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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

When the Customer Is Wrong: Restaurants

It's one of the oldest adages of the retail world: "The customer is always right."

Of course, very often the customer is wrong. Every day customers behave in ways that make the lives of waiters, cashiers, customer service reps and other retail workers miserable. And in many cases, these customers don't even realize how annoying they're being.

To rectify this, we've decided to talk to the people on the other side of the cash register to find out what sort of customer behavior gets on their nerves. To kick things off, we got some veterans of the restaurant industry to dish on their secret pet peeves and give some advice to diners.

Great Expectations

Think about the last time you cooked dinner. How long did it take? Forty-five minutes? An hour? More?

We're guessing the answer wasn't "15 minutes." Yet that's about how long most restaurant patrons expect their dinner to take, and they get irked when it takes any longer. Sometimes diners need to tone down their expectations, says Michael Gordon, a restaurant industry veteran who has spent about a decade as a cook and waiter.

"A steak needs time to cook, and fish needs time to be brought up to temperature," says Gordon. "There's a lot of prep work."

And if you're in a big party, expect it to take even longer.

"The bigger the party, the longer it's going to take," he says. "I can't give one person a plate and not give everyone else theirs." In other words, the table will only be served once all the meals are finished, so if one dish takes 25 minutes to cook, that's how long it will take before anyone sees their food.

Trust the Chef

Gordon says cooks don't mind people sending their food back if it isn't cooked as requested. But he estimates that nine times out of 10 the dish was cooked just fine -- the customer just doesn't know what constitutes "medium rare" or understand how a dish is supposed to be cooked.

"Everybody has a degree in something or other, but when they get to a restaurant, everyone thinks they have a doctorate in cooking," he says.

If you really think the people in the kitchen screwed up your steak, by all means send it back. But consider for a moment that the professionals know better than you do how to prepare a meal. (And if you're not sure whether you're on the same page with the kitchen, you might clarify beforehand how they define the varying degrees of doneness.)

This Isn't 'Top Chef'

Of course, just because they're professionals doesn't mean that cooks are capable of producing any dish on Earth. While some substitutions and special requests will be fine with the kitchen, you can only expect so much improvisation from a kitchen with limited time and ingredients.

"We get people walking into a restaurant and asking for a vegetarian or vegan plate, and unless we've specifically got a menu for that population, you're out of luck," says Steve Dublanica, author of the Waiter Rant blog. "You're asking the chef to make something they're not used to."

Dublanica, who's also authored two books based on his experience as a waiter, recounts the story of a woman who came into a Northern Italian restaurant and asked for sushi; when she was informed that the kitchen was incapable of producing sushi dishes, she retorted that it should be possible given that the restaurant had tuna on the menu.

There's nothing wrong with asking if the kitchen can make something that's not on the menu, but don't get all worked up when the answer is no.

Don't Snap at the Waiters

Everyone knows it can be frustrating to try to get your waiter's attention during a busy dinner shift, but there's a right way and a wrong way to flag down your server.

"Raise your hand or make eye contact; don't snap [your fingers] and don't wave," says Dublanica. And don't even think about physically grabbing a waiter as they walk by, especially if they're carrying something.

If it's a special night and you want truly exceptional service, he says you can try slipping your server some cash at the beginning of the meal and requesting special attention. But there's generally one surefire way to ensure the server keeps coming back to your table, and it doesn't require you to pay out a bribe.

"The best thing is to be polite, be nice, and say 'please' and 'thank you'," he says.

Proper Groupon Etiquette

Groupon, the popular group deals site, can be a boon for restaurants looking to attract new customers, but it can also be a pain in the neck for the waitstaff, says Dublanica.

"A party of twelve will come in with their Groupons and they'll request separate checks [so they can each use their Groupon]," he says. "You can't do that."

Indeed, many Groupons for restaurants will stipulate that you can only use one per table, but that apparently doesn't stop thrifty diners from trying to game the system.

And while we're on the topic of Groupon, Dublanica also observes that some diners are guilty of tipping only on the after-coupon price.

"When you come in with a $50 Groupon or gift certificate and run up a $100 tab, tip on the whole check, not just the $50," he says.

They're Waiters, Not Accountants

If there's one thing people hate about going out to dinner with friends, it's figuring out how to split up the check fairly. But that doesn't mean you should force your server to do the math for you.

"When you have two, three, or four people all paying with credit cards, that's a no-brainer," says Dublanica. That's especially true if you just split it evenly -- if someone bought a more expensive entree than everyone else or ordered more drinks, you can square up later.

But asking your server to itemize meals and drinks by requesting separate checks is a very different story.

"When you all want separate checks, that's a pain," says Dublanica. "If you're going to torture your waiter that way, you have to tell him at the beginning." Waiting until the end of the meal and then asking the server to go through the check and calculate each diner's individual price isn't fair, especially on a busy night.

Just Show Your ID

When a bouncer, bartender or waiter asks to see your ID, they're not trying to give you a hard time. A single underage drinker can be devastating for a restaurant, so it's important for establishments to be diligent about who they let drink.

"The big driver of any establishment's ability to make money is their liquor license, and that can get pulled or sanctioned very easily," says Drew Trombly, who has worked as both a bartender and general manager of a large restaurant. "It's essential that these places protect themselves."

So if you're 40 years old and get carded at the door, don't roll your eyes -- just take it as a compliment.

Closing Time

"Don't come in five minutes before closing," pleads Dublanica. "The guys in the back have been there for 12 hours."

Likewise, Trombly singles out patrons who "stay really late when they're clearly the last people there."

While you may love the idea of having a restaurant all to yourself with that special someone, consider that your midnight meal is preventing the staff from getting home to their families. If you must show up right before closing, at least be considerate enough to finish your meal quickly.

After all, waiters and cooks are people, too. Treat them with the same respect you would like to be shown yourself.

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