It always seems to take the Midwest a bit to catch up with the coasts. In San Francisco they had their first Yelp-related smackdown with criminal charges in November. Last week the New York Times published a story about chefs taking to Twitter to air grievances about suppliers, customers, employees, employers, critics and each other.
Always lagging, it took four days before St. Louis joined the new trend. When we finally got our social-media food fight, it came with a heaping helping of typical Midwestern civility and politeness.
The short version: Local gastronome and Gut Check freelance contributor Andrew Mark Veety commenced a project on his personal blog called The Church of Burger. The modus operandi: One Sunday a month, Veety and other local epicures visit a restaurant, voted on by readers of the blog, in search of St. Louis' best burger.
The February visit did not go well.
Several of the sixteen worshipers took to Twitter afterward to exchange jibes about the experience.
Under his Twitter handle, @amveats, Veety posted, "To all the folks who voted for Sub Zero @stlbites would like to have a word with you," followed by, "Who else feels a bit of food poison from the church of burger? #justasking #noreally"
The day passed and the topic waned, as is the nature of Twitter and its rapidfire bursts of communication....
Until that night, when Pi pizzeria owner Chris Sommers revived the conversation under Pi's Twitter account (@pistl): "Can't believe some local 'foodies' are ripping to shit a local establishment like I'm reading tonight. Uncool. Irresponsible."
"Guys, everyone's entitled to opinion, but just be nice. People work there, feed children from tips there. Think before you tweet."
Burge begged to differ: "The idea that a 'foodie' should judge only the effort of a business and not their product is ludicrous."
Jeff Stettner, proprietor of 33 Wine Shop & Tasting Bar, jumped in behind Sommers: "Did anybody send food back or ask to reorder? A place cannot know it is disappointing at the time if all are mum. #petpeeve"
Burge countered that returning sixteen unsatisfactory burgers was unreasonable.
Stettner replied, "I would rather open 30 bottles of wine to satisfy a customer than learn about frustration on the Internet when I can do nothing."
In the end all parties resolved the debate with a level of civility that negates the image of Internet conflicts as anonymous mud-slinging brawls -- possibly because all parties are acquainted and at some point have to face one another without the buffer of the Internet.
Or maybe they're just decent people and skilled communicators. By the end they joked that they would duke it out then hug it out at 33 Wine's Dorm Room Dinner that evening.
Veety posted his review on his blog Thursday afternoon.
He's got some questions about the nature of debating food.
"These are people [the Church of Burger voters] who have given me the courtesy of their time and feedback. Don't I have a responsibility to give my opinion, for whatever it's worth, on what is good and bad, what works and does not? To avoid this responsibility is a disservice to the readers I've cultivated over time.
"How is this obligation different than a restaurant who has cultivated a following through good execution? Why is one more valuable than the other? Because one is online and one is made of bricks and mortar? Because someplace has employees? With my writing, if I get sloppy, don't I run the risk of losing readers? At my job, don't I advance based on reviews of my performance. Why is it bad form to apply the same standard to a restaurant?
"Every day your customers are telling you what they think. They are doing it on their blogs and Twitter accounts, and they are giving you real-time feedback. Are we going to ignore the message because we don't approve of is delivery method? These are disruptive tools. They are changing the way we interact and do business. Is there something so special about food and the people who make it that they are somehow exempt from this?"
Ultimately Veety sees the new tools of communication as a way to create a bond between businesses and consumers -- but only as users become more well-versed in conveying their messages.
Bill Burge, meanwhile, straddles the worlds of restaurants and commentaries. He worked in professional kitchens for nearly five years and was a member of the American Culinary Federation Junior Chef Competition Team. He no longer works in the restaurant industry but has spent years writing about food and the St. Louis dining scene on his blog and in multiple local publications. He sees an upside to chefs making themselves available on social media outlets.
"When restaurant owners and chefs get in the blogging, Twitter game, it puts a face on their business," he says. "It makes them not just a guy that owns something, or works somewhere, but a guy with opinions on things that don't just pertain to restaurants. From Twitter, people can gather all sorts of things about Josh [Galliano, of Monarch], for example, from his interaction with his son to some of his favorite bands or his family's satsuma trees. People like that stuff, and it's a way for a chef or business to separate themselves."
Burge's method of handling a subpar meal? "There have been a few times I have received terrible service and commented, but where food is concerned, on my own dime, I don't often mention it. I simply don't go back."
But Burge says it's time for restaurants to reconsider what it means to be a critic. "Some have argued that we're not critics. But really, what defines a 'critic'? Is it a level of knowledge about food? Is it a print publication backing you? And if it's the latter, is it not a bit ridiculous thought that it takes money to print a publication to critique?
"By looking to the internet review sites, blogs and social media, you're often getting real-world people that spent their own money to dine in a restaurant," he adds. Whose opinion counts for more: the educated diner that spent his own money, or the educated newspaper employee that spent the newspaper's money? Obviously the truth is that they're both right and wrong some of the time."
Pi owner Chris Sommers encourages online reviewers -- with a caveat: "As the proliferation of online reviews and guest-driven content continues and potential guests rely more and more on that content, diners' responsibilities need to more reflect standards held by mainstream critics. Be respectful. Think before you submit. Don't post if you bring a bias into the restaurant before dining. Where egregious, go for it. But imagine such critique of yourself and your business before you post."
Sommers was one of the earliest adopters of social media among St. Louis restaurant professionals. While his restaurants do all of their public relations via social-media outlets and he loves the ability to connect with his core customers, he says there's a definite downside.
"Resorting to social media as the first place to gripe is a guest's choice," he says. "But a more effective way to to engage the management at the time of an issue, or directly, via the restaurant's website. I say 'effective' because we're more likely to remedy the situation to your liking when you do so.
"I realize that social media and community review sites have partially replaced the comment card, but the latter was more of a one-on-one dialogue, and it gave a restaurant the opportunity to fix something before a guest blasted the public Internet with an opinion. I'm much more respecting of a guest who approaches us in the restaurant, or if uncomfortable doing that, at least e-mails us. And yes, I see this as a double standard in that I love the positive but don't like the negative -- unless it's truly constructive."
Burge thinks there's a problem with this approach. "I believe chefs and restraurateurs say they want to know when a customer has an issue, but it's like a celebrity that seems like a nice guy on The Tonight Show. Of course they seem like a nice guy. If they seem like assholes, who's going to go see their movies? I think it's like that with restaurants to a degree. They want you to think they care and that they want to fix it, but customers are afraid to do it because it is rarely handled with the kind of grace the restaurant is implying it will be handled with, and more often than not they get defensive when you complain."
Veety sees the duplicity in the situation. "It is the rare person that can resolve a problem within 140 characters. I don't think you can beat sitting down and talking with someone. The advent of Twitter does not negate thousands of years of conflict resolution. If we accept that we are dealing with largely uncoordinated bursts of communication, what do we use to retaliate? More bursts of communication. To make it worse, most of the time these bursts are missing a context. Where does that get the business owner or the chef?"
Adds Sommers: "It's also tempting to return hostility with hostility, but it rarely works in the favor of the restaurateur."