Archive for the ‘Restaurant Love’ Category

Who’s table is it anyway? What should restaurants do with customers that won’t leave?

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2009

I recently was in the fortunate position to be able to compare and contrast two similar difficult situations that were handled differently. It’s rare in life that you get to consider a situation and your response to it after witnessing it handled in two different ways and seeing the results. The situation is as follows. Most of the time, when I go out to eat, I make a reservation. I take reservations very seriously. I show up on time. And on the rare occasion that I need to cancel a reservation or will be more than a couple of minutes late, I call the restaurant to let them know. For me, the reservation is sacred. A restaurant is granting you a spot in their precious schedule (typically you don’t need a reservation if their schedule isn’t all that full) with no commitment on your part. You can even blow them off with no consequences to you (and many do). But such is the business and I try to hold up my end of the bargain. (Yes I know there are some restaurants that demand credit cards and issue cancellation fees, but they are few and far between.) As the owner of my own small business, I understand how scarce time and resources can be, and I don’t want to waste theirs.

And when I arrive at the restaurant, I understand that I may not be seated exactly at the time of my reservation. I understand that the flipside of taking reservations on the honor system is that shit happens, and things run late sometimes, and that the restaurant tries to leave time between everyone so tables become available at the right time, but that’s not always possible.

This is very different than my conception of the reservation with airlines and doctors. In those cases I’ve typically already given my money which they will keep whether I show up or not. Why there is no government investigation into how an airline can sell you a seat on a plane and then tell you it’s full is a crime against humanity. I especially love the airlines use of the “overbooked” euphemism as if it somehow absolves them of responsibility. “The flight was overbooked.” Who the hell overbooked it? OK. Sorry. Moving on.

A couple of weeks ago I went to dinner at a restaurant that is fast becoming a favorite of mine in Seattle. The restaurant is Tilth. It’s a small place set in a little cute house with not too many tables over a dozen. I booked weeks in advance an 8:30 reservation for six of us to have a celebratory dinner. We showed up at 8:30 on the nose. Our table wasn’t ready. Within a few minutes, the friendly host came by and assured us it wouldn’t only be a few minutes as the folks at our table had just gotten their check. He was wrong. It took an hour. I have to admit that setting our expectations poorly didn’t help matters. It’s the opposite of the Disney trick where they tell you a line is longer than it is so you feel good at the end of the line about how quickly it went. Now… throughout our hour of annoyance, the host came out and apologized profusely several times. He offered us some snacks in the waiting area. He did the best he could, but nothing could move these chatty people out of their seats. Our icy glares at their backs seem to have little to no effect either.

Finally, out of frustration, I at one point asked the host if he would just tell them that there was another party waiting for their table. He politely told me he understood, but that there was simply no way he was ever going to ask them to leave. I told him I understood, though it did little to alleviate my frustration. And I did understand. The dining experience is a escape. It’s a place where you show up, you ask for food, and then it magically shows up. Perfect. Someone made it for you. Just for you. And they’ll keep bringing you food, and drinks, and waiting on you, even taking away your trash and cleaning everything for as long as you sit there. There’s no timer. There’s nothing taxing your experience. No pressure. Just ease, and comfort, and relaxation. Easy. And so I understand why the host wouldn’t corrupt this experience for these diners. Odds are, they’d never be back. It would basically ruin their evening. All other thoughts and impressions of the meal would be forgotten, replaced by the shock and anger as a result of the invasion of their peaceful night out. A friend of mine who’s parents ran a restaurant for many years would stay until the wee hours of the morning if just one party was still enjoying their conversation. The would never ever say anything.

But. I still wanted him to ask them to leave. Because I genuinely think they’re contributing to the breakdown of society. Just kidding — sort of. ;)

Just as with the reservation, when you go out to dinner, you are in an unspoken contract with the establishment. Even the most casual observer knows that if they eat at an early sitting, the restaurant is going to try and put another party at your table later on in the evening. And while paying your check is appreciated, it doesn’t mean you own the table for the entire evening. (At least in the U.S. it doesn’t. France is another matter.) But Americans think they own things once they buy them. In the same way that many diners think of restaurant kitchens as room service kitchens (can’t they make me whatever I like) they think they own the table for the whole night. And I understand wanting that experience. But I also understand being respectful of the restaurant as a business that has other customers. I found these diners behavior particularly objectionable because they sat there for almost an hour after they paid their check and could have easily noticed that there were tons of people still waiting to get in. They didn’t seem to care.

Eventually another party left and we got seated. The restaurant also I think bought us a round of something.

Recently I was in New York eating at Joe Doe. There were just two of us dining and we had an 8:30 reservation. (hmmm… maybe 8:30 is just a bad time for dinner.) We got there, sat at the bar, and were told that our table would be available shortly as the party using it had just gotten their check. Eerily familiar. But it wasn’t exactly the same. The two main differences were that Joe Doe had a bar and Tilth didn’t. Also, Joe Doe had a four top available, and Tilth was completely packed. Joe Doe was trying to hold the four top for a party of four so they didn’t want to put us there. It’s possible the two guys at the table either thought we were not waiting since we were sitting at the bar, or thought there were other tables available as there were. For some reason, I wasn’t as annoyed with them as I was with the party at Tilth. Then again, it was only half an hour that we waited.

