The Power of Forgiving Bad Service

bad-service

The other night, I experienced the kind of catastrophic scenario waiting tables that haunts every server’s nightmares. One of my tables ordered the most expensive steak on the menu, a prime dry-aged cut of quasi-Wagyu beef from a boutique farm somewhere in bumblefuck that massages the cows and feeds them beer or whatever. You wouldn’t believe the price if I told you, so I won’t bother mentioning it.

When the runner plowed through the kitchen double doors hoisting a tray with their food, the steak plate flopped over and everything, including all of their sides dishes, slipped off the tray and spilled onto the floor. It looked like a crime scene at a butcher shop in a gentrified neighborhood.

This caused a chain reaction. The chef went ballistic. The food runner responsible for the blooper cowered by the dish pit. I almost fainted. The manager’s face turned ghost white. Suddenly, we all went into triage mode like an EMS crew. The manager approached the table to break the unfortunate news. The chef immediately began grilling a new steak. The sommelier opened another bottle of the wine they had free of charge to begin the reclamation process.

Miraculously, this party was amused by the whole situation. In high-end restaurants, this is rarely the case. It’s not uncommon for people to walk out in the middle of their meals when food delays cross their patience threshold. But this table was angelic. They were even concerned that anyone might have been hurt in the circumstances that lead to their dearly departed T-bone. I thanked them profusely for being so gracious and promised we’d make their dessert course extra soigné.

The wait for the replacement steak was excruciating. The truth is, most of the time when crisis situations like this happen in hospitality, the staff suffers through it more than the guests do. In restaurants, timing is everything. Minutes feel like hours, and servers bear the burden of long kitchen waits every night like a constant ticking time bomb.

The re-fired steak took forty-five minutes before it was delivered, but it came out perfectly cooked. The guests loved it, but it helped that they didn’t want to hate it. We sent almost the entire dessert menu with our compliments, including a special table-side presentation that drew everyone’s attention. Other tables might have presumed they were friends of the owners. We treated them like royalty because they’d acted like it.

How a restaurant staff performs in crisis situations says a lot about the culture of the restaurant. Do they run and hide from conflict or do they address it head on and take responsibility for any wrongdoing? But how guests respond to these crises says a lot about them, too. For people who depend on external sources to make them happy, most likely problems with food or service will exacerbate their misery. Those anchored by inner happiness aren’t as likely to be unmoored by choppy waters.

It’s critical to acknowledge that when things go wrong in restaurants that it’s rarely about negligence or even incompetence. More often, service issues result from unforeseen turbulence or the grinding gears that result from the difficulty in trying to make so many different people—with unique tastes and personalities—happy simultaneously.

Yes… you always have the right to be upset. But you also have the choice to show mercy. Try to imagine yourself in the shoes of your caretakers, and you might respond more charitably. Calling off the dogs when things go awry will make you more worthy of hospitality, the sincere kind. It’s never a pleasure to take care of people who bully their way into restitution. Having the attitude that the “customer is always right” might get you what you want, but it will never get you respect.

Your Favorite Dish is Sold Out? Big Deal.

It’s difficult to remember what restaurants were like before people dined out to take photos of their food and invested hours online sifting through reviews weeks ahead of their reservation. The world was a much simpler place. The company you kept mattered more than the food you ordered. There was no such thing a Cronut. It used to be that a famous dish on the menu only became known through word of mouth or perhaps the occasional write up in the local newspaper. We didn’t get so emotional when a particular dish we loved was taken off the the menu or sold out.

Some restaurants still revel in being known for specialty items, broadcasting their prowess in flickering, neon humblebrags like: “Home of the Original Stuffed Clam” or “The Place for Ribs.” But there’s hardly a need for restaurants to flex anymore, the world has already seen it all on the ‘Gram. Social media has made having a signature dish a curse as much as a blessing. Now when we dine out, we’re not only comparing our restaurant experiences to our neighbor’s or friend’s account; we expect it to live up to the multimedia accounts of hundreds and thousands of strangers and, of course, the Kardashians. 

