By Sumayyah Meehan, MMNS
As we have witnessed the past couple of months, the power of the Internet as a viable means of communication cannot be ignored. From the streets of Tunisia to the sand-swept deserts of Egypt, the power of the Internet is fueling a revolution that is challenging governments and giving a voice to people who would otherwise have none. Freedom of expression and the ability to dissent from popular, or even expected, opinion is what makes the Internet simultaneously liberating and even dangerous. Our â€œInformation Ageâ€ has proven time and time again that not only can the Internet facilitate the toppling of governments but it can also change the hearts and minds of people seemingly overnight.
This past week a blogger in Kuwait learned first hand how the power of the Internet could surpass virtual communications and affect his personal life. Most importantly, an internationally recognized franchise, may also have realized just how much Internet users can rally for, or even against, their brand. It all started when Mark, a Lebanese citizen and owner of the most popular blog in Kuwait www.248am.com, paid a visit to the American franchise Benihana restaurant to dine with his wife. Notably, Mark is routinely contacted by domestic and international businesses seeking reviews of their brands on his blog. He also takes it upon himself to review restaurants in Kuwait for the benefit of his readers.
It was one of his reviews, specifically about his dining experience with Benihana, which has caused a furor amongst scores of blog readers in the tiny Gulf state of Kuwait. For Mark, and even other patrons who have shared their Benihana Kuwait experience online, the chefs and the food are not even comparable to the Benihana brand. In the review he posted on his blog in January, Mark wrote â€œNow the 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 didnâ€™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.â€ He also made mention of the inferior training of his chef who consistently dropped utensils and did not possess the prowess that Benihana chefs are purported to have. Mark included two videos of the chef preparing his meal on his blog as well.
On the same day of the review, Mark began getting comments from Benihana customers in Kuwait who had a similar negative experience. However, what was most startling was that a General Manager from Benihana in Kuwait named Mike Servo began posting comments. Through questionable English, Mr. Servo managed to threaten Mark with a lawsuit and even threw out a racial epithet by writing, â€œBTW Are you Lebanese?â€ which was a blatant attempt to highlight Markâ€™s nationality instead of the issue at hand.
Events took a turn for the worse this week as Mark became the subject of a lawsuit orchestrated by Las Palmas Company who owns the Benihana licensing for Kuwait. The lawsuit seeks monetary damages to the tune of 5001KD ($17,898). In the lawsuit, the Las Palmas Company claims that Mark has â€œâ€¦stabbed the quality, safety and validity of the food with offensive and insulting wordings that affect the reputation of the restaurant.â€ It also goes on to accuse Mark of working for competitor restaurants to the detriment of Las Palmas Company held franchises by stating, â€œThe person has a private website and works for an advertising company. The person uses his website at work which poses question marks on his motivations for writing a negative review about the restaurant for the company he works for.â€ The lawsuit goes on to say that Las Palmas Company seeks additional monetary damages if â€œâ€¦responsibility is proved.â€
The uproar by 2:48am blog readers has been fierce and widespread. So much so that even bloggers across the Middle East are blogging about it. The story has spread across the Internet in a firestorm with even radio and print publications picking it up. Readers of Markâ€™s blog have rallied around him offering advice, words of support and several have contacted Benihana headquarters in Miami, Florida to voice their outrage. Others have vowed to boycott all of Las Palmas Company held franchises, which includes Subway, Charlieâ€™s Grill and Benihana unless the lawsuit is dropped immediately.
According to the FAQâ€™s on the website for Benihanaâ€™s corporate headquarters the franchise is supposed to be, â€œâ€¦a place to meet new friends, celebrate special occasions or just to enjoy an entertaining meal in our communal dining style with your own personal chef.
Our highly skilled teppanyaki chefs slice and dice your meal, providing entertainment as you enjoy traditional Japanese cookingâ€¦â€ The growing online consensus, with the 2:48am blog review aside, is that Benihanas franchise in Kuwait neither employs â€œskilled teppanyaki chefsâ€ nor do they uphold the international standard of the customer always being right.