Did they finally decide to leave? Nope. The waiter went over and informed them that someone was waiting for the table and they needed to get things going. I didn’t hear what he said, but he was incredibly diplomatic to me all night when I got in trouble for taking pictures so I would imagine he said it as politely and compassionately as possible. I wouldn’t be surprised if he offered to move them to the bar (an option not available to the host at Tilth). The gentlemen got up. And one of them was standing right next to us and said to the server “why didn’t you tell us that people were waiting for our table?” Filled with the wisdom of the host at Tilth, and my more lenient perspective since I guessed he wouldn’t realize there was anyone waiting for his table, and since he was referring to us, I said, “cause that would be rude”. Only problem was, that’s not what he said. My dining companion and I misheard him. In fact, what he said was: “Why did you tell us that people were waiting for our table.” He was pissed about it. And when I added my “helpful” commentary he thought I was castigating him. And then he told me I was rude. The server intervened so that things didn’t come to fisticuffs and we quickly realized that something was wrong and I shut the hell up. After the angry diners left, I profusely apologized to the server and explained my confusion. He was apologetic, but had no sympathy for the party that was overstaying their welcome. As he pointed out… 90 minutes should be enough for dinner. Two hours is just overstaying your welcome.

And while they weren’t perfectly identical situations, they were pretty close. Sure enough, the diners at Joe Doe had the reaction that the Tilth host was trying to avoid. And while I think the Tilth host would have been positively crushed by creating such a situation, the Joe Doe folks seemed to have a more resigned attitude. Why the difference in attitude and action? The easy explanation is Seattle vs. New York. The restaurant culture and the restaurant diner in New York city is simply more evolved. People who go out to eat at a restaurant like Joe Doe understand how things work, or at least they should/ And Joe Doe may get enough business that they can be picky about their customers. After all, in any service business, knowing when to fire a customer as almost as important as knowing how to get someone to be your customer in the first place.

Who did the right thing? I don’t know. If Tilth had a bar, I think it would have been ok to ask the party to move to the bar. Maybe offer them a free round of drinks or bottle of wine or something. I would guess that even if Tilth had a bar, they wouldn’t be willing to do that. I don’t blame them for this. I get it. But it still made me crazy. I wanted them to fire those customers if necessary. Then again, the server at Joe Doe said basically that to the folks at our table and they got pissed. I probably didn’t help with my confused interjection, but the guy was already pissed off before I opened my mouth. I just made him more annoyed.

I guess in my fantasy world, diners know how a restaurant works. And are respectful of the establishment that provides such a welcome escape. Several times we’ve been to Nishino, and they’ve been willing to fit us in at the last minute if we wouldn’t mind freeing up our table in time for the next party in time for their reservation. It wasn’t an unreasonable request on their prt, and we were only happy to oblige given how nice the were to squeeze us in on a busy night. And in my fantasy world, since diners are always cool, and good restaurants are always full, people who don’t play nice can be booted with little to no consequence because society will judge them harshly, and the restaurant won’t feel any ill effects.

Of course, that’s my fantasy world. And as such, not super helpful.

What do you think the right thing is?

Bloggers Taking Pictures at Restaurants — Recommendations for Chefs and Restaurateurs

Saturday, January 31st, 2009

Since the very early days of this blog (way back in 2002) I realized that it was important to take pictures of the food I was writing about. My pictures have gotten a bit better since then (not hard given how bad they were when we started) but the value of the pictures is the same. Essentially, using only words to describe food (at least my words) just leaves something to be desired. And of course, even pictures + words isn’t completely optimal but we’re still working on the technology that lets you taste and smell the food via the blog. (More on that at another time.) Tastingmenu was among the first 10 food blogs on the internet. Today there are thousands. Given the explosion of food blogs and the essential nature of pictures in terms of describing food online you’d think that chefs and restaurant owners would be getting more savvy about food bloggers documenting their meals. It turns out this may not be the case, at least in terms of the sample of one I experienced recently.

On the recommendation of a friend, I recently checked out Joe Doe, a small adorable restaurant in NYC. When the food started coming, I took out my camera and started snapping pictures. I usually start out by taking a shot of the menu just so I remember the names of all the dishes I’m about to eat. When it comes to using a flash, I learned early that it basically ruins pictures. I have a bounce flash now, but I don’t want to disturb other diners. I usually only use my flash for that first menu shot. Then I’m all natural light, which unfortunately is usually not very much. Sure enough, even though I’d shot several pictures of the snack that we got before we ordered, it was the flash when I took the menu shot that got the Chef’s attention. Turns out, at least with Chef Joe, this was not a good thing.

