Hard Heads, Soft Openings

I just got back from checking out the soft opening of a new Boise restaurant. It’s one of those Korean BBQ joints where you cook your own meat. The details don’t matter, and I’m not going to post any pictures here. This ain’t a review. As a general rule, I don’t believe in reviewing restaurants during their soft openings. I’ve been invited to preview events, friends and family nights, special dinners, stuff like that, and sometimes I’ll write a post about it because I figure that’s why they invited me there, right?

I’m always tempted to, of course. The immediacy of blogging means that I can crank out a review and get a buzz going before the local print publications. But I’m not going to go into a place that’s only been open to the public for a couple of days and critique them the way I would with a restaurant that’s supposed to be fully functioning and firing on all cylinders. And the more unique and ambitious the concept, the more likely it is that there will be hiccups. There’s a reason why it’s called a “soft” opening, and it really pisses me off some people can’t get that through their thick skulls.

To be fair, there were issues. There were some language barriers, a little menu confusion, and the servers are still trying to get up to speed on a concept that’s basically brand spanking new to this area. That’s just fine with me. I never expected it to be perfect. The food was fresh, the staff was friendly, the flavors were good. I spoke with one of the co-owners, who was willing to bend over backwards, forwards, and sideways to make even the slightest problem right. I want this place to do really, really well. I don’t know anyone involved with the restaurant, but I do have a vested interest in their success. There aren’t a lot of higher-end Asian concept eateries around Boise. We’ve got a ton of bastardized Chinese food (and there’s nothing wrong with that, I grew up on it and I love it to this day), a bunch of sushi, some Vietnamese and Thai, and even a few other Korean eateries. But a place like this doing well could make other people take notice. If it does well, maybe we’ll finally see an authentic, regional Chinese joint. Or a Japanese eatery that goes beyond sushi and teriyaki. Maybe a specialty hot pot joint. A little Sichuan, perhaps? Anyone who knows me knows that I would do back flips if a decent dim sum joint were to open here. It doesn’t have to be amazing or even super good (though I obviously wouldn’t complain if it were). I make do with decent in SLC when a bad enough craving hits, and I’d be more than happy to do it without a five hour drive. This isn’t Vancouver or San Francisco, I’m not delusional.

If you want delusional, spend some time scouring reviews on Yelp, or Google, or Zomato, or TripAdvisor, ad nauseum. Pick an eatery, and sort the reviews by lowest rating. I did, and that’s what has my knickers in a twist right now. That wasn’t my intention, I assure you. I was just looking to see if this new restaurant had any online presence other than their website, and was kind of surprised to see there was already a handful of reviews up. So far it’s just Yelp (my fault, I’m the one who added their listing) and Google. I decided to take a look, and this is what I found on Google…

Tried calling to ask about the menu. Whoever answered the phone was very rude and unprofessional. All I asked was for a price range. Definitely won’t go try out this food with how customer service handled me over the phone!!!!

So let me get this straight. You’re internet savvy enough to post a Google review, but you didn’t notice that when you looked them up on Google that THERE’S A LINK TO THE WEBSITE WITH ALL THE PRICES ON IT?! Let me help you out, Karen: they have starters as low as six bucks and combo platters for as much as eighty. In between that there are hot pots, rice bowls, noodles, desserts, seafood, etc., at price points ranging all over the place in between those two extremes. But no, let’s call a business their first day open when they’re dealing with 90 minute wait times and ask someone to take the time and try to explain to you that their price range is everything from fast food to steak dinner. And then, of course, you give a one star review to an eatery you never visited. If it were my restaurant, I’d be GLAD you’re not showing up. Get fucked.

They should have put the opening day upfront. We were so excited walking in for a dinner, and the tiny sign said “it’s family and friend only”. It’s confusing because they got multiple reviews while they’re not actually open yet.

This three star review (from someone who never made it in the door or spoke to a single member of staff) came from a person who also didn’t bother to check the website, which clearly stated that the soft opening would begin the following day. Why, why, WHY are people too lazy to look things up, yet they have all the energy in the world to bitch? You would think someone that Google has designated as a “local guide” would be better at actually using their services.

Luckily, there are enough positive Google reviews that the average score is looking pretty good. Not the case on Yelp, however. Only two reviews there, a five star and a one star for an average of three. And of course, Yelp is where you go if you want the REALLY good tirades.

