Monday, March 28, 2011


As “The End” (of the Café) draws near, I have to admit, it’s getting easier to deal with. The Universe seems to be guiding me, dropping blessings, small and large, when my resolve falters. I don’t think I’m meant to slink away from the place and go hide under a rock, as I first thought. In the past few weeks, the victories and failures of the venture have been highlighted for me in such a way that I’ve been able to digest the information, identify some lessons learned, and begin to plot a path beyond the experience. I’m not feeling nearly as wounded and defeated as I did when I decided to walk away from what I thought was the fulfillment of my fondest dream. And for that, I am grateful.

Oddly enough, the internet—this forum with which I have conducted an intense love/hate relationship since the early days of AOL—had a hand in despoiling the thing for which I had yearned for so many years. The freedom and anonymity of the internet have presented 21st-century business owners with an entirely new challenge. What could, in a society that maintained any understanding or respect for the concepts of courtesy or fairness, be a valuable tool for service businesses, has turned into a vile cesspool of “you don’t want to go there if you value your sanity.”

The presence of an anonymous forum for public criticism has completely poisoned the customer service dynamic. Disgruntled patrons no longer need to express their dissatisfaction in person to a server or to management. They don’t write letters of concern to business owners. They instead have embraced the internet with a vengeance, and use it to trash any business that has not met their every expectation. The goal here is not to resolve a problem…not to give a business an opportunity to make amends to an offended client. It’s all about revenge; all about punishing a business that is perceived to have fallen short. Today’s businesses must learn to Be Very Afraid of the guest who has had a bad day and walks through the front door itching for a fight.

Bad internet reviews are routinely snarky, rude and laden with just plain meanness. And often personal. After stumbling upon a couple of reviews that attacked me personally, I was beyond ready to lock the doors and swallow the key. I was mortified by that level of very public humiliation, against which I had no opportunity to defend myself.

It translated to double failure for me: Apparently, I did not possess the skills (personality?) needed for success in customer service; AND I was not tough enough to deal with negative feedback. This was a major factor in my decision not to sign up for another five years of fun and games.

It bothered me most, I think, that I was not tough enough. I thought that I was probably over-reacting to something that was not as big a deal as my stressed-out, chronically exhausted psyche was making it out to be. I had, after all, not heard other business owners complain about how the Bad Internet Review situation was causing them to lose sleep.

Recently, though, it has come to my attention that it IS a problem, for all businesses, large and small. In fact, I discovered there is a service called “” that (for a fee, of course) assists businesses in removing poisonous reviews from the internet.

I picked up a thread in an “Ask Amy” column in last Friday’s Oregonian that actually made me feel better. Justified. Relieved that the issue is not all in my head. Apparently, an earlier letter to Amy had dealt with an instance where a company had terminated an employee based on a negative “Tweet” posted by a disgruntled customer. The letter I read was written by a customer service manager of another company in response to that situation ; and it expresses all the horror and frustration I have been feeling. (And made me understand that perhaps I don’t have it as bad as I thought….) You can find the entire letter here: Ask Amy March 25, 2011. But here are a few of my favorite highlights:

I am a customer service manager, and I have noticed in recent years that angry customers have become increasingly more confrontational, militant and aggressive…
Bad customer service certainly exists and shouldn't be tolerated, but more and more I am seeing customers who come in looking for a fight, wanting to post that scathing review, wanting retribution for an unknown or yet-to-occur transgression…
My co-workers and I have had angry customers take our pictures with their camera phones, threatening to have us fired, and some people will post those photos with hateful commentary — and even our names — on their Facebook and Twitter pages.

Thank god no one has pulled the picture-posting thing on us. Yet.

But it’s probably just a matter of time.

However, I now understand that this situation, this development, this new obstacle in the service business landscape is not necessarily proof that I suck at what I do. It’s not going to chase me away, convinced I’ve failed at something I believed was my fondest dream. It’s simply a part of doing business that, being the mid-century relic I am, I had not foreseen when I finally got the chance to live my dream.

And, here’s the thing: This is a battleground of 21st century culture upon which I choose not to engage. It is not a positive or life-affirming place for me (or anyone, for that matter), and I need to walk away from it, shaking the dust from my hands and feet as I go.

And I won’t feel the least bit ashamed or defeated in the doing.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011


After a couple of weeks where the best things got was "bearable," and the worst was nearly …not, I seem to have arrived in a better place. Actually, it's more like the better place arrived on ME. I certainly haven't done anything special. I just feel like the Universe has dumped a ladle of grace over my head.

Sunday, we catered a 60th-anniversary party at the restaurant. I had taken the reservation back in January, SO against my will. The holidays were over, Valentine's Day was soon to be a memory, and I had my mind on grabbing a scalpel and beginning to cut, carefully, one by one, the physical and emotional ties binding me to the café. Trying to get as much of that separation accomplished and possibly even on the way to healing before the actual event. I did not want that process interrupted by the care and attention it takes to pull off one of these big parties.

But as much as I wanted to, I could not manufacture a good reason to turn it down. It was nothing we couldn't DO, and why not bank a few more dollars before the end? So we took the gig, and I filed it into the back of my mind, determined not to worry about it. Fat chance. Though Valentine's Day took Stress Out Priority over it, I know the anxiety of this event has been simmering on the front burner ever since the morning of February 15th.

Well, it's over now. And it was a great success. Mostly because the people were probably the nicest group of folks I have ever met in my life. That in itself was a bucketful of grace. I have so given up on the public. Daily, I am smacked in the face with how selfish, demanding, high maintenance and just plain rude the American consumer has become. To have the restaurant full to bursting with people who were just NICE, was a blessing, almost a cleansing. It literally drove away the dark cloud that has hung over me and my restaurant for so long. I could not be more grateful for that.

Monday afternoon, I stopped at the café (it was supposed to be my R & R day after the big party) and ended up having to work an hour to help them out of a jam. I took a lady's food out to her and she said to me, "I have to tell you, you do such a good job decorating this place. It just looks great…" What? Someone was actually saying something nice to me? I couldn't really believe my ears. "Well, thank you!" I managed to sputter through my shock. But she went on:

"I'm so glad you guys are doing well. We really need a place like this around here…"

I thanked her again, a thank-you tinged with the slightest mixture of guilt and "too late!" The thought occurred to me that it would be very nice indeed if I could feel like I was leaving the café somewhere near the top of my game, rather than slinking away in disgrace with my tail between my legs.

And then, yesterday, I had two squirrels in my back yard. And I went shopping and found some cute clothes for the body I have now (losing those lately-attained stress pounds can wait a few more months—until I'm safely on the other side of this transition.)

All in all, a more than satisfactory first couple of days…of the rest of my life.