Given the furious, fibre-optic whirlwind of the modern British media, you may feel that something that occurred way back in April 2018 is already ancient history. But in the case of what was dubbed ‘grate-gate’, I think it is useful to scroll back to this Neolithic news, as a warning to all restaurateurs.
To recap, food writer Rosie French ate at Hackney Italian restaurant Ombra and, after extra parmesan was grated over her pasta dish, was shocked to find a £1.50 supplement for it on the bill. The charge was not mentioned verbally, although it is included in the small print at the bottom of the menu.
French tweeted her dismay to restaurant critic Jay Rayner who, in turn, asked his over 200,000 followers: “Has anyone else experienced something like this?” – whereupon, at Ombra, the metaphorical roof caved in.
The ensuing Twitter protest aside, this story was picked up over two days by (deep breath!) the Daily Mirror, The Guardian, Independent, The Telegraph, The Sun, Metro and Daily Mail. It achieved a remarkable traction. Bruised but unbowed, Ombra’s chef, Mitshel Ibrahim, defended the supplement. The dish comes with parmesan on it, but if guests want more (of this £22-a-kilo, 36-month-aged artisan cheese), they have to pay for it.
Sounds fair, right? But ultimately self-defeating. Most diners would happily pay £13.50 for a £12 dish but charge £1.50 extra for more cheese (note: it should have been £1, Ombra’s till had not been updated), and it irks them. It is illogical. A psychological foible. But supplements rile people. Restaurants should dispense with them, particularly if they are not highlighted in 22-point bold type on the menu.
Even more interesting, to me, as a writer, was the feeling in some quarters that, as the Pidgin and Magpie restaurant owner James Ramsden put it, Ombra had been unfairly “stitched”. “I think/hope those involved realise that piling onto an independent restaurant for what was, at the very worst, a minor boo-boo, was poor form,” he tweeted.
I take his point. Twitter’s endless exaggerated outrage is exhausting. But, equally, I find Ramsden’s plea unrealistic, naïve, censorial even. It implies, as the wider restaurant industry often does, that, as clued-up observers, critics such as Rayner have an obligation to work with the sector to educate the public about the economic realities of the business and, if necessary, overlook practices that ordinary diners dislike.
As it happens, Rayner does some of that educational work. He is not an irresponsible provocateur. But that is not the critic’s primary role. Their job is to entertain their readers and scrutinise restaurants from the diner’s viewpoint.
Moreover, like any critic, Rayner is free to comment online about something he finds jarring, without worrying about the media shit-storm that might ensue or how that may impact on the restaurant involved. That sounds harsh. But the only other option is self-censorship. Maddening caution. Inertia. A critic has to be honest. Otherwise, who will trust their opinion?
Ultimately, the key lesson here is that restaurants need to wise up as to their visibility. Was ‘grate-gate’ blown out of all proportion? Yes. But this is the game. Restaurants are public businesses. They invite scrutiny and, in a digitally connected world, that scrutiny can escalate alarmingly. It is, therefore, crucial to examine every element of your business, no matter how minor (risqué décor in the toilets; edgy names for dishes; hidden charges for bread… the list is endless), and consider how they might look splashed all over Twitter and the tabloids.
Restaurants are in the spotlight like never before. The heat can be stifling.
This column first appeared in the June 2018 issue of Restaurant magazine, the leading title for the UK's restaurant industry. For more features, comment, interviews and in-depth analysis of the sector subscribe to Restaurant magazine here. Follow Tony on Twitter @naylor_tony