The Ethical Dilemma Of The Successful, Failing, Local Small Business

Now THIS is a gyros sandwich!

Now THIS is a gyros sandwich!

The little restaurant opened the same year my wife and I moved into the neighborhood. It specialized in yummy Greek fare like gyros, souvlaki, and Greek salads, but also made terrific hamburgers, subs and pizzas, and quickly became our reflex fall-back when we were too tired to make dinner or wanted a treat for lunch. The place was a family operation: the tiny, spunky middle aged woman who seemed to run the place—taking the orders, filling bags, taking the payment—had a Greek accent that reminded me of my grandmother and all of my relatives from her generation; her husband, silent, imposing, who was the chef; and over time, the two children, both of whom worked there when they weren’t in school.

The food was consistently delicious, fresh and authentic, but it was also satisfying to see an old-fashioned family business growing and thriving. A restaurant consultant would probably have said it was too old-fashioned, for the menu never changed, the faded prints of the Parthenon and the Aegean coast were the only decorations in the place, and it dealt only in cash. Still, the little Greek lady greeted you with a knowing smile when you walked in the door, and you knew you were going to be treated like a neighbor.

Then suddenly, the family was gone. The couple decided to sell the place and retire, and a long-time employee who had worked in various jobs over the years took the restaurant over. I knew him, of course, and we talked often. He’s a nice guy, determined, ambitious, hard working. He threw himself into the job of making the business boom. Now the restaurant accepts credit cards and delivers, is open on Sundays, has daily specials, and sports a newly-painted and (somewhat) less austere decor. He also jacked up the price on everything.

The new owner’s formula for success worked almost immediately. The restaurant, he told me, has almost doubled its business. The problem is, as my family gradually discovered, is that the entirely non-Greek staff, including the owner,  has no idea what their food is supposed to taste like. You know you’re in trouble when the entire staff mispronounces everything on the menu, (It’s GIR -Os, hard G, not, ugh, “JY-row,” like the name of the goose inventor in Donald Duck comics), but it’s worse than that. The feta cheese in the Greek salads, which are suddenly mostly iceberg lettuce, is scant and low quality. The once-marvelous cheese steak subs are bland; the onion rings are charred, and every now and then a carry-out order includes something inedible, like the freezer-burned veal parmigiana I had a few months ago. The owner was apologetic, but his candid “I thought that meat looked funny when I microwaved it” didn’t inspire confidence.

After several months of disappointing experiences with our old standby, my wife and I resolved that the next bad meal there would be our last. It arrived  soon thereafter, when a so-called gyro sandwich came covered in  ton of shredded lettuce without onions or  the mandatory sauce. The young woman who was running the kitchen that night argued with my wife about what the order was supposed to include, saying “That’s the way we always make a  “jy-row,” causing my wife to correctly note that NOBODY makes gyros buried in lettuce and with no sauce.

“Well, maybe you should kind another restaurant then!” she said, the snot.

Bingo. We haven’t been back since, and I have been wrestling for weeks over the question of whether I should tell the owner 1) that his food is really bad and unreliable, 2) that these two long-time customers won’t be coming back, and 3), even if the fare was the best Greek food on the East Coast, I wouldn’t set foot in his restaurant  again until the woman who argued with us was taking unemployment checks.

The Golden Rule dictates that I talk to him. I would want a good and loyal patron to tell me if my business’s quality was declining. Still, he’s clueless. If he was capable of making the food better that now was, he wouldn’t have let it get this bad to begin with. And why would he listen to me? He’s getting more business than the old place ever got. People will pay for crap, and most customers can’t tell an authentic gyro from souvlaki. I’m just going to upset the guy, and he’ll dismiss me as a crackpot.  Yes, he should know about the young woman’s miserable manner, but how can he not know now? Ultimately, it seems likely that confronting him will be a futile gesture, and I know it will be an unpleasant one.

Or am I letting the latter factor dissuade me from my duty as a member of the community? Surely the restaurant can’t continue to thrive as its product declines, can it? As I review the reasons for not telling the owner the truth, they are all rationalizations, with one major peice of selfish reality: I do NOT want to eat any food from there again. I don’t trust the staff or even him., and I can’t have that conversation without agreeing to give the restaurant a second chance.

What would you do?



55 thoughts on “The Ethical Dilemma Of The Successful, Failing, Local Small Business

  1. No one likes criticism, even when it is meant as helpful feedback. We all get upset by it and sometimes react badly; and it always hurts like hell.

