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Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Waiter! There's a . . .

From the Vault Dept.: Here's a piece that never loses currency, originally published twelve years ago, the quotes giving a snapshot of an Albany-area dining scene that has shuffled considerably since.


THE CHEF'S SPECIALTY WAS soufflés – huge, airy concoctions bedecked with lobster or caviar. Three members of a party of six ordered them. They’d been celebrating whatever event brought them here with round after round of vodka  martinis; by the time their entrées arrived, they were boisterous.

Then: “Waiter!” summoned one. I eased to her side. “This thing – ” she gestured to the soufflé in front of her, a yellow pillow now the worse for wear – “this thing has no flavor!”

“I’ll tell the chef.” In the kitchen, the German martinet was busily working the stove as I relayed the complaint.

Arschloch!” he thundered. “What’s her problem?” This tends to be the immediate reaction of any chef I’ve known. I explained my theory that the party had numbed its taste buds with so much booze. “Of course that’s what happened!” he agreed. “It’s their problem.”

Unfortunately, I knew it was our problem. More to the point, it was my problem, as I’d be presenting the bill, and I’d be the one getting stiffed for the tip. Back to the table, then, for damage control.

Now they’d synchronized their stories. “None of these soufflés have any flavor!” my complainant insisted.

“You jerk: you’re too drunk to tell if anything has any flavor,” I didn’t say, as much as I wanted to. I said, “I’m sorry this didn’t work out for you. I’d like to offer you a choice of the following entrées, which can be prepared quickly. And they’re on the house.”

“I’d like to say that the customer is always right,” says Andrew Plummer, chef-owner of Troy’s Allegro Café, “but they’re not. But it doesn’t matter – we work around that. Our ultimate goal is to make them happy and comfortable.”

This is echoed by Brad Rosenstein, who operates Jack’s Oyster House in Albany, the third generation of his family to do so. I asked him what he does when a customer is a hundred percent wrong. “He’s not,” says Rosenstein. “We’re a hundred percent wrong to think that way. Each individual case is unique, and has to be treated as such.”

Now I’m on the other side, too, victim of the whims of chefs and servers. Despite the fact that I go into print each week with a critical look at area restaurants, I hate to feel forced to complain.

What goes wrong? And what should you do when things do go wrong?

We eat to live, of course, but we’ve also elevated dining into a ritual with so much fun and variety that novelist Thomas Berger termed cooking the most creative of the arts. Where you choose to dine tends to reflect your food sensibilities; if your idea of heaven is a grinder and fries, you’re at a threshold where service will be fairly casual and there should be few surprises. It’s as you move up the price/fanciness scale that the indignities grow more oppressive.

I’m sympathetic with the folks who shared their tale of New Year’s Eve woe at a local fine-dining establishment, but that’s a tough holiday – especially with the odometer turn we just enjoyed – and it will take its toll on service. Still, the fact that the restaurant still had the temerity to add a 20 percent tip to a part of two’s $250 tab shows how oblivious some managers can be, and I’m only sorry that the aggrieved couple believed they had to pay it. They didn’t.

Which brings us to gratuities. It’s voluntary, and it’s expected. It’s part of the price of a meal. But if service is really atrocious, and you don’t believe you should leave a tip, don’t just quietly skulk out of the place. It’s your responsibility to explain why you’re unhappy.

It’s a two-way street: customers have to uphold their end of the contract by being both responsive and honest. “Our biggest problem is no-shows,” says Plummer. His restaurant is across the street from the Troy Music Hall, so concert nights have him hopping and tables can be scarce. “We don’t want to take credit cards to ensure reservations, but we really get burned sometimes.”

Of course, there are the unpleaseable. And among the worst of them are – chefs! Or, at least, chefs in training. “They’ll come in sometimes in their uniforms, and act like they know everything” says Ron Komora, a waiter at Umberto’s of Mama Marisa’s in Poughkeepsie – not far from the Culinary Institute. “Once we had two of them come in, uniforms and all, and they ordered calamari and one of our gourmet pizzas. After I served the calamari, I checked back and the plate hadn’t been touched. ‘We envisioned something more,’ said one of them. ‘I thought this would be done with egg wash.’ Egg wash? I took it back and served their pizza. Again, they didn’t touch it. ‘It’s not what we envisioned. We thought the sausage would be ground up more.’ They were in a hurry. We wrapped it for them and they left.”

It’s vital for the floor staff to be able to accommodate the full range of customer behavior, “and sometimes you have to go overboard,” says Palma. “There’s no sense getting into a contest of who’s right and who’s wrong. The major problems are easy. It’s the little ones that can pile up, until suddenly you notice your business is down six percent.” He credits his floor manager, Tess Collins, with staying well on top of things.

And that’s where you have the heart of effectively handling complaints. A good manager is golden. Staff needs to be trained and supported, and a good manager is there to arbitrate the problems. “You can make the most phenomenal food,” says Rosenstein, “but you need that floor staff behind it. We welcome complaints; we take them very seriously.”

Which means that you, as a customer, have to want to be helped. I remember a letter that arrived at a restaurant where I worked. “I’m sitting here looking at a forty dollar arrangement of flowers on my desk,” it began, “wondering why I had such a bad experience at your restaurant.” We wondered about it, too, because the writer gave no indication of such unhappiness while dining.

“The key,” says Joe Palma, “is for the staff to be as flexible as possible, and for the kitchen to be as flexible as possible.” Palma owns two Albany Lark Street mainstays: Justin’s and Café Lulu. “I’m not on the floor as often as I used to be, but when I’m handling a problem, I have a line that stops them cold: ‘What can I do to make you happy?’ And I’ll do it.”

Of course, not every fine-dining restaurant is that persnickety about the floor, and there are times when you’ll have to chase down an elusive server or manager to have a problem corrected. That’s when you vote with your feet, shepherding business elsewhere. But make sure you’ve at least tried to complain. “My greatest frustration is when customers don’t tell you that something’s wrong,” says Rosenstein. “Then they go home and tell an average of ten other people. We’re here to please the customers, and we’ll do whatever it takes.”

Metroland Magazine, June 22, 2000

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