I’ve been eagerly waiting for this place to open for 2 years. Perhaps opening night wasn’t the night to come. We sat at the table with our side dishes for 90 minutes. The place was only half full, tables weren’t being bussed, drinks weren’t being refilled. The entry was packed because no one was being seated.

My main issue was with the server. The other servers around us were bringing out side dishes, explaining what they were, offering assistance. Our server barely spoke. She didn’t explain what any of the dishes were. She never said anything helpful and when we had sat there over 90 minutes and I asked for a second refill of iced tea, she said they ONLY refill drinks ONE TIME!!! I understand this was a soft opening and there are kinks to be worked out. I also understand that under these circumstances, when a customer has nothing else to do but sit and wait, you keep them happy any way you can. She eventually brought me a refill but by then I wasn’t happy at all.

Once the food finally came, it was okay. Not great. The flavors just weren’t there. It lacked some seasoning. Our server kept turning the meat. She never said “I can assist or you can do your own”. I finally heard another server tell a table nearby that she could help or they could cook and I took over. When we were done with our meal, my daughter really wanted to try the tiramisu and I was prepared to order one for her. The server brought our check and left. She didn’t ask if we wanted the remaining food to go, nothing.

Sadly, the Magnificent Garden is nowhere near magnificent yet. I REALLY hope things improve or I’ll keep going to Mr. Wok for my Korean food.

Now let me tell you a little bit about my own experience. My server told me pretty much right out of the gate that it was his first day there. My response was “Mine too!” The guy is an American from a Chinese family, and he’s still working at nailing all the Korean words and menu items (of which there are a LOT). He literally didn’t know the difference between rice cakes and tiramisu. I just don’t get the anger, the indignation, and yeah, I’ll throw entitlement in there as well. A soft opening is a treat. You’re on the forefront, experiencing something that a lot of other people in town aren’t even aware of. Usually the place isn’t advertising yet, the staff is still figuring everything out, and you would think the woman would know this considering that she mentions in her opening salvo and several times thereafter that going on opening night might not have been the best idea if she wanted a perfect experience. I go the other way. Unless the kitchen is churning out pure shit and/or the staff are purposefully acting like colossal assholes, I’m along for the ride. I’m rooting for them! What a difference a day makes, though, since the food I ate less than 24 hours later certainly wasn’t lacking any seasoning. Maybe I’ve just been through enough soft openings from one-off restaurants that didn’t have a bunch of corporate types to send in and guide them through everything? Not to mention the fact that with ethnic eateries, there’s a very real possibility that you’ll be dealing with people for whom English is not their first language. I probably would have had all the same issues this woman did, except I flat out told my server that I wasn’t familiar with this style of food and asked for guidance, I asked what the dishes I didn’t recognize were, I asked about dessert, and I asked for a take-out box when the check came. It will make both of your experiences, yours AND the server’s, so much easier if you just TALK TO THEM. And here’s a pro tip: if the menu doesn’t say anything about drink refills, DON’T ASSUME THERE WILL BE DRINK REFILLS. If a third soda or glass of tea is a deal-breaker, there are plenty of eateries around town with a conveniently-placed fountain where you can refill your drink yourself to your bladder’s content. Maybe that’s something they don’t tell you until you reach Yelp’s “Elite” status.

There is just so much of this shit around. I’ve seen eateries given a one star review for not having gluten free items, even though nobody ever said they did. I’ve seen one star reviews from people who were pissed off because they couldn’t find business hours posted online, then instead of calling they drive all the way to the place only to find out that it’s closed. I once saw a one star Yelp review of a hot dog cart given simply because the reviewer went to visit them one night during their normal business hours, and the cart was nowhere to be found. Postscript to that story: the cart wasn’t out that night, or any night thereafter. Why? Because the proprietor died. And even if he hadn’t, couldn’t he have been on vacation, or sick? It’s not like a guy running a hot dog cart has a sous chef to back him up when he’s out. What if he just retired, or went out of business? Would YOUR first priority be to go update every online listing in the world?

I don’t know. Maybe I’m just old. Maybe it’s just the way things are now, but I can hope that they won’t necessarily remain that way forever. For now, I’m going to go take a couple ibuprofen and wash them down with a hard cider.