Illustration by Stephanie Rudig

One lazy Sunday morning I woke up and reached for my phone before reaching for my husband, like many of you may have done. What had I missed on Twitter overnight? A quick app refresh revealed that Zentan, a Japanese restaurant inside The Donovan, had tweeted out a full frontal dick pic. No bones about it, there it was: a closeup of a male member on the restaurant’s official account at 10 a.m. on Jan. 19, 2014. After I took a screen grab, I texted Jacque Riley, Kimpton Hotels’ area director of restaurant public relations at the time, who deleted it.

“It was like a pleasant weekend morning,” she recalls. “I think I was drinking coffee, and I was like oh god, oh god.” She suspects it was an employee who held social media responsibilities for the restaurant at the time, though the individual claimed the account had been hacked. “We never really knew, but assumed” the employee had accidentally tweeted the penis pic, “and there’s only so much investigating you can do,” Riley says.

While the tweet was startling, it’s not the worst social media mishap to occur locally, especially now that nearly every restaurant has a Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram account. A dick pic, after all, is just anatomy. Racism, sexism, or drug references can be far more damaging to a restaurant’s reputation, and incidents seem bound to occur if professionals aren’t closely guarding or maintaining accounts.

What counts when it comes to a restaurant’s long-term reputation is how they handle the aftermath.

Take The Royal, for example. Paul Carlson, the owner of the LeDroit Park bar and coffee shop, was at Logan Hardware last July when his phone chimed, alerting him that his restaurant had tweeted.

“The only thing that pairs better than Quaaludes and #billcosby is our #apollo espresso and house made arepas. @counter_culture.” Quaaludes are the prescription sedatives Bill Cosby admitted under oath to slipping women.

“Oh god, that was a terrible day,” Carlson says. An employee had written and sent the tweet. “We had an individual who was extremely talented in the bar program. I still think she’s a good person, but we don’t have the same beliefs.” He fired her, and the restaurant issued an apology on Facebook.

We are a family-run business, proud to be a member and supporter of the community, and the tweet is completely out of line with who we are, the values that we hold, and the culture we want to foster and promote. We strive to help build a safe and inclusive community for everyone and we have no tolerance for anything less than that. The tweet was offensive, insensitive, and the staff member has been terminated. We want to assure our guests and neighbors that The Royal is a safe and respectful place.

Carlson retrained staff about messaging and assigned social media duties exclusively to the restaurant’s publicist, Brittany Garrison. “I think we dealt with it well,” he says. “We acknowledged that there was a mistake made by the restaurant, even though it was done by one person.”

The High Dive in Adams Morgan went beyond merely apologizing after its digital fall from grace. In April 2015, the bar posted a photo to Facebook with the caption, “People are camping out for #thehighdive grand opening!”

Except the accompanying photo appeared to be a homeless man passed out on the sidewalk in front of the entrance. Washingtonians let the bar have it, accusing it of hating homeless people, says partner Tristan Magee. Initially, The High Dive defended the post, but later issued an apology on the social media site.

The image we posted belittled the very serious problem of homelessness, and it never should have been posted in the first place. We’re embarrassed that we posted it and for making the situation worse by being defiant and defensive when we should have done what decent people do when they make a mistake: own up to it and learn from the experience.

The apology tour continued with the restaurant announcing that proceeds from its first Friday night in business would go to Joseph’s House, an organization that cares for people experiencing homelessness in addition to late-stage AIDS and terminal cancer. Magee calculates that they donated $1,100.

“If there’s a crisis—no, WHEN there is a crisis—I think you have to look at your response and be transparent and genuine,” says Doug Rashid, who manages social media for Taylor Gourmet, Shouk, and Mason Social, among others. “If you don’t address someone [and] acknowledge customers, you’re going to be in shark-infested waters.”

Social media is still relatively new, even more so for small businesses. Often when things go south, it’s because someone with login access posts something that may be appropriate for a personal account, but not a brand’s account.  

“When people make boner moves like that, you look at them and say, is that coming from someone with a communications background?” Rashid says. An experienced professional would be unlikely to send a rogue tweet, so Rashid says that blunders typically come from the fingers of in-house staff who better excel at managing or cooking.

That was the case with The High Dive. “We had no idea. We were just two college friends that started a business, so we were still treating Facebook like it’s your regular Facebook account, where nobody cares what you say,” Magee says.

