"They were the best of guests, they were the worst of guests…"

Had to re-publish this older post due to “Internal Server Error”.  If you’ve already read it, sorry; if not, thanks for reading…

A tale of two tables:

Despite our best efforts and our deeply entrenched sense of hospitality, occasional guest dissatisfaction is a fact of life in our business. Sometimes it’s food over or under cooked; or the accidental beverage spill on a cashmere sweater; long waits for courses or maybe some other half imagined, half true issue. Whatever the case, the staff’s reaction and handling of complaints should be as professional and accommodating as possible. Sometimes, however, they don’t make it easy, these people.

Last Saturday night we had two tables that complained, Table 71 and Table 48.

Table 71 was a party of six that arrived early, around 6:15pm. My manager’s “Spider Sense” was tingling as they sat. I anticipated problems. They looked grumpy, didn’t say much on the way to the table, and they were all apparently related: to me it looked like Mom, Dad, and maybe three of their adult kids and someone’s spouse. Family dynamics at the dinner table are always dicey. Family dynamics while traveling and vacationing are most always a recipe for trouble. A two hour layover at George H. Bush in Houston with your brother in law, listening to him go on and on about playing “World of War Craft” on-line, can be enough to make anyone want to open an artery. This group sat, were given menus and one of the kids started right in complaining about the price of the wine pairing for the four-course menu. (“Four glasses of wine for $62? I don’t think so…” ) Uh-oh, here we go.

I know our menu prices are on the expensive side, but even just slightly wine-savvy guests realize our pairings are a very good value, as we pour very expensive wines: Napa Valley Cabs and Syrahs, great Pinots, Premier and Grand Cru Burgundies, Gruners and the like. The wines are expertly paired with the dishes, and we will always happily pour a little more for people if they finish the wine before they finish the food; no problemo. Add to that the interaction with the Sommelier, who pours and explains the wines and why they were chosen for each and every course, the high quality stemware we use, and just the general surroundings, and you really get your money’s worth. I always urge our guests to have the wine pairings not because I want to bilk them out of $62, but because it is a big, big part of what makes dining with us unique. But there will always be people who just don’t get it; and there were six of them sitting at this particular table.

This group was clearly out of their element in regards to wine and food knowledge as well as basic fine dining experience. There was the jet-lag issue, and some, who had ordered only two courses when the rest did four, didn’t understand why they didn’t have any food in front of them while the rest were eating. “Our food is taking a really long time…” At this point I stepped in, apologized, and pre-fired seven desserts for this party of six and had them on the table within seconds after the last person had finished eating their main course. Desserts are all on me, so sorry for the “delay”.

So, these people just didn’t get it. But that’s cool; in a hotel setting like ours we get these types all the time (“Do I get soup or salad with the Salmon?”). My staff has become quite skilled at meeting these guests at their level. They do the best they can to make them comfortable and hopefully not feel too out of place even if they are. They know not to recommend the foie gras with mango to the steak and potato crowd. Sometimes we get guests that sit, look at the menu and either go into sticker-shock at the prices or, like that dorky sixth grader on the first day of Junior High, look around and start to get that “Whoa!!, Wrong room!” expression. At this point, some will give in to the latter portion of their “fight or flight” instinct and suddenly disappear like a trap door opened under them. Some try to tough it out and act “as if”. They say the strong give up and move on while the weak give up and stay. Enter table 48.

The couple I seated on Table 48 was in their mid-twenties and came in about an hour after Family Feud on 71. The man (I will eschew the term “gentleman” here as he later clearly demonstrated he wasn’t) was already lit, talking loudly and being just a little too friendly with me on the way to the table. They sat, ordered martinis, four courses with wine pairings, and seemed like they were going to be OK. I told their waiter to “keep an eye” on the man as he was 1 ½ sheets out of three to the wind already. Getting some food into people at this point in the inebriation process can go a long way toward settling them down, so I was okay with them ordering the wine pairings. Bad move on my part.

