Joe Apkarian moved to Wilmington in 2009 after his exit from the military had him trading in heavy artillery for rigid octane of a different kind: the service industry. He decided to take over downtown’s Pour House, at the corner of Market and Front, in 2013. Today the self-proclaimed “Cobra Commander” or “Keeper of the White Claws”—whichever his staff prefers to call him outside of plain ol’ boss—is fighting less a battle of country security and more of online reviewers.
With the ease of pressing “send” on social media, nowadays, folks can give grand, sweeping opinions within various foodie-centered groups that can send a restaurant and/or bar’s business through the roof in praise or have the opposite effect: spread negativity like wildfire. Quite the satirist, Apkarian decided to center a night around the worst reviews ever given but with a twist: Servers and bartenders and business owners on the receiving end will read them aloud, from the most bombastic to the most ridiculous to the truthiest ones.
We interviewed Apkarian about Servers Strike Back, which takes place April 9 at 8 p.m. at Pour House.
encore (e): So what inspired the event?
Joe Apkarian (JA): Oh, man: here we go. There is a [locally run] closed Facebook group of about 9k people that review restaurants and eateries in town—and in many cases provide great recommendations and reviews for folks looking to try out something new. But at times (a lot of times) they provide some extremely nitpicky, harsh, and in some instances, downright vindictive posts or reviews on establishments or their employees, and in my opinion (and others), has the genuine ability of hurting a small business.
Think if the hair cut widely known as the “Let Me Talk to Your Manager” [ed. note: née the Kate Gosselin do circa 2009] was a person and made reviews—they would be in this group. If you try to defend the establishment or take issue with the cattiness of the post, you are told you are reviewing the reviewer and will be banned for 24 hours or in some cases blocked. I know people in the group that stay in it because it’s so amazing, some of these reviews.
I’ve watched service-industry professionals huddle around a phone and read reviews and associated comments and laugh so hard they fall out of [their] chairs.
Anyways, after I was booted from the group, due to my posting and informing of the upcoming lunch buffet at Cheetah gentlemen’s club starting next week—which I feel is pretty important information—the ghost of Anthony Bourdain came into my body and created this Facebook, Servers Strike Back, to give my friends and peers a chance to voice and vent some frustration at all these reviews—many in so many cases are not how the actual events went down.
e: Clearly, online reviews can be quite a nightmare nowadays for restaurants and servers, but for those who don’t understand why, exactly, tell us/them…
JA: There is a YouTube clip of Bourdain explaining this eloquently while also swearing profusely, it’s amazing, everyone should go look it up. Bottom line, people post reviews that are inflammatory and in many instances downright wrong with the intent to harm a business’s “score” on that site. Do people have bad times at places? Yes! Absolutely! Does a place or a staff member mess up? For sure, and those people deserve to have the situation rectified. If you feel you want to share your experience, that is your right.
Again, though, so many of the reviews online are not factually accurate and wildly biased toward the reviewer, and in some cases, not allowing the business or server to defend themselves. These reviews, when seen by others while deciding to eat at said business, has now made a very slanted and negative impact that could have a monetary impact on the business and the staff.
e: What’s the craziest review you or a bar/restaurant you worked in has received?
Maybe not the craziest but it’s one of my favorites…
A young woman gave The Pour House a 1-star review after she asked how she could get her picture up with the photos above our bar. My bartender said, “Ahhhh, die for your country?”
She said we were not military friendly, while sitting below all these photos of fallen MARSOC Raiders. The staff tried to tell her the owners are both MARSOC Raiders and The Pour House was pretty well known for being military friendly but she was not having it. Boom! One star to the face.
e: Most honest?
JA: I’d say any review that is a genuine critique, be it a 1 star or 5 star. There are some I’ve gotten that sting, and I’m like, “Yup, we own that one.” I apologize and invite customers to come back, and then address it with the staff.
Honesty does not mean praise—if we are doing something wrong and it impacts the enjoyment of your visit, say something, in an appropriate manner. I’d prefer it to be done in person on the spot and not include the social media world, but this is the world we live in.
e: What’s the worst customer you’ve ever had?
JA: The worst? How about a type of customer, we call them Poo Bandits. The ol’ ‘comes in, looks around, feigns interest in the beer list, goes and poops in the bathroom, and then leaves.’ Pretty shitty if you ask me.
e: What makes great customers, in your opinion?
JA: Just be nice, have fun, enjoy yourself. If something is wrong, tell somebody, in a nice manner! For 95 percent of people, that’s how it goes and it’s wonderful. There is nothing better than helping people have an enjoyable time in your business. My staff does an awesome job and it makes me happy to be in the business I’m in.
What’s the saying? You can tell a lot about a person by watching how they treat people in service-industry roles. So very true.
I think there is also something to be said about giving great service, too. I”m not a fool; there are bad bartenders and servers out there, and they should be corrected by their superiors.
e: How will this night be structured?
JA: I’ll act as MC and simply invite people to come up to the mic and read a review on themselves or the place they work. I’d like to keep names of people and businesses out of it—that information is not needed, nor does it enhance the hilarity of the review. Also, I don’t want to get sued. The point is to read reviews that just on first hearing sound off and make you say, “Um, what was that again?”
e: Do you have an idea of who’s already on board and what they’ll be reading?
JA: I’ve had some friends tell me they are absolutely reading a review they have gotten. I know a few of the stories, you’ll just have to come and see.
e: Will you be reading?
JA: Who can say? You’ll have to stop by.
e: Anything else happening other than service-industry folks reading reviews? Music? Specials?
JA: The plan is to start making this a monthly event. As this being the first one, we will probably keep it pretty simple and build it up from there. We will probably have some good drink specials and maybe a funny named drink or two. The “Let Me Talk to Your Manager” obviously needs to be a shot of tequila.
The “Can You Make It Strong?” will be a shot of water.
The “This Isn’t What I Ordered, But I’ve Eaten Most Of It” will be bartender’s choice.
The “Actually, I’m an Elite Reviewer” gets you billed for a shot of Fernet that the bartender then gets to take when the shift ends.
I can do this all day…
e: Can the public to attend?
JA: For sure, this isn’t like a secret society of service-industry people that are going to sacrifice a bus boy to the gods of Bourdain and Matty Matheson (that sounds really cool though). Come out, it will be fun—the best will probably be when someone reads a review and their peers all clown the person and say, “Oh no, That’s true? You did screw that up!”