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Is the Customer Always Right?

January 15, 2010

By Monsieur Anton

The movie The Invention of Lying takes place in a world where there is no lying.  Everybody tells the truth no matter how blunt or inappropriate.  There is a scene in the movie where the character played by Rob Lowe is on a dinner date with Anna played by Jennifer Garner.  Since lying is not something that civilization has developed yet, he cannot make up some silly excuse, instead he sends back the wine “not because it’s turned, but because I want to appear discerning and powerful.”

In the restaurant business we have encountered this character before.  We know there is nothing wrong with the wine, and if there was, the jerk would probably not even know it.  Still we dutifully retreat with the perfectly good bottle of vino only to return with another bottle and go through the charade again.  We do this because of the age-old axiom in business that the customer is always right.  But are they?

A Google search of “the customer is always right,” returns 36,400,000 entries, so it’s not like this is a new concept, but sadly it is not always true.  Often times we restaurant professionals know that the customer is dead wrong.  They may be pretentious like Rob Lowe in the movie, or they may just be ill-informed.

Say said customer sends back their salmon insisting that it is not prepared properly.  This sets a whole string of events in order.  The server will return to kitchen to tell the chef of the complaint while they and the manager, three other servers, the sous chef, pantry chef, bartender and dishwasher all inspect the maligned piece of fish.  Now, on some occasions, the patron may indeed be correct in which case the offending meal will be redone, the manager will comp either a glass of wine, dessert or in extreme cases the entire meal.  But what is the manager to do when the customer is wrong?

In this case the chef will be mad as hell and make some half-hearted attempt to re-do the meal, the server will curse his luck, and soon to be meager tip, and the manager will have to talk to the guest and walk a thin line of informing the customer of how the meal will be fixed without embarrassing them, and allowing them to save face with their dinner companions because after all, the customer is always right.

A manager dreads when a server comes up to them and tells them that the guy at table 23 wants to see them.  This is never a good thing.  Practically nobody calls over the restaurant manager in the middle of a meal for good news.  It is at these moments the manager summons up all the skills of a United Nations Ambassador to address the issue, and often the customer has little to no interest in what you have to say.  I’ve actually approached a table and had the customer bark out to me “Don’t say anything.  I’m doing the talking here!”  It is at that moment all you can do is to nod your head and periodically say “yes sir” or “yes maam” while in your head moving on to a nicer place where children play, puppies frolic and the sky is not cloudy all day.  (Side note:  As a young assistant manager, when confronted with this type of customer, we would reply with “You don’t want to see a manager.  You want to see the manager.  In retrospect this may have hindered my career advancement.)

Sadly for this type of customer there is nothing you can do to assuage them.  Their mind is made up that the world is an awful place, and that your restaurant is the center of that awful world.  It somehow makes them feel better and/or important to take out their miserable existence on people they feel are beneath them.  Not only is this customer not always right, they are toxic.  They are not just bad for business; they are bad for all your other customers.  How so?  The cost of the bottle of wine Mr. Lowe returned in the movie will be passed on through increased prices throughout the wine list, as will the cost of a new piece of salmon to the menu prices.

It is not only financially where this schmuck impacts the dining experience for others.  That entrée that was returned to the kitchen to be remade, now jumps to the front of the tickets of diners who have already ordered meaning they will not only get their food later than anticipated, but it will throw off the timing of both the kitchen and the servers who are dutifully trying to serve less high maintenance patrons.  Additionally, it makes for an uncomfortable environment for surrounding diners and even their own dinner companions.  I can’t tell you how many times the spouse of an enraged diner has snuck over to me on the way out to apologize for their mate’s behavior.  They know better than anyone that they’re married to a jerk!

So what is a restaurant to do with the customer who is not right?  Unfortunately it comes with the territory and is a cost of doing business.  The best you can hope for is to control the collateral damage by using your best diplomatic skills.  If there is something truly wrong, you want to fix it right away.  If there is nothing wrong, you don’t want to lower yourself to their level and argue.  This is where you mother’s sage advice to kill them with kindness comes in.  In doing so, you will reveal to all within earshot that this individual is a moron without calling them a moron to their face.  You will also come across to all as a professional and illicit respect and sympathy from all while enabling the troubled diner to exist in the miserable world they prefer.

Now if I were the server in the movie, since I am unable to lie, I would tell Mr. Lowe’s character that he is a pompous, self-serving bastard who doesn’t deserve to be in the company of such a lovely and charming lady as Ms Garner, toss him out on his rear, then sit down and enjoy that bottle of wine with Jennifer.  What a great world it would be if we all just told the truth!

Chef Gusteau: This is a very difficult situation in the restaurant.  We all want to please each customer and exceed expectations when possible.  The most common example of food being sent back is anything that appears undercooked to the customer.  Foodbourne illnesses are serious issues that we as cooks try our best to avoid.  Properly storing and cooking all food are great ways to prevents these illnesses.  That said, there are many foods that taste best when prepared medium rare.  Red meats, sashimi grade tuna, duck, ostrich and others taste wonderfully decadent at medium rare, and are still safe to eat at that level of doneness.  So not sure what to do?  Best advice…tell your server you will let the Chef cook your meal the way he/she considers best.  We will always do our best to keep the food safe, while making it as delicious as possible.  And if you don’t like it, then please do send it back and we will make it right.  Just be sure to tip your server well and come back again for dinner and show us we have earned your loyalty!

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