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There is No Such Thing as a Free Meal

I opened a restaurant a little over a year ago, and we've developed a great base of regular customers. Recently, one of those customers posted a glowing review of the restaurant on a very influential, user-generated website devoted to the local dining scene. I occasionally reward my good customers with a round of drinks or a meal, so the next time I saw him at the restaurant I picked up his tab as a thank you for being a good customer and recommending the restaurant.
Shortly after that, another of my regular customers posted a great review on the same website, and I comped him a dinner as a thank you.
You can probably guess what happens next. Without intending to, I seem to have established a policy where regular customers think they get a free meal in exchange for a good review. So far, I have more or less honored this unspoken "deal" when a customer hints at it -- though I make it clear that this is for being a good customer, not for writing a good review -- but part of me feels like I'm essentially paying people to write what should be unbiased reviews. At the same time, the reviews are good for business and I don't want to alienate any of my regular customers by not extending the same courtesy. Where's the line?
What started as a good faith gesture -- and smart business for a restaurant owner -- has led to some very dangerous territory, and you need to back away from this perceived "deal" very fast. That means that the tradition of comping drinks or meals for good customers must end immediately, and cannot resume for some time.

A restaurant is built on good food, good atmosphere and good service. What makes it succeed is good reviews and good word-of-mouth. But this so-called "buzz," which is going in your favor at the moment, is poised to explode in your face. Should this rumor spread -- post a good review, get a free meal -- you'll be in big trouble; if the media gets ahold of it, you're toast. Few people will bother with the back story, when the lede says: "A local restaurant is accused of rewarding customers with free meals in exchange for good online reviews..."

So far, you've done nothing wrong. But if you continue this unspoken practice -- now that you're aware of how your regular customers perceive the system -- then you're doing something very wrong. The next time you comp a free meal, you will be paying for a good review.

The best way to reverse this tide is to use the word-of-mouth system that has led to your predicament. The next time a customer "hints" at this deal, stop it. Thank them for their review, thank them for their patronage, but explain to them that this is not how you work. And repeat.

Personally, if I heard that my favorite restaurant were offering such a deal, I would not be tempted to take advantage of it. Instead, I would be taking my business elsewhere, no matter how much I love the food.

There is certainly the potential to ruffle the feathers of those who still expect a handout, but your integrity is more important than a couple of customers. But I don't think it will come to that. When someone hints at a little something-something, explain to them the situation, make it clear that you were thanking people for being good customers, and then apologize for the fact that you can no longer continue the practice because the perception has become clouded.

And you can also remind them that they are still free to post an honest review of the restaurant; if they do, they might add that it is owned by an honest man.

Have a workplace-ethics dilemma? Ask it here, or email wherestheline@gmail.com

William Baker

William Baker is a freelance writer living in Cambridge, MA. His work has appeared in Popular Science, the Boston Globe Magazine, the New York Daily News, Boston Magazine, The Weekly Dig and a bunch of other places (including Field & Stream, though he doesn't hunt and can't really fish). He is a regular contributor to the Boston Globe, where he writes the weekly column, "Meeting the Minds." He holds a master's degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and is at work on his first book.

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