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Resolving Diner Conflict at Restaurants


Chris Amirault
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There have been many threads in General Food Topics on the subject of diner disgruntlement. Many, many, many. They are among the most active in the forums. You've probably created or posted to one yourself, haven't you? :wink:

Here's the basic scenario: Unhappy eaters from drive-in burger joints to starred Michelin restaurants come here to vent (always without naming names, of course), and then the threads take a pretty predictable turn: other members question their version of events, motives, taste, awareness of authenticity, tolerance, and so on. Some threads slip into ad hominem attacks, and others play like a poorly structured game of Rashomon, but we rarely get to the big questions.

So here's a thread about some big questions. How should one resolve conflicts, address problems, and otherwise deal with negative situations when dining at restaurants? What are effective techniques? What are not?

And to what end? Is getting exactly the food you want while pissing off the FOH an effective resolution for you? Or would you rather write off a bad dish or crabby server at a favorite haunt now and then in order to maintain a sense of community-minded appreciation for the people whose small business seeks to serve you?

What approaches do you use when travelling? When at your neighborhood hang-out? When at a well-reputed place? What if the meal is expensive? mid-range? cheap? Mom-and-pop? National chain?

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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I'll answer from the restaurateur's side of the equation (as well as a diner, of course):

First off, and most importantly, probably like resolving anything successfully, don't start off with an attitude yourself. If you begin by attacking a server, a cook, a manager, a hostess, a bartender, or whomever, verbally, you're going to get defensiveness in return. That's just going to spiral into the nether reaches of dissatisfaction. Don't demand of your server to see the manager, that just starts the same problem. Approach the manager yourself, off to the side, and explain in clear terms the problem, and ask if a solution can be offered. This way you don't have a server who's already pissed off, who has given a negative view of the encounter to the manager you requested to see, and, you've put the ball in the manager's court.

Now, is that always going to result in satisfaction? Of course not. There are good and bad managers, often within the same restaurant. But I guarantee you'll have a higher probability of a calm, rational, successful, and satisfactory result than starting off with being nasty.

If you don't have success with the manager, in my view, you've exhausted your options of the moment. Unless the owner just happens to be sitting around and you know it, you're kind of stuck. That's the moment to either resolve yourself to sticking out a bad situation (and bluntly, don't tip - tips are for good service - bad servers don't deserve them - on the flip side, don't take out on your server that the food was bad, if the service was good, they still deserve a tip, they're not splitting it with the cooks); or, it's the time to end the meal where you're at, ask for a check for what you've already consumed, and leave...

Then, wait at least a full day before sitting down and writing a letter to the owner or general manager (the manager you talked to in the dining room is unlikely to have been the GM). And yes, write a letter. Restaurateurs get phone calls all day long, and rarely do you get routed to anyone above the person you already talked with - GMs and owners just plain don't have the time to field all of the calls - yes, they may field some, and of course, there are restaurants where they do take the time to field them all... but... the person who can resolve your problem at this point wasn't present at your interaction. They need time to check things out. Writing a letter accomplishes a couple of things - it gives them time to investigate before getting back to you; a letter truly conveys more importance, especially if it's clear and non-emotional, because it says you took the time to do this; and third, and possibly most importantly, it gives you the chance to edit what you have to say so that it is presented clearly, concisely (including date/time and all relevant facts), and without a lot of emotional baggage or outbursts - believe me, that kind of communication carries a lot more weight with us.

I know it sounds like a lot of work, and it is, but I've seen more minor and major issues resolved successfully, from both sides of the equation, using an approach more or less like this, than I ever have from someone starting an argument in the middle of a restaurant. And by the way, I don't think the price range is relevant - regardless, most restauranteurs want their establishments to be known as friendly, accomodating places that someone would want to return to.

By the way, a good manager can diffuse a bad situation too. I remember one I worked with patiently listening through someone's screaming rant, paused, then asked the customer if he smoked. The customer, taken aback, replied yes. The manager handed him a cigarette, told him to go smoke, then come back and introduce himself and they'd have a nice chat. The customer was so flustered that he did just that - five minutes later returning and introducing himself to the manager, who introduced himself in return, said, "I understand you were dissatisfied on your last visit (5 minutes before), what can I do to make tonight's experience better?" The customer was able to articulate what he wanted in simple, non-emotional terms, the manager made sure it happened (and calmed the waiter down too), and everyone departed happy. The customer returned regularly after that.

