Setting Limits and Expectations

With every restaurant, there are essentially two sides. The restaurant (us) vs. the customers (them). We are two sides of an equation, relying on the other for existence. In this equation, inevitably there will be conflict. The general rule in dealing with this conflict seems to be that the customer is always right. Keep them happy so they will come back and spend more money, thus keeping your business alive and you happy.

So for the most part, when customers voice any kind of request, complaint, dissatisfaction, or dislike, they are appeased in what ever way possible. Especially at Veil. Like, but don’t love your duck? It’s off the check. We are out of peanut butter ice cream? The chef gives you a gift card so you can come back and order it some other time.

But sitting in the back of the house, I hear requests, complaints, etc that make me wonder where the line is.

A customer became very upset when he requested a recipe that I was unwilling to part with. It struck me, because I would NEVER ask a restaurant for a recipe from their current menu. And if something was so amazing that I broke with manners and did ask, I would never be angry that they wouldn’t give it to me. With the world of cooking becoming so high profile, chefs offering their names like the labels on fashion garments, are recipes no longer sacred? Is this a common expectation that has shifted?

Or is it an issue of drawing a line, us vs. them, and keeping your position firm and your line steady. At what point do you give a customer everything they ask for, and when can you say no?

Another customer recently became upset when they were charged for soda refills. They blamed the server for not making it clear as they requested seconds, thirds, and fourths of their soda that they would be expected to pay for it. This time, the management not only buckled and gave the customer every one of their sodas free of charge, including the original, but rewrote house policy on the issue making soda refills free. We moved the line to accommodate a recent customer expectation that all soda’s are bottomless.

But it struck me, because I don’t remember when soda refills became free, when the common expcetation shifted.  Sure, at Red Robin you can chug the carbonated sugar as fast as your server can bring them to you, just like it says on the menu.   But has this policy in commonplace chain restaurants across the country created a customer expectation for every restaurant?

There are simple requests, like for extra this, or no that.  Like the woman who asked for extra sauce 3 times.  Having to ask for anything repeatedly can annoy a customer, and having the same request can make a kitchen feel like they aren’t doing it right.  Both sides were irritated by this situation.  The kitchen ready to draw the line, and the customer pushing her expectations.  Finally we learned she didn’t secrete saliva, so rather than limiting the “extra” we gave her we ponied up with a nice 4 ounce cup and have done so ever since, as many times as she needs.

There are obscene customers, like the one who demanded I was fired. She was lactose intolerant, and didn’t care for the dairy free dessert I had on my menu. When I drew my line, and didn’t allow her to order a plate of cookies that are used as a garnish for another dessert (I didn’t have enough to spare by that time in the evening), she became irate, offended, and demanded my job. How far are we expected to go to accommodate every dietary restriction, and limitation? How much expectation does a diner have to enter any establishment and have their needs met on the spot?

What about the party that brought a 3 and 5 year old with them, not totally unheard of, but out of the ordinary for a restaurant like Veil. The children proceeded to throw a plate on the floor tear up the flowers in the centerpieces and scatter them, all the while screaming and shrieking for nearly the entire 2 hours they were there. One table asked for their check noting the piercing screams as their reason for leaving early. How accommodating does a restaurant need to be in this case? The were clearly diminishing the quality of the other diners in the room, so who do we accommodate? Who do we offend? Where do we draw the line on this one?

You can guarantee that nearly every line a restaurant draws will be tested. Rules like “no substitutions” might as well be written in Sanskrit. “No cell phones” doesn’t seem to matter either. Customers still demand both.  Tug-o-war issues each night as customers manipulate the experience to their liking, while the restaurant attempts to give the experience they have created.

It’s been a while since I have been in the front of the house. It is there that the servers are expected to satisfy both parties. They are expected to firmly hold the line for the restaurant, but give the customers every thing they want, getting verbally pushed by both while playing go between. I have to say it’s a job I don’t miss.  “Don’t kill the messenger” I used to think daily.

Each restaurant has different lines, and different stances on how firm to stand.  At Lampreia, Carsbergs line was absolute.  He had created a specific experience and cuisine, and that was that.  Many customers left vowing never to return, you can read all about it on various internet sites.  But for those who allowed him to do what he does exactly as he does it, the reward is great.

At The Fat Duck, it seemed as though every dietary restriction was presumed, and little courses were designed in advance, in expectation of these expectations.  A lentil course was the replacement for those who couldn’t eat the oyster amuse.  A scallop dish replaced foie gras for those (my sister) who wouldn’t touch the stuff.  The sardine on toast ice cream was made with gluten free bread, just in case.

