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Is the customer always right?

Chef-owner Michael Scelfo preps a plate at Alden & Harlow.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

Michael Scelfo is everyone's new hero. Friday night, the Alden & Harlow chef-owner posted on Instagram a photo of two women seated in his restaurant. He wrote: "shout out to these two winners for seating themselves with no reservations, insulting and berating our staff, refusing to leave and all the while yelping away in front of us as a means of threat. #kbye #wedontnegotiatewithyelpers." The post, which has since been taken down, received hundreds of likes and an outpouring of supportive comments. It has since gone viral. The restaurant industry is mad as hell at entitled people who wield the threat of a bad Yelp! review to get their way, and people are thrilled any time someone says he isn't going to take it.

But Scelfo still shouldn't have done it.


I have no reason to doubt the scenario he described: The two refused to leave when asked. They were "abusive." Rather than forcefully grab their drinks or call the police, the staff "opted to kill them with kindness until they left." "It's one thing to be entitled," he wrote, "but mistreat my family. Hell no." Alden & Harlow's staff is a hospitality dream team, and Scelfo's instinct to defend them natural. (And he returned fire in a much classier fashion than other chefs who have fought back.)

But turning the tables and shaming the women publicly is stooping to their level, the very level the staff at Alden & Harlow experienced as being so unpleasant. And when a business owner behaves this way with customers, rather than vice versa, the power dynamic shifts — particularly when the business owner is a popular chef with a strong following on social media. There are other ways to rectify the situation. For instance, had the women carried through with a bad Yelp! review (it doesn't appear they did), the restaurant might have gone to the site and posted a reply in kind.


So much less satisfying, I know. But when entitled, abusive, terrible people arrive on your doorstep, they make your life miserable for a few hours. When you post a photo of them, calling them out, you might be making their lives miserable for weeks, months, even years to come. What happens within the walls of a restaurant is finite. What happens on the Internet echoes and can't be controlled. Is it worth the risks? On Instagram, it didn't take long for unprintable four-letter words to be applied to the two in the comments section. Much has been written recently about what a scary place the Internet can be for women, and about the long-term effects of this kind of public calling out. (To be fair, the commentary here was much more civilized than is often the case. See: Curt Schilling's daughter.)

This is a small town. People are sure to recognize these women. (I thought I saw one in a South End restaurant Sunday night.) How will they be treated? Will other restaurants refuse to serve them out of solidarity? Will so much vitriol come their way online they have to quit the Internet or hide out? Maybe they are horrible people. Maybe this is the kick they need to grow up. Maybe they have mental health issues. Maybe a public-shaming campaign will push them over the edge. There is no way to know. Better to respect one's position of power, to be responsible, even when one has clearly been wronged. It is a fine line between righteous counterstrike and bullying in return.


Scelfo's instinct makes sense: Dander is up in the hospitality industry about those who threaten it online, from people who use Yelp! as a weapon to restaurant reviewers who are perceived as irresponsible. This is understandable. Restaurants operate on the thinnest margins. A careless review, online or in print, from a Yelper or professional critic, can have a real effect on people's livelihoods. The Internet gives customers unprecedented power. It also provides ways for restaurateurs to take it back. In 2010, for instance, LA Times restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila was photographed by an owner of Red Medicine, who kicked her out and posted the photo online. Last summer, chef John Tesar responded on Twitter to Dallas Morning News critic Leslie Brenner's review of his restaurant Knife, then banned her from his establishments. And there is an emerging "the customer is not always right" mentality, with chefs calling out diners for claiming false allergies, rejecting requests to alter dishes, and posting codes of conduct for patrons.

When Scelfo's original post was taken down, he asked people to be responsible with Yelp! and commented: "Uber allows for service providers to rate customers, we should move to that system." A restaurant being rated is a business, an organization. An individual being rated is a person.


Do we want to move toward a popularity-based economy, where we all rate one another based on limited interactions, and those ratings follow us? Do we all trust one another's perceptions and intentions enough for that?

For the most part, outlets like Yelp! drive customers to restaurants, not away from them. An anomalous bad review has limited impact. The usefulness of Yelp! is crowd-sourcing rather than curation, and most users understand that. The Yelp! terrorists are far fewer in number than the average users, who post simply to be helpful or funny. So let's not let them win.

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