

"Customers are consumers and we try to please,'' Valdez said. "But we, too, are consumers and we try to see things from a customer's perspective. If they are being rational and seemingly did have a lousy time at our place we try to bend over backward to please everyone. … But some people you just can't please, and we won't try.''

Tampa Bay restaurants learning to deal with online realities 01/16/11 [Last modified: Monday, January 17, 2011 1:04pm]

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