How To Complain About Your Restaurant Food Without Being A Jerk

Restaurants (and other food businesses) aren't perfect. Here's how to let them know they've made a mistake.

In just the past few months, I've been in four situations where I felt a need to complain about food, from grocery stores to mail order companies to restaurants. This might sound quaint, but I didn't simply blast them in a one-star Yelp review, or post a nasty comment on social media. I wasn't rude to a server, nor did I demand to be comped. I politely asked for an adjustment, and I got one, usually with sincere apologies.


Some places make it super easy to return food. Trader Joe's is famous for giving refunds on anything it sells, and you don't even need to bring it in. The store took my word about the little green balls of mold that formed in my container of grated Parmesan cheese long before its sell-by date. (Trust me, they do not add flavor to a dish, or at least, not flavor you would want to eat).

Other places make you hunt around a little. After my aunt died, a friend kindly sent me a bereavement gift of fruit. I opened the box, only to find that a section had spoiled. I couldn't find phone number or a customer service email, only a web form for submitting comments. I never know whether anybody actually reads those, so I was pleasantly surprised when the shop called me to get details about what happened.


Restaurants have to deal with unhappy patrons all the time, of course, and many have systems in place for replying to complaints. You can read about the process used at the Zingerman's Community of Businesses of Ann Arbor, Michigan, in my book, Satisfaction Guaranteed: How Zingerman's Built A Corner Deli Into A Global Food Community.

There's a reason I chose that title: Zingerman's wants people to be happy, and it views complaints as a chance to learn more about their vendors and their customer service. Here's what it says on Zingerman's mail order website: "If you experience a problem with any of our products, customer service, shipping—or even if you just plain don't like how it tastes—please let us know. We'll do whatever it takes to make it right for you. And we'll never ask you to return anything."

Despite the rancor you sometimes see online, a number of customers are shy about complaining, but it doesn't help a business if you go away unhappy without letting them know why. Here are some steps you can follow if you're truly dissatisfied.

Submit your complaint promptly

As soon as the problem comes up, bring it to the attention of your server, the counter clerk, or the customer service department (if you ordered by mail). You don't help your cause by waiting until everyone at the table has finished their meal, or biding your time for three months while stewing over your displeasure.


Recently, I opened a box from a favorite British grocery site and found that two of the items were stale. I sent an email in the evening, and had a response and a refund the next day.

Be specific in your complaint

Your complaint can help the business trace what went wrong. If a dish in a restaurant isn't cooked to your requested temperature, you can tell the server, "This is too rare; I wanted it medium, and it's well done." For mail order items, take a photo of the "best by" code, or snap the damaged goods as well as the packaging. Submit that with your order number or a copy of your receipt and include your full contact details.


Keep complaints discreet

Restaurant servers and hosts who are on their toes will circle back to check in some time after dishes are dropped off at a table. If you got the wrong dish, or the taste doesn't seem right, or a drink isn't mixed to your specifications, tell them politely. Zingerman's pledges to refund you if you simply don't like the taste, though not everyone is so magnanimous.


Be judicious in this feedback. If your order is something far afield from what you usually go for, like a turkey burger instead of Angus beef, it really isn't fair to declare it flawed simply because it's different from what you're used to. Restaurant staff will often notice the uneaten dish anyway, and offer to swap it out.

Maintain reasonable expectations

It's common practice to take an unacceptable entree off the bill. But if just your fries came cold, you can't expect the restaurant to tear up your party's entire check. If five of six brownies were fine, a refund for the stale one is enough. Some restaurants and food shops will offer to replace your order, or let you order something of equal value, rather than refund your credit card. You can keep pressing for your money back, but it's sometimes fun to use a credit instead.


Give the business another chance

I know people who simply won't go back to a restaurant or place another order after they've been disappointed. If this has happened multiple times, of course, you shouldn't keep wasting your money. But the mistake could easily have been a one-time event. Your complaint could probably be helpful, and a good business will do what it can to make sure you stay satisfied.


Have a replacement item in mind

Maybe the burger was too raw. Do you want a new burger, or would you be happier with a BLT? Have an answer ready when the server asks what else they can bring or send you. Again, be reasonable: don't ask for lobster if you had fish and chips. If you're in a rush, you might not have time to wait while they prepare a fresh plate. However, many restaurants will expedite replacements because they want people to leave happy.