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April 2017

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The Downside of Fame – Guy Fieri’s Cautionary Tale

On September 12, 2012, The Village Voice wrote a not-complimentary review of the new restaurant opened in Times Square by celebrity TV chef Guy Fieri. Three weeks later on October 2, the New York Observer published a scathing review of Guy's American Kitchen and Bar, which can be read here. The same day, October 2, the New York Post likewise published an equally blistering review. Not quite two weeks later on October 13, Time Out followed suit with a no-star review.

But it was not until November 13 when Pete Wells, food critic for the New York Times, wrote his now-famous critique of Guy's American Kitchen and Bar, that Guy Fieri got around to responding. Not surprisingly - but perhaps unwisely - Fieri accused Wells of going "into my restaurant with his mind already made up" and "having an agenda," though he did not say what that agenda might be. He also said that writing a bad review of his restaurant was "a great way to make a name for yourself." He seemed surprised that the review came out after the restaurant had been open only two months, but "wait till we're open six months" when everything will presumably be just dandy.

In the spirit of full disclosure, Femme de Joie will state that she purchased a teapot and a pair of earrings at Abraxas, the shop in Ferndale owned and operated by Guy Fieri's parents; however, she bought those in the 1980s, long before Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. Also, she has never dined at any of Guy Fieri's restaurants and so cannot comment on whether Wells was spot-on or unduly cranky. In the spirit of fuller disclosure, M. de Joie will admit she isn't a big fan of Guy Fieri, and she's been feeling a certain amount of schadenfreude over the review and Fieri's blustering response to it. A couple of points she would like to throw out there:

The New York Times food critic already has a name and does not need to cling to the coattails of a Food Network star to enhance it. If anyone should be worried about a name, it's Fieri, trading on his fame to attract customers: if he doesn't deliver what they expect, his name will be besmirched by his own hand, not Wells'. Indeed, Wells was criticized by others not for what he said, but that he chose to review a restaurant in Times Square aimed squarely at the tourist trade instead of a "serious" restaurant; the response to that was that the Times' movie critic had reviewed "Dumb and Dumber" and that this was the culinary equivalent.

Agendas (sometimes called grudges): we haz em. It's to see if the food is any good. Most restaurant reviewers aren't going to be as kind as Marilyn Hagerty.

In this day of instantaneous internet reviews, restaurants can't afford to ignore valid complaints or deny the existence of problems. No one likes to be criticized, especially in a very public place, so it's natural to be on the defense. But when a sledgehammering review comes out, spin and finger-pointing isn't the answer. It's unfortunate that Guy Fieri chose to ignore the early negative reviews and only acted when the most well-known newspaper in the country printed a scathing takedown.

What's a restauranteur to do? Mistakes are inevitable and in this day of instantaneous internet check-ins, Yelpers can kick a restaurant to the curb before dessert arrives. But how a restaurant handles problems can go a long way in determining whether that viral review is good or bad. A few months ago Femme de Joie and Amico del Signore dined in a Wine Country restaurant. When we pointed out the earwig floating in the soup, it would have been smart for the chef-owner to be horrified and beg for forgiveness; instead, she denied that it was an earwig. She said it was the stem of a fresh herb. We pointed out the pincers and legs. She frowned and said she carefully washed all the produce and she just didn't know how the earwig wound up in the soup, and she still wasn't convinced it was a bug at all. Five minutes passed before she agreed to take the soup away and make something else. The restaurant comped us one meal, but by that time the damage was done. We'll never be back.

Conversely, when House of Prime Rib in San Francisco overlooked our reservation for nearly an hour, they apologized profusely and told us to order any glass of wine for free. Though we weren't knocked out by the food, the experience was a much more positive one.

Of course, preventing problems before they start is the best way; when the inevitable breakdowns occur, don't deny it. If the early returns indicate trouble in the kitchen or with staff, it would do owners/chefs well to pay attention. Saying, "Oh, they're just Yelpers, those people will complain about anything" is ignoring instant feedback that could be doing a restaurant a favor in the long run.

Guy Fieri does seem to be taking Pete Wells' review seriously: the watermelon margarita, which Wells said tasted like a combination of radiator fluid and formaldehyde, has disappeared from the menu. (Still, it makes one wonder if Fieri had ever actually tasted one before it went on the menu in the first place.) In the end, he will probably do just fine. He's a famous brand, like Holiday Inn or McDonald's, a familiar face from TV in an unfamiliar landscape, a reassurance to tourists overwhelmed by the frenetic Big Apple. That's the part that will draw them in. If they have a good experience, they'll be back; if not, his famous name will be his own personal albatross.

Is all good publicity good publicity? It's up to Fieri to make it so.