After their second course had been cleared and they were “marked” with the silverware and glassware for the third, the man left the table to smoke. I was walking through the patio, checking on guests and stopped to re-fold the man’s napkin. His girlfriend asked me if I was a “manager-type person”. Why, yes, I am. “Well”, she starts off, “I wouldn’t normally say anything but because I’ve worked in Food Service”… Oh God, here it comes: some people think that working a summer at Chili’s or scooping Mac and Cheese on the cafeteria line in prison qualifies them to tell me what’s wrong with my restaurant. I can spot “industry people” in a hot second, those that have in the past, or currently work in places on a par with ours, and this broad was clearly neither.

“What seems to be the problem here?”, I am wondering to myself at this point, as she starts in: “It hasn’t been good so far”. Okay, pretty vague. “The first wine pairing with the foie gras was not good (yes, the Sauternes with the foie gras was an ill conceived match, so we had brought her a Chardonnay, ick!). “I don’t have my wine yet for this course (and you don’t have the food either), “this course is taking a long time” (the boyfriend is away from the table, outside sucking down American Spirit Menthols so we haven’t fired this course yet), and”, as she puts her hand on the “Show Plate” in front of her, “my dinner plate is COLD!” Okay, is that really the best you can come up with? I explained that the plate on the table was a “charger” and that we were not going to actually serve any food directly on it; and that if she wanted her third course on the table to get cold while her boyfriend smoked, I would be happy to bring it right away. Anything else?

Listening sympathetically, caring genuinely, and acting graciously to solve problems are the first steps in turning people from raving mad to Raving Fans. Then we proceed to exceed their expectations. “Dinner is on me tonight” or “I’ve taken care of all your wine” are powerful tools that take the power to be pissed away from the guest; but it was all a total waste on Table 48, and that’s frustrating to say the least.

Now, I don’t mind complaints. I really don’t. Dealing with them is part of my job. But they really do need to be valid. I don’t mind going overboard and comping someone’s dinner if their lamb had to go back to be re-cooked while their tablemate eats alone. That’s our fault. But bitching just to bitch, or to see how big a hoop you can make me jump through is not okay. This woman hadn’t a leg to stand on, but was still going on about what, in her mind, was now the worst meal of her life. And now Smoky had returned too, and wanted to slur his two cents worth. I apologized, hurried their next two courses along (they sent back both meat courses as unacceptable), let them order dessert (hated that too) and comped their entire dinner. They grumbled and left. It really kills me to comp someone like this who had no real problems other than they just didn’t get what we are about; and they were going to go home and bitch about how bad it was to anyone who would listen from that day forward.

So, here are your results, America:

Table 71 thanked me for taking such good care of them and proceeded to give us a five-star review on their Open Table Diner Feedback e-mail form a couple of days later. They mentioned the gracious way the manager handled the situation, the free desserts and raved over the food quality. They said they would definitely be back and would recommend us to all their friends.

Table 48 went upstairs to their room and proceeded to call downstairs and leave a drunken complaint message on the concierge line, then called the front desk to complain about how bad their free meal was to any live person they could find. Apparently the complaining technique had worked so well on the restaurant, let’s see if we can get a free room too.

One class act and one with no class.

In the Major Leagues, going one for two might get you a headline in the next day’s papers, but in my job it is just an average day.


3 Responses to "They were the best of guests, they were the worst of guests…"

  1. I admire your restraint. I would have spilled the wine from the third course on Rhonda’s sweater and “accidentally” tripped Smoky as he staggered back in from his date with the cancer sticks. But, then again, my Four Seasons days are over, and I’m happily ensconced in the world of entertainment, where such activities are a given. 🙂

  2. waiternotes says:

    This is really an excellent blog. I love your candor. I love that you try (and succeed largely) at being balanced, forgiving, and fair about various aspects of the industry. But you also let yourself be a real person, with a real point-of-view. Well done!

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