Remembering To Scan The Table

I’ve been writing an industry column for over 30 years and in that time I have discussed almost everything associated with food service: location, staffing, critics, famous chefs, both good and not-so-good operators, legislation, chains, and independents, but never anything even close to the following.

Fred G. Sampson
Fred G. Sampson

I opened a local newspaper and was confronted with the following headline in the features section: “Sending something back at a restaurant is OK.” My first reaction was: Why would it not be? Next: Did the writer know of cases when the customer was denied such a choice? Was the writer given a hard time if or when he or she tried it? It turns out that none of the above is the basis for the story. As you will see, the basis was the writer’s own reluctance. The writer of the article is Bethany Jean Clement of the Tribune News Service. Due to space limitations, I have taken the liberty of condensing some of her comments.

She begins: “Bad food at good restaurants happens. It happened to me twice—two days in a row—recently in Seattle. On Day One, at a place I’ve been to several times (and liked it a lot!), the noodles could only be described as mushy, dissolving in the mouth in a very unpleasant way. A gluey sauce didn’t help matters, but the noodles had been unmistakably, distressingly overcooked. My friend and I left them nearly untouched, and they were our lunch’s main dish. We were hungry—it was a late lunch—and we were sad.

“The next day, the issue was arguably a matter of taste. At another restaurant, a cheese dish proved so intensely salty, the same friend and I just couldn’t eat it. …… there it sat, only nibbled on experimentally.”

You are probably wondering, as I did, why the writer and her friend didn’t send it back or inform the server. Read on. “Plenty of people would rather suffer in silence at a restaurant when they get something that’s overcooked, or undercooked, or too salty, or just not to their taste. It seems rude to call attention to a problem in what’s supposed to be a pleasant, enjoyable setting; it might feel embarrassing, possibly an indictment of your own taste. The way we are raised to think about food, it may even seem morally wrong, like Mom’s going to permanently revoke your membership in the Clean Plate Club. “But send it back. They want you to send it back. Send it back!”

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Before we go further, remember that this article is aimed at consumers. She continues: “Restaurants are run by humans. Humans make mistakes, and humans also recognize that not all other humans like the same things that they do. The humans working at a restaurant really, truly want those patronizing it to enjoy themselves. They want you to come back. Maybe you’ll bring some friends! And tell more people how great the restaurant is!

“If they mess up—or even if the issue is just a vagary of your own personal preferences—it’s only right to give them another chance.” She goes on to interview various operators in the Seattle area who were in total agreement: an unhappy guest should immediately contact the server or management.

Now for some personal observations: Where were the servers in both cases? Did they not see that (based on her description) two guests left most of the food on their plates, and if you are using bus personnel, they too should be trained to look out for such a situation.

Next: Did the server return to the table at any time prior to rendering the check? As stated at the outset, I have never seen an article aimed at consumers, dealing with an issue such as this, and so basic. In that light, let me ask you, who are reading this: When was the last time you even discussed this subject with the serving staff? I’m sure most or all of your servers know enough to ask, or they scan the table to see how things are going. It apparently did not happen in these cases.

There is no question that managing a food service enterprise is tougher than it has ever been. Increased government intervention, labor shortages—which will only get worse once the immigration question is finalized—ever rising commodity prices, proprietors’ demands, and continuing minimum wage increases will affect your entire wage structure. The last thing you need is for dissatisfied consumers, no matter how shy they may be, to leave your establishment without at least being asked, “May I be of any assistance?”—should it appear necessary.

Remember: The most damaging complaint is the silent complaint, when you don’t even get the chance to rectify a mistake. The featured article is a testimony to that. On two occasions, the writer and her friend were silent complainants, and were not even offered the opportunity to complain at the restaurants.

I would be remiss if I didn’t inform you that in her discussions with consumers, Ms. Clement found out that one of the reasons some fail to complain was the concern as to what would happen to their food when returned to the kitchen, such as spitting on it.

Her response was as follows. Your food will be fine. “‘They’ are professionals who take pride in their work. At a place where the staff is reasonably well-paid and feels valued, this little urban myth is just that.”

Author’s note: That myth is the residue of books written 25 years ago, supposedly to expose to the public some commercial kitchens’ secrets. While the books are history, the myth lives on.

Fred G. Sampson is the retired President Emeritus of the New York State Restaurant Association. He began working with NYSRA in 1961. Within the next four years the NYSRA more than tripled its membership and expanded from one regional chapter to eight. Sampson played roles in representing restaurants on issues including paid sick leave, minimum wage, liquor laws, a state-wide alcohol training program and insurance plans. Comments may be sent to fredgsampson@juno.com