I brought high hopes to Doc's Cantina on the Riverfront in 2016, but as I wrote afterward, "I left bewildered, leaving unfinished one of the worst restaurant meals I’ve had since we chose a Denny’s for lunch in Denver in 1992." The short-lived restaurant closed five months later.

Complaints: Who’s got ‘em? Just about everyone

By Robin Garr

If you felt a little annoyed about something going wrong during a recent restaurant dining experience and wanted to shout a complaint, you’re not alone. My recent 40-minute wait for a glass of water left me feeling crabby, for sure. Order one thing, get something different. Spotting wildlife on plates, tables, or buffets. And then there was my friend who got a mouthful of twist-tie in her fettuccine alfredo. Or another friend’s Band-aid on a breadstick. Ick. And so it goes.

Indeed, negative online reviews for U.S. businesses jumped by 3 percent between April 2022 and the end of the year, the industry journal Nation’s Restaurant News reported. Restaurants and bars saw the biggest upticks in negative reviews, followed by construction, education and hobbies and crafts.

Data from Trustpilot, a global business review platform based in Denmark with strong presence in the U.S., the United Kingdom, and Europe, revealed a 4% overall decline in positive reviews since April, equating to nearly 40,000 fewer positive reviews than during the same period in 2021.

That’s a lot of whining. Still, there’s a glimmer of good news, according to the publication’s source, Trustpilot’s quarterly Online Review Index: Around the world and in the U.S., there are still far more positive reviews than negative reviews.

Nevertheless, as the world emerges, sort of, from the depths of a global pandemic that’s still not really over, restaurants – like a lot of other businesses – continue struggling with supply chain and worker issues. That translates into diner frustration and a growing impulse to go vent about your annoyance on whatever social media platform suits you.

“Trustpilot cites a drop in service levels, inflation and supply chain issues as drivers of this shift,” Nation’s Restaurant News went on.

“The restaurant industry continues to navigate a bumpy labor market and remains about 400,000 employees short of pre-pandemic numbers. This shortage has pressured operations as consumers have more access points, such as curbside and delivery. Simultaneously, decades-high inflation has forced operators to increase menu prices by over 8% on average, and restaurants have experienced supply chain shortages on everything from lettuce to chicken to Sriracha.”

Do negative reviews matter?

Do negative reviews matter? You bet they do! A recent study from Northwestern University’s Medill Spiegel Research Center found that 94% of consumers say they have avoided a business because of a negative online review. In addition, 22% of consumers say they will not dine at a restaurant after reading just one negative review. On average, a single negative review could cost a business up to 30 customers.

In other words, when an owner or chef grumbles about bad reviews, that’s not just ego talking. It’s potential loss of operating income, and that’s not funny.

I mentioned a few specific, justifiable gripes at the beginning. Let’s take a closer look at a few common restaurant customer gripes.

Pancakes like these from Fork & Barrel make a great breakfast or brunch dish, but sitting down on a pool of pancake syrup on your chair (not at Fork & Barrel) is no fun at all.
Pancakes like these from Fork & Barrel make a great breakfast or brunch dish, but sitting down on a pool of pancake syrup on your chair (not at Fork & Barrel) is no fun at all.
Lack of cleanliness

Ever sit down to a sticky table or find food on your chair? Pick up a utensil that obviously didn’t get washed? I recently carelessly sat in a pool of pancake syrup at a local breakfast eatery, and didn’t realize my error until I realized that I was stuck to the seat. The server didn’t really express a lot of empathy when I pointed it out, either. A dirty environment is a particularly disgusting lapse, and it’s not just customers who object to it: Metro Louisville Public Health and Wellness doesn’t like it either, and with good reason: Sanitation lapses can spread illness. Metro Health publishes restaurant reviews as a public record. Check it out if you’d like to know before you go.

Waiting out the slows.

I already mentioned our 30-minute wait for drinks and 40-minute wait for food. Delays like this seem to be more commonplace in this time of worker shortages, and when one server is handling a busy room, at least you get it. The frustrating effect, though, is that by the time you finally get your dish it’s been cooked and cooling long enough that your hot lunch has turned into a room-temperature, congealing plate.

Not this one. That one.

Mistakes happen. We’re all human, and we make mistakes. But it can be very frustrating to order one dish and receive another. Do you hold up your group, or sit and watch your companions eat while you wait for a replacement? Or suck it up and accept the dish you didn’t want? That’s probably the default response for most of us, but yes, it’s frustrating. A language barrier may be the issue here, as it was when we got the wrong soup at an Asian restaurant not long ago. It’s hard to be angry with a new immigrant neighbor who’s working hard to learn our language, but still, you’re eating something you didn’t order, and it’s not a happy situation.

This and that

Sometimes diners are just really hard to please. On a national review site – no need to Yelp about which one – a frustrated oenophile complained about a family Italian eatery: “Bottle of red wine served ice-cold!!! We gave the place a try but it’s a one & done for us.” Panning another popular local eatery, an angry customer wrote, “If you want horrible service and to be ignored this is the place to be.” Thanks for the specifics, pal. Finally, unhappy with a poorly prepared dish at another popular spot, an angry customer shouted, “If they can serve such horrible food and not care about trying to correct it, let them go out of business.” Now, that’s a sick burn.

Here’s my advice

What can I tell you? Before you turn to a national or local site or Facebook or Twitter to shout out your rage, please try letting management know about your problem. Do it with kindness, not with anger, and more often than not they’ll make your problem right. If that doesn’t work? Rant on. But try communicating first.