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Benihana: We sue customers to compensate for our bad food

MIND SOUP: Yet another lawsuit launched against a middle-eastern blogger. But this time, the suing side is not a politician or an official, but a restaurant; a restaurant with very bad PR and marketing skills might I add.

Mark is a Lebanese blogger who wrote a review of Benihana Kuwait on his blog 248am after visiting the restaurant a few days after its grande opening. I have done a huge deal of research on Benihana last summer for a course and I know well that Benihana distinguishes itself from other restaurants by two aspects:
  1. The unique layout where customers sit and watch while a chef cooks their food in front of them in a live display of culinary skills.
  2. The quality and freshness of their foods, most importantly their meats.
In his review, Mark complains of the quality of the food being served, and I quote:
... [T]he Hibachi chicken which is basically grilled chicken, that was the worst. The chicken was very chewy (I could swear it was undercooked if not raw) and tasted terrible. Even after I had the chef add some more teriyaki sauce in hopes of improving the taste it didn’t work. I tried to dip it into the sauces that came with the chicken but it was hard to figure out if they were actually making things worse or not. Nat only ate one piece of chicken and left the rest while I needed my protein since I’m on a strict diet and forced myself to eat my whole plate (I can do that) but the after taste was really bad. Even the rice and the veggies that came with it tasted bad AND were under cooked.
As some people are calling this slander, it clearly is nothing more than a customer review of a restaurant. If this is slander, what would my "Urine as a new ingredient in Burger King fries?" review be called?

Part of the Court Order in Arabic
Source: 248am
Anyway, in a comment on Mark's blog, the general manager of Benihana Mike Servo threatened to sue and actually went with the lawsuit. You can find the court order in English here. In an update post, Mark asks:
I find this unfair and if I end up losing this case what will it mean to all the other bloggers? Should bloggers be afraid to say anything negative about a company? Should all our posts just be happy happy joy joy?
Meanwhile, a huge uproar has been taking place across the internet from supporters of freedom of speech and the blogging community in Lebanon and the region.

One interesting thing that I should mention is that the original Benihana USA has commented on the situation on their facebook page and seems to disagree with franchised Benihana on this situation. This has to be a very major 'ba3sa' to the Kuwait franchise:

[...] Over the last few days, we have read your posts regarding an alleged lawsuit filed by “Benihana” against a blogger based in Kuwait for posting an unfavorable review of a newly-opened, BENIHANA restaurant location in Kuwait. We hear you and wish to correct any misinformation.
The BENIHANA brand is co-owned by two separate and distinct corporate entities – Benihana, Inc. and Benihana of Tokyo, Inc. We, Benihana, Inc., own, operate and franchise nearly 100 BENIHANA restaurants in states and countries throughout the United States, Central America, South America and the Caribbean. You can find our locations by visiting the website. Benihana of Tokyo, Inc. owns, operates, or franchises BENIHANA restaurants in various other parts of the world, including, Kuwait. You can view Benihana of Tokyo, Inc.’s locations by visiting
While we have a shared interest in the BENIHANA brand, we have no control over Benihana of Tokyo, Inc.’s business or legal decisions. Consequently, we cannot comment or opine on the alleged lawsuit filed by Benihana of Tokyo, Inc. except to say that we are never pleased to hear of any BENIHANA customer’s negative experience. We encourage you to share your opinions and comments directly with Benihana of Tokyo, Inc. The company’s contact information is available on
Before I begin my analysis of the situation, being a marketing student and emphasizing on social media, I will present a few interesting quotes from the blogosphere on this situation.

