Controversy can be the best friend or enemy of the restaurant owner. When it is cultivated for marketing purposes, it can attract attention and build a deeper connection with loyal customers. But when it is a result of a mistake or public relations disaster, controversy can push a restaurant out of business.

The recent news about the Illegal Pete’s controversy illustrates several key issues that concern restaurant owners. Restaurateurs often face unintended consequences from the choices they make, and some restaurateurs deliberately court controversy to generate publicity.

Illegal Pete’s, a Colorado restaurant chain specializing in Mexican food, suddenly discovered that people in the community were demanding that the restaurant’s name be changed because it was offensive to illegal immigrants. The restaurant and name were not new, and the latest branch was the company’s seventh location after 20 years in business.

Controversy and Context

Identifying good controversy from bad controversy is based on the ability to assess what people think and why. The intent behind Illegal Pete’s name had nothing to do with illegal immigration, so it seems silly to interpret it that way (as it is vague).

On the other hand, the Washington ‘Redskins’ name refers to Native Americans and using a name that demeans them down to a skin color. This term comes from an era when people nonchalantly said racist and insensitive things about Native Americans. That is something a brand wants to distance themselves from. While Illegal Pete’s name will not hinder future business because of the context of its naming, the Redskins will have a problem when their fan base naturally ages and younger generations do not fill their places.

Restaurant Controversy in the Internet Age

Restaurants can face sudden controversy that often intensifies because of public access to the Internet. Illegal Pete’s owner Pete Turner refused to change the restaurant’s name, which he stated was used in honor of his father who was a bit of a good-natured scoundrel. Sometimes, restaurateurs discover that their customers’ attitudes differ from their own. Complaints often come as surprises, but some owners embrace controversy for publicity and branding purposes.

How to Respond to Restaurant Controversies

Recent restaurant controversies in the news range from lesbian and gay rights to a bad review for celebrity chef Guy Fieri. Regardless of whether a controversy is deliberately engineered or unexpected, restaurant owners’ responses are critical. If a restaurant believes strongly in a cause or action, then the best results come from calmly defending the situation and explaining why the restaurant supports its attitude.

People understand that unexpected controversies arise in the digital age. Supporters often don’t understand the negative responses about certain issues. Managers can apologize that remarks or events were misinterpreted or that mistakes were made. If a controversy doesn’t upset a restaurant’s regular customers, then a spokesperson should affirm the restaurant’s position. If a controversy results from a publicity stunt, explaining that the stunt was sponsored for humor or publicity can also defuse criticism.

If misunderstandings or mistakes cause negative publicity and losses of business, restaurateurs can apologize, promise to correct the problem or discipline the person who caused the fracas. People understand that restaurant employees make mistakes and often take actions without their employers’ knowledge or consent.

How Not to Respond

Responding with personal insults, anger or tasteless language is never a good strategy. Recently, chef Bac Nyugen of Ninja City Kitchen of Cleveland became so incensed over a bad review that he posted insults, threats, profanity and disturbed comments. Such a tirade might resonate with a few sympathetic restaurant owners but would never generate favorable publicity or increased sales.

Using Controversy to Connect with Customers who Share Values

Restaurateurs have long used controversy to generate publicity, which supports the premise that all publicity is good. Some companies take controversial stands based on their core values while others do so merely to generate publicity. The following examples illustrate some of the controversies restaurants have faced recently and their responses to them:

  • Chef Grant Achatz of Alinea tweeting about a baby ban: Chef Grant Achatz of Chicago’s upscale Alinea restaurant recently tweeted about a possible baby ban after an 8-month-old baby cried incessantly during dinner service. Public opinions are mixed, but restaurant customers who paid $250 each and waited months for reservations were certainly sympathetic to the idea.
  • Chipotle’s support of lesbian and gay rights:
    Chipotle openly courted controversy by supporting lesbian and gay rights while requesting its customers to leave their guns at home, a double-edged dig aimed at right-wing conservatives who support big agriculture instead of local sourcing.
  • Chef Payton Curry of Caffé Boa serves rabbit for Easter: The Tempe, Arizona, chef served rabbit on Easter, and many people complained. However, the chef calmly explained that the decision was based on using seasonal, sustainable game and not a political or religious statement.
  • Gordon Ramsay and a lackluster opening at Heddon Street Kitchen: Gordon Ramsay claimed sabotage from a competitor when half of the seats were empty for the grand opening of his latest restaurant. Instead of suffering from the shame of a half-empty restaurant on opening night, Ramsay received a PR boost for the business. Critics suggest that the sabotage was actually a ploy because Ramsay used similar stunts in the past to garner sympathy.

Restaurant owners walk a fine line when it comes to responding to complaints, negative reviews and controversies. If a controversy only offends the people who don’t dine at a particular restaurant, then the controversy can generate support and encourage solidarity with core customers and their attitudes. Even the most negative publicity often generates sympathetic responses from loyal customers and people who feel that the criticism is unfair.

Generating controversy deliberately can work, but the strategy is risky. Chipotle routinely offends people from the right-wing of the political spectrum with great success. Restaurateurs who use controversy for publicity should only do so if they understand their customers well and don’t fear the consequences of taking a stand or engineering a crazy or humorous stunt.

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