The Ash Restaurant, Inverness: A lesson in online reputation management?

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20th July 2013 – Scroll down for an update.

Willie has Down Syndrome. He likes fish fingers and he can only manage small portions, so tends to have kids meals when he eats out. Alledgedly the Ash Restaurant didn’t want to serve Willie his fish fingers and now this act of supposed blatent discrimination is now the fuel for a social media sh1tstorm that has massacred the Ash Restaurant’s reputation on TripAdvisor and, who can tell how this will effect its future? This one bad incident might have cost the Ash Restaurant more than just its future?

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The Ash Restaurant describes itself on Trip Advisor as ” a lively bistro and bar within the stately Royal Highland Hotel. The pale green walls and gilt-framed oil paintings of the Victorian dining room are freshened by tartan table runners and bright flowers, creating a bright contemporary elegance.” It seems by anyone’s standards to be quite a nice place. Have a rummage through TA and there are quite a few differing experiences without the discrimination related comments. But I felt compelled to write about this incident because it is a lesson as to the power of social networking, and why it is good to be savvy.

The Ash Restaurant saga was first brought to my attention on Facebook when I saw a picture of a very happy looking Down’s Syndrome chap on a bouncy red springy playground insect thing, and my first thought was less what the post was about, but because he looked so happy. I came back to the post later, and read through and realised that this happy looking chap was very much the instrument of anger, a pawn in a fight for justice and a reminder that bad things still happen in restaurants. The Sun is reporting the story tomorrow and it appears that the Regional Manager for the hotel chain has been on television to answer for the misgivings of the staff involved in the incident and he issued an apology (not for the discrimination though) on the Royal Highland Hotel’s Facebook page

But what exactly happened? Well here is the post.

“Today for lunch we went to ASH RESTAURANT INVERNESS beside the train station during our holidays & as soon we went in the door the staff were giving us dirty looks and tried to put us off by saying that it would be a 20minuet wait for food even though the place was dead! We were obviously not there clientele little did we know it was because of my Down syndrome uncle!! We never got offered drinks and after 10 – 15mins someone finally came over to take our order, we order for my uncle willie (in the picture) fish fingers off the kids menu as that’s all he can eat is small portions and every where we go he has always had it! But they then turned round and said no he can not have that then for a supervisor to come over to say they CAN NOT SERVE MY UNCLE TODAY. This is clear DISCRIMINATION and I want to make every one knows what a horrible place that is. That staff were rude from the word go! We made our opinion clear to the staff as we walked out. Noone should be told what they can and can’t eat especially when it’s a treat for them. Please LIKE AND SHARE so that everyone can hear what this “award winning restaurant” is really like!”

The whole thing is a testament to what people believe on Facebook. And as a restaurant owner, your reputation is the most precious thing. Something like this would be a nightmare for anyone whose business relied on people thinking ‘nice things’. No matter how much of this was truthful, it is up to the owners to react in the right way.

The family cannot be helped in reacting the way they did.  Willie is clearly a loved and cherished member of their family.  Their anger is natural, and the desire for justice (like any diner’s) is one that you, as the manager, would have to live up to or negotiate.  The hotel have offered an apology, but what else are they going to do?  They don’t have a Twitter account or a Facebook account, so immediately life is made harder by not being able to publicly tackle any bad press.  But given the voluminous extent of the feedback, should you even try?

Take a trip through Twitter and see what sort of things people are saying, could you react to each and every one?

“Absolute disgrace. ASH RESTAURANT INVERNESS refused to serve a family because the uncle has Down’s Syndrome. My… http://fb.me/2Tq9eJkUo”

“ASH RESTAURANT INVERNESS you ought tobe ashamed of yourselfs discrimination of disabled person is disgusting”

“ASH RESTAURANT in Inverness. An apology needed. Shame on you! http://fb.me/AO2bMhna”

Social Media is a very powerful tool. Piss off a punter in this day and age, and the perfect storm can bring your bad service/bad food/casual Disability Discrimination to the attention of the national media.

So what should the Ash Restaurant do now?

