Shwarma vs. social media — a recipe for disaster

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

The restaurant manager was rude and wrong. The customer was wrong and rude.

If this were a contest, I'd give the blue ribbon for rudeness to Sam the manager and the prize for wrongness to Kendra the customer. But at this point, it's not important whose baby is uglier.

What matters is that the social media steamroller has belched its black smoke again, and according to the owner, business at his Shelby Township eatery has been flattened by 30 percent.

"Labeling the owner as sexist, as a person who disrespects women — it's just not right," says Chris Touma, who opened the Sahara Mediterranean Grill six years ago.

He and Kendra have made peace, and he is pleased she finally called him back earlier this week.

But that doesn't patch the holes in his reputation, or erase the one-star reviews on Yelp and Google posted by people who've never set foot in his building.

Kendra posted her call to arms — or really, her call to fingertips — on April 11. "Please, PLEASE," she wrote, "share my experience with all your friends and family."

Since then, her story has been shared on Facebook 5,302 times. Taking her outrage several long steps further, people called the restaurant and swore, or accused whoever answered the phone of sympathizing with ISIS.

That's not what Kendra asked for or endorsed — and for what it's worth, Touma is an American-born Chaldean — but social media campaigns are far better at scorching earth than they are at replanting flowers.

He said, she said

Kendra is a married Macomb County mother of three who describes herself in her post as a "confident, well spoken and articulate female."

It seems unnecessary to use her last name, since the object isn't to shame anyone. What's key is that around 12:30 p.m. two Saturdays ago, she stopped into the restaurant in a strip mall near the Costco on Hall Road to pick up $14.88 worth of lentil soup, garlic dip and fresh-baked pita.

Then, in a short-order version of her lengthy post:

Bread isn't ready. She waits 10 minutes, is told it'll be two minutes more, complains to Sam the manager. (Note: Touma says that according to the security tape, she was there not quite four minutes before complaining.)

At some point, Sam identifies himself as the owner. He says tough luck. Kendra decides to cancel the order and asks for a refund on her credit card. Sam gracelessly refuses.

Kendra sees a $20 bill from a past customer sitting on the counter, takes it, leaves $5 change, departs. (Note No. 2: If that seems reasonable, consider what would happen if you helped yourself to the till at Macy's.)

Thirty minutes later, police officer knocks on her door: Return the $20 or face charges. Back at the restaurant, she informs Sam he acted like a (bleep). "Takes one to know one," he says.

Kendra exits restaurant, shouting, "He's a (bleep). The owner is a (bleep)."

Then she goes home and starts typing.

Two wrongs ...

It's important to note that 1) Sam has been booted off the payroll, and 2) Kendra conceded on Facebook that she shouldn't have marched through the restaurant hollering a word she wouldn't let her kids say.

Also, after Touma posted a note of explanation on his website, she placed a comment on her page Monday noting that "all involved have learned a lesson or two, myself included."

But that was 61 posts into the thread, a week after she compared her campaign to Mahatma Gandhi's — and it has five likes, not 5,302 shares.

"Can you undo the harm that's been done?" asks University of Detroit Mercy marketing professor Michael Bernacchi. "Of course not."

Social media, he says, "encourages us to be reactionary and instantaneous. It encourages us to seek therapy without paying for it."

Instead, the check gets handed to someone like Touma, who's only 26 and put himself through college while he was running a restaurant that has doubled in size in six years.

He says he offered Kendra and her family a free dinner as an apology. She told him they're moving out of state and they might not have time.

He says they're welcome to stop in whenever they're back in town. He'll still be there ...

He hopes.