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Nothing Good Comes From Staying Silent

January 17, 2018

Longtime readers of the FLB have surely noticed a change over the years in both the content and tone of this blog.

When I first started writing, I knew nobody. I wrote An Open Letter to Capital District Chefs and had not sat down with a single restaurant owner. And frankly, there was a bunch of stuff that I got wrong.

I hate being wrong.

Thanks to my day job, or my ambassadorship, or whatever you want to call it, I’ve spent the past three years talking to local business owners and getting to know more Capital Region chefs. In today’s climate of social media and online reviews, the one thing I hear time and time again is how they wish people would speak up if there is something wrong with their meal.

But apparently, not everybody feels that way, so I wanted to take a moment to discuss it.

This recently came to my attention when reading Deanna Fox’s story on AOA about the wonderful oxtail egg rolls at Buddha Noodle. On her visit the Tonkotsu ramen was less than wonderful. She described it as sub par. And looking at the picture of her dish, I don’t doubt her evaluation.

What I do find particularly interesting is how far off her experience was from my other trusted friends’, Otis M. and Carol M. Certainly Deanna’s dish looks far less appealing than the one presented here. But even the ramen Otis loved didn’t visually live up to the fully styled version one can find online.

Food photos versus food reality is a whole different post.

Fox ended up writing off the ramen entirely with the line, “nothing good comes from sending a dish back and asking for a replacement…nothing.”

On the one hand, it’s a fair point.

There are plenty of occasions when things have gone wrong during a meal and I stayed silent. Maybe it was the company I was with, and my respect for their feelings. It would ruin Mrs. Fussy’s meal if I sent back meat cooked to a different internal temperature than I ordered, and on occasion I will put her desires above my own. Or maybe it was my lack of faith that the situation could be rectified based on the quality of ingredients or the skill of the staff on hand. For example, I don’t think it’s possible to get a satisfactory cappuccino at 99% of Starbucks counters.

For that matter, there are plenty of occasions when things have gone awry, the issues has been raised, and the response by management was defensive and unsympathetic. The overcooked lamb that management insisted was actually medium rare, and the pulled pork crepe that the owner indignantly claimed wasn’t microwaved despite having both hot and cool spots in what should have been a fully warm dish, come readily to mind.

More often than not, I think it’s these kinds of experiences that have trained people against speaking up.

However, restaurants aren’t perfect. The greatest chefs can miss spotting an overcooked burger on a busy night before it’s sent to a table. And good operators know this. Burgers are something I will always send back if cooked incorrectly, which is probably one of the reasons I rarely order them when going out with Mrs. Fussy.

But on a recent outing, I got an overcooked burger, sent it back, and received a new one just as quickly as the deft hands in the kitchen could crank one out. The replacement was delicious. Everyone was gracious. It was a total win.

I wasn’t looking for the entire meal to be comped because of one mistake. I just wanted the kitchen to fulfill the contract we had established: Food should come out properly cooked; it should have all the components on the plate that were listed on the menu; and it should meet your expectations.

One of the my favorite restaurant stories was from one of my favorite restaurants in California. To this day, I don’t know if the issue was my fault or the restaurant’s. But read the menu and ordered the chicken, which sounded delightful. However, when the plate was delivered, the food I was given was not what I expected at all.

Not only was I unhappy, but clearly my unhappiness was showing.

Maybe I didn’t read the menu closely enough. Maybe the wording on the menu was somehow misleading. I really don’t know. What I do know is that they took the dish away, and took it off the bill with no muss or fuss. I didn’t want Mrs. Fussy to wait, so we just split her main course, and ordered some extra rich dessert. And in the end, we had a delightful meal.

I believe restaurant owners when they tell me that they would prefer to hear from unhappy customers while they are in the restaurant, so they have a chance to make the situation right. Nobody wants a customer to leave unhappy.

That said, I am also convinced that there are some people who will never be happy. So it’s definitely a balancing act. This is Advanced Civilization 401. It’s not an entry level class. And there is a lot of nuance to these situations.