And at Veil, the chef does everything he can to accomodate his guests.  Generosity abounds, and he instructs servers to graciously give give give, keeping customers as happy as possible.  The woman who wanted me fired?  She got a special plate made of every lactose free dessert garnish I had.  The screaming children?  They got ice cream.  And the customer who wanted my recipe? Sorry, but no.  This line I held firm.

Any thoughts on a restaurants ability to set limits vs. a customers expectations?  Any personal experiences?

16 Responses to “Setting Limits and Expectations”

  1. I agree, a line needs to be drawn. It seems nowadays that whatever we want we should get. Whatever happened to earning it ? The best thing I have ever seen, when it comes to restaurants and kids, is a place that I love that has a seperate room with toys, dvds, food just for kids and wait for it………….. a babysitter so you can enjoy your meal with your loved ones, friends etc.

  2. Malini says:

    Jeez! these customers sound absolutely horrible. I think there is a basic attitude adjustment problem with customers who tend to view restaurants as a destination that would serve at beck and call and accommodate bad behavior. Just because they are paying customers they think it is unnecessary to be well-behaved. Screaming children are a common sight in Indian restaurants. And fighting over the liquor bill at the end of the meal with the wait staff is also common. Tips are not mandatory so after a tough night, you might not have much to show for it.

  3. Cakespy says:

    As a former server, naturally this post struck a chord with me–don’t shoot the messenger and all of that! It is so true that you have to wonder where the line is, and how different those views can be from both sides. I am reminded of the scene from (I think) “The Big Night” where the chef comes out and yells at a lady who wants a starch served with her risotto…

    I think what I am trying to say here is that I loved reading this post!

  4. Libby says:

    I think these customers need to take a little trip over the atlantic to Europe, where there are no free refills on your 4€ soda and where the phrase “customer service” means the bare minimum of getting you what you ordered, or maybe not what you ordered, but they don’t care because YOU obviously made the mistake and ordered incorrectly. The server is always right. I was at a cafe in Strasbourg, France yesterday and I wanted hot chocolate with espresso (yes a mocha). The waiter never brought a menu and I didn’t know if they had it. Bénédicte said they sometimes do. She asked if they had it. Answer, “No.”. Could they add an espresso to the hot chocolate? “NO!” and after that I wasn’t even allowed to order an espresso because I might get the idea to mix them myself. So plain hot chocolate I drank, the server wins again.

  5. dana says:

    Cakespy- I know that scene. The woman was pissed that her risotto didn’t come with a side of spaghetti and meatballs. Because some bastardized italian restaurant across town served everything on their menu with a side of spaghetti and meatballs.

    Libby- Your stories of european customer service top anything here! I still laugh at the story of the grocery store clerk who threw the ladies change when she informed the clerk it wasn’t the correct amount. I can’t believe they wouldn’t even let you order an espresso!!!!

  6. Jay Olins says:

    The LA Times recently ran an article entitled the Diners’ Bill of Rights. The author was interviewed on our local NPR outlet, KPCC, and said that he’d publish the other side of the equation someday soon.

  7. This is an incredibly good set of points, Dana. I would be the worst FOH person because I would tell people to step back across the line they love to cross.

    If a rest. gets a reputation for being a babysitter, that’s what they’ll be. Check out Danny Meyer’s book– his hospitality philosophy keeps him in business but he doesn’t lick the bottoms of anyone’s feet!

    When a place is new they need to please all the customers because each one is coming in for the first time, but it’s important to keep your integrity. We are an extremely privileged society. And we are known the world over to abuse this and continue to be bratty and ungrateful even in the face of pure generosity.

    It’s important to have manager’s meetings to discuss why you make the rules you do and what messages you’re sending to customers when there are no rules.

  8. Dan says:

    This came up at our place awhile back and I reached my snapping point – my blogged response to it all:

  9. annoying foodie customer says:

    This is a great entry, and a good topic for discussion. Interestingly, this exact topic occurs with regularity across the entire spectrum of businesses. The title actually pegs the issue perfectly, it’s all about expectations. Perhaps the problem is that many business operators don’t fully appreciate that they can actually select their customers. The common thinking is possibly that customers can choose you, but all you can do is to sit back and hope that they do. How do you choose customers? Marketing.

