A chef says he's being "blackmailed" by online food reviewers who threaten to write bad reviews if he won't give them preferential treatment.
Tommy Banks, 28, and his brother James run The Black Swan, a pub in Oldstead, North Yorkshire, which was recently named the best restaurant in the world by a TripAdvisor online poll.
But recently, the young Michelin-starred chef took to Twitter to reveal that he believes he is being blackmailed with bad reviews by customers who don’t want to pay the cancellation fee they agreed to when booking - and asked for advice on how to deal with the matter.
He wrote: “Not for the first time we seem to have been threatened with bad reviews online unless we let them off the cancellation policy to which they previously agreed.
“As an industry how do we deal with this? I think we should never back down to what appears to be blackmail.”
According to the restaurant’s website, the cancellation policy is: “In the event of a cancellation with 28 days of the arrival date we will keep the whole payment as a cancellation charge. If we are able to re-let the booking we will refund the payment and retain a £20 administration charge.
“For reduction of numbers within 28 days of the arrival date we will keep the whole payment of the cancelled places as a cancellation charge.
“We will only accept cancellations by email.
“In the event of a cancellation or reduction in numbers being made more than 28 days before the day of arrival, we will refund the payment and retain a £20 administration charge.”
The restaurant requires full payment at the time of booking, with meals at The Black Swan costing £98 to £240 per person, depending on the type of reservation.
According to Chef Banks, many of the negative reviews on TripAdvisor are made by diners upset they didn’t receive special treatment and were forced to pay the strict cancellation policy.
One reviewer left the restaurant one star and wrote: “Have had to cancel due to my mother become very unwell last minute. I have spoken to the restaurant and James called me back after 5 calls, to tell me that I would not be able to move my booking to another later date. I have told them I would be willing to pay a fee as I am cancelling over 48 hours before. James had a massive attitude and would not move my booking nor would he put into any consideration that my mum is very ill. This is supposed to be a family run business and I don't sense care and family values whatsoever. I have lost £900 and this was a gift for my family to stay there and enjoy some great food. Not at all.”
Another review, referencing the cancellation policy, reads: “The food at the Black Swan merits its Michelin but the same cannot be said for customer care. We were due to visit the first week of January for my birthday. we had booked dinner, B and B at a not insubstantial cost. My husband, unfortunately, had a horrible virus so I phoned the Black Swan on the day of the visit to explain that he was not well and that as this was a special treat for my birthday could we move the booking.
“I did not ask to cancel, merely to move it. I was met with a very firm no. their terms and conditions provide that if you cancel in the 48 hours before the visit you are charged the whole cost (in our case approx £400). Apparently, they have no flexibility to cover illness contingencies which I found astonishing. People get ill and often at the last minute (just in case you wondered most standard travel insurance does not cover one night stays). faced with losing all that money we drove the two hours (which I also explained to them).
“I appreciate this is a business like any other but it is a customer service business and to be so inflexible to me indicates they put profit before people.”
However, The Black Swan still has five stars on TripAdvisor - and most of the 1,004 reviews are positive.
On Twitter, Banks thanked everyone for their replies, writing: “Thanks for all the replies. Some really interesting points raised and it seems to be a widespread issue. TA is the obvious place for people to leave negative reviews but we have had people who haven’t even eaten with us claiming they will write negatively to Michelin Guide.”
And he concluded: “Never allow someone to threaten you with bad online reviews!”
The Independent has reached out to The Black Swan and Chef Banks for comment.
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