02 February, 2011

Benihana Kuwait and Justice

I have been meaning to post here for days. Sorry it's late, but you never know - there might be someone out there who's missed this. I thought I'd just document the whole Benihana Kuwait goof up.

Arguably the most popular Kuwaiti blog, 2:48AM, put up a post last December which talked about dining at the newly opened Benihana restaurant there. It wasn't a glowing review, objective enough but deeply disappointed with the quality of the food and the lack of spectacle, apparently a major part of the Benihana experience.

The post attracted a slew of astroturf, identified as such in comments by 2:48AM blogger Mark, and then a venomous little comment from a chap purporting to be the GM of the franchise holder which threatened to sue the blog. It also made some odd comments about elephants but that, as they say, is another story.

Mark received the law suit on January 30th. I caught his shocked tweet and retweeted it, then nipped off to post about the whole affair - as eny fule no, this is something of a landmark as it's the first time a company has sued a blogger in the Middle East (do please correct me if I'm wrong) - we could all really do without this sort of thing. Obviously, suing the most popular blog in Kuwait is not something most communications professionals would counsel, let alone as an opening gambit..

The news spread quickly, with a lot of very unhappy people leaving comments on Benihana Kuwait's Facebook page. Opinion was 100% behind Mark and angry towards Benihana Kuwait for taking this action. There was not one dissenting voice - everyone agreed that Benihana Kuwait had been arrogant, stupid and misguided in filing suit against a customer expressing an opinion. It was a rollicking read, but eventually Benihana Kuwait did what any craven, arrogant sod would do and deleted the whole wall. Twitter had quite a bit of fun around the #BenihanaKUW hashtag, particularly with the antics of @BenihanaGPR, the 'global PR' joke account that was eventually suspended (presumably it had been reported as spam).

Some tried contacting Benihana Kuwait, one person got through to GM Mike Servo and was rewarded with a subsequent threatening phone call. Mark asked that people not try to telephone Benihana as it may prejudice his case.

Blogs were a-posting across the region, from the UAE to Lebanon (Egypt has obviously had rather bigger fish to fry) as people heard of the story. By the afternoon, the UAE newspapers had picked up the story, the next day saw it featuring in the Kipp Report as well as Arabian Business. We also featured it on the DubaiToday radio show yesterday and brought Mark on to talk about how being sued for a blog post made him feel. (The audio link is over at FPS if you want to listen in to how it went) And then The Next Web, Slashdot and BoingBoing. The Benihana Wikipedia page was updated with the usual speed to include the fact that Benihana Kuwait had sued a blogger. This has been edited out by Wikipedia contributor Donald Albury because it cited blogs and they're not a reliable source. Odd. Googling Benihana would have got him the mainstream media references. Oh well...

By this time, Google was showing the blogs and other media reporting the story as every entry bar one in the first page of search for "Benihana Kuwait" and the story was on the first page of search for "Benihana". Mark posted up a list of media that have covered this and it's here.

A statement, first shared when it was sent to Ghassan Deeb (@gabdallah), was posted on the Benihana Inc Facebook page distancing the company from the growing furore. Benihana Inc operates restaurants in America - it's actually a separate company, Benihana Tokyo, that's responsible for the international franchise business, and so for Kuwait. That statement has now, in a priceless escalation of a situation that was always utterly avoidable, been shared with the world's media via PR Newswire:

"Benihana Inc. (Nasdaq: BNHNA; BNHN) has recently become aware of a lawsuit allegedly filed by Benihana against a blogger in Kuwait for his unfavorable review of a local BENIHANA restaurant. Benihana Inc. wishes to correct the misinformation being disseminated on the Internet and published in articles connecting Benihana Inc. to this lawsuit, when it is not."

This will doubtless have a great many journalists around the world asking 'what lawsuit?'. It's the latest in a series of almost wilfully insane mis-steps by the company at every level - and, by the way, the 'Internet' has not been disseminating 'misinformation' - to consumers, a Benihana is a Benihana.

As of this morning, there was also a 'Boycott Benihana Kuwait' Facebook page - the inevitable reaction to deleting unhappy comments on your own Facebook page. It's linked here.

The charge sheet, then:

  • Astroturfing a blog.
  • A company officer leaving a long, rambling, angry, incoherent and threating comment on a blog.
  • Filing suit rather than attempting to have a discourse. 
  • Filing suit against the most popular blog in the country.
  • Suing a customer who had a bad experience in your restaurant and dared to say so.
  • Ignoring aggrieved consumers on your Facebook page.
  • Deleting customer comments on your Facebook page.
  • Failing to respond quickly to a growing crisis caused by one of your franchisees.
  • Responding poorly and escalating the issue with an unhelpful news release.
  • Silence from both the franchisee and franchise owner in the face of thousands of concerned consumers.

The damage to the Benihana brand can only be imagined. And it's not over yet. If you haven't already, I would ask that you leave a comment on the Benihana Tokyo website asking them to pressure Benihana Kuwait into dropping this awful lawsuit - which seeks damages at a minimum of KD 5001 (About Dhs60k!). Links and stuff are over here at the Fake Plastic blog.