Hiring the right social media manager can prevent a staff member from polluting the digital space with poor taste. Some restaurants, like those of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group,  hire in-house for the position, while others hire contractually. Rashid is a contractor; so is Farrah Skeiky, the social media gatekeeper for Dolcezza Gelato, Daikaya, Room 11, Anxo Cidery & Pintxos Bar, and others.

The Barracks Row Balkan restaurant Ambar also farms out its social media duties. Ivan Iricanin, founder and COO, hired a Serbian company called NextGame to handle his restaurant’s social media for $7,500 a year. Restaurant ownership and management works with NextGame to approve and schedule posts a week in advance. While not having to think about posting every day is a perk, the best value for the money, Iricanin says, is for the monitoring component.

To stay ahead of a social media crisis, restaurants need to constantly keep eyes on feeds. And for that kind of attention, going overseas was much cheaper. “Here, it’s expensive to have all of the perks we’re getting with them, like a 24-hour presence, 24-hour monitoring,” Iricanin says. “Nobody can do anything. They control our log-ins. If we send something stupid, we are stupid, because if you see something, it’s intentional,” he continues.

When an employee leaves on bad terms, it’s particularly important to be vigilant. Just ask Mike Bramson, a partner of Social Restaurant Group. The opening chef at Bonfire, one of Bramson’s restaurants, left less than two months into the job. R.L. Boyd says he was frustrated that the walk-in refrigerator occasionally went on the fritz, requiring him to throw out food.

Bramson says Boyd let loose on his personal social media accounts after departing. “We posted a picture of something we were going to serve that day and he said, ‘good luck with no chef today,’” Bramson says. “We didn’t respond; we just let it go.”

Monitoring Boyd’s accounts put the restaurant on high alert, so when a series of one-star Yelp reviews popped up, Bramson concluded they were either written by Boyd or General Manager Mike Herz, who was terminated a few days after Boyd left. Boyd and Herz both deny writing those reviews, but Bramson contends that they were too detailed to have come from an outsider. “There were three Yelp reviews from people that had never done a review before, naming specific things,” Bramson says. “What made me upset is that he was targeting our pastry chef, and she’s the nicest girl in the world.”

The reviews in question, like nearly all of the posts referenced in this story, were deleted, and The Royal and The High Dive both owned up to their mistakes. But not every post made in questionable taste results in a public apology.

Instagram

On July 19, Chef Kwame Onwuachi of Top Chef fame and forthcoming restaurant The Shaw Bijou posted a photo on Instagram of a couple doing caviar “bumps” off their fists—the identical choreography for doing a line of cocaine. The caption reads, “Teaching people the art of the caviar and truffle bump. There are no bad bumps, but this one is amazing.” No need to spell out the implications. On top of that, he took this show on the road and did caviar bumps live on air with NBC4 news anchor Eun Yang.

The account, @bastedmind, has nearly 14,000 followers, and although it’s Onwuachi’s personal account, it does name The Shaw Bijou. Young & Hungry contacted Onwuachi’s publicist, Jaimie Schapker, about the bumps in question. After talking with Onwuachi about the post, he elected not to comment, and the photo and caption remain on Instagram and Facebook.

Similarly, on July 25, Black Squirrel Owner Amy Bowman tweeted (from the bar’s official account) an illustration dubbed, “Guide to Gang Signs” with a caption of “We’re the OG of DC. Represent.” The image depicted dark-skinned hands making gang signs like “waffle time,” “c is for cookie,” and “small penis.”  When reached about the tweet, Bowman asked if it was in poor taste. “I thought it was funny,” she said.  

Before Bowman deleted it, Miles Gray of Smith Public Trust posted it on Facebook and Twitter saying, “Once a year, like clockwork, a perfectly fine #DC establishment feels the need to drift into ‘accidental racism.’” Reached by e-mail, Gray added, “I’m sure all sorts of societal ills are funny to people who haven’t been affected by those issues—D.C.’s battle against gang violence is pretty well documented.” 

No matter the response, the internet can ensure that gaffes stick around long after the post is forgotten or removed. “If you Google the bar, if you don’t have other things to come up as results, that will always come up on page one of Google,” Bramson says, speaking generally. But Magee reminds us, “The thing with the Internet is, after a week, people won’t remember what they’re angry about. But for the people who are dealing with the hatred, they have to deal with it after everyone else has forgotten.”

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to lhayes@washingtoncitypaper.com.