A local restaurant owner said that some Facebook posts asking for support of his restaurants could have been a positive thing — if only he hadn't responded to some of the critical comments.

Jason Miller, owner of Instant Karma and Eagle Drive-In, on Monday apologized for using profanity in responding to criticism of the restaurants on Facebook. 

"I'm not going to make excuses and say I didn't put them on there, Miller said Monday. "I did. I wasn't hacked. I did it, and I feel terrible."

Miller published a post to Facebook pages for the two restaurants saying that he and co-owner Suzanne Miller, his wife, were struggling to keep them open. He floated the idea of closing the restaurants on Oct. 31, saying that "the market is tough and Suzanne and Jason are worn out." But he also wrote that they would remain open if the posts got enough likes, shares and comments.

The posts drew hundreds of replies, including from people who criticized the restaurants. According to screenshots of those conversations submitted to the Globe, Miller used verbal attacks and profanity in responding to customers with critical opinions. 

While he said he didn't remember exactly what he wrote, he said his reaction was based on an overreaction to criticism and building pressure. One was a reply to a comment about high menu prices at Eagle Drive-In.

In response, Miller said he is now seeking therapy for stress relief and mental health. After speaking with the Globe, Miller wrote an apology on his personal Facebook page. The Facebook pages for both restaurants are currently shut down.

"I don't deal with stress in the right way," Miller said. "I always feel like expectations on me are so high, and I'm not able to deliver. I'm going to have to do something, or it will kill me."

Response

Other business owners voiced support for Miller. Alex Menejias, owner of El Guapo's Cigar and Pipe Lounge, announced a special in which people who spent $10 or more at Instant Karma or Eagle Drive-In would get 15% off a purchase. 

Menejias said he did not support verbal attacks or abuse against customers. But he said he is leaving his special intact, despite hearing from customers calling for him to distance himself from Miller's responses. 

"I don't condone what he said, but I will not stop supporting a local business or those employees," Menejias said. "People should not be so quick to pass judgment ... As a business owner, you're put on a level to have to act a certain way. Customers can attack your business, and we have to be accountable for answers, but there is no customer accountability."

Lori Haun, executive director of the Downtown Joplin Alliance, said that while the organization doesn't offer formal training about handling internet feedback, from Yelp reviews to viral Facebook posts, she does offer advice when asked. 

Haun's rule: If she writes a reply to a negative comment and she is still angry, she deletes it. 

"If I'm still angry after writing a reply, then that means I don't have the right words in mind yet," Haun said. "Things can go sideways very quickly on social media."

A post from the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce encouraged people to also vote with their wallet. Toby Teeter, president of the chamber, said that he was the one who wrote that post using the chamber's Facebook page.

"We are trying to attract and retain people in their 20s and 30s," Teeter said. "These kinds of restaurants are not just a place to eat. They are the kind of places where they go to socialize. When they leave Joplin, they are thinking of these types of places, and that's what they miss."

Menejias and Teeter have differing views about the economic health of the city and its ability to support local restaurants. Teeter said that business throughout Joplin is strong, and growing. 

"We have the lowest unemployment and highest wages we've ever seen," Teeter said. "There's not a lot of vacancies, and there's not a hint of something happening to our economy. I don't think this is the beginning of a trend." 

While downtown gets highlighted for recent revitalization efforts, Menejias, whose business is located downtown, said the region is not booming. 

"People need to understand that it's a suffering downtown," Menejias said. "It's not thriving. Business is month to month, and a business could be a month away from closing. That's the reality."

Haun chalked up downtown's economic activity to the sheer difficulty of owning a small business. She said that people are actively searching for spaces downtown. 

"There are up seasons and down seasons, and a lot of times, small businesses don't have a lot of support systems," she said. "They are in charge of everything. I think a lot of businesses can fail not for a lack of money, but a lack of backup and support."

Future

Instant Karma was opened in 2010 as Instant Karma Gourmet Hot Dogs, a restaurant that offered a variety of hot dogs inspired by flavors Miller encountered as an art student in New York City during the 2000s. The restaurant has won awards from magazines for its cuisine. Its success and expansion into burgers led to the Millers opening Eagle Drive-In 2011, reimagining the former restaurant into offering a diversified lineup of gourmet burgers made from elk and bison.

The couple also operated Midtown Pizza Kitchen, which occupied the same space as The Kitchen Pass, and Jasper's Juicery, which was located in the 100 block of Main Street. Both of those restaurants have closed.

Miller said he doesn't get to experiment much in the kitchen these days, saying that he tells people that he's "a cook that's been turned into an accountant, crunching numbers," and that has taken away the joy out of running the business. He said that the original posts asking for likes and comments, in hindsight, was about receiving some support.

"I needed someone to tell me what I was doing was good," Miller said. "A lot of people did, and that means everything. This would have been an overwhelmingly positive thing, until I made my comments."

The future of the two remaining restaurants is still to be determined, Miller said. He recognized that his negative replies now play a large role in people's decisions about being customers, and wishes he could take them back, he said.

Ultimately, it is about support, he said. If customers come, the doors will stay open. 

"It's come to the point where it's almost a financial decision," Miller said. "We don't want to close. We want to stay open, but it comes down to whether the community supports us."

Follow Digital Editor Joe Hadsall on Twitter at @JoeHadsall.

Joe Hadsall is the digital editor for The Joplin Globe. He has been the editor of the former Nixa News-Enterprise and has worked for the Christian County Headliner News and 417 Magazine.

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