The Do's and Don’ts of Restaurant Communication Ethics

By Brian Murphy, Foodable Contributor

The list of items requiring management for restaurant owners is endless. Priorities should be reorganized if communications and ethics are low on that list. Far too often, independent and even larger restaurant groups suffer from target fixation, where the day-to-day operation is on the radar but the communication of the brand doesn’t help overall business. This phenomenon can turn negative quickly if care isn’t taken.

Bait and Switch

This form of fraud is an old one, but one going strong today. Bottom line: it’s desperate, it offers only a short-term solution, and it is against the law. The overall concept of an establishment is something that can easily (and sometimes honestly) be perceived as a “bait and switch.” Consider the nightclub that posts and advertises with photos of capacity crowds and top talent from a special event they hosted over a year ago. When guests pay the cover to get the experience they saw on Instagram and find a handful of people rattling around on the dance floor, they will feel like their money will be well-spent elsewhere next weekend. There are ways to capture guests having fun and make the place look crowded without pulling photos from the archives.

Considering Instagram and other forms of media is something all establishments should be paying close attention to when posting specials or new menu items. Guests want what they saw online, or on the website, not a smaller, hastily prepared version. Of course professional shots of the cuisine will look better, especially if there is any food styling going on to entice the guests, but there is an ethical way to go about this without tricking guests. Did the chef plate the sample dish in a way that utilizes many components and looks worthy of the cover of a food magazine? Great! Time to at least offer something very close to what was advertised. Was it a test dish, and the kitchen decided to actually go with a different presentation? Did the portion size change due to food cost or sourcing issues? Update the feed or the site. Don’t give guests any chance to suggest that they have been taken advantage of.

Printed communication is as important as brand imagery, and can sting a lot more should guests or the City Attorney decide to act on the “half-truths” or blatant deception happening on menus all over. The anecdotal stories heard on the news from time to time happen more often than reported, and can hurt a business and their reputation significantly if they are caught misleading guests. Often these stories are about sourcing. Take a steak house that boasts about quality. Suggesting to guests that all meat is “USDA Prime” when food costs prevent all steaks from being that quality is a punishable bad practice. A steak house should only advertise “grass-fed” steaks when they can confidently prove all steaks in the operation are, in fact, steaks that have not been finished in the conventional, corn-fed manner.

“Grass-fed” to guests means that a cow has only eaten grass, and the health reasons and overall principles that might make that attractive to guests. Capitalizing on buzzwords and rising trends by explaining away the fact that, “All cows eat grass at some point, so sure, they are grass-fed.” Irresponsible, and again, a desperate and shady move. Guests that are treated with respect and can safely trust in a restaurant or bar will return. Usually, it only takes one guest and one instance to make what seemed like a “little white lie,” or even an oversight, turn into a lawsuit.

Company Policies

Written and verbal communication of the brand is something that impacts guests AND employees alike. Consider the last time the employee manual was updated. Employees deserve to have updated training materials and reference materials. Independent and corporate entities alike need to evolve and change with trends and times. The handbook, training materials, and procedure manuals being completely up to date enable operators and managers to set staff up for success. This creates an environment where unknowns aren’t going to create confusion, or worse, uninformed decision making by staff. Ethics come in to play when policies are made grey by management. Putting together an employee handbook for the sake of covering the business legally and having a fallback plan when it is time to let someone go isn’t exactly fair to the staff.

The industry is rife with examples of businesses that do exactly that, especially when it comes to consumption on the job. Employees signing a handbook agreement stating that they will not drink on the job gets confusing when a manager approves or offers to have a shot with the bartender late in the evening. The message employees are getting is that the rules don’t really apply to them, and soon, that snowballs. Like every aspect of management, consistency is as crucial as “knowing when.” When the employee is let go and the handbook is referred to during the termination process, things get messy, and there is potential for legal discourse.

In many facets of life, people are increasingly more interested in honesty. Where the food came from, who is making it, the history of the organization, etc. Be the straightforward, consistent leader and reap the rewards. Give employees, vendors, and paying guests one reason to doubt and it could be the beginning of the end.