A lot of us don't know how to complain properly when we’re unhappy with our food, which means we either get too scared to do it or go about it in a rude way. 

Complaining at a restaurant isn’t fun but can be important so here’s what you need to know. 

What's appropriate for a customer to complain about? 

Customers shouldn't feel too scared to complain, says Jessica Walker, communications manager at Consumer NZ.

While it feels unnatural to complain, restaurants can’t put their mistakes right if they don’t know there’s a problem, she says.

Complaints regarding dietary requirements and allergies feel the most valid to make. 

If you’re allergic to walnuts and you ordered a salad that you didn’t realise included walnuts, you should absolutely speak up. 

But complaints about the taste and preparation of a dish are also valid, says Sophie Gilmour, hospitality consultant and co-owner of Fatimas and The Village in Auckland.

Pictured: Sophie Gilmour, hospitality consultant and co-owner of Fatimas and The Village in Auckland. Source: Supplied

“If what you paid for falls short of what you ordered, you should complain,” Sophie says. 

That includes if a dish is missing a component, if there’s an incorrect item or if the dish is prepared incorrectly. 

“If the avocado on your plate is brown and mushy and overripe, you’re in your rights to say that.” 

When asking yourself whether you should complain about food at a restaurant, consider the amount of money you’ve spent on the dish. 

Sophie says that in a quick serve environment like Maccas, she has lower expectations for things like presentation. 

But if you’ve gone to a high end restaurant and paid for an expensive entree that has been presented very sloppily, that could be useful feedback to provide the restaurant. 

Common complaints 

Coffee is one of the most common food items to be complained about, Sophie says. 

Sophie says customers tend to be “very particular” about how they like their coffee to be made, so she encourages people to be specific when placing their order so they don’t have to complain afterwards.

It's also common for customers to complain about wait times for food. 

An article by Consumer NZ says if you notified a restaurant that you needed to leave by a certain time but the food didn’t arrive by then, you could complain and leave without paying. 

If there wasn’t an agreed upon time limit, the Consumer Guarantees Act says you should receive your food within a reasonable time. 

What is reasonable depends on what you’ve ordered. Consumer NZ says half an hour could be acceptable for a cooked meal but not for fast food or coffee. 

Sophie says complaints about wait times often come down to a lack of understanding of what's involved in the creation of a dish.

At her restaurant Fatimas, they make every dish to order. That means if a customer orders chicken, it takes them some time to cook it from scratch. 

Once a customer has placed an order for chicken, there’s very little that staff can do to speed up the cooking process, even if the customer is in a rush. 

If you’re going to a restaurant but you’re short on time, Sophie recommends telling the wait staff how much time you have and asking them what can realistically be cooked and eaten within that time frame. 

Escalating serious complaints 

If you believe you got food poisoning from food you ate at a restaurant, the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) recommends you report it to the health protection officer at your local public health unit. 

The officer can investigate the cause of your illness and help the restaurant improve their food safety processes. 

If you think the restaurant you went to was very dirty or unhygienic, CAB says it's best to contact your local city council’s environmental health officer. 

What is inappropriate to complain about? 

While mushy brown avocado is objectively bad, taste is largely subjective.

Sophie says disliking the taste of a dish you’re unfamiliar with is a grey area and isn’t necessarily grounds for a complaint. 

Some dishes have polarising ingredients and when people order it, they complain about these components, Sophie says.

If you’ve ordered a dish you’ve never had before and something tastes off about it, Sophie recommends asking one of the wait staff to confirm whether the dish is typically prepared that way. 

Her other suggestion is to not get experimental when ordering if you know you’re a fussy eater, because there's a high chance you won't like the food you're served. 

Hospitality staff are trained to deal with complaints 

Staff working at Sophie’s restaurants are trained to respond to complaints by apologising, giving the customer what they want, and giving them something extra if the situation calls for it. 

“Hospitality is the business of making people feel hosted and looked after, so even if someone wouldn't legally be entitled to compensation, we do it out of goodwill,” Sophie says. 

The worst complaints Sophie has received are ones where customers were enraged and took their anger out on the waitstaff. 

“It's upsetting that people think they can treat waitstaff rudely, insulting anyone is a bad way to go.” 

In those situations, Sophie always backs her staff members. 

In order for a restaurant to function, it hinges on a lot of things going right. Something could go wrong in the kitchen, in the front of the house, or with the technology and machinery. 

Sophie says it's helpful when customers pass on their feedback to the right person instead of taking out their frustrations on the wait staff. 

What’s the best way to complain?

Being respectful and constructive is key to complaining well, Sophie says.

Sophie says when a complaint is delivered well, it's considered “feedback”. When it's delivered badly, it comes across as “abuse”. 

Jessica Walker from Consumer NZ says customers should complain as soon as they discover a problem, instead of eating the entire meal, then complaining and refusing to pay. 

“It's not fair on the restaurant if you mention things weren’t up to scratch when you’re on your way out.”

Sophie agrees. 

“Someone eating a whole dish and then complaining about it is a lost opportunity for the restaurant to learn and improve,” Sophie says.

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