This past Tuesday around 10 p.m., anyone who follows Hubcap Grill owner Ricky Craig on Twitter could tell that he was having a bad night. Craig is well-known for voicing his opinions -- often stridently -- on Twitter, but Tuesday was different.
"Ewan MacDonald get out of Houston and GO BACK TO DALLAS YOU FUCKER," Craig lashed out. His Twitter stream was soon backfilled with more of the same: "Hey Ewan MacDonald from 'A Hamburger Today' YOU HAVE POOR/ NO TASTE BUDS. FUCK YOU & YOUR BLOG U WANNA BE FOOD CRITIC. BITCH."
The rant was directed at Dallas-based A Hamburger Today writer Ewan Macdonald, whose review of Craig's burger joint was less than glowing. "Hubcap Grill Can't Quite Match the Hype," read the headline.
But the review itself was otherwise benign -- no A.A. Gill-level screeds nor comparisons of its food to nasty, brackish sea water. The worst part of the review singled out Hubcap Grill's patties as "simply bland." Macdonald even concluded his review on a positive note.
"Still, the thousands of happy customers and the legion positive reviews from publications large and small can't all be wrong," he wrote. "There must be something more to the Hubcap Grill. For this reason I plan on trying it again at some point in the future..."
By Wednesday afternoon, less than 24 hours later, Ricky Craig's Twitter fit had gone viral. "Houston Chef Bites Back on Twitter Against Blog Review," read the Eater headline. At the Atlantic, the headline was even more forceful: "Houston Chef Taunts Critic to Come to His Restaurant and Fight Him."
Craig's Twitter followers were divided into two camps: those who supported his refusal to back down after what was perceived as a negative review, and those who were aghast at his behavior -- especially the profanity.
"I did go a little overboard with the language," Craig admitted yesterday afternoon. But with characteristic pugnacity, he still refuses to back down. "I'm not apologizing -- it's done and over with."
"I work long hours," said a tired-sounding Craig by phone. He was taking an hour break at home between shifts to do laundry. "If I don't take an hour off from the restaurant each week, I won't have anything to wear," he laughed. Part of the reason for his rant, he explained, was simply exhaustion -- physical exhaustion at working both Hubcap Grill locations six days a week as well as the kind of Internet-spurred exhaustion that inspired him to throw a recent anti-Yelp party.
"[Macdonald] got me on a bad night when I'm tired and I've worked 14, 15 hours. Am I sorry I used that language? No. Did it get out of hand? Yes."
Craig acknowledges the fact that people have begun to call him the Burger Nazi and the fact that he's becoming notorious for his often-grumpy demeanor and screeds against sites like Yelp, which belies a kinder side that people rarely see.
"There's always two sides to every coin," he said, referencing his plans to host a Duck Fallas party in response to Macdonald's review, a party which is being planned after Craig's successful Yuck Felp party this past weekend that featured live music and eight kegs of beer bought from local microbreweries. While ostensibly an anti-Yelp party, it had ended up focusing -- ironically -- on hospitality. "This whole 'fuck Dallas' party thing... I'm not really going to talk about 'fuck Dallas.' I'm not that bad of a guy."
"Who supplies a band and free beer in Houston? I paid $5,000 out of my own pocket for that Yelp party. People don't see that," Craig said.
What they do see is Craig's bad behavior on Twitter, behavior that's a turn-off to many customers.
"It is pretty lame that any Houston establishment thinks it is beyond criticism," wrote local blogger Tom Gutting on Twitter in response to Craig's outbursts. "Embrace challenge. Get better. You're not beyond reproach."
"I moved from Dallas three years ago and I love Hubcap. If there's a DuckFallas party you've seen me for the last time," wrote Joel Hatton. "Also, not sure why you'd want to alienate a lot of your native Dallas fans just because of some idiot without taste buds."
But Craig is unbowed by the criticisms. "When you're out in the public and the media, the more you're going to be attacked," he said. "I'm supposed to just sit there and keep taking criticism and swallow it? Eventually, after a while, you just snap."
As to those who claim Craig's outburst was a negative reflection on Houston, his answer was simple: "I never was representing Houston in the first place."
But he's mindful of the fact that "in the long run it can affect your business." After his initial rant last night, Craig says, he "gained 100 followers in 30 minutes. I lost a lot of followers but I also gained a lot of followers." And those are the followers -- and customers -- who continue to form Hubcap Grill's rabid fan base.
"Come on, people. Let @Hubcap_Grill blow off a little steam," wrote Hubcap fan Eric Sandler. "Works his ass off six days a week to bring us delicious burgers." It's exactly these kinds of vociferous antics -- not just his burgers -- that keep Craig's fans coming back for more, and he knows it.
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"I rant just like Axl Rose does," Craig laughed. "I got my rant out. I woke up this morning and said I feel better." He plans to stay off Twitter as much as possible, too: "I am gonna get my thick skin and learn how to bite my tongue and ignore it from now on."
As for Macdonald, Craig still seems wounded, possessed of that thin skin which so many others -- his parents included -- have chided him for: "If he does call, I don't have nothing to say to him."