Jon Barker over at JoinedUpNetworking has this really good advice for saving your online reputation.

“Be listening: Set up relevant searches for your brand on Twitter, and Google alerts, watch out for anything potentially damaging online. This allows you to manage your reputation, even if you’re not otherwise active on Social Media.

Deal with it, quickly: If you discover something negative don’t avoid dealing with it! If you do, people will assume you’re guilty! Address the issue publicly; show you’re interested, listening and that you care.

Accept responsibility: If it’s your fault, own up! The best of us can make mistakes once in a while. Shows you’re human and more importantly that client satisfaction is important to you. Have you ever been unhappy with service you were given? I suspect non acceptance, a defensive attitude or being secretive would have made it worse.

Apologise: A genuine apology makes the world of difference. No excuses; thank them for bringing it to your attention. Show the world that you want to make things right. Solve the Problem and get offline: If it’s easily resolved, offer the resolution and say you will call them. If you can’t solve it easily, make a clear public statement that you want to call them to solve the issue. Reaching out and attempting to make things right gets noticed by others who are watching the exchange. Once it is offline then deal with it properly and fully, as I’m sure you would do normally. –

I am going to be interested in seeing how the Ash Restaurant deals with the storm that has brewed around Willie and his Fish Fingers. The next week or so will be crucial to how they deal with the bad press, and what they offer to do to repay their mistake, if they have actually done anything wrong in the first place.

The punter has more power now in the form of Trip Advisor and other online forums not to mention Twitter and Facebook, and it is now harder than ever for the concerned restaurant owner to stay on top of all of the comments from all avenues. Not everyone believes everything they read, but enough people do for social media not to be ignored or underused.  The case here is a lesson though, that the mob will punish you if you make a massive cock-up as The Ash Restaurant did. The important part is how to deal with it and recover from it.

Social Media Alba has this excellent advice for any business.

“Our advice for any company using Social Media is that they should have a Social Media strategy in place, and they should have a policy in place which guides them in addressing how the organisation and its staff uses Social Media.

Failure to have a strategy in place can result in bad public relations. A good strategy and relevant policies can help limit any potential damage.”

Update – 20th July 2013

It appears that Trip Advisor have either been asked, or have noticed that there are a large volume of reviews about this incident and have removed it them.  This is interesting because it gives us a more ‘accurate’ picture of what the Ash Restaurant is like (69 Terrible Reviews versus 26 Excellent Reviews).  Ultimately Trip Advisor gives a ballpark view about any eating place.  But head over to Google Reviews and low and behold the vocal anger of Willy’s case are still in plain view.  Will Google remove them? Will they remove if asked? Who knows. .

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13 comments

  1. Great post, and one of the only sensible, balanced opinions throughout this complete farce which has ultimately become a campaign of mob mentality and knee-jerk social media reaction. I live in Inverness and as far as local stories go, I have never experienced such a massive outpouring of anger, foul language and witch-hunting over a one-sided story prior to an investigation. The campaign against the hotel/restaurant has lacked class and calm, and for that reason there is a danger that some sympathy may have been lost for Uncle Willie. Scary stuff.

    1. Thank you Marcus. The social media can be good and bad for any business, and here it is most certainly proving REALLY bad. I have to say that a social media campaign like this only goes (and I agree with you) to nullify their argument. If they had witnesses, why didn’t they just go to the police? Why didn’t they write a letter of complaint if its a chain? I would turn to the social media if they had complained first, rather than just go straight in all guns blazing. But that is just my opinion.
      If the hotel did take this attitude then its pretty poor show, but as we don’t know ALL the facts its not the right time to start jumping on the social media witch-hunt just yet.

  2. Interesting post, though I’m not sure anything could be done to turn off the outpouring. The hotel management have offered an apology, which does indicate this stuff did happen. In my view, yes the family did have recourse to complaint and law, and yes there have been successful prosecutions, but when experiencing things like this people are bound to react angrily and shoot from the hip – I’d probably do the same if my family member was treated like that (in fact it would have started in the restaurant). That said I’d bet there are an awful lot of people who rely on that place for jobs and who would have been as disgusted as anyone else to see what took place, and it’s a shame they will suffer too. Ultimately this was a management failing – they allowed the wrong people with the wrong attitudes into the wrong jobs, and judging by review posts, bad attitudes are nothing new. The hotel management have let down a lot of people who were relying on them – customers and staff – and when you do that, once in a while a storm will break.

