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May 29, 2013

Industry Standard: Insider info for those who dine out

Zen and the art of oh-no-they-didn’t

Last week, I read with interest multiple media accounts of the saga of Amy’s Baking Company, a restaurant in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Amy’s is the latest of a long list of ailing restaurants to throw itself into the arms of the producers of “Kitchen Nightmares.” “KN” stars ubiquitous Chef Gordon Ramsay, who famously swoops in to tell you what you’re doing wrong. Nearly every episode follows the same formula; Ramsay is disgusted by your cooking, disgusted by your slovenly ways, and put off by your dated décor.

He’s gobsmacked by the mountain of debt you’ve built up. If your interpersonal dynamics are less than Brady-esque, he’ll likely throw in some off-the-cuff counseling as well, in between scathing bouts of profane browbeating. Chefs and owners always resist at first, eventually seeing the error of their ways after producers spend thousands of dollars renovating the space “overnight.” Even the most hard-bitten, previously stoic owners and managers melt into a puddle during the big reveal. Then: tearful thank-yous, a wistful goodbye, a triumphant return visit several weeks later to check in on the business’ progress or regress.

But this time it was different. Formula blown wide open. I wonder how long “KN” producers had to sift through applicants before stumbling upon Amy’s. This restaurant had fresh décor already in place. The space was immaculate; the walk-in fridge ridiculously clean and organized. No noticeable mountain of debt here — money was barely mentioned. Ramsay didn’t care for the execution of the food but didn’t take issue with the menu. So what was wrong with Amy’s, and what made it season finale-worthy?

Almost immediately, the owners showed their hand: They’d appealed to the show’s producers because they were having some trouble in the ol’ online amateur review department. In other words, they handled customer complaints so badly, to the point of being abusive to their own guests, that they’d garnered a bad name on the Internet. Then they’d compounded the problem by responding — online — less than tactfully. They proudly told Ramsay they “stood up to online bullies.” The only renovating they needed was of their reputation.

Ramsay made some perfunctory gestures toward his usual diagnosis and analysis, but Amy and her husband Samy were delusional. Intractable. They would accept exactly zero criticism from him or from anybody else. Ticket times past an hour? Frozen, freezer-burned ravioli served still cool? Long-awaited pizza obviously undercooked?

Early on, Amy said to the camera: “The customer is not always right.” Samy actually shoved and demanded payment from a patron who dared to complain they’d never even received their food. Worst of all, they kept the tips earned by their servers. Eventually, Ramsay cleverly did something he’d never done before. He walked away. He abandoned the episode. He said he couldn’t fix what was wrong with Amy’s, and he was right.

As the credits rolled, I practically vaulted to the computer. And I’m ashamed to say I spent many hours reading the online reviews (and reciprocal replies) of Amy’s, both those posted before and then the torrent of those posted after the episode aired. But Amy’s Facebook page was the jewel in the crown of schadenfreude. There were thousands of comments and several responses from Amy and Samy, hers in all caps, such as “I AM NOT STUPID ALL OF YOU ARE. YOU JUST DO NOT KNOW GOOD FOOD” and plenty more in that vein.

Subsequently, Amy and Samy came to realize their damage control was doing more damage than control. Several hours of comments later, they lamely claimed their Facebook, Twitter and Yelp accounts had been “hacked,” a la Anthony Weiner. (It’s wild how “I was hacked” has become the new “Dog ate my homework,” isn’t it?)

And then Amy and Samy announced they would briefly close, restaff and have a grand reopening. I was depressed, thinking people would line up around the block to be abused by these assclowns, just to be able to tell their friends about it.

Imagine my delight when media reports revealed only 12 people stood in line for the reopening. Maybe humanity has a future after all. We could all be a bit more delicate in our online relations, patrons and owners alike. Be careful out there.

Marsha Lynch has worked at many Louisville independent restaurants including Limestone, Jack Fry’s, Jarfi’s, L&N Wine Bar and Bistro, and Café Lou Lou.