Thursday, March 8, 2012

Houston, we have a problem ... with criticism

Most of what's happening on the Houston food thing is positive. The Houston Dairymaids greatly extended their warehouse hours, further expanding this city's most important cheese source. Underbelly just opened to great fanfare. Uchi has arrived from Austin. Oxheart joins the fray next week.  There's real buzz around new restaurants here. But let's not forget that traditional favorites, such as Da Marco, Hugo's, Backstreet Cafe, Tony's, and so many others keep on trucking along. This is a vibrant, even burgeoning food metropolis that has legitimate potential to become a culinary destination in the next decade.

The sad thing is that Houston faces a serious threat to its ascent up the national food ladder. A startling number of those in the restaurant, bar, and beverage scene here apparently believe they are immune from criticism. Recently, newly opened Liberty Kitchen got in a flap with Alison Cook, the Houston Chronicle's long-time and well-respected food critic. (After Cook had been tossed, seemingly with provocation, by another restaurant owner in 2010.) Just a short time ago, Hubcap Grill's owner went ballistic over a tepid review from a Dallas critic, in a torrent of profanity and violent threats. Regardless of the subsequent apology, this sort of behavior makes Houston's restaurants come off as immature, petty, and, most important, unwilling to strive for the improvement that will allow them to shine on the national stage. And these incidents have not been relegated to professional critics.

Look no further than the lightning-rod of the Houston food community's ire -- Yelp -- and the vitriolic, out-of-hand dismissals of it to understand that Houston's restaurant scene, evolving each day, is in the midst of adolescence. And there is a lot of growing up to do still.

Before going further, however, all the Yelp critics can just take a deep breath. The point here is not to say Yelp is the end-all, be-all. Or that there aren't tons of unfair comments and reviews on Yelp. (Just go look at one-star reviews of the French Laundry to see preposterous unfairness.) It's important to realize the fundamental positive that Yelp represents. For the first time, the Internet and its accessibility affords restaurant owners, chefs, staffs, and anyone involved in the industry with an unprecedented reservoir of data. As with any significant amount of information, there will be outliers. In the realm of Yelp, these outliers are mean-spirited reviews of whatever ilk or sycophantic raves. There is worthwhile information in places like Yelp, even if it isn't written in the most articulate way, and this information isn't worthy of outright dismissal. The restaurant-going public is a massive, diverse body, and doubtless the Wisdom of Crowds applies to some extent. Recurring themes in reviews and feedback, regardless of the source, should make a restaurateur perk up his ears.

Granted, any sort of feedback open to the public, such as Yelp or Google reviews of the Chowhound board, provides unfiltered information. You'll run into various types of criticism, running the gamut from constructive to unwarranted, even malicious. It's serious work to filter through the feedback you get and determine what can make you better, but that is the nature of a service industry. It's a positive thing that the amount of information you receive from customers is at unprecedented levels. It's hard enough to just run an establishment, much less figure out how to improve it. Your customers are giving a torrent of information that is readily accessible. Why reject any avenue that might provide hints on how to get better?

Restaurants are humbling. That's the nature of putting yourself on the line, every day, in an endeavor as personal as food. In many ways it is like art or writing. But if you want to be the best -- or simply better than you are now -- how do you expect get there if you turn your back on people who care enough to tell you what worked and what didn't? As it stands right now, Houston's food community is defined by the largely (at least publicly) friendly relations among its members. But given how violently a surprising number in this community have reacted to criticism, one has to wonder whether Houston's ascendant food scene believes it is beyond reproach.

Naturally, it's good to see people have a positive attitude and build up one another, rather than fall victim to petty in-fighting and cynicism. Constructive criticism, though, is an essential part of a positive environment. Offering it means you care enough to want someone or something to get better. Being called names, shouted down, or shooed away as if you don't know anything gives a clear sign not that a reviewer was unfair but that an establishment is too scared to improve or more interested in resting on its laurels.

If you close off to constructive criticism and only respond to positive reviews or feedback, the only thing you have to rely on to reach that elite level of restaurant greatness is your internal drive. It goes without saying how few people can achieve greatness alone. What's worse, though, is that a dismissive attitude like that shuns the larger group that wants to see you succeed. It also creates an us-versus-them mentality that runs contrary to the collaborative spirit cultivated among so many in Houston's industry.

At the same time, there is the difficult problem of dealing with unwarranted and malicious criticism or even outright lies. As said previously, restaurants are a service industry. Interactions with customers, regardless of how wrong they may be, must be handled with decorum. Show fundamental respect and be professional. Don't let emotions dictate your response, no matter how tempting social media might make it. Handling obstreperous customers with tact will always earn you more points with the restaurant-going public.

Elevating Houston as a culinary destination is a collaborative effort. And that effort extends to patrons, regardless of the venue in which they voice their opinions and regardless of whether they are articulate or knowledgeable enough to be considered "foodies." Customers who take the time to come out for a meal or drink speak with the most important voice: their wallets. That's worthy of respect, just as the passion, time, and creativity those in the industry is worthy of appreciation.


Allison said...

Great article! I hope Ricky Craig reads this. I do agree that all businesses can learn something about their shops by reading reviews. I believe most people, including myself, who write reviews on Yelp or some other site are being truthful to our experience. If constructive criticism cannot be taken then perhaps one should stay out of the service industry.

SirRon said...

Great post!

The food community (business and consumer) is way too sensitive. Sports and the entertainment industry see much worse criticism and impassioned fanatics and they have somehow prevailed... spectacularly in fact.