MENTOR, Ohio - Rick Rhein, who owns Mama Roberto's in Mentor, Ohio, sat on a padded bench--usually reserved for customers waiting out the eatery's busier hours--and shook his head, wondering aloud about the power of websites like Facebook, which he personally doesn't use, over the restaurant business.
For some, social media has been a boon. But Mama Roberto's family and staff learned the hard way that it can wreak havoc, passing along bad news like an electronic grapevine on steroids.
Tracy Basinger of Fairport Harbor, Ohio walked into Mama Roberto's with an oxygen tank on a wheel cart and left after an encounter Saturday evening with a cashier, allegedly a member of the owner's family.
At home again, Tracy posted her account of events and it quickly spread around the web. Outrage followed.
And then multiplied.
When Tracy married Andy Basinger this past winter, she said her doctors gave her just four months to live because of her advancing cancer and blood disease issues.
Hospice home visits are now a regular part of her life. She's learned to stay clear of anything that could shorten her life even more. She and Andy are especially wary of germs.
Something as simple as going out to a restaurant can be a major event for the Basingers.
This life comes with a strict budget, too, so Tracy and Andy use Groupon to afford the occasional evening out, buying one for a favorite restaurant of theirs, Mama Roberto's, which isn't far from their home.
But Groupon coupons come with "The Small Print" written right on them. One of those rules is to present the coupon to one's server before the meal.
Mama Roberto's clearly posts those same rules at their front door and at the checkout counter.
On a busy night, packed with hungry families, it's easy to see how a sign's message can be missed, which often leads to frustration for patrons as well as restaurant staff and owners.
Tracy said, as usual, the meal was terrific, as was the service.
"We had a lovely waitress; she was so nice," Tracy said. "And I said to the waitress, 'Oh, this is so nice. Usually it's not like I get a meal anymore because I can't eat that much, but it seems like I had a meal, you know?' So, I was just sitting there and the next thing, Andy and I get up and we're getting ready to leave and then the lady goes at the counter, 'Are you ready to check out?' and I go yes, we are, and I handed her the Groupon and our money."
That's when the problems started, ruining an otherwise pleasant evening.
Whether the cashier considered it too much of a coupon faux pas to forgive and forget, or not, what happened next rolled into a huge July snowball that shut down the restaurant's Facebook page with venomous comments and kept their phone ringing off the hook with angry callers.
"She takes the sign and just bangs it like this, one or two times, and she is like super, super loud. And she goes, 'Can't you people read signs?' Just like that, and I am not exaggerating," said Tracy, continuing, "And she goes, 'Can't you people read signs? You have to show us the Groupon or tell the waitress that you have the Groupon before you order!' And then she goes 'In case I'm busy, which I'm not!' I didn't even know what to say. Andy and I didn't know what to say, I mean we were in shock."
Tracy said she was so embarrassed, she just handed the woman the extra money for the check and apologized, saying that perhaps, between negotiating the tables with an oxygen tank and feeling weak, combined with being seated instantly when they arrived, they'd missed the signs.
Even with the waitress coming to the Basingers' defense, Tracy said the cashier didn't relent.
"The next thing I know she's saying, 'You people are using oxygen as an excuse for a Groupon?' And this is already after I paid for the check and handed her the money and said no problem. And she just went flippy for no reason whatsoever. I said, 'Are you kidding me? Are you really kidding me?' I couldn't even believe it. Here I am sick and this lady is screaming at me. What do you think she does to people who aren't sick? And she said 'I'm not going to put up with this' and walked away," said Tracy. "The way she treats people. It's disgusting."
Judging from the social media--and real-life--response, many seem to agree with Tracy.
"The online comments since then have been unbelievable about this woman yelling at staff and in front of children. I don't want this lady to have close down her doors to lose her business," Tracy added, "but I obviously think what she did was really out of touch and she needs to go down to the Ronald McDonald House with cancer patients or something. She seriously has a problem. You know, I am not a crier and I left there and I was in the car bawling and shaking, Andy told me. She had scared me, she upset me, and there was just no reason for it."
Mama Roberto's has enjoyed 16 successful years at their location. Many loyal customers were still there eating Tuesday. One customer, Dave Herndon, was there picking up what he called the best pizza in the area.
"I'm getting the meat lover's pizza. It probably has five pounds of meat on it. The owner Rick is the kind of guy that pays attention to service like no one else. I'm sure he's upset about it. I know there was no harm meant. It's just a matter that the woman didn't see the sign, she might have been having a bad day," said Herndon. "I'll buy her a $20 Groupon for her right now to come back. It's a fine restaurant and when they're busy, they're busy. It's a misunderstanding and it got out-of-hand like a lot of so many things on the internet."
Tracy said all she wanted was to have the woman say she was sorry for the outburst.
"It just never happened. But I don't condone what many people are saying and doing online to the other people there. But, she really needs to get back in touch with reality, said Tracy.