How to Respond to Negative Restaurant Reviews

How to Respond to Negative Restaurant Reviews

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An unfortunate reality of owning a restaurant in the 21st century is that the internet has made anonymous criticism much easier. This generally results in one of two things for business owners: first, it can bring business in the doors of your establishment, assuming the feedback is good. However, if you get negative reviews, you can see a hit to the number of people walking through your doors.

Something that you’ll see happens with inexperienced business owners is that they’ll try to respond publicly to every negative review. While this is absolutely something that I highly recommend, there are some significant caveats to keep in mind. So buckle up and grab a pen and notepad because this will be a pretty in-depth little article.

Negative Restaurant Reviews: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

Let’s start with the basics - what do negative reviews actually mean, and is there any hard-and-fast “respond like this” rule?

I’ve got a bit of good and bad news - it’s a mixed bag, unfortunately. The good news is that negative reviews are still reviews. How does the saying go, “All press is good press?” And it’s mostly true. While no business owner wants to see their restaurant (baby, realistically) ripped apart on a public forum, good things can come from it. 

The best-case scenario is that your brand actually grows - but this relies upon you handling the situation tactfully. A carefully thought-out response alongside clear efforts to fix the issue can show customers that you truly care about what they think - and that’s always a good thing.

However, the bad news is a bit less “sunshine and rainbows.” The reality of negative reviews is that they’re bound to happen, no matter how fantastic your menu and staff are. And if handled poorly, they can result in developing a name in your area as “that restaurant.” I guarantee you know who I’m talking about - there’s always one in every town; the restaurant whose owner can do no wrong and whose staff are perfect little angels, despite the apparent evidence to the contrary.

In short, the most important thing you can do with a negative restaurant review is to respond tactfully and over time.

RELATED READING: 9 Simple Ways to Improve Restaurant Reviews

How to Respond to Negative Restaurant Reviews

Let’s start by looking at what differentiates a good owner's response from a poor one. While there’s not a guaranteed “right way” to handle things, there are a few fundamental guidelines to keep in mind. To respond to negative restaurant reviews, do the following:

  • Never respond right away. Give yourself time to cool off - just like you would if you caught a friend talking smack. Going into any situation while angry is a recipe for disaster - and we want recipes for tasty food in a restaurant, not for tragedy.
  • Get all sides of the story. While it’s easy (and honestly admirable) for a business owner to ask an employee what happened and take their word for the gospel, it’s not the best approach. So make sure to get every part of the story - ask the hostess and servers that worked that night for context. Think about the people involved - does this sound like something realistic that could have happened? And perhaps most importantly, read the customer’s response and actually internalize it. Each of these allows you to distance yourself from your emotions and see the truth for what it is - even if you don’t like it or want to believe it’s true.
  • Respond while sober. While this may seem like a self-evident tip, it’s something that you’ll see when we get to the examples section that apparently isn't common knowledge. The fastest way to destroy a business’s reputation is to develop notoriety for a… less than professional management or ownership’s actions. So just do me a favor and respond while sober and clear-minded - trust me, it’s worth it.
  • Proofread your response. I know - you likely didn’t get to own a restaurant through editorial skill, but that’s okay. Proofreading is a fantastic way to ensure you get your point across and do so accurately and with oomph. Even if it means just writing the response up and then rereading it in the morning before hitting enter, you’ll likely catch a thing or two that could use some improvement. Online tools like Grammarly are a lifesaver here for less than experienced proofreaders, so use them!

How to Respond to Negative Restaurant Reviews: Examples

Okay - now we’re getting into the show and tell portion of this article. I did the service of pulling a couple of noteworthy owner responses to negative restaurant reviews on both sides of the spectrum (both good and bad). Hopefully, these can help put things into context for you and show the fundamentals of what makes a good response. All responses are quoted without business information listed - after all, we’re trying to teach, not publicly shame.

Now here are a few examples of how to respond to negative restaurant reviews - with examples!

Good Examples

Let’s start with a genuinely good response - no humor, no angry retort, just simple and practical answers that put the business in a great light.

First Review:

  1. Customer: “No sound-absorbing materials, extremely loud. Party groups right next to people trying to dine. Fish the size of a thick cell phone battery. Good flatbread pesto. Excellent cinnamon ice cream. But never again.” (1 star out of 5.)
  2. Owner: “While it’s great the ice cream and flatbread pesto impressed you, I’m sorry if your experience could’ve been better. If you had any preferences with the seating, we would’ve been happy to accommodate if something else had been available. We are a Tavern but we do have an upstairs available for dining that is a little better on the ear. I hope you’ll give us another chance so you can get the kind of excellent experience we’re known for.” - [Owner’s name]
  3. Analysis: The owner responded extremely professionally and carefully addressed each complaint. They didn’t try to deflect or blame, and they clearly proofread, as there was only one typo in the whole thing.

