Sunday, April 08, 2001


What restaurant customers really want: Someone to care

        Once, I wanted to own a restaurant. Somehow, I thought feeding people would be glamorous and rewarding. But after giving up my day job and working briefly in restaurants, I realized I was dead wrong. Thankfully — before making drastic career changes — I discovered the restaurant business is grueling, decidely unglamorous and not as rewarding as cooking for friends at home.

        And while attempting to wait tables for a living, I learned first-hand how difficult serving the paying public can be — how forgetting part of an order or moving too slowly can yield pitiful tips and angry complaints. Funny thing about restaurant patrons, especially those in higher-priced establishments: More than perfectly prepared food, they want someone to take care of them.

        It's up to the front-of-the-house staff, the people who meet and serve you, to anticipate and fulfill these needs. And often, it's not easy.

        Here's an example of how things can go wrong quickly, even before customers are seated.

        Last week, for a rare Saturday night out, we went to dinner. Because we wanted to check out one of the more popular restaurants, I made reservations for two at 8:15 p.m. two weeks ahead. And as was their policy, the staff confirmed my reservations two days ahead. Everything was set, I thought.

        Now I should explain up front this was not a restaurant review, and although I used my name to make the reservation, no one at this establishment knew me. I wasn't expecting any special treatment just because I happen to write about food, and I didn't want any.

        As we arrived at 8:05 that night, I checked in with a man in the downstairs bar, who politely told us our table should soon be ready. (Oh, I forgot to add this was not a value-priced restaurant — entree prices started at $21.)

        We sat at the bar to sip wine. Time ticked by as we noticed other people (who arrived after us) going upstairs to the dining room. About 30 minutes later (20 minutes after our reservation time), I approached a young woman on staff near the door to tell her we had moved to a table in the bar to watch the basketball game.

        OKaaaaaaay, was her only response, without glancing at the reservation book.

        We continued to wait and watch more people go upstairs.

        Who were these people? we wondered. Were they friends of the owners? Did they know the secret password?

        Ten minutes later — 30 minutes after our designated reservation time — I went up to talk to another man, who appeared to be in charge.

        Our table was occupied by two people who were lingering after their meal, he explained with exasperation. He didn't know when they were going to leave. (Yes, this was a small restaurant.)

        We waited again. I honestly didn't want to leave. I had been staring at the menu for almost 40 minutes and could almost taste the foie gras and oven-roasted squab. But, after another 15 minutes of waiting and almost an hour after our arrival, I walked up to tell the serious-looking man we were leaving. We couldn't wait any longer.

        “They're leaving now,” a waiter coming down the stairs whispered loudly behind me.

        Amazingly just in time, our table was ready.

        They led us upstairs to receive the royal treatment. Apologies flowed and a complimentary cheese plate arrived to soothe our bruised feelings. We quickly glanced around the small dining room to find two other couples who arrived after us, already well into their meals.

        But at this point, we took a deep breath and decided to put the wicked experience behind us. We would focus on enjoying the meal.

        And I'm glad we did: The service was superb, the foie gras unctuous and the squab succulent.

        But we couldn't help ourselves. During dessert, we tried to analyze what had gone wrong downstairs. It was entirely possible, we decided, that another couple had lingered at our table (in the restaurant biz these inconsiderate customers are called “squatters”). But if so, why didn't they give us the first available table? And why did I have to keep asking the staff about the status of our table? Why didn't they come to us with an explanation?

        Finally, we concluded that was their tactical error. We didn't want a complimentary drink or cheese plate, we wanted someone to act like they were concerned about our inconvenience. We wanted them to take care of us.

        So when friends ask about this restaurant I will rave about the fine food and professional service — and I also will invariably add: “But let me tell you what happened downstairs . . .”

        Pleasing customers can be extremely difficult, you know.

        And that's why I'm not in the restaurant business.
        Contact Chuck Martin at 768-8507; fax: 768-8330; e-mail:


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