WELL, THAT HAPPENED: Local criticism (and other awkward situations)

By on February 24, 2015

Over the weekend, I hosted a Ukrainian traveler named Jurij through the CouchSurfing.org Web site. I wanted to give him a grand tour of the Jackson Hole nightlife scene and took him bar hopping. We checked out the Silver Dollar Bar, the Rose, the Cowboy, and then happened across Local, where I bumped into another friend of mine. I explained our mission to him, adding, “We’re skipping the Town Square Tavern, though. That place blows.”

A man sitting next to my friend at the bar turned to me and asked me why. I didn’t hold back my criticism while offering up a whiskey-infused opinion. No holds barred.

I soon learned that this gentleman was Steve Mattheis, co-owner of the Tavern. He didn’t introduce himself to me initially, but as I was leaving the bar, he stopped me and let me know who he was. Had I not been out drinking, Sober Andrew Munz might have groveled and sung out apologies, begging for forgiveness. But I remained honest and stood by my comments. Fortunately for me, Steve was incredibly kind and understanding. He simply wanted to know what provoked my distaste for his bar.

“It’s good for me to hear this kind of stuff,” he told me. After that, we politely parted ways.
Dishing out criticism in Jackson is incredibly touchy and taboo. There is a strong mentality that, because this is a small community we should respect the fact that small business owners (often people we know personally) are taking risks and pursuing new ventures. Unlike hating on something as impersonal as 50 Shades of Grey, ripping apart a local restaurant hits much closer to home and can ruin friendships and foster grudges among strangers.

Despite the damage it can cause, honest criticism is important, especially in a small community like ours. Only with outside opinions can a business learn how to improve its services and better serve its client base. It is unfortunate that, because of our town’s size, the criticism of a business (or a music group or a theatre performance) is immediately taken as a personal attack. This knee-jerk reaction is detrimental to Jackson’s growth because the victim holds this criticism close to heart. It blinds him or her from the real issue.

Recently, a few friends of mine commented on the décor in The Indian on a Facebook thread, and were lambasted for simply stating their opinion. After dining at Hatch, I stated that I thought our food was terrible, which caused another friend of mine (who knew the owner) to chastise me for “not giving them a chance.”

It shouldn’t be a surprise to any business owner that some people dislike his or her store or restaurant, just as it shouldn’t surprise a local singer or actor that some people think they’re untalented. As humans, we all have an opportunity to share our thoughts with one another, and sometimes sharing that information can inspire change. No, we can’t please everybody, but living in Jackson Hole does not make us immune to improvement.

Truth be told, there’s not a single Jackson Hole bar or restaurant or store or newspaper without flaws.

We should all be brave enough to speak our minds. I fully encourage Facebook rants, letters to the editor, blog posts, anything to get your opinions out into the community. I appreciate that Steve recognized my criticism as constructive, instead of taking my comments personally. I can think of a few other chest-thumping Jackson business owners who would have lashed out at me right then and there.

As we left Local that night, my Ukrainian emissary Jurij shrugged and said, “Don’t worry, man. If bar is shit, you have to say it is shit, or else it is always shit.”

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