    The “bottomless beverage” issue is a great example. The large chain restaurants “trained” the majority of people (in the U.S.) to expect free refills. Initially it was heavily marketed as a “differentiator”, and these companies pay big bucks to get experts in marketing to craft and communicate this message. From a business perspective it is a shrewd tactic, since the larger the company the more leverage they have with Coke or PepsiCo which makes it economically viable for them, but harder for small businesses. Once the consumer is trained, then they expect it from every other “similar” establishment. Over time it trickles up from McDs, to Applebee’s to regional chains. At some point if you want to select the same customers you must meet this requirement.

    So, how do you avoid this? Select different customers. How do you do that? Marketing. The problem is that most small businesses don’t do marketing well because it is a big effort that is largely made up of innumerable small decisions. In the case of a restaurant it includes the menu items, how customers are greeted, the interior decor, the exterior decor, the prices and on and on.

    Here’s one hypothetical example of how one might select customers to only pick customers that don’t expect free soda refills. Do not offer any soft drinks at all. This will ensure that if someone expects free soda refills that they will not come for more than one visit. From a business perspective it must be understood that in the U.S. this is a substantial number of people. If you do offer soda’s -but without free refills – then you must understand that you will FREQUENTLY disappoint your customer. This should be a business decision – not an emotional one.

    Of course the best marketing and communications in the world will not prevent all conflict. The question of how to handle people who become upset over a violated expectation is a great one. As the article pointed out, sometimes the expectation is reasonable and sometimes not. In either case conflict might occur. Handling conflict well requires a very well-defined and consistently applied value system. Take the recipe request example.

    Someone asks for a recipe that is proprietary. If they ask for it, that means that they already have some level of expectation that they will receive it. So, what does values have to do with this? Let’s look at all the sides:

    1) This is actually a compliment, since the customer clearly likes the dish enough to ask for the recipe.

    2) The chef and/or owner may put a high value on keeping the recipe confidential because of the time and skill invested in developing the dish.

    3) The wait staff values their gratuity, and may (mistakenly) equate compliance with a request with outstanding service.

    It is a tough problem to balance all these viewpoints, however the values can be reconciled with some thought. We should start with the presumption that a conflict occurred over this – which means we are looking for a way to improve the response to eliminate future conflict. This means that the owner or manager needs to formulate the policy, communicate it to all the staff, and even rehearse it. So, how are the values reconciled?

    1) First, there needs to be recognition from the entire staff that a recipe request is a COMPLIMENT. You must presume that the customer asked because they really really liked the dish.

    2) Any response must communicate to the customer sincere appreciation for the compliment, but must also communicate clearly the time and effort put into developing new dishes.

    3) The response should also convey thanks for the compliment in a way that makes the customer feel good about having asked – as opposed to be scolded for asking. If the chef is personable, perhaps the response could involve a brief visit from the chef where they present a “special” recipe that is not on the menu as thanks. Perhaps the manager could make a special visit on behalf of the chef with a petit four. The key is that if there is a small token of gratitude it should be negligible in economic value but thoughtful.

    Will this always result in avoiding conflict? Probably not – but it is a good bet that it would become very rare. Although every circumstance cannot be predicted, thinking about common situations carefully and formulating a values-grounded response becomes part of your marketing and customer selection. OK, well I have rambled on long enough. Maybe even a little of this makes sense! Great blog – keep it up!

  10. Interesting questions… working at Cafe Flora gives one perspective on this. Because we are one of the few vegetarian restaurants in Seattle, we naturally get a lot of folks with dietary restrictions. Many people need gluten free for example, or vegan, and we try to design many of our dishes to either meet those standards or to have an easy option (i.e. serve the French Dip with no cheese and vegan aioli for the fries).

    We also accomodate a vast range of other requests. It seems like about every third order has a note. Splits, extra sauces, to gos, whole new made up pizzas that require a trip to the walk in and vegetables to cut, whatever. We generally try to do every one of them, in fact I don’t think I’ve seen a request turned down.

    So is that the best way to run a restaurant? I don’t think there is necessarily one right answer. It works at Flora with our vibe and clientele. And I think we take a bit of pride in the kitchen in handling these requests. Other types of restaurants can “get away” with being less flexible.

    I think for a place that is clearly creating an extremely high level dining experience, it is more tolerable to hold the line than at a comfortable neighborhood spot. That said, I know plenty of folks that feel that simply if they are paying, they should get what they want. And in a sense they are right, because they won’t come back if they feel uncomfortable or ill treated.

    “annoying foodie customer” – I really liked your comment because it points out a “third way”. It isn’t just a question of whether you say yes or no, but the attitude presented to the customer. In fact I would bet that a gracious no is far better than an irritated yes!