SaltShaker - Casting a little flavor (and a few aspersions) on the world of food, drink, and life

Casa SaltShaker - Restaurant de Puertas Cerradas

Spanish-English-Spanish Food & Wine Dictionary - a must for any traveler!

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Thank you.

And absolutely. Let's face it, dining out is not just about food, it's about a social experience, a theatrical experience of sorts, about interacting with other folks in the arena of food and beverage. So human relationships are paramount to the enjoyment of the experience. With the exception of maybe an "automat", it's rare that dining is essentially a passive experience in regard to other humans.

SaltShaker - Casting a little flavor (and a few aspersions) on the world of food, drink, and life

Casa SaltShaker - Restaurant de Puertas Cerradas

Spanish-English-Spanish Food & Wine Dictionary - a must for any traveler!

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Salt shaker,

sorry, I am not sure that I agree with this. the owners job is to make sure that he hears about these things, to make himself accessable. I do not complain often at resteraunts, as a matter of fact if I have done so a half dozen times in my life it would be a lot. I have, however, dropped places over very small service issues, without thinking twice. If I go to a place on a regular basis, and drop a days net income for a meal, and the server is not on top of things (and isn't clearly learning the job, I will cut slack for new servers) I will simply no go back. if I mention something to a server and do not get satsfaction, I will leave, and I will bad mouth that place from any and every stage I have access to for as long as I can remember it.

so, if you want, ask me to write you a letter. I won't be writting, I will be spending my next few weeks telling everybody I can get access to about the experience I had at your place. maybe it won't cause you a penny in dammage, maybe it will cost you a fortune.

how about this for an idea - get out of the kitchen, walk around, talk to servers, keep an eye on people, and get an idea if people are happy or not.

the last time I complained at a resteraunt, maybe 3 years ago, I was at a place with my wife and mother in law, that we went to perhaps twice a month - a casual but nice type of cafe. my mother in law had soup, but didn't get a spoon, I had a hot sandwitch and y wife had a quiche. I asked the server for a spoon, and she didn't bring it. so we all waited, and I asked the server for a spoon again. after a few minutes, I cought ther servers eye, and asked for a spoon, and waited. then I got up, went looking for the server, and she told me she would bring the spoon. by now, the soup is cold, the quiche is not so edible, and my sandwich is cooling. she still hasn't come. so I go into the kitchen, and ask for a spoon. they shoo me away, and tell me to ask my server. at the table, everyone is chattering about why we don't ahve a spoon. when I get the server, I ask to speak to the manager, and she tells me that she is the shift leader, and that no body above her is available. and now we have an agruemnt over whether they redo the whole order, pop it in the microwave or leave it for us to eat cold.

Edited by odysseus (log)
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Odysseus,

In a world where the owners of restaurants were hanging out waiting to talk to you, you might be right, but that isn't reality. Restaurants are businesses. I spent twenty plus years in the restaurant business in New York and simply, for a large percentage of restaurants, the owners are rarely that directly involved. They are often very much behind the scenes investors. They're not in the kitchen. And that includes the small "mom and pop" varieties - mom and pop aren't necessarily there. And "get out of the kitchen and walk around"? Cooks/chefs are rarely the owners.

Yes, it's the owner's job to hear about these things, that's why they have managers, to run their businesses, and pass on the things they need to get involved in (which, in most restaurant groups, would include a complaint letter). I don't know what field you're in, but I'd guess in the majority of companies, the CEO, or the stockholders, aren't out in the office space, or the retail space, wandering around to handle customers complaints; why should a restaurant be any different?

And of course, you have the right to not complain and just to not go back, and go bad-mouth the restaurant to your friends, or here, or to whomever else will listen. That wasn't the point of this discussion,which was - how can you make it work? Your approach doesn't accomplish anything in terms of improving anyone's experience, including yours. Unless of course you're the type of person who just gets off on doing that.