The most epic tantrums that occur nightly in restaurants come from guests incensed when popular items are sold out or signature dishes have been replaced on the menu. These meltdowns have intensified as guests spend more time and energy anticipating and planning their restaurant visits. The build up creates pressure which makes the explosions of disappointment even more combustible. “We made this reservation months ago and that dish is the only reason we came!!” they’ll say when the waiter delivers the bad news. Pacifying these irate guests is not unlike soothing crying children whose parents have just told them they can’t have dessert. 

sold-out-food

It’s a sensitive subject for restaurant managers and servers. We understand the reality that any dish on the menu can be sold out on any given night. That’s just how the economy of a restaurant works. It’s an imperfect science. If a restaurant only sells four orders of salmon on average every night, the chef isn’t going to buy ten pieces of fresh salmon every day just in case more people order it. Throwing away unsold food isn’t a good strategy for survival. Unfortunately, conveying this calculus to disappointed guests that had their heart set on a particular dish is difficult to do without seeming inhospitable

The fact remains though: Restaurants should do their best to make you happy but they don’t owe you anything. Food is perishable and supply chains fluctuate. An ingredient shortage often impacts the industry as a whole, not just one specific restaurant. You’re upset that your favorite sushi place is out of Uni but half of the city’s sushi bars may also have missed their deliveries. Many dishes take days in advance to prepare. It’s impossible to “whip up” a few orders of braised short ribs that needed to be salted days ahead of time and braised in red wine for hours.

Of course, guests are entitled to be disappointed that a dish is unavailable but it should never provoke outrage. When guests lose their cool, they’ve clearly convinced themselves that there is only one way to enjoy their experience. Approaching dining out anywhere with this kind of tunnel vision is self-sabotaging.

It’s actually a sign of your fluency as a diner to demonstrate how open you are to enjoying your meal despite missing out on a dish you’d hoped to try. Servers will work harder to make you happy. No one hates it more when dishes are sold out than the staff. Waiters’ lives are so much easier when they can give everyone everything they want every single night. Ask them for solutions. Understand that there is more than one path to having a great meal and always approach ordering with an open mind. You never know. You might end up liking your dish even more than whatever the Kardashians ate. 

Five Ways to Have a Better Relationship With Your Waiter

waiter relationships

I always find it amusing when guests ask my name the moment I greet the table. I also hate it. In their eyes, knowing waiters’ names is humanizing and their way of acknowledging that they see waiters as more than just servants. That’s all well and good, but asking personal questions can put the waiter in the uncomfortable position of having to divulge personal information before you’ve established any relationship. It’s a lot like dating. Coming on too strong can be a real turn off.

Of course, these guests’ hearts are usually in the right place, but the strategy often backfires. It can feel intrusive when friendly guests feel entitled to know more about their servers (Where are you from? How long have you worked here?). Asking unwanted questions may cause waiters to avoid your table. If you insist on knowing your server’s name, always introduce yourself first. It’s less threatening and reinforces that you see them as equals. 

Remember that good service is impossible without your participation. Take ownership of your role in building quality relationships with the people serving you, and you’ll see an immediate impact on the hospitality you receive. Big tips aren’t the only way to show your waiter you care. Here are a few good habits that will help you succeed:

Ask your server how his day is going? – It’s remarkably disarming when guests ask servers about their day. It breaks up the typical scripted dialogue and disrupts the phony pleasantries that define the usual introduction. Since most restaurant guests show little to no interest in their server’s role beyond providing them food, this is an opportunity to distinguish yourself. Asking about their day also shows concern without expecting intimacy. It’s a much more effective question for building solidarity than asking the server his name. 

Listen attentively to the specials – Today’s diners are so distracted by technology it can be difficult for waiters to keep their attention. You’d be surprised how rude restaurant guests can be when their waiters are trying to convey information about the menu. Interrupting a server’s presentation—even if it’s unintentional—sends a message that you devalue their participation in your experience. Set a positive tone. Put away your cellphone, listen to their spiel and ask thoughtful questions about how the new dishes are prepared.

waiter

Acknowledge when you enjoyed a dish they recommended – Recognition is rare when you wait tables. No one who works in restaurants is in the business for the appreciation. It’s a thankless job. But once in awhile when a guests says, “I really loved the dish you suggested,” it feels good. Next time the waiter comes back to the table to check on you, give credit where credit is due.

Offer to pour your server a taste of your bottle of wine – Waiters are rarely given the opportunity to taste high-end wines from the bottled list. If you order a nice bottle, ask your server if she’s ever tried it before. If she hasn’t, tell her to bring a glass! Pour the wine yourself so she doesn’t feel apprehensive about how far your generosity goes. Make a toast to great service!!

Ask your waiter to order for you – This is the ultimate gangster move. It takes a lot of trust to go to this extreme, but taking the leap of faith can pay dividends. Trusting blindly sends a message to servers that you feel comfortable in their hands. The worst service experiences are the ones where guests cannot give up control. Handing the waiter the steering wheel is empowering and will help fortify your relationship the rest of the meal. If you’re disappointed with the choices, share the blame. You had the same chance of being unhappy with your food if you ordered on your own. Ride or die together.