Owning a restaurant, or any small business I suppose, is one long exercise in not taking things personally. The cliche of being no better than the last plate of food you've sent out is certainly true. The problem comes when you love what you do and take everything personally. Negative comments used to devastate us. We'd talk about them, or the situations from which they resulted, obsessively. And defensively. After years we realized we needed to figure out a way to lessen their impact.
What we do is to talk about all the tables that came in. The GM goes over each table, recounting their conversation, what they liked, where they were from, what kind of people they were, anything she can remember. This is tedious for her at times and we make less of a habit than we used to, mainly because the negative comments have mostly disappeared. Or at least their effect on us has.
Not to say we disregard comments. Every one of them has some merit which we evaluate. One comment about an aspect of the restaurant, well... unless it's something grievous we put it aside. Three comments and there's definitely something we need to address.
Another thing we've done which we thought might make things worse has actually proved to make them better. We added a line to our mailing list sign-up sheet that asks "What one thing could we improve". When we did it we were ready for all sorts of whacko comments. Most of the comments are some variation of "Nothing, you're great the way you are", which is nice but not helping us improve. I think for us just asking the question in the way we have put us in a different frame of mind.
The flip-side of not taking things personally is not taking the positive things personally. In other words, don't read your own press.
Why is this on my mind? It's Zagat survey time. This year we've sent out emails to our customers with links to the page to register and a link to the San Francisco survey. We've sent similar things in the past but without links and without asking them to send us an email telling us they've voted. We've had surprisingly good response this time. Of course I don't know if the people who voted said positive things.
I have very mixed feelings about Zagat, most of them negative. I've never been very good at popularity contests. Despite my hippie upbringing I'm a self-loathing elitist so the idea of the great unwashed passing judgment on my restaurant is frightening. On the other hand being popular pays the bills. It's interesting to watch the guide as phenomena. William Grimes, former NY Times restaurant critic has commented on the "Zagat effect" whereby diners at highly rated restaurants, "convinced that they are eating at a top-flight establishment, cannot bring themselves to believe otherwise." Which is all good if you're top-rated. Not so good if you're a customer blowing money on a highly rated place that is living up to the hype.
There also seems to be a editorially imposed ceiling. Once your scores are established they don't seem to go up easily, although sliding down is possible. Certainly editorial bias is clear in comments which are selected. We've gone from being "cavernous" to "big and barny". Also the selections for top food, service or decor in an area seem a little puzzling. There's a disclaimer in the front of the section saying that places with low voting are excluded but no indication as to what low voting means. That would explain why the lesser known places in our neck of the woods stay that way. The guy up the street from me should be in the front of the section in a couple of places from his (admittedly undeserved) food scores. So should we and a few others. A few years ago the top scores for food, service and decor in the entire book went to someone in our neck of the woods, over French Laundry, Gary Danko, etc. The person doing media relations for the county pressed to have this acknowledged to no avail.
This is not to say we don't consult Zagat. We do, but then look for independent, trustable opinions, like other bloggers or Patricia Untermann, who does a fairly credible job covering SF dining. Josh Sens is another who is on the whole trustworthy. It's hard for us to gauge daily paper staff because we tend to avoid places which have been recently (positively) reviewed, in order to avoid crowds.
All that said, I'm looking forward to kicking everyone's ass in this year's survey.