SaltShaker - Casting a little flavor (and a few aspersions) on the world of food, drink, and life

Casa SaltShaker - Restaurant de Puertas Cerradas

Spanish-English-Spanish Food & Wine Dictionary - a must for any traveler!

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How should one resolve conflicts, address problems, and otherwise deal with negative situations when dining at restaurants? What are effective techniques? What are not?

And to what end?

My 'technique' has always been: complain with a smile. At least, I always start with a smile. I have to say that I have never experienced things so bad that they were worth having a major conflict over - just the usual things: cold food, waiting too long, stuff on your plate that does not match the description on the menu, underdone food, salads swimming in oil, missing utensils, ah well you know. I regard all of these as the ' things that can happen' . Wether I write off a place after that is not due to the thing that went wrong, but to the way they handled my comments about it. Sometimes a smile and an apology is all it takes. Sometimes a smile and an apology and a free drink is all it takes.

What approaches do you use when travelling? When at your neighborhood hang-out? When at a well-reputed place? What if the meal is expensive? mid-range? cheap? Mom-and-pop? National chain?

When travelling, it's different. I don't think I've ever complained about anything but the check (when it was very obviously wrong) when abroad. There's always this part about not knowing for sure if you understand the social code of another country.

But at home, I tell them what's wrong - but smiling. :smile:

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There's really only been one time I complained at a restaurant. This would have been in the dark ages of 1997, when we were at a conference in Las Vegas. Our last night out, we went to one of the bigger-name chain restaurants. And my pasta with veggies was cooked to mush. When our waiter came back to ask how everything was, I told him that I thought the sauce was tasty but the pasta underneath was overcooked. I wound up eating the properly crisp-tender veggies out of the sauce, as well as my salad and all the bread on the table, and we ordered dessert. I wasn't hungry afterward.

When the bill came, my pasta had been comped. At the time, we were happy, but we haven't been back to another one of those restaurants.

MelissaH

MelissaH

Oswego, NY

Chemist, writer, hired gun

Say this five times fast: "A big blue bucket of blue blueberries."

foodblog1 | kitchen reno | foodblog2

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Odysseus,

In a world where the owners of restaurants were hanging out waiting to talk to you, you might be right, but that isn't reality. Restaurants are businesses. I spent twenty plus years in the restaurant business in New York and simply, for a large percentage of restaurants, the owners are rarely that directly involved. They are often very much behind the scenes investors. They're not in the kitchen. And that includes the small "mom and pop" varieties - mom and pop aren't necessarily there. And "get out of the kitchen and walk around"? Cooks/chefs are rarely the owners.

Yes, it's the owner's job to hear about these things, that's why they have managers, to run their businesses, and pass on the things they need to get involved in (which, in most restaurant groups, would include a complaint letter). I don't know what field you're in, but I'd guess in the majority of companies, the CEO, or the stockholders, aren't out in the office space, or the retail space, wandering around to handle customers complaints; why should a restaurant be any different?

And of course, you have the right to not complain and just to not go back, and go bad-mouth the restaurant to your friends, or here, or to whomever else will listen. That wasn't the point of this discussion,which was - how can you make it work? Your approach doesn't accomplish anything in terms of improving anyone's experience, including yours. Unless of course you're the type of person who just gets off on doing that.

salt shaker,

the whole idea of this is to make the customer feel that he or she has been treated fairly, or to resolve the conflict in such a way that the customer feels they have been treated fairly. I honestly can't be bother to write a letter to the owner of a resteraunt unless perhaps something happened so terrible that I expect some type of compensation, but I can't think of anything like that. I think that the attitude that the owner, or a responsible person, can't be bothered to be present is a poor concept - frankly, it may be the reality of resteraunts, I haven't worked in a resteraunt since I was a teenager, but I believe you. the best resteraunts that I have gone to, and have frequented, had the owners on site most of the time.

I work in the corporte world. I think that if a customer of mine wanted to reach my boss, or the CEO of the largest corporation I ahve worked for, he could do it in 2 phone calls - which, in the nature of things is the equivelent of having he ownder walk around. I am sure that there are pleanty of resteraunts that don't need my business, and where the owner doesn't really need to care waht is going on at his place. I would hope that that is not the case in the places that I frequent.

