The Customer is Not Always Right

When does a diner’s behaviour cross the line?

Twenty diners are standing behind you, each waiting to pay separately, when you notice all the debit machines are currently in use. A food-runner taps you on the shoulder saying the party at table 33 returned their steaks, and people at another table are waving at you to come clean up the wine they spilled. Not to mention the hostess is lost in a crowd of hungry patrons and the kitchen is unbearably hot. It’s a typical night for a server at any popular restaurant – when things are going well. Add in an unruly, rude or altogether mean customer and things get worse in a hurry.

In the hospitality industry, the age-old saying, “The customer is always right” is as much a business motto as it is a spirited joke. But, from small indiscretions to huge displays of disrespect, there’s a big difference between always being right and never being told you’re wrong. According to some of Edmonton’s restaurant-industry professionals, here are some of the common customer faux pas.

The Illiterate Eater

Kelly Webber, a part-time waitress at The Bothy downtown, was in charge of writing daily features on the chalkboard sign outside the restaurant. One day last summer, she decided to write a fun little joke on the board instead, which read:

The Perfect Martini

1) Pour gin, vermouth and olives into the trash where they belong.

2) Drink whiskey

Considering The Bothy is a wine and whiskey bar with more than 175 varieties of whiskey, it was a fitting quote. Yet, all day, countless customers came in after having read only the title, asking for the perfect martini. One couple in particular requested two “perfect” gin martinis. Webber listed off the different types of gin The Bothy carried, and the customers opted for Tanqueray. She began making the concoctions only to be critiqued every step of the way. “They seemed like martini connoisseurs,” says Webber.

After the guests finished their drinks, Webber asked them if they’d like anything else. “The gin was terrible,” they replied. Tanqueray was the fourth best-selling gin in the world in 2009. “I think they were expecting me not to charge them, but they drank the whole thing and didn’t complain until the end,” says Webber. They paid, didn’t leave a tip and proceeded to say they came in for “The Perfect Martini.” She politely informed them the sign was a joke promoting whiskey, and erased the board the next day to avoid further confusion.

Of course, even when things are clearly spelled out to customers, a failure to read the menu with care still causes problems. Case in point: Paul Shufelt, corporate chef and managing partner with the Century Hospitality Group, cites a capicola sandwich, formerly on the menu at Lux Steakhouse and Bar, as an example. Despite the Italian ham being clearly listed in the dish’s description, the sandwich was returned multiple times a day by customers who couldn’t eat pork saying they were unaware it contained ham. “When we rolled out the second menu, we made a point of calling it the Capicola HAM Sandwich and yet we still had the issue,” says Shufelt. According to Statistics Canada, the average operating profit margin for the food and beverage industry in Canada was only 4.2 per cent in 2012, so, for Shufelt, careless customer mistakes are hard to swallow – especially when they occur so often.

The Disappearing Diner

Shonn Oborowsky, owner and chef at Characters Fine Dining, touched on two common dining faux pas – cellphone usage and bathroom breaks. “Not only are people using their cellphones during dinner but we sometimes see a couple in for dinner sitting at a table not even talking,” says Oborowsky. “Maybe they have nothing to say to each other over the years but it makes the atmosphere different, less exciting.” While people are busy reading messages on their phones, they neglect to pay attention to the company they keep or their surroundings. “People get up and go to the bathroom at the most inopportune times – like right as we are plating their main course.” His staff often have to re-plate dishes or keep them under heating lamps until guests return to their seats, which affects the overall flow of the restaurant. It’s either that or guests complain their dishes are cold.

The Loud and the Brazen

Webber recalls one night when a couple came into The Bothy on what was clearly a blind date and started getting louder and louder. As she turned to her co-workers with a bewildered look on her face, wondering how to address such rudeness, the couple continued to yell at each other as if no one was around. “He yelled something, stood up, threw the chair down and stormed out,” says Webber. “His date and all our staff couldn’t believe it.” The Bothy covered the meal for the girl who got screamed at and brought her up to the bar to make sure she was OK.

While some disruptive diners like to take their bad tempers out on newfound company, others prefer to denigrate the staff instead. With over 20 years experience working in the industry, Shufelt has seen just about everything, but the one situation he’ll never forget was the borscht incident.

After hearing from a co-worker that a guest was unhappy with the borscht he had made, Shufelt stepped out of the kitchen to rectify the situation. As he approached a table of two ladies, he began with an apology and then asked the lady for an opportunity to make her something else. “She felt the need to tell me how horrible I was as a cook, how she could make a better borscht at home and that I didn’t deserve to be wearing a chef title,” says Shufelt. For the next 10 minutes, Shufelt was belittled to the point where he started to second-guess himself as a chef. “It’s like I ruined her life over an $8 bowl of borscht that we took off their bill,” says Shufelt. On her way out, the woman admitted she felt bad for some of the things she said and making such a scene, but it was too late.

The Nitpicker

According to Oborowsky, who has run Characters for 16 years, it has become increasingly difficult to meet the requests of customers, largely because of allergies. He estimates two in 10 customers have allergies, but the communication surrounding their requirements isn’t clear. For example, the scallop appetizer at Characters comes basted in soy sauce, which a person with celiac disease cannot have because soy sauce is made with wheat. “A lot of people say they’re celiac and then say, ‘Oh, I can have a little bit of soy, though,'” says Oborowsky. “We had a lady with a wheat allergy and a dairy allergy, and then she had scallops, [as well as] ice cream for dessert.” Both Oborowsky and Shufelt say they find it incredibly frustrating when a customer falsely claims something as serious as an allergy, because cooks then have to start from scratch and take extreme precautions to ensure that person’s safety. Oborowsky encourages customers with serious allergies to call ahead so that his team can prepare something special for them.

Chefs also find it incredibly irritating when customers unnecessarily modify their meals. Shufelt has had to make off-the-menu meals on opening nights – when it’s impossible for a diner to have a preference for a dish he or she’s never tried before. He explains that busy kitchens operate in an assembly-line fashion and special revisions to individual orders greatly slow down that process. “Build five cardboard boxes that are all the same, compared to building five cardboard boxes that are all different, and it will probably take a little longer [to build the different ones],” he says. Oborowsky says his team takes the time to test, tweak and plan every item on their menu, and they put certain things together for a reason. “We don’t just slap stuff together. It really is appreciated when people don’t change stuff and just try to eat what’s on the menu, as we put a lot of effort into making it that way.”

The Time Bandit

Another gesture Oborowsky appreciates is being informed when guests are in a hurry. Characters allots 40 minutes to each course because employees know people are spending good money and want the meal to be an experience. For many, though, that’s too much time. Three courses at a fine-dining establishment is not something that’s meant to be crammed into an open hour in the day.

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