There is one spectre whose utterance can strike fear into the heart of any hard-working business owner: the boogeyman of bistros, the Krampus of cafes, the terror of the Tea House. Its name?
Claiming to allow you to “Plan your perfect trip”, TA allows anyone with access to a computer to post a review of any restaurant or hotel they feel like.
I’ll just let that sink in for a minute.
Anyone. Anyone with access to the internet and a working set of fingers can go onto TA and post a review. The result? TA is a veritable haven for wannabe restaurant critics, disgruntled former employees and self-important cheapskates. There is no way of verifying that what you’re reading is true, or even that the person posting it has ever visited the place they’re writing about. Anyone with a vendetta against a particular establishment can set up as many accounts as they like and post as many lies as they can concoct and the business owner is powerless to stop them.
Now, I know the counter argument to this: that it allows customers to report genuine bad experiences and praise good ones and to an extent, this is true. THT has used criticisms on TA to make changes for the better to our service and the vast majority of the reviews that we receive are very fair. The thing is, 50 good reviews fade into the background alongside one really bad one, and when the bad ones appear, they tend to be brutal.
I’m not naive, I know that part of running a public service industry business means having to come into contact with the public. On the whole this isn’t a problem. For the most part our customers are charming, delightful people. I’ve heard more fascinating stories and met a wider range of characters in the last three years than in the rest of my life put together. There have been times when the person with the exact knowledge or experience we desperately need has serendipitously wandered in just as we’ve needed them. The reverse is of course that there have also been times that we or our staff have had to deal with people who are rude, aggressive, dishonest and just downright unpleasant and it takes a very strong constitution to take some of the abuse which is meted out to us.
Certain types of behaviour seem to be more acceptable in a café than they do in a shop. If someone makes you a gift of a voucher, for example, and you go into the shop and find nothing you like, you don’t have the right to hurl abuse at the checkout girl until she agrees to exchange the voucher for cash, no? So why, in that case, is it acceptable on a day that we don’t have a cake you fancy, to demand a refund on a voucher which you didn’t actually pay for in the first place?
You wouldn’t wander into M&S, try on a jumper and then think “well, I don’t actually like this, so I’m going to take it anyway, but won’t pay for it” That’s simply not how commerce works. If there is genuinely something wrong with your food: hair in your cake or salt instead of sugar in your tea, then of course, you shouldn’t have to pay for it. However, deciding that you don’t like the dressing on your salad or that the spice blend in your Coronation Chicken isn’t quite the same as the one Mummy used to put in your sandwiches doesn’t entitle you to a free lunch. If you make the wrong choice in a restaurant, I’m afraid that’s tough luck Sunshine. The restaurant owner doesn’t get to go back to the butcher and say “I’m afraid the customer didn’t like the seasoning in these sausages, so we’ll not be paying for them”. Even worse are the people who demand that their entire bill be written off, simply because one member of their party wasn’t happy with their food, as though the entire meal has been deliberately spoiled by the tears of their cruel disappointment because Jane didn’t get enough tomato in her BLT.
And while we’re on the subject: Coffee. The Tea House Theatre doesn’t serve coffee. We also don’t sell liquor during the day or cigarettes, ever. We do not have an obligation to soothe your vices, so please, if you really can’t drink anything other than coffee, perhaps consider addiction counselling? Otherwise, you are more than welcome to order tea, hot chocolate, fruit juice, squash, homemade lemonade, ginger beer or any one of the herbal tisanes we have on our menu.
All of these happen to us regularly, and the first reaction of a complainant who isn’t immediately given the grovelling response they were hoping for, is to threaten us with bad reviews, as though somehow their disgruntlement entitles them to post whatever character assassination they deem adequate to sate their bloodlust. Can you imagine the reverse? If every time we were called a rip-off we started hounding the person on twitter and facebook, we’d be shut down.
Online reviewing is bullying, pure and simple. In no other circumstances is it so easy to seriously damage someone’s business over a simple dispute with one person. Not only that, but THT is a small company. We have over a dozen employees who rely on us, some of whom have been with us from the very beginning. If we fold, they fold and their families, as well as ours suffer. The local businesses who we trade with also suffer, the butcher, the florist, the artists who use our gallery space to sell their work, but what does any of that matter in the face of one patron with an axe to grind?
All of this is of course working up to a specific event. This weekend, an altercation in the Tea House led to an online attack of unusual vitriol. The “victim” was a drunk journalist who spent the busiest day of the week sharing the biggest table in the house with a group of friends. They declined to buy any food, but wanted to drink alcohol. As we don’t have a licence to sell alcohol during the day, we explained that legally, they would have to buy a roast and pay a corkage fee for their wine in order that the Tea House was covered. This was all explained to them, and they agreed until the bill was presented to them, at which point the person in question, obviously drunk attacked my husband, calling him a Scumbag for having the audacity to charge the arranged fee and threatening to use all the means at his disposal to “destroy” us. Eventually, in the face of his aggressive behaviour, we were forced to ask him to leave.
The whole event has left me seething for the last two days. The sense of entitlement displayed by this group was extraordinary, as though somehow in calling up and reserving their table they had given themselves total annexation rights over that particular corner of the house until they were ready to leave. The Tea House prides itself on its leisurely atmosphere, true, but to a point. We’re running a business, not a soup kitchen. Just because you got to the table first, doesn’t mean you have the right to occupy it all day, not buying anything and drinking cheap plonk bought at the Sainsbury’s at the bus station, like Germans on a Lanzarote sunlounger. There are picnic tables in Vauxhall Park if a free spot to sit is what you really want.
For the first time, we have had to ban someone from the house and this makes us incredibly sad. For three years, we have proudly proclaimed that everyone is welcome at the Tea House. From now on, it’ll be a slightly different boast.
“Everyone is welcome at The Tea House. Except Jamie Elliot.”