Source: Irrelevant Combinations
The blogger behind Blog 37 proposes in his/her post "Social Suicide by Benihana" the following scenario:
What Benihana should do, now:
  1. Drop the lawsuit
  2. Send an official apology to Mark & Nat, and to the potential customers you have lost! “Including me”
  3. Fire your PR manager
  4. Be more open about comments and “unfavorable reviews”!!
"One beef negimaki, and a lawyer please" by Irrelevant Combinations speaks about a radical change in the way we accept information:
[...] No matter how hard we try to manipulate the truth or hide facts from people, we will fail. It’s inevitable. If they don’t know about it now, they will know about it later. This applies to everything from “bad service in restaurants” to “torturing citizens”. We need to fundamentally change the way we accept or share information, it’s all about honesty and transparency.
Najib on Blog Baladi says that:
I always thought I would get sued or harassed first but it seems restaurants in Lebanon react more positively to critics.
Mich on Mich Cafe in her post "Brand fiasco unites bloggers" asks:
So are we supposed to feel intimidated? No way!
This is an excellent case study for marketers, PRs and brands on how to deal with the online community, blogs in particular. Unfortunately, a brand is as weak as its weakest link. In Social Media it takes just one tweet by Mark, one re-tweet by Alexander (@AlexanderMcNabb) and a couple of blog posts to rally a community without borders.
Cory Doctorow from BoingBoing took matters into his own hands and interviewed COO & Executive VP of  the original Benihana Tokyo:
Source: BoingBoing
This morning, I spoke with Michael Kata, COO and Executive Vice President of Benihana of Tokyo, who license the Kuwaiti franchise. He hadn't seen the suit yet, and while he said he could not offer specific comment, he confirmed that a lawsuit over a bad review was "unprecedented" in the firm's history. He said that his company's franchise agreement did not give them the authority to order franchisees to sue or withdraw suit, but that they were empowered to terminate the agreement should the franchisee bring the brand into disrepute. 
Kata was careful to hedge his words, saying that he hadn't reviewed the case and didn't know whether there was any merit to the (to my mind, obviously absurd) assertion that the claims were fabrications by a competitor. Let's hope he gets to the bottom of things quickly and gets this blogger off the hook before he has to spend too much money defending himself from a thin-skinned restauranteur.
Fahad from Trying to Be Fahad speaks to Benihana about defamation:
In my opinion, you’ve defamed yourself. Suing someone for freedom of speech is low by any standards. What could have been seen as an opportunity was seen as a problem, and in order to solve that problem you went ahead and sued one of the most influential bloggers in Kuwait. Fail.
Source: Suddenly Two
@Alexi13 says on Suddenly Two:
These days with the power of social media and all the blogging activity increasing by the minute here, with especially a vocal culture, brands should play ball and even offer their hand to be embraced by social media.. it is always and will always remain a two-way and more communication process,, people listen, people watch, people share, people do good. Brands are thus to calculate every step they make, how they talk, how they act, how they present themselves,, a slip is no longer a tiny press clipping to hang on a wall of shame in a GM's office, NO, it becomes the mockery of everyone !
From the Chicken Nugget:
If anything, I think the way they handled it made things worse for the Restaurant. They were right in that the restaurant was new, but Mark’s review wasn’t completely terrible in my opinion. He pointed out the pros and cons of his experience, which led me to believe I should give the restaurant some time before trying it out.
Their actions, however, have turned ME off of trying it out. And I want to clarify I mean ME. I don’t want to be served with papers after all for allegedly swaying readers not to eat there.
American Girl in Kuwait criticizes the GM's question about Mark's nationality in a post entitled "BTW, are you Lebanese?":
[...] what I found to be most appalling (and disgusting) about this entire thing is the employee who initially asked Mark on his blog, “BTW, are you Lebanese?” Ummm, why? What role does his nationality play in his opinion of their food? I certainly hope that person has since lost their job — at the very least.
Snow in Q8 discusses the unprofessionalism of the general manager:
It is the most unprofessional letter I have ever read in my life, I found the part which asks about Mark’s nationality especially unprofessional, what does that have to do with anything?  I come from a country where customer service is a top priority and it seems to me that Benihana really needs to follow up with their franchises outside of the States and see how their “GM” is treating people.  He is a joke of a manager and I hope that all this publicity is brought to the attention of Benihana and they replace this Mr. Servo with someone who knows how to manage a fine restaurant.  Good Luck Mark, we are all behind you.
This is just a part of the comments from bloggers. Mark has posted a list of posts that speak about this lawsuit here.

