Ever since Te House of Tea and its sister restaurant, the now-defunct Saute World Bistro, signed up for Twitter accounts in August 2008 -- the first two restaurants in Houston to do so -- it's become not only de rigeur but almost necessary for a restaurant to have a Twitter account.
It's not enough now to have just a website or just a Facebook page: Customers want to interact with their favorite restaurants and chefs on Twitter, share mini-reviews or photos of dishes with their friends, namecheck hot restaurants and call out establishments that aren't up to par.
"Tweeting and eating go hand-in-hand these days," says Paula Murphy, whose firm -- Patterson & Murphy -- handles PR for a number of Houston restaurants.
"Restaurateurs and bar owners really want people to be in the moment and enjoy where they are and what they're eating and what they're drinking. Social media has changed all that," she elaborates. "Now, the way you show you're enjoying it is that you Tweet about it. You post it on Facebook. You have that other dimension of depth, the Twitterverse. But just as quickly as they could say something positive, they could say something offensive and negative."
So what happens when a customer is Tweeting something negative about a restaurant as they're dining in it? In the case of one local diner, it can get you kicked out.
Allison Matsu was having drinks at Down House on Sunday night when she posted a Tweet, since deleted, wherein she called a bartender a "twerp" for quoting Bobby Heugel -- the owner of Anvil Bar & Refuge -- and appended her statement with the hashtag
Matsu has achieved mild, local notoriety for her late-night Tweets, even recently winning a Houston Press Web Award for that very activity. Down House, for its part, has achieved a reputation in the short time that it's been open for having capricious service. The two collided in a Twitter-fueled spectacle that resulted in general manager Forrest DeSpain calling the bar, speaking shortly with Matsu, and asking her to be ejected from his establishment.
"She called him a twerp," DeSpain said by phone yesterday afternoon. DeSpain runs the Twitter account for Down House and was agitated that someone would bully his bartender, as he saw it, and took action despite not being at the restaurant that night. "I immediately called up here and talked to her for a few minutes and asked her if she had any kinder words." She didn't, DeSpain said, so he asked her to leave.
Matsu responded by posting a series of Tweets, most of them in the same vein: "Left @DownHouseHTX in tears after GM called up & asked the bartender to hand me the phone. He proceeded to curse a me & ask me to leave. Wow."
Asked to comment on the story yesterday, Matsu said she wouldn't be available until sometime today. If we get in touch with her, we'll update this story. [Edit: Click to the third page to see Matsu's full response.] However, she did post an update yesterday: "No surprise that @DownHouseHTX blocked and unfollowed me. I will NEVER return to that place as long as Forrest still works there."
Although it's far from the first time that a patron has been asked to leave for disruptive behavior, the incident on Sunday night marks one of the first times that a diner has been asked to leave for being disruptive online.
The incident also raises the question: Which group of people is more important to a restaurant? The diners who are physically present to witness another patron's disruptive behavior? Or the masses of potential diners who are virtual witnesses to that behavior on social media?
In an article on restaurants' increasing Twitter usage last year, the Washington Post laid it out like this: "If somebody has 1,000 followers and writes a negative Tweet about [D.C.-area restaurant] Wow Bao, then 1,000 people could think the restaurant is bad."
In the case of Wow Bao, the restaurant handled its potentially negative situation in a constructive, positive manner: It offered gift certificates to a fellow Twitter user asking if the restaurant was truly as bad as the reviews he'd read, politely asking him to come in and find out for himself.
In the case of Down House, the situation was handled perhaps a little bit more inelegantly. And while there is no shortage of lists or articles explaining the best ways to use Twitter for restaurants, there are very few explaining how not to use it.
"However you feel about Twitter, it makes a big difference," says Kevin Strickland, owner of Ziggy's Bar & Grill and an avid Twitter user, who runs the account for both of his restaurant's locations. "I depend on it. It allows me to have a dialogue with my customers, and they'll usually get a response from me."
Strickland emphasizes that Twitter should not be used by restaurateurs eager to take a crack back at unruly diners. "I've done the opposite," he points out, referring to times when he's seen patrons Tweet about a bad meal elsewhere, and inviting them in to have a better meal at Ziggy's on him.
