“We had to keep the door locked constantly, we were so scared,” says Andrew Turley, 22, head chef of the two Carlini restaurants in Shropshire. Turley hasn’t been in his job long. It was a month ago today that his predecessor Laura Goodman resigned following comments on Facebook in which she claimed to have ‘spiked’ a vegan diner.
The ensuing social media storm saw the restaurant propelled to global fame. “Albrighton has never been on the news agenda but overnight we ended up between Trump and Brexit on the BBC,” Turley says. It is clear that this notoriety, and the subsequent clean-up operation, has not been kind to the team or the local village.
“You must have read everything that was out there,” says Rachel Beith, 50, who manages the restaurant. “It has been very uncomfortable. They accused us of being liars, and so publicly.”
On the morning of 2 January, at around 4.30am - the end of a long New Year shift - Goodman posted on a Facebook group with 18,000 members about how she had spent hours preparing a menu for a party of vegan guests but one “pious, judgemental” customer had “gone to bed believing she was still vegan”.
Goodman swiftly denied she had tampered with, or added non-vegan produce to the dish, and only said so online for dramatic effect. But within hours the entire Carlini team, most of whom were not at the restaurant at the time of the incident, started being targeted. Abuse that has not yet relented.
“We stopped answering the phone because people were just raging at us - it was difficult just letting it ring and ring when there were customers here,” says Beith, “and the voicemails, well, we just deleted them.” They estimate that for every 60 voicemail messages, 54 were negative.
The 34 members of staff were encouraged to remove their job titles from personal Facebook pages after family members were traced through group photographs and sent messages. “It was easy for these people to find out who we all were...the thought of going back on social media is actually terrifying,” she says.
The situation became so bad, that one afternoon she decided to phone the parents of waiting staff aged under 18 to check if they were still okay with their children working for Carlini, wondering: “Did they really want to come to work under that shadow?”
The volume of aggressive voicemails has subsided somewhat, but only to give way to a different people: people making false table bookings for large parties, Turley says. “That is still happening now. Just not showing up.”
“We used to say today's news is tomorrow's chip paper, but it isn't any longer, because now it’s all over the internet..."”
Other people have been turning up to the restaurant. Except they aren’t always paying customers. For two nights running, eggs were smashed across the front window of the restaurant. (A local window cleaner wiped the mess away, refusing payment for the job).
Days later, a protest was organised by Telford Vegan Action (TVA) - a Facebook group with 80 members. A local organisation, the Albrighton Crime Prevention Panel sent out four volunteers to marshal the event. In the end only three members of TVA turned out.
“It may have been small, but if you have come out for a nice Friday evening, the last thing you want to do is go through a protest to get to your table,” interjects Russ Cockburn, a local PR who has been trying to lead the team through a process of crisis management in the last few weeks.
Even Cockburn, who worked with Carlini before on the opening events, privately admits that he had some reservations about standing up and representing the restaurant who had committed such an act of self sabotage online: “My daughter is a vegan, so I was angry.”
“I grilled Laura for an hour or so when I first found out, I need to know if she had actually done it. I tried to trip her up and catch her out. In the end I was satisfied that she was telling the truth, but this hasn’t been easy. In fact, the initial week was pretty horrific for everyone connected with the restaurant.”
Goodman herself is no longer affiliated with the restaurant officially, but has been offered counselling by the business to try and help her cope. The team say that she has been unwell and withdrawn: “She has been staying indoors, keeping a low profile,” says Beith.
“The thought of going back on social media is actually terrifying."”
We’re talking in the upstairs dining area of the Albrighton restaurant – there’s a second branch in nearby Shifnal. Despite the stress of the last month, Beith and Turley reassure me that Carlini’s has been busier than expected. The 4,000 local residents have rallied around they say, although I don’t see many customers when I eat an early dinner. I am told a party of four is booked in later.
But while it seems Carlini can depend on the locals of Albrighton, a quaint village where a petrol station attendant pumps your fuel for you, it’s a different story online. The hundreds of comments on the original Facebook post range from the simple, “congratulations on ruining your businesses,” to violent threats towards staff which became so bad that at one point a police report was filed with West Mercia Police.
This quickly migrated to platforms including Google and Trip Advisor, where more comments accumulated. When someone Googles Carlini now, they are presented with the comment “Are there any other Italian eateries in the locale? Preferably with owners who don’t deliberately contaminate their food and abuse their customers,” before any of the restaurant’s own publicity.
There have also been images of dog poo and filthy kitchens uploaded to appear as the lead image on Google reviews. (The Food Standards Agency paid a visit to the restaurant but found “nothing to investigate” according to the team).
Back on Facebook, Carlini’s say they have been told that the social media platform will not do anything about fake pages made about the restaurant. The pages post comments such as: “We are simply a small couple of Italian restaurants serving traditional food being attacked by animal activists demanding we serve grass clippings.” And when a fake ‘free steak’ evening was last week promoted on Facebook, customers called the business trying to book tables.
“They say if we don’t like it, then just block the pages but that doesn’t work when customers are contacting them believing they are genuine and are getting malicious messages sent back,” says Beith. HuffPost UK asked Facebook for comment but has not yet received a response.
Trip Advisor have been more helpful to the small business, allowing them to retain their previously high scores and closing public comments on their page. Hayley Coleman, from Trip Advisor, told HuffPost UK: “From time to time a media story, such as the one relating to Carlini, can spark a bout of reviews on a business’s TripAdvisor page that do not relate to first hand experiences. In instances like this we can monitor the listing to ensure reviews that contravene our guidelines are removed or not published.”
Although this hasn’t managed to stop everyone. As I am eating my dinner - cod with potatoes and sundried tomatoes, one of the two non-meat options on the mains menu, the other being roasted cauliflower - I hear Beith telling staff that another TripAdvisor message has been posted using the term “spiked”.
They hope Trip Advisor will honour their agreement and remove the comment in the next 24 hours.
The team believe that social media has been instrumental in allowing the backlash to maintain momentum over subsequent weeks: “These aren’t even local people, in fact the person who first screenshot the offending comments was from Hemel Hempstead,” said Beith.
Initial reports got the wrong restaurant, Turley adds. “They were all naming Shifnal, not Albrighton. These people don’t know us or eat here.”
And yet, as Cockburn explains, while the local custom has been invaluable over the last month, the restaurant can’t rely on it forever: “The challenge going forward is to somehow get back our reputation on social media. Somehow delete that Facebook page.”
Professor Arne Krokan, an expert in the use of social media in business, from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), tells HuffPost UK: “This is a classic story of how small business owners may ruin their own business by not understanding how social media works. You have to be very picky choosing your words on possible negative comments on customers to avoid this type of crowd ‘pingback’.”
The business intends to make all employees sign a social media agreement as part of their contract. Beith says: “You are not allowed to write about work on social media because all it takes is one bad day in the office.”
“We used to say today’s news is tomorrow’s chip paper, but it isn’t, because now it’s all over the internet,” says Beith.
Updated 5 February. Facebook have told HuffPost UK they are currently investigating the possibility of removing the fake page.