I don't get off on complaining, I am actualy pretty laid back and tolerent about things, but I don't think that it is the correct business attitude to basically say "well, send us a letter, and we'll see what we can do". if a responsible person can't bother to be present at a resteraunt that I frequent, then I won't bother frequenting that place.

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I tend to agree with Odysseus that it would have to be a very serious transgression before I would ever write a letter about a service issue in a restaurant. It is just seems out of proportion to the kinds of issues that are common in restaurants -- as Chufi says "things that can happen".

Certainly starting with an attitude doesn't help to resolve a situation. Mostly I just mention the problem and, since they are usually minor issues, as long as they make some effort to resolve it, that is the end of it. Many servers are obviously trying, but not well trained, and I'm pretty willing to cut them some slack. Afterward I may decide not to return to that restaurant, but the decision would be based on the whole experience - food, price, my history with them, as well as service etc.

What "works" is being pleasant while raising the issues, having some empathy for the person on the other side of the issue and, if you want something specific done to address it, being clear about it.

There's lots of good restaurants in my city, I'd just go elsewhere in the future if the experience was particularly bad or I didn't feel like they made a sincere effort to address my concerns. Life is short, cut your losses and move on.

Cheers,

Anne

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Several years go, we went to one of those "family" places for breakfast. My husband always has the pancake breakfast with all the extras--eggs and bacon and grits and the fruit sauce and the "whipped cream." We were waited on by a young lady who just did. not. get. it.

She flustered her way through setting down water glasses, did manage to give us a menu each, and told us breathlessly that she was new and they had given her four tables and she just could not keep up and got someone else to take two of them, and she was just going to have one, now, and that was us.

We ordered, as she laboriously wrote on the pad, like a stenographer who is just learning shorthand. Tell, write, pause. Repeat. And with the "over easy" and the "cherry sauce, please," she was just out of her depth. We patiently, slowly enunciated our order, and she left to get the drinks. She returned with two iced teas. Hubby asked for lemon. She went away and returned with two wedges lying forlornly on her cork tray, no bowl or saucer. She picked them up one at at time in her fingers, looked around bewildered for somewhere to put them, and set them neatly onto the tabletop, balanced and rocking on their little round sides.

We held our giggles til she left, and shared the laugh with several folks nearby, as they had been watching in amazement. Her progress down the aisle could be followed by the "I just can't DO four tables" concerto, and she had repeated it to perhaps six nearby groups, when she finally returned with our food.

It was surprisingly accurate, though she had forgotten the napkins. And Hubby said he'd like to get the whipped cream for his pancakes. She fled and returned, walking slowly and carefully, a small bowl of fluffy white grasped in front of her like a child carrying soup. Which it was, alas. The fresh-from-the-hot-dishwasher bowl she had sprayed the cream into had melted all the bottom additives, making a whey-ish liquid which followed Newton's First Law of Gravity--when she reached across to set it down, it slid out of the bowl and went PLOOP! right into his crotch.

There he sat, neatly garnished, while the whole area broke up in HeeHaws. She and several others came running with napkins and water and apologies, but we were laughing too hard to cooperate.

I never saw the Dear Thing after that episode, and hope she has moved on to greater things (which don't involve food or sharp objects). Complain to the Manager? I should SAY not....I'd PAY to see that again. :biggrin:

Edited by racheld (log)
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MelissaH's story reminds me of a question: why not comp more often? Can someone in the industry help me understand why this is such a rare, rare practice? Isn't my return business worth the cost of that dish?

In addition, isn't it worth it to spend that money in order to have me tell story A ("Yeah, most things were great, but one was a mess -- and can you believe it? They comped it! Really friendly, nice place. We're going to give it another try.") instead of story B ("I had to send back this shit and then they wouldn't even remove it from my bill. They seemed insulted that I'd even suggest such a thing! Damned bastids.")?

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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MelissaH's story reminds me of a question: why not comp more often? Can someone in the industry help me understand why this is such a rare, rare practice? Isn't my return business worth the cost of that dish?

