What’s for Dinner?

May 18, 2012

Many years ago, I went with a friend to one of my favorite restaurants and discovered that there were two new owners.  This popular restaurant had been in business for more than twenty years and I had been bringing people to it for more than ten years.  I never had to worry about the quality of the food; it was always excellent.  During all those years, it was a favorite of local people as well as tourists who had heard of it and wanted to try it.

When we came in, we were seated immediately and the new owner came over and introduced himself.  Then he sat down next to me and proceeded to tell me that he and his partner were both chefs.  They had invested their life savings and they were going to do things differently than the previous owners.  Not a good sign.  The other owners were first-rate; they had elevated their food and their customer service to an art-form.

The first thing that this chef-cum-owner said was going to change was that they were not going to be serving the same large portions as the previous owners.  They didn’t want people taking home doggy bags; they wanted them to finish the food on their plates with nothing left over.  Considering the prices, I thought the new owners were making a foolish mistake.

Customers had always looked forward to having some of their delicious dinner for the next day’s lunch and maybe that’s why they didn’t mind paying those high prices.  I noticed that the prices on the menu didn’t change under the new ownership, just the size of the portions got a lot smaller.

I ordered a salad and swordfish and told the owner that I didn’t care if the swordfish was small as long as it was thick.  That didn’t happen.  The portion was small and thin and no thicker than 1/4″ if even that much.  The salad consisted of a few wilted leaves of lettuce that didn’t look appetizing.  And to add insult to injury, the fish was not fresh.

When the owner came over to ask us how we were enjoying our meal, I showed him the wilted leaves; he didn’t offer to give me another salad.  I told him the fish wasn’t fresh and they brought me another piece of stale fish that wasn’t edible.  They didn’t have to worry about people taking home doggy bags.  I wouldn’t have taken home a doggy bag from that meal even if it had been offered.

You can do most things and get away with them in a good restaurant but stale fish is not one of them.  And a few leaves of wilted lettuce doesn’t make you want to take home leftovers or ever come back again.  My friend’s dinner went the same way.  It was an expensive disappointment and when we were walking out the door I told my friend that they would soon be out of business.  It took them three months from the day the opened their doors until the day they closed their doors permanently and I wasn’t sorry to see them go.

My other memorable experience was this past year.  I had been to a restaurant with other people and our meal was excellent so I decided to go back.  The head waiter said that this new waiter was under his tutelage and would be taking care of me.  He watched the new waiter bring over my water and bread and take my order.  Then they both walked away.

My meal was served by someone else and I never saw the waitstaff again until I signaled that I wanted my check.

At that point, the head waiter and his assistant came to my table with the check and the head waiter asked me how everything was.  I told him that the food was very good but the service was not.  He asked what was wrong with the service and I told him that not once did anyone come over to ask me if I wanted anything else and this is the first time that I was seeing the waiter.

Tonight at dinner, I learned that this restaurant went out of business.  Not surprising.

I think the most amazing thing about those experiences is that the people who work in restaurants or who own them, have no idea that if they want to stay in business they need to learn what customer service is all about.  In my city we are surrounded by a large assortment of all kinds of restaurants, with prices ranging from very inexpensive to very pricey and competition is fierce.

If either of those two restaurants were smart enough to worry about customer retention they would have offered to either comp me for the meal, or discounted the meal, or given me a coupon for a discounted or free meal the next time I came in, or offered to give me a dessert or a beverage at no charge for this meal.  Any one of those options might have compensated for the bad food in one and the bad service in the other.

I hate to see people or businesses fail but these two restaurants deserved to fail.  Nowhere is customer service more on display or more noticeable than in a restaurant and if you want to stay in business you better learn how to provide it.

And on that note . . . Bon Appétit.

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