Want to know the Number One Golden Rule in hospitality? Never criticise your guests. Ever. Not even in a measured way. Not even when you’re right and they’re wrong. Keep it to yourself. Unless, of course, you’re prepared to deal with the fall-out.
Just ask Sam Espensen, co-founder of the Bristol Spirit bar. Following a week when 14 of her customers ordered tap water with their food, rendering her business all but unviable, she went onto social media to vent her frustration.
‘If you come to Bristol Spirit and only drink free tap water – we will not make enough money from your table to break even, let alone turn a profit,’ she said.
Food at the bar is provided by pop-ups, and since the majority of that take goes to them, ‘and rightly so’ as Espensen was quick to point out, the venue is left with tables that – almost literally – earn it nothing.
‘Sorry to sound harsh,’ she said, ‘but it REALLY affects our business – we have 26 covers in a sitting, and in the last week we've had at least 14 people just drink water.
'We understand that you may not have a lot of money, but we cannot survive as a business on money from you just eating.’ Nothing in there that’s especially controversial, you might think. Venues all round the UK rely on drink to turn a profit. If they’re deprived of that it hits the bottom line.
If 10% of your diners decide to drink for free, then you’re going to be in trouble. And good on the venue owner for saying so. Better that, surely, than keeping shtum and going quietly out of business. Diners, however, didn’t see it like that.
While some praised the bar’s co-founder for her honesty, others slated her for ‘begging on Facebook’ and for having a ‘misjudged business model’. Espensen became the (sadly inevitable) victim of that 21st century phenomenon, the Twitter Backlash.
There are, incredibly, even rumours that she received death threats.
It’s an interesting contrast to the Hawksmoor story of two weeks ago, and one that all venues could learn from. In the ‘£4,500 bottle of Le Pin’ story, Hawksmoor made a mistake, pointed it out in a witty self-mocking kind of way, refused to blame anyone for the error and came out universally praised.
The hapless Sam Espensen made a thoroughly reasonable plea for understanding from her customers, couched it in respectful, non-inflammatory language and has been pilloried for it. Few of her critics could argue with the business logic of her argument (she’s clearly right). Fewer still would, I’m sure, want to see her business founder (she’s a reasonable person, doing her best in a tough climate).
But you can’t criticise your customers. However gently, however reasonably. Their wishes are sacrosanct. If they want to nurse a flat white for three hours while using your wi-fi, or have two scotch eggs and a glass of tap water for lunch that is their right. They expect their choices – whatever they are – to be respected, even if that threatens the viability of your business.
Is it fair? No. Could it put you out of business? Yes. But, particularly at a time when booze is losing the hospitality high ground to no-abv drinks, you point it out at your peril.
‘I don't have the answer on how to address this problem,’ said Espensen. ‘I just want to have a conversation about it so that people know that the issue exists.’
So good on her for her bravery, because she’s brought an uncomfortable issue out into the open. But don’t expect your customers to thank you for doing the same.