I think if I were a restaurateur I would want to make every effort to replace an unsatisfactory dish rather than comp it. Comping seems like a last resort and an admission of failure. And I wouldn't know what to do with customers who finish a dish and then complain about it. I've been out with people who do that and I find it embarrassing-- what do they expect can be done at that point?

Maybe I'm just jaded, but I feel as if there's a small but significant subset of people who are looking for freebies in any situation. Someone spills a drink on you on a plane: call the airline and get a free ticket or an upgrade. That approach pays off, too, if you have the nerve to do it. I worked with a woman who spent her entire day at her desk calling all the businesses she dealt with to complain and try to get free stuff out them. Most of the time, they did give her what she wanted, probably just to shut her up.

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The original question posed dealt with how to best deal with conflicts at restaurants. I won't recommend the following to anyone as an ideal way to resolve conflicts but what the heck....it happened:

- The worst insult ever paid to a chef was probably the one en-

countered by Georges LeMaitre in 1955 when he was in charge of the

kitchens at New York's fashionable "Monte's on the Park". A mid-

dle-aged couple had started their dinner with coquilles Saint-

Jacques au gratin, gone on to grilled lobsters and then finished

off with peach melba. To the surprise of the waiter, the couple

who never exchanged a word between them, barely touched their

food. When asked if they wanted their dishes replaced, the man

merely waved the waiter off with an impatient gesture of his hand.

After the meal, the man asked to see the chef. When LeMaitre ar-

rived at their table, the man stood up, pulled out a pistol, told

the chef that "if this is the best you can do, you don't deserve

to live", and shot him three times. Fortunately, LeMaitre sur-

vived. The man was found criminally insane and spent five years

in an insane asylum on Long Island.

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Um... not a good way. Just so's we're all verrry clear on that point. I mean, we're all passionate and everything, but yeesh: let's don't have a version of that anecdote popping up around here.

Tess distinguishes between comping and replacing. Is that a significant cost difference? Remember that you're preparing two dishes for one price, which works out to the same as comping, doesn't it? Or is my math wrong?

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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Sadly, my experience has been that those customers that bother to take the time to write an encyclopedic tome about their bad experience with a play by play that rivals any professional sporting event are the very customers that smiled sedately and nodded affirmatively when asked "Is everything to your liking, Sir/Madame?"

If you don't speak up at the time of your dissatisfaction, then nothing can be done to fix the problem. Restaurant managers are many things, but we are not clairvoyant. If you tell the server everything is fine, then we assume you are telling the truth. We have no reason to try and read your body language or get into any other more complex forms of non-verbal communication to figure out what you really mean. If you eat the entire meal and then say it was awful I will NOT comp your dinner. You've revealed yourself to be a low rent freeloader and I will most certainly not encourage or reward your bad behavior. You'll just go do it at another restaurant then. If you're really pissed off that I won't give you the freebie, then don't come back. Please. I beg you. Don't come back.

On the other hand, a politely phrased legitimate complaint should be handled immediately and decisively. No one should pay for a meal they neither enjoyed nor actually ate. If your dish is cooked not to your liking, please let us know RIGHT AWAY, so we can make you a new medium rare steak. We'd be delighted to do that. If you have a food allergy then PLEASE let us know about it so we make certain you don't accidentally order something with shellfish stock in the sauce. Really - it's not a bother. Let us know. Nothing casts a funereal pall over a dining room more than a case of anaphylactic shock that requires the EMS crew to take someone out on a stretcher. You don't want that, your fellow diners don't want that, and the restaurant most certainly doesn't want that. If you're unfamiliar with a certain menu item, please ask your server for details before you order it. If they're properly trained then they can tell you in advance that the anchovies are hairy and you might not like them if you have textural issues with your food or aren't overly fond of salt. A menu is not an open invitation to try new things and send them back as they don't please you (a wine list is the same way). Educating yourself by trying new things is great, but if you really aren't sure about something, ask first or try your dining partner's. If something is genuinely faulty, like bad fish or a burned sauce, the restaurant should be happy to address it when brought to their attention.

