Monday, 18 August 2014

Is the customer always right?

The short answer to this is yes. Except for when they're wrong. This piece in Bon Appetit magazine spells out some of the situations where the customer may not be always be classified as "right". I've experienced some of these first hand but can happily report that they are very much the exception rather than the rule. The vast majority of guests dine out to enjoy themselves and when they are met half way by staff who are keen to make that happen, the foundations of a long and happy relationship may be laid.

The key point here is that it's a two way relationship. Paying customers have the right to expect good service and restaurateurs and service staff have the right to expect good manners in return. The most common area where this breaks down, is when guests arrive late or do not show up, without letting the restaurant know. 

I used to find this particularly stressful around Christmas time. I recall a particular incident when we had turned away over 100 customers as we were fully booked, only for a party of 20, who were confirmed earlier in the day, not to show up. 

A Galway restaurateur took to twitter recently to make his feelings known about no-shows during race week. The matter was picked up by the local newspapers and sparked a lot of debate about the issue, and how it was handled. Personally, I didn't agree with the way he went about it, but I could certainly sympathise with how he felt.

Many people in the industry feel that credit card deposits should be taken to secure reservations and only refunded if the table is cancelled. This is fine in theory but I know from experience that it's tough to implement in practice. In addition to this, the market is so competitive that very few restaurants are prepared to risk alienating potential customers. 

In order to combat the problem of no-shows, some high end restaurants in the U.S are now selling tickets for a reservation. Nothing like payment in advance to focus the mind when it comes to fulfilling a restaurant reservation. I'm not sure this would work anywhere else in the world other than the U.S. Some restaurateurs Stateside seem to get away with far more than most people would be prepared to put up with as guests.

This review of 3 Michelin Starred Brooklyn Fare on the website Fine Dining Explorer, illustrates exactly what I mean. Cesar Ramirez clearly runs his operation with an iron fist and prioritises his own ego over the paying customers who keep him in business. When you include tax and tip it's about $300 per head for food alone. Regardless of how good the food is, I don't think I'd forgive myself for paying that amount of money to be treated like that. I've been lucky enough to eat in a few 3* restaurants and have always encountered the highest standards of service and professionalism.

Chef's Table at Brooklyn Fare... Zero Tolerance Dining. Source:

David Chang's Momofuku Ko has a reputation for similarly hostile service and lack of respect for their guests. I've had a few experiences myself  in New York restaurants where service staff were abrasive to the point of rudeness. I think it's a New York thing and locals accept it. 

They have such a strong culture of dining out in NYC, and have no problem queuing for 2 hours to get a seat in the hottest new restaurant. In order to do so, they put up with a certain amount of being taken for granted. The demand/supply relationship in Ireland is the opposite way around, partly because we do not have such a strong eating out culture. This may go some way to explaining why you hear more about the disrespectful behaviour of customers rather than restaurants in Ireland. Also, we just wouldn't put up with it here!

The overall point that I am trying to make is that neither customers nor restaurants get it right all of the time. There is a happy medium which needs to be struck in order for both parties to get the most out of the relationship. Customers should feel valued and welcome from the moment they first contact the restaurant. In return, they should notify the restaurant of a cancellation when they can't make it, and be polite and civil to the staff when they can. It doesn't sound like much to ask from both parties. 

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