Many restaurants choose to handle their own Twitter accounts like Strickland. After all, humanizing a business's Twitter account is the best way to ensure that people will follow and interact with it. But it can easily lead to hurt feelings on either side without a third party -- a PR firm or a social media team -- to mediate between restaurants and customers when complaints are made so visible, so public.
"Twitter is so of the moment, and people sometimes lose control of their emotions in a way they wouldn't if they were talking to the person face-to-face," notes Murphy. "People will always complain and people have always complained. It's just with social media, there's a totally different platform from which to do it. In the past, someone would call you up and you would deal with the complaint and the resolution of the situation one on one."
"I just think in dealing with social media, you need to handle it just like customer service," she says. "Take it with a grain of salt, approach the person with professionalism and try to talk it out."
Says Strickland, who sympathizes with Down House: "A problem with social media is that it allows you to vent and have a knee-jerk reaction. Once you put it out there, you can't take it back. It's so rude. You're talking about a person that's sitting in your restaurant, who could easily talk to a waiter or a manager. It's very passive-aggressive. That's really frustrating."
On the other hand, he says, Twitter can be an equally positive outlet when used constructively. "Ironically, the nice thing about Twitter users is that they're a lot nicer, a lot less snarky than on Facebook," he says.
"Maybe it's harder to whine in 140 characters."
UPDATE: Allison Matsu got in touch with us today. Her comment on the situation and her original Tweet follows on the next page.
We spoke to Matsu by phone this afternoon. This is her version of the events that led up to her ejection.
My friend and I went to BRC and they were closing after we had a beer, so we went to Down House after. I'd been there once before and it was a cool place. Probably within a few minutes of sitting down, we see a guy behind the bar talking to two other guys -- all three work there.
The guy behind the bar -- and I wasn't exactly clear on what he was saying -- was saying something derogatory about Bobby [Heugel]. I don't think a place like Down House would be up and running without a guy like Bobby Heugel. Here's a guy making things in beakers and flasks and he's making fun of Bobby. He looked like he was about 16, so I called him a twerp [on Twitter].
I ended up having a great conversation with the guy behind the bar. We were having a great time, had another beer. Thirty minutes later, we'd all engaged in conversation, the bartenders had looked at pictures on my friend's phone of her vacation, it was a dead night -- and all of a sudden the phone rings.
Jeremy picks up the phone and all I hear is, "The blonde or the brunette?" He hands me the phone and says, "It's for you." My initial thought is that it's [Chris] Cusack, the guy who owns the bar, who started following me a long time ago. He's the one that usually handles the Twitter account from what I've been aware of.
As soon as [Forrest DeSpain] got on the phone, he started yelling. He paints a different story -- that he was stern but politely asked me to apologize or leave the establishment -- but he was extremely angry from the get-go, saying that I was eavesdropping on a conversation between employees. When someone starts yelling at me, I shut down. Most of it's a blank after that. I was just thinking, "What the hell is going on? What just happened?" [DeSpain] is yelling at me and telling me I need to leave. I don't even know how long the conversation lasted. I didn't get a word in edgewise. He yelled, "You don't interrupt me."
I do remember the last thing he said was, "You need to get your ass up and leave the establishment. Your time is done there." I handed the phone back to Jeremy and said I just got kicked out.
Asked whether she agreed with being asked to leave, Matsu said that Down House was equally at fault in the situation by allowing their bartenders to speak badly about another bar owner.
"For him to say that I was eavesdropping..." she trailed off. "If you're in earshot of customers, you probably shouldn't be talking poorly about another bar. He was just being arrogant. It would be one thing if I called him a jerk or a twerp to his face and was then asked to leave the establishment."
Further, Matsu felt that the behavior on the part of Down House was hypocritical given the larger climate of negativity on Twitter -- which doesn't always come from the customers.
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"There are over a dozen different chefs and owners around town that Tweet about customers or parties all the time, like, 'Oh, that dumbass ordered a cheeseburger without cheese.' Or they talk about rowdy people in the dining room, and those people could be reading the Tweets."
"We all Tweet stuff all the time when we're in restaurants. It's so innocent compared to things I've said before. It wasn't even something malicious. If someone Tweets that the food is awful, they're talking about the person in the kitchen. Is what I said really any different?"