Thursday, September 14, 2006

"The worst wheel of a cart makes the most noise"--Benjamin Franklin

In between the drinking and the whoring, Franklin could definitely bust out with the memorable verbage.

No one is perfect, just as no organization or business is perfect. The key in overcoming one's own shortcomings rests in identifiying mistakes as they occur and quickly addressing and/or repairing them--in the case of a restaurant, this means while the guests are still at the table.

Back in the glorious old days of my youth spent as a bartender and waiter living a dissolute life, I worked in a number of establishments, both large and small, that had file cabinets full of complaint letters--so many at one landmark restaurant that they were filed by month. Whenever my concentration wandered away from money, women, and liquor I would pay attention to the way these properties were run. As I continued to observe the management, I identified what I considered to be a major flaw that led to most of this guest dissatisfaction, not to mention the avalanche of free giveaways that this unhappiness prompted as response from the management.

The problem was managment involvement--there was very little. While things have changed somewhat in the intervening years, restaurant managers have generally not been at the top of the executive pay scale, often making far less than the floor staff they direct. As a result, many managers have traditionally been less than wholly competent, and less than wholly focused. To become King of the Mountain was to be the GM of a large independent or corporate restaurant, a day job with decent salary and bonuses--hell, some of the larger chains throw in BMW's and stock options just like real businesses. For the rest of the managers it was the "spoils system"--all you can eat, all you can drink, comps for your friends, and either jobs for your girlfriends or good times with your hostesses [or both if you were particularly adventurous]. Almost no one was paying attention to the guests, no one double-checking and keeping a handle on execution, and as a result hoards of people were leaving unhappy. Simple miscues that could have been fixed with desserts, drinks, re-fires, or small comps at the time ended up being appeased after the fact with big gift certificates, expensive steak knives, and logo-ed memorabilia.

20% of my time spent working is spent checking on guests, troubleshooting, and putting out fires. After I am finished with the "day job" part of my responsibilities I roll right into floor service. Almost nothing makes my heart sink faster than seeing a letter hand-addressed to "manager" sitting on my desk or an email entitled "our dining experience" in my in-box. The funny thing is, our policies are so comprehensive and successful that most of these actually turn out to be complimentary--it is when they don't that the fun begins.

Again, we make our share of mistakes and people can slip through the net--two or three times a year I receive a letter or email from someone who did not receive proper treatment from us, and my response is always generous and apologetic. After all, two or three guests out of 85,000 isn't a bad average. The "worst wheels", to reference old Ben's quote, are the con-artists and the opportunists that make up the rest of the correspondence, and that is where my extra time in the restaurant pays off.

For the cons, they are banking that the GM is not in the restaurant during service, that our volume is too high to track individual guests, or that I am so busy that the easiest response is to send compensation for their wholly-fictitional misery. Armed only with polite questions, I have driven scores of these scumbags into fits of the most profane histrionics imaginable. The M.O. is always the same--we come all the time, you would know us if you saw us. We did not have a reservation that evening, we paid cash, we do not have a copy of the check, and we do not remember our server's name. In many cases we cannot remember exactly what we had [i.e my steak was horribly overdone and no one ever checked on me, but I can't remember the size and type of steak I ordered last night]. After three or four rounds of repeated sincere apologies and nothing else, these cut-rate grifters get the hint that no offer of compensation is forthcoming, and will ask outright, "so that's it, you're not going to offer anything to encourage me to return?" The best part is telling this unfortunate guest that while I am sure, personally, that this would never apply to THEM, the fact that some awful people actually make up similar stories for personal gain leaves us unable to offer anything unless we can PROVE that they were actually in the restaurant--that is usually when the bad words start and I can't hold back my laughter any more.

The opportunists are even worse. Why these people have decided to slog through life without a vestige of self-respect, grubbing and scraping for every scrap and alms they can unearth, I have no idea. What I do know is that when they realize that I interacted with them during their visit they tend to lose a little of their indignation--not all of it by any means, but a little. Most complaints are mailed, emailed, or left on my voicemail, as it is somewhat difficult to get right to me by phone. As a result, I usually have the background info on the ready when I make contact with them, and ask nicely for them to "tell me what happened". Invariably this is a tale of being slighted, ignored, and subject to the most perfunctory and incompetent treatment imaginable--in many cases it sounds as if they have been walked through a prison lunch-line rather than served in a $2 million meat palace. The story is always nearly seamless, until I ask why they didn't tell me at the time. "Well, I'm telling you now", they say. "No no, I mean, why didn't you tell me when I checked back on the dinners, or when I opened your second bottle of wine?" "Is this is sommelier?", they ask, because "I wanted to talk to the manager about my experience." Then the dagger-- "But I am the manager as well, sir [or madam, many of these are actually sourced from the fairer sex], I like to open as much of the wine as I can because it let's me keep in contact with our wonderful guests." On occasion, I may credit the cost of the "offending" item, or refund a tip for the "terrible" service--in a rare case or two I have even sent a personal check for the amount of the meal with suggestions that the guests enjoy dinner at another restuarant to make up for their experience here, sadly lamenting that "not every restaurant is for everyone..." Never a gift certificate though--these are not people that anyone wants in their restaurant. These tools can hit the road and be a pain in someone else's ass.


Anonymous Food Service Ninja said...

Im a firm believer in the 80/20

*9% of your sales will come from 20% of your customer base and additionally 80% OF YOUR PROBLEMS will come from 20% of your customer base. Guess which 20% need to be FIRED and these losers are whom most managers throw the free stuff at like their lives depended upon

9:23 AM  
Blogger shaogo said...

As a restaurant manager I take great pleasure in giving a dinner party for 200+ people every night; and getting paid for it.

Your description of the people we just don't want to come back is spot-on. I, sadly, don't have the wherewithal to give some of 'em a personal check to help them go elsewhere -- I merely suggest a place (insert name of heavily-advertised national chain that promises to "treat you like family") that perhaps will provide them with the comps that they so desperately want.

5:06 AM  

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