Bad Example

Well, not every response can be perfect. Let’s see what a poor response to a negative restaurant review looks like, shall we? Again, all business information has been removed to protect their privacy. 

Review:

  1. Customer: “Expensive, not very good and also I ordered sugar cookies and got the peanut butter. I’m allergic to nuts so I can’t even eat it (plus it could have killed me if I ate it by mistake) all in all not worth it, unless it’s the last option left. Also while picking up my order they made the food sit for like 10 minutes before they gave it to us… very slow staff.” (1 star out of 5.)
  2. Owner: “So sorry about the cookie mix up but i do have to say that you shouldn't eat any cookies from [business name] if allergic to nuts. All cookies bake on the same pans throughout the shifts. This is not a nut free, nut safe restaurant. Also, seems like you give a lot of 1 and 2 star reviews… hope you find somewhere you actually like!”
  3. Result: Okay - first off, the owner clearly didn’t proofread their response. Second, if one were to look at the business’s website, they don’t clarify the nut-safety issue. And thirdly, the owner brushed off any criticism and verbally attacked the customer. While some may find this type of response funny, it’s ultimately not the best way to go about things.

A Clear-Cut Template

Now that we’ve got examples and a few basic guidelines, let’s build a couple of solid response templates. These are super useful, as you can take your time and adjust them as needed, but they provide a consistent framework for a professional, constructive response.

To recap, there are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Proofread your response (and template).
  • Respond sober.
  • Take your time. 
  • Don’t deflect blame.

And one equally important thing I haven’t mentioned up to now - name the person to whom you’re responding. This reminds them that you’re both human and that you aren’t, in fact, just an invisible person across the world. Now with that said, here are a few handy little templates for how to respond to negative restaurant reviews.

Template One:

“Dear [reviewer’s name],

While it was terrible to hear your negative experiences in [restaurant name], I want you to know that your complaints have not gone unheard. I am currently speaking to [restaurant name]’s staff to ensure I get to the bottom of this and will update with a response upon discovering the source of the issue.

As always, the [issue named in review (food, service, ambiance, etc.)] we [serve/provide/deliver] is a top priority for those of us in the [restaurant name] family. At the end of the day, we’re all human. Mistakes can happen, but what truly differentiates us from other restaurants in [your local area] is that we take those mistakes and grow through what we learn from them.

Best,

[Your name]”

This template provides an easy, professional response to poor service or food complaints. It reminds the reviewer that your business is human-run rather than operated by faceless random “others.” And it’s super easy to adapt to your needs - do you want it to be a bit humorous? Simply throw a light-hearted joke into the last sentence, ala, “Given that our kitchen is (apparently) run by three goblins in a trenchcoat, mistakes can happen. However, what truly differentiates us from other restaurants in [your local area] is our dedication to teaching the goblins how to properly grow from their mistakes.”

Template Two:

“Dear [reviewer’s name],

Those of us at [restaurant’s name] take these allegations quite seriously. Your [complaint topic (safety, quality of service, food, etc.)] is, and always will be, our utmost priority. As the owner of [restaurant name], I cannot say that I’m there at all times of the day. However, I employ many people that I regularly trust with my business. If [issue] turns out to be a more severe or underlying issue, you can rest assured that the [restaurant name] family will address it immediately.

I would love to encourage you to reach out with further concerns to [your business email] and extend an offer of [discount, coupon, some incentive to return] so that you can experience the true quality of our service. As always, our customers and their needs are at the center of this business - and we take all issues with our service to heart. You can rest assured that we will provide the service that you genuinely deserve upon a return trip.

Best,

[Your name]

If you get a more severe complaint, such as health issues with food or serious service problems, this is a fantastic template. It allows you to double down on your commitment to excellence in any given area and simultaneously extends a public olive branch that encourages the reviewer to return. And if they do, ensuring an excellent service gets that 1-star review turned into a 5-star review!

Conclusion

While this topic is a sticky one, there are many ways in which you can respond to negative restaurant reviews. Many owners opt for a quick, professional response, while others aim to inject a bit of humor into their answer. Your mileage may vary in terms of how is best for you to respond, as the clientele of your business will affect the response more than anything. 

No matter the style in which you’d like to respond, remember the following. Proofreading makes you look more intelligent and professional, as does waiting to react until you’re not angry. And answering the reviewer directly by name reminds them that there is, in fact, a human on the other side of this review. You’ll often see reviewers soften when addressed directly, and offering the bonus of a coupon or free meal can even turn their negative review into free marketing!

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