  11. One more thought on this. I think the most potentially galling refusals are of the “it will violate the integrity of the dish” variety. If you refuse because you are too busy, or the ingredients are already mixed or whatever, most customers will understand. But if you are just saying “I know better than you, you don’t really want it that way”, it is going to piss them off.

    Not that that is necessarily a bad thing. If you are the kind of chef to whom their personal vision of a great plate is more important than making that customer happy, rock on. I mean that seriously. You wouldn’t ask Picasso to redo a painting, only with a little less blue. But you wouldn’t hesitate to say that to your house painter. So I guess that is the bottom line. You have to know if your restaurant is in the business of painting houses or masterpieces, and accomodate accordingly.

  12. Cakespy says:

    Dana–so glad I am not crazy and that the restaurant scene in my mind actually exists.

    I’m embarrassed to admit I have not been to Veil yet although I only live 5 blocks away!

  13. Richard Chan says:

    Not to offend anyone, but I think in the US, we just demand too much. In Europe and Asia, you just go to the restaurant and like going to a friends home or going to your parents house. You just let the chef feed you and choose according to your own preference. If the restaurant can accomodate your request, it should not be taken for granted but accept with gratitude. In US, we just have this obsessive mentality of “I want it my way”. Afterall, not all restaurants are Burger King and I would be amused if someone ask for a receipe of the Big Mac and what goes in the secret sauce.

  14. Aye-yai-yai, after 17 years in the rest-and-rant business, I try to laugh at the folly of the customer-brat, and remember that they are untrained little ones, sometimes petulant, sometimes gracious–but, they do patronize the business, and deserve patient respect for being a paying guest. BUT, we do need a radical shift in the way restaurants manage and navigate difficult customers. The chain operation will always spoil and indulge their customers, which creates the expectation and training that these types bring to upscale restaurants, where their behavior often seems to be derived from their shock/anger at the “high prices” being charged.
    However, what most american diners do not realize is the true cost of purchasing and preparing fine quality food, not to mention the general labor cost of managing and staffing an operation–not to mention the crazy difficult mental work of being a line cook who must concentrate to perform the intricate and demanding dance
    of dinner service. When you get multiple substitution requests, it can really throw off one’s concentration and speed.
    Here in northern California, we are better trained, since many of us foodies shop at farmer’s markets, and pay “true” prices for organic, sustainable, and pasture-raised
    foods. If I see a $35 entree of pasture-raised lamb chops, I understand that the food cost for that item is likely to be $14, just for the meat. And the rest gets “eaten up” quickly.
    That fast food and chain mentality has spoiled many americans rotten, and desensitized them to the real costs of cooking and serving food in a nice, well-managed atmosphere. (Versus the false corn product modifiers as explained so well in Pollan’s, The Omnivore’s Dilemma!)

    Screaming children should be banned from a fine dining room. The parents usuallly are numb to the screams. Management is usually too afraid to offend or educate them on good parenting skills.
    Cell phone users–well, there are those reception disconnectors which, although illegal, do disconnect calls, but really–why can’t diners have manners?
    Recipe demanders–it used to be a way to get your restaurant into Gourmet, or Bon Appetit, which helped create publicity, thereby providing something back. The server could suggest the guest write one of the food magazines to request it.

    But–ultimately, some people are just demanding and petulant. And they can run to their nearest “ type blog” and post their injustice–which is often a slight exaggeration of the incident.
    I think the best way to handle difficult people is to provide tools to the entire staff.
    Tools that help them communicate softly but firmly, with a gentle facial expression,
    and tools that help them shrug off the nasty folks. Restaurant work requires a certain level of “groundedness” and equanimity, which few of us inherit, but most of us can develop with training.

  15. I forgot to mention the recent diner who, after 3 bites of her salmon dish, decided the fish tasted “fishy” and the risotto–”undersalted.” She did not want another dish, and expected that she would not be charged. 4 different staff members tried bits of her dish to see what was wrong, and no one could detect any reason for her
    complaints. She was a regular, and had that dish a few times in the past month, which lent some credulity to her complaint.
    What to do? The fish tasted delicious to all 4 of us. The risotto tasted perfect.
    Was it just her bad mood? Is it fair to the house to lose the entire cost of the entree to a fickle guest? Was it wrong of us to taste food from the rejected plate? Or was it all part of the job to learn that the customer’s opinion may not always be “right”?
    We comped her dish without discussion. The kitchen shrugged it off, after a few grumpy minutes. But we all went home kind of dissatisfied.

  16. GastroGnome and I have been carrying on a little back and forth on this topic recently, and it reminded me of this thread. Our discussion started with vegetarians but quickly moved to all “picky eaters”.

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