Katie M. Loeb
Booze Muse, Spiritual Advisor

Author: Shake, Stir, Pour:Fresh Homegrown Cocktails

Cheers!
Bartendrix,Intoxicologist, Beverage Consultant, Philadelphia, PA
Captain Liberty of the Good Varietals, Aphrodite of Alcohol

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Two points about Katie's great post:

Sadly, my experience has been that those customers that bother to take the time to write an encyclopedic tome about their bad experience with a play by play that rivals any professional sporting event are the very customers that smiled sedately and nodded affirmatively when asked "Is everything to your liking, Sir/Madame?"

Diners, why is this so difficult? I really don't understand it. I think that the vast majority of complaints around here would have been addressable if the diner had done this. But maybe I'm wrong....

On the other hand, a politely phrased legitimate complaint should be handled immediately and decisively.  No one should pay for a meal they neither enjoyed nor actually ate.  If your dish is cooked not to your liking, please let us know RIGHT AWAY, so we can make you a new medium rare steak.  We'd be delighted to do that.  If you have a food allergy then PLEASE let us know about it so we make certain you don't accidentally order something with shellfish stock in the sauce.  Really - it's not a bother.  Let us know. 

Katie -- and others in the profession -- to what extent do you think that this ethic is in place throughout the restaurant business?

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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Chris, I'll opine a bit about this.

Diners, why is this so difficult? I really don't understand it. I think that the vast majority of complaints around here would have been addressable if the diner had done this. But maybe I'm wrong....

I think many folks are non-confrontational by nature. I tend to be as well, but if you don't complain, then you deny the restaurant the opportunity to fix the problem. Is it really fair to then go bad mouth the place to anyone that'll sit still long enough to listen if you're unreasonable expectation was clairvoyance on the part of the restaurant staff?? Believe me, any restaurant professional will tell you we'd rather have you tell all your friends how your steak was overcooked, but we fixed it right away and then bought you dessert, than have you say merely that your food was improperly prepared. I can't help you and provide any level of customer service whatsoever, without knowing what I'm reacting to. And it's just ridiculous to expect that. All complaints should be handled immediately and to a customer's satisfaction. Writing a letter of complaint should be an absolute last resort. Hopefully if the situation is handled properly, the customer will write a letter saying how professionally their issue was resolved. :smile:

Katie -- and others in the profession -- to what extent do you think that this ethic is in place throughout the restaurant business?

Well, certainly in a fine dining establishment one should expect nothing less, but really if my hamburger at McDonalds has Rosanne Rosannadanna unpleasant toenail like bites in it, I should be able to send it back there as well, right? And I should be no less polite to the McDonalds counter girl than I would be to a tuxedoed waiter that I was confronting with a problem with my meal. It's not about what you're spending or how nice the table linens are, it's about how welcome you're made to feel and how satisfied you are when you leave, at any level. At least that's what I hope for and strive for.

Katie M. Loeb
Booze Muse, Spiritual Advisor

Author: Shake, Stir, Pour:Fresh Homegrown Cocktails

Cheers!
Bartendrix,Intoxicologist, Beverage Consultant, Philadelphia, PA
Captain Liberty of the Good Varietals, Aphrodite of Alcohol

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A few things to comment back on...

Katie (and Odysseus), I suggested writing a letter to the owner as the final step if approaches to correct the situtation in the restaurant don't work. Not as the only thing to be done.

You don't have to agree with it, but like any good business, there are procedures in place to manage conflicts and complaints. And for many restaurants, that procedure has a way of contacting the owner. It's really no different than, say, a retail store that has a complaint procedure, or a utility company, or anything else. You may want it to be different, but that's not reality.

Odysseus, I don't know what restaurants you've been going to, but in the world of, at least, fine dining, I can't think of a single restaurant I've been to, or know of, where the owner is regularly in the dining room during dinner service. Doesn't mean they don't exist, but it's in my experience not at all common. (Look, for example, at the feature article on the main page here, about Richard Corraine - he's essentially the chief of operations for several major restaurants and he's done and out of there by the time dinner starts, and don't expect to see the owner Danny Meyer or the other investors hanging out either. Occasionally yes, but regularly, no.)