Out of the hundreds of restaurants at which I’ve photographed my meal, I’ve only been asked not to take pictures six times (and on more than one occasion the request has come after I’ve already taken the shots – too late!). If the staff of the establishment asks me why I’m taking pictures, I usually try to deflect with a semi-truth, and tell them I really love to document everything I eat – which is true! If they tell me not to take pictures, I beg a bit. If that doesn’t work I usually let them know that I write a food blog, and that I only write about food I really like. So if I am not into my meal, they shouldn’t worry that I’m going to write something shitty, though what that has to do with whether I take pictures or not is not clear to me. I can write about the food with or without pictures. In a couple of cases, my little flowchart of responses has gotten folks to change their mind. In a couple it hasn’t. Chef Joe, through his patient and nervous front of the house staff stuck to his guns and said no.

In my experience, there are four main reasons why a chef might not want diners taking pictures of his or her food. I think three of them have some validity:

  • The photographer will be taking pictures of other diners who didn’t necessarily come to dinner to be featured on a blog. This makes perfect sense to me. And I’m always happy to only take pictures of the food and restaurant and make sure to be respectful of other diners. I’ve even been asked to not photograph staff, and I’m fine with that as well. I’m not there to do a fashion or gossip shoot. I just want pictures of the food.
  • The flash, or mechanics of taking the pictures will ruin the dining experience for other diners. I agree that a flash going off every couple of minutes at a table is distracting and I think it’s reasonable to ask a photographer not to use flash (or maybe just once to shoot the menu) so that it’s not distracting other diners. That said, I think if the photographer is discreet, and not making a big scene, it almost never affects other patrons of the restaurant except that they sometimes get curious and ask what you’re doing.
  • The food won’t look good/the photos are going to suck. I get this concern, but you have to imagine, if the food is good enough to serve to a customer, then it’s good enough to photograph. And I realize that some bloggers’ shitty cameras or bad technique may make the food look worse, but c’est la vie. To be fair to Chef Joe at Joe Doe, he did offer to let me set up an appointment to come and photograph the food properly. I might have even taken him up on it if I lived in NYC, but I don’t. I live in Seattle and my time is limited. On the one hand, I don’t think most food bloggers have the time to come back for a separate photo shoot. On the other hand, if you really like a restaurant, and want to write about it, why not take the time to go do a separate photo shoot.
  • Someone will see the pictures and “steal” the chef’s ideas/concepts/recipes. I’m not sure how to react to this other than to say… bullshit. I don’t buy for a second that somehow photography of your food is going to result in someone cloning your food and stealing your ideas. If you’re ideas are really that novel, most chefs won’t even recognize them as such because they’re so focused on following the latest trends. And besides, a photo is not food. Most great things are 10% conception, and 90% execution. Let other chefs try to steal your ideas, they’ll screw up the execution anyway so you have nothing to worry about.

In the middle of my negotiations with the chef, which took on a middle east peace conference vibe since all of it was done through two servers and the bartender (who were all very nice), I got the impression that the chef didn’t have a soft spot for bloggers. Honestly, I kind of get that. Bloggers are annoying. Present company included. But, tough shit. This annoying gaggle of self-documenting food lovers is only going to get more prevalent and more prolific over the coming years. Best to find a way to accommodate them.

My recommendation to chefs and other restaurant folks on how to deal with someone taking pictures of your food is to let them. Our society is only going to become more transparent, not less, best to adapt to the reality now. As annoying as they may be, there’s no reason to piss off bloggers. These days, many of them get more readers than the reviewer from the local paper (who in my opinion is just as annoying if not moreso). If you notice a diner taking pictures:

  • Thank them for being so interested in the food. Tell them you take it as a compliment. Cause it is.
  • Ask them if they wouldn’t mind not using a flash and not photographing the other diners. This is a reasonable request, and said properly, and in the context of encouraging them to take pictures of the food will almost always be received well.
  • Offer to let the blogger take some behind the scenes shots in the kitchen. Cooking is always great to photograph, especially as more texture for a post about the food itself. The blogger will feel special and be appreciative.
  • Offer to set up time with the blogger to come back and shoot the food when light is better and not during service. I would recommend doing this not instead of letting them shoot their meal but in addition. The blogger will appreciate it, and if they take you up on it, you’ll end up with better pictures on their blog. If they don’t… then they don’t.

Most importantly, chefs should think of bloggers/photographers as super customers. In other words, these are regular customers who are so passionate about your food that they want to tell the world about it. They can be your secret army of fans, evangelizing your restaurant and your food to everyone they know, and many they don’t through their web sites. And yes, some will say crappy things. But there are regular customers who will leave unhappy as well. The question is not one of perfection, it’s about the percentages. It’s true that some diners may rely on one lousy blog post to skip your establishment, but most savvy diners who are already taking the time to research their meal will try to triangulate by reading multiple write-ups. If your food is good, they’ll find out. And you may even have a blogger to thank.