    But some of us get over the pain and think about what has been said to us. Sometimes we realise that what has been said has some truth in it and try to change.

    Go talk to him.

  2. I don’t think the golden rule obligates you to do anything in this particular scenario. After all, nobody relishes criticism. It would be exceedingly nice for you to go out of your way in an honest attempt to help this business owner, but I don’t think you have any obligation to do so. If you do choose to say something, I think you could find ways to make sure that the conversation remained civil.

    For instance, if you made the conversation entirely about this owner, you could probably have this conversation relatively painlessly. “I can tell you want to be successful, and I’ve had a few experiences that may undercut that desire here in the past month. I just wanted to talk to you about them…”

    This would immediately eliminate you from the group of people who complain in an obvious attempt to get a free meal (trust me, they exist), and would probably have the effect of making this owner want to listen to you because you’re talking about him and his goals rather than about you and your desire to have a nice meal.

    Whether he chooses to do anything about your concerns is entirely another matter. People are notoriously near-sighted and I expect he will see the incoming money as a sign of improvement in the business right up until the time that the money starts to dwindle and disappear. But, if you can get him to listen to you, and if he isn’t blinded by short-term success, then you may be able to help save this restaurant before its reputation is damaged beyond repair. That might save some jobs and help the local economy, and that’s certainly a good thing to do, so maybe it’s worth doing.

    P.S. People really do eat crap nowadays. My wife has ruined other people’s food for me because whenever someone tells me something is delicious, I try it, and think “My wife can make that 200% better.” The crap food people think is “good” astounds me.

  3. It must be a common event, not just for a family restaurant with home-cooking that is turned over to new management but in many different instances.

    The essence of it seems to be the sacrifice of quality (which is a form of identity and a form of traditionalism) to the prospect of earning more money. I can think of a number of restaurants where I have observed this.

    In this sense, the new owner is catering to a newer, less informed, less concerned, eating audience. To gain the new audience he is sacrificing some percent of the old, traditionalist audience. I talked once to a new owner who consciously did just that. He bought a restaurant at distressed price, maintained it as it was for 6 months, and then reengineered it. He did it (others told me, not him) as a retirement vehicle.

    OTOH, I know of another — tiny and totally irrelevant — vegetarian restaurant in Cali Colombia that for many years had a loyal following because the owners cooked according to strict Vaishnava standards (no onions, no garlic). They retired and sold to a non-Vaishnava owner. Unintelligently, he changed the menu and the entire feel of the food (vege food cooked without onions and garlic has a unique feel). In about 2 years, the time it took for the slide down, the restaurant closed. The new owner alienated his loyal base. He lost his investment and livelihood and the city lost a very nice little restaurant for very clear vegetarian food. Someone would might have helped this owner if they had clearly explained what was happening and why. He likely thought he was expanding the base even as he was destroying it.

    All the same could, and also could not, apply to your situation.

    I would opt for a careful, direct but friendly conversation in which your experience is related to him, so he understands. Your experience could be the beginning of a larger misfortune (for him) or his attempt to cater to a larger market unconcerned for the quality you prefer.

  4. I say you talk to him.
    Like you said, you know him.
    He knows you.
    Sending him an e-mail or posting on some review site is much less effective than having a known and long-term customer say something to him.
    He may not even know who you are if you do it that way.
    Your best chance to have a positive impact is to tell him face to face.

    If the change was intentional, that’s that. If it was not intentional but rather an inattention to quality, your words may help.


  5. By withdrawing your business you have already told him you are no longer satisfied with the quality and value of his food. He knows you were regulars before. There is no need to “rub in his face” what he probably already knows. To you it is constructive criticism, to him it is complaining. It is very doubtful he will take it to heart. He may not want to work so hard as the previous owners, wants to set it up to be run by a manager and soon have a nearly hands off business. Or he may not be able to find the volume of employees that care or understand the food.

    I was always told it was pronounced yeer-oh. I have never heard it pronounced with a hard G. I have heard the jy-roh mispronunciation many times. So is everyone here wrong? Do the real Greeks secretly shudder when they hear people like myself say yeer-oh? I sink my head in abject shame. To this day I have to correct my mother who now, 74 still calls Italians EYE-talians, LOL!

  6. Something from an article about Urban Meyer:

    Event plus Response equals Outcome. Kight calls this the “R Factor.” The idea is simple: The only thing anyone can control in any situation is the R Factor. You can’t control what happens to you and you can’t control what happens next, but you can control your response. “Which,” Kight says with a smile, “is Mental Health 101, by the way.”

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