Yes, customer satisfaction should be a key goal, but as someone else commented, a lot of diners just smile and say "everything's fine" and then go home and complain to their friends about it. Nobody wins that way - neither the customer nor the restaurant.

I merely tried to outline what I think is not only a reasonable approach (with, again, the letter y'all keep going on about as the last resort), but one that from several decades of restaurant experience, works. No one has to use it, but to me it seems more satisfying and more effective than coming to egullet and posting rants about some place you had an unsatisfactory experience at.

SaltShaker - Casting a little flavor (and a few aspersions) on the world of food, drink, and life

Casa SaltShaker - Restaurant de Puertas Cerradas

Spanish-English-Spanish Food & Wine Dictionary - a must for any traveler!

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Two points about Katie's great post:
Sadly, my experience has been that those customers that bother to take the time to write an encyclopedic tome about their bad experience with a play by play that rivals any professional sporting event are the very customers that smiled sedately and nodded affirmatively when asked "Is everything to your liking, Sir/Madame?"

Diners, why is this so difficult? I really don't understand it. I think that the vast majority of complaints around here would have been addressable if the diner had done this. But maybe I'm wrong....

I'll take that on.

Most of the time, unless there's a particularly egregious problem, it's more annoying to complain than to deal with the hassles. So your waiter was snarky. Your soup was cold. The wine service was amateurish. The fish was maybe a little past its prime. Is complaining going to make it better, or just cause another little scene as you're deposed by the manager, the waiter glares at you and your guests try to hide under the table?

Life is too short to move through the whole little court case of complaining. You're eating dinner again tomorrow -- let's just put this one behind us. The whole point of dining out is eating effortlessly. Once you have to work at it -- and, even if you complain, there's no guarantee that they'll acknowledge your compaint -- the thrill is gone. Better to settle up and move on.

Oh, I complain. But usually I'll rather just not come back. Letting the waiter know how you feel about their service, in a fiscal fashion, can be satisying, too (don't worry, it's very rare that I go low on the tip). Oh, and I'll post about it sometimes.

A friend and I wrote a letter once compaining about the service at an expensive French joint. No response.

I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government.

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Diners, why is this so difficult? I really don't understand it. I think that the vast majority of complaints around here would have been addressable if the diner had done this. But maybe I'm wrong....

As a diner, what I REALLY want is for the problem not to have happened.

But given the impossibility of changing the past, what I want is to have the problem resolved *at the least amount of additional pain to me*.

I don't like confrontation, but if I'm given a graceful way to mention there's a problem, I will. However, most of the problem situations I've run into in restaurants are almost always accompanied by the Amazing Disappearing Staff problem.

To be blunt, if there is already a problem that is spoiling my dinner out, the very last thing I want is to add more aggravation chasing down someone to complain about it, especially if I'm then going to have to work to convince them that yes, there is a problem. When things get to that point, I might as well not say anything at all, because I'm so unhappy and miserable that there's nothing anyone can do to make it better. I'm at the point where no amount of comps or apologies will help - all I want is to get far away from this place that is making me so miserable.

The more work I have to do to mention the issue, the less likely I am to mention it, which makes me wonder if some staff deliberately set things up this way so they will hear less.

Just another data point.

Marcia.

Don't forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he wanted...he lived happily ever after. -- Willy Wonka

eGullet foodblog

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Everyone has such different standards. I don't envy the managers. But for an example of why a customer may not complain at the moment, I ate dinner at the very popular Slanted Door in San Francisco. We had an 8:30 reservation on a Tuesday night. Many, many things went wrong and it was incredibly expensive for a really mediocre meal. Where to start? I didn't want to embaress my friends and I felt the staff were incapabable of making anything better so I wrote a letter within three days. It was only three paragraphs and I think anyone would have thought my complaints valid.

And to put it in perspective, I think I'm pretty accomodating. We all know those "special needs" types who confuse being picky with being particular. I'm realy not one of those folks. I really wanted to like this meal.

