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By: Andrew Zimmern | Posted: 06/12/2013
I’ve had my share of upsetting experiences in restaurants, just like you all do. I decided several years ago that I would never write about them, for several reasons. The biggest one is easy to understand: who wants to hear a complaint, even a reasonable one, from a person who is so often the recipient of extra good will, better service, and special attention? That would be really douche-y. I am way too grateful, and aware of how good I have it when I dine out. The last thing I want to do is give in to the venality that comes with “tilting at windmills,” even when they’re real.
I should mention that when I dine out, I don’t really ask for extras, or anything other than the same experience that we all have come to expect from the hospitality industry. Frankly, places that go out of their way to accommodate one class of guests risk alienating the general community they serve, and as a business owner, chef, and restaurateur, I aim to treat everyone like a star. That’s a much easier standard to train my staff to understand. And it makes life very simple. That doesn’t mean that I don’t like the extras I get when I book a special table somewhere for my wife’s birthday, and it doesn’t mean I don’t vocalize a need when I make a reservation just like we all do, it just means that I am pretty sympathetic to every mishap that might occur during a dining experience. I’ve seen it all. Well, at least I thought I did.
A month ago, I booked a lunch at a sushi restaurant, one of my favorite places in NYC, for a fast, easy business meal in the East 40s. I have eaten there at least once a year since they opened in the late '90s. It is universally regarded as one of the best sushi bars in America. It's not cheap, and I think it's worth every penny. I love taking friends there. I am always treated like everyone else every time I go: I show up, sit, order, eat, pay, leave. I expected the same this time too. I have had two-hour lunches at a table, I have had 20-minute meals alone at the bar, and everything in between. I was coming from a long morning of appearances (the TODAY show, Sirius Radio, etc.) and was heading to People Magazine for an interview right afterward. My office booked the table for 12:15 p.m., party of three. My guests fell under the categories of restaurant development entrepreneur, old friend, and business partner. I needed to leave no later than 2 p.m. to make my 2:30 p.m. interview. It was a Monday, and an awful day weather-wise in NYC, but my guests arrived on time. I was stuck in a cab, in traffic. I texted them to sit and take the table without me. I was a few blocks away, and would be there shortly. They asked to be seated, and were told by the host that we did not have a reservation at all! Well, we did, and I had confirmed it as well the week before.
My guests couldn’t reach me, so they called my office, who in turn called the restaurant, spoke to a manager, and the manager "found" the reservation. The manager then informed my office that if we were seated, we would have to leave the table before 1:30 p.m. My office was surprised, after all, we had a reservation. The restaurant doesn’t know what we are ordering, at what pace, and most importantly, never communicated anything of the kind when I made the booking last month. Had they, I would have chosen another restaurant.
I told my office to tell my guests to sit tight, I would be there shortly. Surely no eatery with an international rep, stellar food and service, hefty price tag, etc., would ask guests with a reservation when they had to leave before they even sat down? What kind of serious restaurant takes a reservation, and then surprises its customers with a time limit that’s unreasonable in the extreme? I arrived at 12:30 p.m., not bad in retrospect, and with a smile, apologized to the front desk for my own tardiness, and inquired after my guests and table.
I got a grunt and a shrug. No eye contact from the man in the suit behind the desk. No one offering to check my dripping raincoat after walking in during a torrential rainstorm that had lasted for two days. The staff whose job it is to meet and greet their guests couldn’t have cared less that a customer was standing in front of them. After a protracted negotiation and a visual sighting of my pals in the dining room, an embarrassed server brought me around to our table, a two-top with one side on the edge of a banquette so that it could accommodate three people to sit around it, but not eat on it. The table couldn’t fit plates and drinks for three on its surface as was later proved out. It was the worst table in the house. I was still smiling.
After all, good service and great food always trump a rocky start and maybe the maitre d’ or manager was having a bad day. We were there, we were seated, let's eat! My guests made room for me, and recounted (laughingly because they are good sports) that they had been seated just a moment before after being ignored for 10 minutes, and then were pushed to order right away upon seating. Our waiter eventually came by more than five minutes later, nice kid, didn’t offer me a drink or anything, no welcome, he just stood there. I could sense he wanted me to order.
THANKFULLY, I have eaten in the restaurant more than a dozen times, am fairly fluent in kitchen Japanese, and I know my akigai from my hokigai. I ordered, felt rushed, didn’t get to explore the daily catch featured. Had I been alone or with someone other than business pals I would have left, or lost my shit long before. He smiled finally, and left. We all got our food, at different times. I had to hold my water glass in my hand while I ate the first plates that arrived because we were seated at such a small table. We talked, took care of business, and then something I never thought I would experience in a restaurant of this caliber occurred. Our waiter came to our table and told us the kitchen needed our final order. It was 1:15 p.m. The kitchen wasn’t closing, but apparently we were shut down. I looked around the room. Empty seats. Weather was brutal, so I imagine some no-shows and diminished walk-ins were the result of the biblical deluge outside.
I ordered a last bite. It came and I ate, and the bill came with it. No offer of anything else from our server. And by the way, no guests waiting for tables either. Plenty of seats in the restaurant including the empty four-top next to us and plenty of seats at the sushi bar. I was stunned. We paid. I waited outside, under the awning, for 30 minutes for my car to pick me up. So I had plenty of time and opportunity to see the mad rush of new customers arriving at 1:30 p.m., 1:45 p.m., or 2 p.m. . . . just kidding . . . that never happened. I also had time to think about it.
The great Elio Guaitolini of Elio’s fame taught me very early in my career that “In the hospitality business you earn customers one by one but you lose them by the dozens”. This was before the digital boom. Those odds have gotten deeper. His inference was simple. One person’s bad experience ripples through their circle of friends and inspires distrust of the simple anticipated transactional relationship we expect from restaurants. I have a reservation. I come, I eat, I pay, I leave. If I’m not happy, I tell all my pals to save them the angst. If I have a good time, I tell one or two people. That’s life. To the restaurant, while under your roof (as Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote a long time ago) my happiness is your obligation. And while there are many things a restaurant can’t control, all we can ask is that the things they can handle, are done so decently. Not even well, just decently. Earnestly.
Service is more important to many than food, not to me, but it’s a close second. We eat out for many reasons: food, ambience, service, camaraderie, convenience, etc. When a restaurant doesn’t want to serve its guests, ignores, and mistreats them, even if the food on the plate leaps up and shits gold rainbows all over me, I will not go back.
And yes, despite the no-tip policy at this place, I left a 25 percent gratuity. Staff is trained by and takes its cues from management. They deal with lots of awful customers to boot. I feel sorry for the crew at this restaurant. If management treats its guests the way we were treated, I can’ t imagine how they treat their staff.
Anyway, there’s a point to all this. Restaurants that treat customers this way won’t be in business very long. These days, everyone is cash poor and time poor, and we take our dining dollars seriously. Eateries, of all types, need a hospitality plan for guests, and they need to take service seriously. Treating the guest like a guest is something desperately missing from our dining world these days, and local restaurants here in the Twin Cities wanting to make a no-cost investment that will reap dividends need only look to their service plan for inspirational ways to grow their business.
Andrew Zimmern is a columnist for Mpls.St.Paul Magazine and the host of Travel Channel's Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern.See bio
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