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?