    1. Hi Mark. You are right. It is such an emotive subject, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the law got involved. Switch on the ’empathy’ switch I think I would most probably have reacted in a way that would be harder to gauge whilst looking at it from an outside perspective.
      The collective nature of social media means that it is very reactive. I think the hotel will need to be shown to do more to make amends, it could be a PR success if they manage it well. If not then it could be a case of firing a few people and then quietly rebranding the restaurant, who knows!

      1. Totally on the outside here , but the negative side was on my facebook asking for a boycott of this place. So many different things are posted there and people grab them in a panic and repost. The shark eating someone, the girl wraped after reading a business card laced with something, posted as gospel when simple me checked and verified falsehoods. Now, I am about to get beaten beyond recognition but, I have been to places where, God bless them all, challenged people have been very social and quiet, eaten with care etc. but, perhaps some don’t ! Is this, maybe, the case with Uncle Willy?? I haven’t seen Ashs’ side of the story yet and I hate facebook for the misconceptions people run with.

  3. It is very important to realize that individuals with special needs are treated this way pretty well everywhere, and without families and friends to respond, the mistreatment goes unpunished. I’ve worked with folks with special needs for 26 years here in Canada, and I can tell you that it is so common it’s disgusting. If this restaurant is guilty, they should come clean and say it: we apologize, we have disciplined the staff, we ask Willie and his family to come in as our guests to enjoy a fine meal. No restaurant’s brand or image is more important than the value and respect due to a human being, regardless of the rank and judgement imposed by those around them. If this restaurant is guilty, then Willie’s dignity and self respect was put behind the brand, and that is never acceptable. Has a mob mentality taken hold? Perhaps. However, anyone doing business in this day and age knows that Facebook and social media rule, and that is not about to change. It is a part of doing business, and the restaurant should have taken that into account as part of the wisdom around doing business.

  4. This story is tragic and shameful. I suggest that both the staff and the management reconsider their own private views regarding dignity of anyone who walks through their door; especially those who are willing to support their business by paying for food. I will never eat there, and I will make sure my friends boycott the place too.

  5. My family and I are from Canada, and stopped at the Ash Restaurant at Inverness, as it is right beside the train station we used to go to sight-seeing from aberdeen, where we are visiting family.
    The Maitre ‘d asked if we were staying at the hotel, and when we said we weren’t, we were given some of the worst service one could expect from a restaurant. He gave us a Clint Eastwood stare whenever he came to our table, which wasn’t often. The rest of the staff treated us like we should have been grateful for their presence, as well.
    It didn’t surprise me to hear of the disabled person being refused service, as I feel we were almost given the name style of service.

  6. I’ve stayed at the royal highland on a number of occasions and eaten in the Ash restaurant. Up until the last visit the food was always fine (last time the steak was a tiny piece of shoe leather). However the unchanging thing I have noticed is that the restaurant manager has clearly studied under Basil Fawlty!!! Every visit he is cold, aloof and borderline rude. Anyone who has visited the restaurant knows the guy I mean. His staff roll their eyes at him and a clearly embarrassed by his attitude.

    Obviously the rest of the staff have their morale sapped so low they don’t bother now….every bad team has a bad leader.

    The owners need to bin the guy ASAP. I’m likely staying there again tomorrow so let’s see what the state of play is…

  7. Nothing suprises me about the Highland capital.dont know where your from? but racial hate is a serious problem still, in the mid eightys English people were banned from a well known watering hole, and the Union Jack burnt in the street.The terrible shame is that with a referendem just around the corner, hate is rearing its ugly head yet again. I would not take it to badly its just the way they are, they all need a course in customer handling skills, and of course you have the choice, dont ever cross the threshold again.

    .

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