Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Screaming and Yelling!

Disclaimer: This blog is a chronological story that outlines some of my past struggles and triumphs over the years with building a successful restaurant. If this is your first visit to my blog I suggest starting with the oldest post for a better understanding and more enjoyable read . 

 Fighting a customer in a full dining room had to be the epitome of my frustration -- a frustration that would push me to do some really stupid things. With the chef leaving, my wife pregnant and the restaurant’s first-year anniversary looming, things were looking pretty grim. Every dollar coming in the door was as important as the next. So I decided to no longer honor gift certificates that had been sold by the restaurant’s prior owner. I had accepted his gift certificates for the first year I was open and I felt that was ample time for someone to redeem them. We received no money from the old certificates and I couldn’t afford to give away any more free meals.

It was Saturday night and we had a full house. A server came up to me and said they had a table trying to pay their check with an old gift certificate. I told her to explain to the customer that the gift certificate was not ours, it was from the prior owner and we gave everyone a year to redeem theirs. I said to tell them we were sorry, but unfortunately we could no longer accept them.

The server already had accepted the gentleman’s gift certificate and his credit card to pay the balance of his check. She went back to the table to explain the situation. The guest became irate and asked to speak with management.

My wife, Michelle, approached the table and tried to explain our reasoning for not accepting the certificates. She explained how we received no money for the certificate and that we simply couldn’t afford to take the loss any longer. He didn’t want to hear it, and berated her for embarrassing him. He then proceeded to lectured her on how we accepted the Avalon name and we have to honor all that comes with it. He said he owned businesses in the same town as us and he would never treat a customer this way. My wife, wanting to keep peace, offered to split the difference, stating that we would honor the gift certificate at half its value. This just made him more irate and he absolutely refused to pay anything additional.

I was in the kitchen when my wife and the server came to me and explained what was going on. The server still had the gift certificate and the credit card, so I wrote down the gentleman’s credit card number in the event he left without paying.

I am only 5’5” and I have a severe Napoleon complex. My nickname is “Pesce,” as in Joe Pesce, and I am about to tell you why.

Just as I was writing the credit card number, the customer came through the kitchen doors and said, “Give me my credit card, you little shit.” That was all it took. It was a like a light switch went off. A year’s worth of frustration just boiled over. My chef quitting, constantly robbing Peter to pay Paul, too many sleepless nights, no money, a pregnant wife and now an arrogant customer was calling me a “little sh*t” in my own kitchen. I lost it.

I grabbed the 6-foot man by his shirt, pushed him the through the double swinging kitchen doors into the full dining room and slammed him into a wall. I went off -- he received all my pent-up aggression. The full dining room fell silent and my kitchen staff came running out, scooped me up and carried me off. Everything was sort of blurred and moved in slow motion; it was like being in a movie. Fortunately my staff had grabbed me before I punched him. All I remember of the actual fight was me yelling, the fear in the man’s face and his wife screaming. 

I never received a dime from that table. The man from the table called the next day to try and reason with me. He wanted to pay his bill (less the gift certificate). I refused his money, telling him we would have to agree to disagree. I never saw him again.

This was just one of the many stupid moves I would make over the years. I don’t adhere to the policy that the customer is always right, but in this case I pissed off a table over a $75 gift certificate and ended up with no money. I embarrassed myself in front a full dining room and sent four customers out my front door with a bull horn screaming, “this place sucks!”


  1. In hindsight, communicating your decision not to honor old gift certificates would have been the way to go, or instructing servers to ask if any gift certificates would be used. That way, customers know up-front where they stand, and whether they want dinner at your restaurant. The guy was obviously an ass, full of himself and need to be smacked down by someone, sometime. Too bad it was you, Pesce. Wrong time, wrong place. But you had no choice. He stormed your kitchen and called you a name. You've created a successful business since then, so forget about it. Good story though!

  2. Yes, this was a good story, but I just got around to reading your remarks in the April issue of Philadelphia magazine about restaurant coupons and deals on-line. I have dined in your restaurant several times and the food was amazing, but it's good to know that I won't be welcome if I am bearing a coupon for a discount. Stereotyping those who might otherwise have not tried your eatery as only interested in a deal and, therefore, are not "diners" is unfair and quite snobby at the very least. Interesting how you weren't above campaigning for monetary contributions for opening your Downingtown restaurant with promises of special dinners and meals. No,thank you. I hope you and your elite group of "diners" can sustain two restaurants in the Chester County area.

  3. Marmee I am sorry you feel that way and more importantly I am sorry magazines do not print every part of an interview. Just the quotes that sell. Yeah I said "Groupon sucks" and so does Opentable dining spotlight program. They are Vampires that destroy the integrity of so many restaurants. Unfortunately there are many logistics behind these programs that diners do not know about. And the vast majority of people who use these programs are just looking for a deal. You may be part of a small percentage that we would retain as as an going customer and we thank you for that. But the truth is... that small percentage can't nearly carry the loss the restaurant has to cover. For example Groupon takes 50% of the sale price plus credit card fees. That means a restaurant sells a $50 gift certificate and receives $11.95. It is impossible for the restaurant to recover that loss without restricting the in some deal in some way. Groupon and Opentable do not allow that. I hate to be accused of stereo typing but I have been doing this a long time and I have seen just about every deal that comes down the pike and very few bring in a quality repeat customer. Now I am not saying we don't do value offering. We offer lots of our own promotion through our website and newsletter. But these are own promotion and we are giving up exactly what we offer, not a whole bunch of hidden cost the consumer knows nothing about. I also do another value added deal that doesn't hide a bunch of fees and solicate coupon clippers. So if you chose to no longer come to my restaurant, I am sorry and your business would be missed. But I think your reasons were very misunderstood and I feel publicly calling me out without better information was unfair!

  4. Chef, LOVE the blog and more importantly your honesty. It's very hard to walk the tight rope of expression and marketing and hope that this does well for you.

    We should talk dining room stories sometimes--you know the ones you dare not write about.