Thursday, August 9, 2012

Mistakes, Regrets and Principles

Over the years I have had some pretty crazy war stories. I have had an all out fist fight with a customer in the dining room, battles with purveyors, and screaming matches with customers.  I have thrown multiple parties out of the restaurant and, for the most part, my cavalier attitude has led me to believe that these attacks have always been justified. I have had far more positive stories though --we have celebrated lots of engagements, tons of happy rehearsal dinners and countless birthday celebrations and many weddings -- where we always try to do something special. We’ve done lots of great community service including charity donations, food drives, coat drives, fundraisers and, of course, our big Christmas drive where we adopt multiple families with children and give them the whole Xmas experience.  But, all of the good is quickly cast aside when you have an altercation with a customer.

Recently, when I was sitting around one night telling war stories with my staff, I noticed that every story was funnier than the next…except every story was about a negative experience at the restaurant. Not one story was a “remember when we helped” or “how about the time the couple got engaged…” 

Here’s one that particularly stands out in my mind. When I first started my cheese program, I was the only person who handled it and I personally delivered it to each table.  One particular evening a customer had ordered a cheese board just as I had received an urgent call about my mother-in-law (an elderly dementia patient). The phone call was regarding a critical matter that needed to be handled immediately.  My time on the phone caused the customers to wait a little over 20 minutes for their cheese board. As soon as I was off the phone, the server quickly brought me up-to-date on the situation and I immediately made their cheeseboard, added two additional cheeses from my private collection and headed to the table. I simply said, Folks I would like to apologize for your wait” and I began to explain what had happened and how the cheese board was on the house. With only a few words from my mouth, the gentleman looked at me and said "let me ask you what you think is an appropriate amount of time to wait?" I felt as though I was already addressing (apologizing) for the inappropriate wait time and I continued on with my story. The gentleman put his hand up in disgust and stopped me mid- sentence only to wave me off and dismiss what I was saying as a lie. I was practically holding back tears at the very sad news I had just learned about a family member and to my dismay I did lose my temper. I never yelled or argued I simply removed the cheese board and asked them to leave. My biggest regret was dropping the F-Bomb which in hindsight was inappropriate. But I am only human and we do make mistakes.

I did learn from the experience and have since trained others on the staff to do the cheeses, but the impact of my actions goes far deeper than losing those two customers. They have told countless people their version of the story and have posted the experience on numerous websites. My lashing out, although prompted by their arrogance, was due more to personal issues rather customer issues. If I had just kept my cool, walked away and let them have their dinner, I probably would have won them over in the end. At the very least they would have calmed down, appreciated the free cheeseboard and, most likely, not gone out of their way to destroy my reputation.

I had an eye-opening customer service experience recently during a dinner at Bonefish Grill. The fish we had smelled bad and didn’t taste good. We told the server and immediately the manager was at the table. He never tried to educate or argue, he only wanted to make us (his customers)  happy. He asked, “Can we get you something else?” When we said “no,” he removed the entree from the bill,  sent a dessert and then gave us a coupon for a free appetizer. Now I know the chains can afford to never let a customer leave unhappy at any cost and the fish was definitely bad, but it still made me think about my customer service.

I don’t know if it’s me getting older or just settling in as a more mature business owner, but my views on customer service have changed. I still do not adhere to the policy the customer is always right. Sorry folks, but unfortunately customers taking advantage of that line has deemed it bullshit. And looking back at my battles, I believe all were justified. I do, however,  think most of them were handled poorly. I now know that the lashing out was more about my financial struggles or personal issues rather than the customer issues.

I train my staff to understand we are in an industry where we need to eat a bunch of shit. There is, however, a line --  and if customers cross it we will let them know. Every day I continue learning how to address customer issue without letting the customer leave upset and still sticking to my principles (sometimes that is easier said than done).  I know from the outside looking in, this concept seems pretty easy. But when you own an independent restaurant you need to have your heart and soul attached. This personalized touch is what makes your place unique. This personalized touch is also what makes criticism so much harder to swallow. Mix that with the daily stress of owning a small business and the combination can be toxic. It won’t matter how many great things you do… the one bad thing will always triumph. For those in the past that I offended, I still am sticking with my principles, but I do apologize for my ignorance.10 years open and I still learn everyday!


  1. I think it is very bold of you to come out and talk about this experience. I too have worked in restaurants for many years and to be honest, some customers are just hard to deal with selffish people who only care about themselves. In this fast paced world where people want to be in and out they will still have a smart remark for whether that cheese plate came too fast or too slow. It is a job for me to put myself through nursing school and I work in a fine dining establishment but some people just do not give a crap for another human being. It's like give me my food, let me as a million stupid questions, and if there is one minor flaw they just are quick to jump. Give me a break I work in hospitals for clinicals and I know when something is serious.

  2. We learn by our experiences. I should deal with that.

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  3. I think what you do great. Too many people think because they have paid for meal they can be complete d***s to the staff. It's your business - do what you want!!

  4. I can sure relate to all of this. I have a small restaurant and I always tell my staff that no, the customer is certainly not always right, however they are almost always worth retaining, and I am the only one who gets to decide if they are not. Therefore, their job is make every experience a great one. My job is to make my staff's experience great, as they are my first customers, and I always have their back. I will not tolerate rudeness, no matter what direction it is flying in. On the other hand, we do dwell on the wonderful ways that we get to interact with people for special occasions of all types, and that helps keep a positive atmosphere.

    When it comes to issues or problems with our food or service, and they are bound to happen because we are not perfect, I have adopted the attitude that we make no excuses (the customers don't care why the food was slow to arrive, they just want better service) and we have a 100% satisfaction guarantee on food and service so we always make it 'right'.

    Another way I tell my staff to look at it is: We are on stage, performing, and the customers are paying for the privilege to watch us shine and be at our best. No matter how crappy of a day we are having, it's our job to lift each other up and hide it from the customers.

    I don't know if you can relate to any of that; I love reading your stuff and I just wanted to let you know that your thoughts and words are making an impact and inspiring discussions.

    I read a post by Peter Shankman today and he said that as consumers we all pretty much expect to be treated like crap on a daily basis. As businesses all we have to do is treat people one level above crap and they will flock to us! Interesting thought....

    1. Thank yo so much for your comment and I certainly can relate. Someone like yourself taking the time to comment and letting me know that my writing has great inspiration. Thank You!