Many businesses adopt the mantra that “the customer’s always right.”
When it comes to a recent display on social media, Allen Street Hardware Cafe apparently isn’t one of them.
Charlie Goldman, who runs the restaurant, recently reached out to a complaining customer online and told her to “go to the gym,” a pivotal point in what has created a groundswell of criticism of the establishment.
While some have taken to defending the restaurant online, a wider group has been exposed to a Facebook war of words that demonstrates how easy – and potentially dangerous for a business – it can be for a negative experience to turn ugly and be on display for everyone to see.
The whole thing started after a group of seven women heading out to see comedian Amy Schumer at First Niagara Center on May 7 stopped for dinner at the Allen Street restaurant before the show. It was a Saturday night, among the busiest times for most restaurants.
The customers complained of slow service, cold food and even colder staff.
Two days later, the woman who paid the bill with her credit card got a private Facebook message from Goldman’s personal Facebook account. After he told her he wanted to make sure they did not come back, he urged her to work out. “You will need it,” Goldman wrote.
A few days later, another woman in the group that had dined there posted on Facebook about their experience at the restaurant, a post that’s since been shared more than 900 times and that included select portions of the private exchange and put the dispute in the public domain. Others reached out to the woman who posted the story, telling her they have had similar experiences dining there, according to the author.
Allen Street Hardware, often referred to by fans and patrons as simply “Hardware,” has been a popular destination on Allen Street since it opened about a dozen years ago. Earlier this year, the city halted dancing at the restaurant because it said the operators lacked the proper permit.
The Buffalo News spoke to the woman who wrote the May 11 post that was widely shared. She said she and the others in her group did not want to be identified in a published story out of fear of retribution.
A couple days after this woman posted about her group’s experience, someone used the restaurant’s Facebook account to respond to critical reviews on its Facebook page. The restaurant’s comments – some of which were either harsh or combative – were deleted shortly thereafter.
One man who complained May 12 that his food was cold and service was poor got this reply – “You were the one that clogged both toilets that night! We went thru 2 plungers because of u.”
A woman from out of town who said she has heard the restaurant should be avoided “like the plague” had this shot back at her from the restaurant’s account: “[F]unny, that’s what they say about your bathroom in the morning.”
The account replied to further criticism saying, “We could care less. Don’t you see this?”
Images of the since-deleted comments were captured by Donnie Burtless, of the local food blog Buffalo Eats, who posted them on Facebook.
When contacted for comment, Goldman told The News that the group of women “behaved terribly, and that’s really the extent of it.” They made their server cry, he said.
At first he said he didn’t want to discuss the private messages on Facebook, only noting that what had already been made public isn’t the total picture of what happened. “She only printed part of it,” he told The News early Friday.
But Friday night, he sent a text message to a reporter with a screenshot of part of the Facebook exchange. Here’s what he sent to The News:
In the earlier interview with a reporter, Goldman downplayed the attention this occurrence has gotten.
“It’s unfortunate that a customer can go online and garner so much attention on their own opinion of a place. Like it matters,” Goldman told a reporter.
“There’s nothing worse than a ‘Yelper,’” he continued, referring to people who contribute to the Yelp website for reviews of restaurants and other businesses, “because they have nothing to lose. If their guacamole was too salty, they can really get the word out there.”
He would not say how he managed to track down the customer who paid for the group’s meal by credit card. “It’s very easy to find out who ate at my restaurant,” he said.
Goldman declined to comment on the company’s since-deleted Facebook comments. He said he does not run the company’s social media accounts.
Goldman, who said he wasn’t at the restaurant at the time of the initial incident, admits members of the group did wait a long time for their food. He said the restaurant was packed on that Saturday night. But he also said he won’t let his employees be treated like he says they were.
“It just happened to be a very busy, confusing night,” the kind every restaurant has every once in a while, he said.
As is the case when there are two sides of an issue, there are two versions of what actually happened. In this case, at issue is how the restaurant would split the bill, how long it actually took before the group got seated and the attitude of individuals on both sides.
Restaurant staff did get mad because the group didn’t leave a tip for the server, Goldman said. But one of the women in the group said they didn’t have a server, got their food from the bar and tipped the bartender for it.
Traci Volker, floor manager for the restaurant, said several employees brought the food out to the group when a table finally opened up and the group was being seated. The group exhibited “an overall negative attitude” during their time in the restaurant, Volker said.
The proof of how Hardware is viewed can be seen in its longevity and how the family-owned business has been able to support a family, said Goldman, who said he has been in the restaurant business since age 18. He isn’t worried about the recent negativity online about his business. He said business is as strong as it has ever been and the last two weeks have been among the best in any May over the last five years.
“Every once in a while you have a bad set of customers, but my track record speaks for itself,” he said. The restaurant pulls in $1.5 million annually in a space of about 1,000 square feet, he said.
“We couldn’t be more blessed to have what he have now,” he said.