In the case of Fox’s soup, if the broth was weak, that’s a flaw that cannot be fixed on the spot. Something must have happened in the kitchen. Most likely, I would have taken the same course of action. But even so, I have to come to a different conclusion. Because despite there being times when sending back inadequate food led to a unsatisfying response, I feel like it’s only fair to give the restaurant an opportunity to address its shortcomings.

Mistakes happen. It’s the management’s response that will make or break a restaurant.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Dave permalink
    January 17, 2018 12:23 pm

    I’ve never, in adulthood, sent a dish back at a restaurant unless it was clearly the wrong order. Avoiding this sort of social discomfort is more important to me than any real benefit to a restaurant or society as a whole.

  2. RogerK permalink
    January 17, 2018 1:11 pm

    Servers are expected to stop back at a table after an order is delivered and inquire if the customer is satisfied. Because this act is typically performed with such matter of factness, unless there is a very significant flaw, oversight, or miscommunication, we are likely to give either a neutral to positive response at that point. Example: “Is everything OK?”, “Yes”; or “How is your meal?”, “It’s good.”

    What we truly appreciate is when a manager or chef stops by the table much later or at the end of the meal to inquire about our experience. That sends a message to us that they are indeed looking for comments and opinions while we are there. It is at that point that we feel most comfortable in sharing a more in depth commentary on either the food or the experience. “I thought the pork was lacking in flavor”; “I found the dish too salty for my taste”; “I really enjoyed how the sauce complemented the flavor of the meat”; “Was that nutmeg that I tasted in the dish?”

  3. January 17, 2018 1:13 pm

    I sent a glass of wine back a few weeks ago. It wasn’t off, it was just terrible wine. The bartender happily took it back, offered me the wine list and I chose something different. It was quite good and worth the $14 per glass.

  4. January 17, 2018 3:26 pm

    J’s comment reminds me of a conversation I had in a Boston restaurant recently. The server brought over a bottle of wine and waiting for us to taste it. Knowing virtually nothing about wine, I am never sure what to do in these situations. I have a colleague who sends the bottle back about half the time – her family works in the restaurant industry. It’s gotten to the point where some colleagues won’t go out to eat with her even if we are on the road for several days. But are you only supposed to send it back when there is something wrong with it? The server said wine gets sent back quite often. This was a nice Italian restaurant.

    We always send meat back when it is not cooked to the right heat temperature, and have only ever received apologies, no attitude, even at places like Denny’s (which has many great servers, by the way!)

  5. January 17, 2018 6:51 pm

    I had leftover Tonkotsu Ramen from Buddha Noodle for breakfast this morning, about as unforgiving an environment as you can imagine, and it was just great. At this point, Deanna’s weak ramen must be regarded as a cold case. Hopefully she’ll go back and try again, possibly with supervision (hint hint, except that I’m out of town till the 27th).

    Regarding the issue of sending back dishes in general, I think it’s the right thing to do if you know (by past experience or reputation) that the restaurant can do better. Sadly, that’s not always the case. Sometimes the overcooked or undercooked, poorly garnished, under salted dish is exactly what they plan to serve you in which case why bother.

  6. lorre s permalink
    January 18, 2018 1:33 pm

    “Nobody wants a customer to leave unhappy.” I wish that this were actually true. The main reason I don’t complain is because I have had enough very uncomfortable encounters to forego the possibility. The other reason is because when a dish is sent back the process of replacing it sort of shreds the timing of the meal. The timing effect can be minimal to downright upsetting. So criticizing by sending the dish back is something I only do when the dish is an apparent disaster and wait staff are sympathetic. I have to really like a place and be a regular customer in order to do that and return for another meal. I think it’s more realistic to say that some people do not want the customer to leave unhappy. That may be true, for instance of the chef, but the house staff may have a problem in the way of misanthropy. I’ve discovered more than once that the staff doesn’t like the kind of person I am whether it’s my physical appearance or the fact that I’m unaccompanied and won’t produce enough revenue or something else. It’s lose lose and they don’t want me back and behave like it. So staying silent about less than optimally prepared food in that kind of environment is more an act of self preservation than anything else.

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