Now for my analysis. Let me first announce the verdict:

Benihana: ZERO (or possibly negative one zillion)
Mark: wins the case

And here are the reason's behind my verdict:

  • Freedom of Speech. If you are a regular reader of Mind Soup, you would know my intense belief and great lobbying for freedom of bloggers, especially after being fired over a post last spring. However, this case seems to be very trivial. Reviews are posted all over the internet, from movie reviews to restaurant reviews to even hotels, schools, universities, and even hospitals. Does writing a bad review get you sued? Only if the company is run by apes, maybe. Have they heard of Amazon or E-bay? I don't see people getting sued because they posted a bad review of a product. Benihana is very delusional.
  • In what mind does a GM of a company inform someone of a lawsuit in a BLOG COMMENT? How professional are they? Seriously? Do they really want their dirty laundry hanging around on a blog of a very influential opinion leader? 
  • After a few weeks after its opening, a company is suing a costumer. This implies negative customer service, bad PR, extremely bad marketing AND they are probably going to lose the lawsuit. A huge anti-Benihana campaign is now launched. Does Benihana want to sue them all now?
  • "The customer is always right!" Ever heard of that? Guess not. 
  • Social media is not a toy. It is not a way to make money. It is not a marketing campaign. Benihana chooses to operate facebook and twitter accounts, yet they are abusing their costumers online. Social media is not there to make you look good. It is not there for your free advertising. The WHOLE purpose of SOCIAL media is for people to interact and share their experiences. Benihana is deleting the negative customer comments and banning them. The purpose of social marketing is to have a TWO-WAY communication with your customers. If your customers are unsatisfied, you do not disregard them and delete their comments. It is not a cat & mouse game. Smart companies would build upon this criticism and improve their mistakes. Every company makes mistakes; by going this far, Benihana Kuwait has basically dug its own grave. If you are not willing to listen to your costumers, why operate?
  • In what mind does Benihana file a lawsuit WITHOUT consulting its main franchisee? Do they not realize that this affects the image of the whole brand, especially after only few weeks since opening?
  • Racism?!! What the hell was he thinking? Does that make him more macho? I don't understand. This person is responsible to manage the whole franchise? Shouldn't he be sent back to kindergarten to learn communication skills? What does being Lebanese have to do with anything? Aaah I cannot believe how hard this person has screwed up!
  • Even if Benihana wins the lawsuit (which is highly unlikely). the amount of bad publicity it has gotten outweighs greatly any amount that will be gained from this lawsuit. This move has cost Benihana Kuwait its image and millions of dollars in possible revenues. I know for a fact I will not be going to Benihana Beirut anymore.
The solution:
  1. The lawsuit should be dropped, obviously.
  2. In addition to a very public apology, a huge compensation should be given to Mark.
  3. Mike Servo should not only be fired, but also sued by Benihana.
  4. Benihana Kuwait should close down and re-evaluate its management.
  5. Benihana Tokyo should reconsider the franchise agreements it has given.
  6. Benihana should train its management to listen to the customer and not beat the crap out of them.
Personally, I would like to extend my huge support to Mark and ask of him to be patient and remain calm. It is unfortunate how stubborn and thick-headed some people can be. Mark, you should be proud that the whole online community is supporting your case and I would personally stand behind you in court in March and defend you. Be strong and optimistic :)

As for companies of the sort, I hope you realize how powerful the online community is. Word of mouth now spreads much much faster than it used to; one bad meal can mean a disaster for you. Therefore, you should try to please a dissatisfied customer not anger him/her more, because believe me, you will not win!