An object lesson in service


Church Street in Burlington, Vt.

I’m back from three days in Vermont and the High Peaks of the Adirondacks, which basically was three days of great eating and great service.

Except for one guy, and for the moment, he is what I’m going to talk about. Because he could be any one of us.

Foodservice workers are a defensive bunch, and I could be their poster child. When a guest perceives something wrong, I want to show them how they’re wrong. When a guest used social media to say our prime rib was “always” so undercooked it was inedible, I was ready to pay him a personal visit with my thermometer and a Lobel’s cookbook. And I still bristle when I think about the day a guest told me all of her friends dislike how I serve vegetables because they’re not soft enough. Crunchy lettuce was a specific complaint.

Fact is, the customer isn’t always right, and some of us really want to tell them that. And when the customer is right, we still want to be on the defensive.

A few nights ago, my family was in one of the lovely restaurants lining Church Street in Burlington, Vt., when Julie’s appetizer was served with a hair on it. A small hair, but a hair nonetheless. It took a few minutes to get the waiter’s attention, but he eventually came over and whisked away the plate, saying he’d take care of it.

Then the defensiveness set in.

“It doesn’t look like a human hair. It looks like one of those dust hairs,” he said.

That ticked me off. It’s a hair. Guests don’t care where they came from, and in a restaurant like this, where the vegetables are from their own root cellar and the chickens are fresh from the farm, I doubt there was much hairy dust in the kitchen.

Besides, we didn’t need an explanation. We clearly were reasonable guests. We weren’t upset, we didn’t make a scene. Truthfully, we didn’t care too much. This kind of thing can happen. Ask the camp director’s wife who was served a spring from a set of tongs a few years ago.

But when the server returned with the new appetizer (actually, just a new piece of the offending item; the rest of the dish was intact), he had more excuses.

“It wasn’t a human hair; it was just something off a rag,” he concluded.

In those two sentences, our server took us from believing we were in one of Vermont’s finest restaurants to thinking we were in a place where rags touch food.

It was a gentle reminder that sometimes the solution to service issues are so simple. Apologize. Fix it. Drop it.


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