As a footnote, this was in June. I sell at the farmers markets and let them know that (the farmers market is held in the same building as Slanted Door). Apparently they read the letter to the manager of the farmers market and his staff when they were at the bar one night!! As of today, I've yet to hear word one from Slanted Door.

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I don't like conflict and try to avoid it at all costs. The three times in my life when I did send a dish back to the kitchen, I created an uncomfortable situation for my dining companions and myself. (One was the wrong entree, one was an overcooked steak that had been ordered rare and the third was food that was cold) Should they continue to eat while I waited? Of course they should but it wasn't pleasant. By the time my food came out, the rest of the table was almost finished and I found myself rushing to catch up to them. I'd rather complain in a fast food place where I know they already have another burger or whatever wrapped, heated and ready to go. I'm not interested in getting comped, I just want to get a good meal and good service when I dine out. If a restaurant can't deliver that, then the odds are that I probably won't return.

I dine out for the food and service and the chance to let someone else do all the work. I just want to relax and enjoy myself. I don't want to find a reason to speak with the manager or owner and alert them to problems with my meal. It's just not what I have in mind when I decide to enjoy a meal out. I know this doesn't help the situation, but it sounds as though some folks in the restaurant expect an awful lot on my part when I am the one who is already unhappy. I understand that management can't correct a problem that they aren't aware of, but that is above and beyond what I want to get involved in when I dine out.

KathyM

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twice in my life I have had troubles with Holiday Inn, both almost identical issues. once, a front desk clerk called me in my room and told me that I had to come down right away because I had maxed out my credit card and needed to provide an alternative card. I had been staying in the room for 3 or 4 days, apperently my credit line on that card was only good for enough to cover 3 and a half days, and they wanted additional coverage. I suggested that when I came down next I would deal with it, and he insisted that I had to come down right away. I came down, checked out, and didn't stay in a holiday inn for about 10 years. about 15 years later, I was checking out of a holiday inn, and the parking lot attendant wouldn't let me pull my car around front to check out - she wanted me to back up 3 fligths to the parking lot, pay my bill and then I could take my car out, even though I was a frequest guest and had given them a credit card (this time a better one)

both are symptomatic of holiday inn - the hire idiots, and they give them very strict guidelines with little room for personal flexibility or judgment. in the first case, I didn't say to anybody but the clerk how pissed I was. the second time I spoke to the manager, and she immidiatly gave me a voucher for the full amount of my stay, to be used in the same hotel. this was enough to have me continue to stay in holiday inns and completly calm me down. I never used the voucher, by the way, so the hole "cure" cost the hotel chain nothing.

to clarify the weight of this - I stay about 120 nights a year in hotels, and I decide where up to 25 other people stay, as well. if I decide to boycott a hotel chain, that can cost them easily $100K a year. I don't flaunt this, but I think that it is a relevant point to consider.

my point being that a little comp goes a long way. getting the dish right is what I expect - of you get it wrong, and then fix it, I am not impressed. get it wrong, fix it, and then don't bill me, and I am happy.

to me, if you don't get it wrong the first time, the event is off, anyway. the only times I have been realy upset with a resteraunt have been when a problem caused people not to be able to eat at the same time. if you mess up part of a meal, or one dinner's meal, then find a solution that helps keep everybody on the same schedule, or compensate for the matter.

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A few things to comment back on...

Odysseus, I don't know what restaurants you've been going to, but in the world of, at least, fine dining, I can't think of a single restaurant I've been to, or know of, where the owner is regularly in the dining room during dinner service. Doesn't mean they don't exist, but it's in my experience not at all common. (Look, for example, at the feature article on the main page here, about Richard Corraine - he's essentially the chief of operations for several major restaurants and he's done and out of there by the time dinner starts, and don't expect to see the owner Danny Meyer or the other investors hanging out either. Occasionally yes, but regularly, no.)

I may very well not be going to the right level of resteraunts - I prefer to eat in a place where I can see the owner, and if possible, the owner spends time in the kitchen and in the dinning room. I do not need to eat in a resteraunt whose owner is a celebrety, or where one of the partners is an actor or a producer or something - I want to know that the owner cares about food and about the expereince that I will get from the meal.

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