Chefs Uncut: Customer Complaints

by Charlottesville29

Food 146

Tomas Rahal, of MAS Tapas.

Chefs wish guests would complain more — or at least let them know when something is wrong.  This article in C-VILLE explores why, with input from chefs Harrison Keevil, Angelo Vangelopoulos, Donnie Glass, and Tomas Rahal.  Below are the full, uncut, remarks of the chefs, who were asked why they wish guests would speak up more often when something is wrong, and whether they themselves complain when they dine out.

Harrison Keevil – Brookville Restaurant

I would prefer that guests let me know if there is a problem when it arises. The most important reason I want this is because we are in the service industry. My job is to make the people who come up our stairs happy, cared for, and feel like they are a part of Jennifer’s and my family. So if someone is unsatisfied I want to remedy the problem to the best of my ability. I take a lot of pride, joy and happiness through cooking for people and if I have let them down, I feel awful.

At the same time, I am a realist and understand that some people don’t want to be helped and have had a bad experience and there is nothing we can do. I would still appreciate those people letting us know where we went wrong. We need to take into account every complaint ever made, analyze it and see if it is something that we need to fix within the philosophy that we have created at Brookville and within reason. For example, if someone wants green veggies in the middle of winter that is just something that we cannot do philosophically or if someone complains about a price that we can’t adjust down because we are a for profit business and those prices are set for a reason.

Personally, when I go out something has to be really bad for me to complain. When I do it I am not looking for anything for free, I just feel I should let someone know because that is what I would want if I were in their position. If a place is so bad my way of reviewing them is through my wallet. I just won’t go back and give them anymore money. You will never find a review by Harrison K. on any site.

Angelo Vangelopoulos – The Ivy Inn Restaurant

In an effort to be as good as we can, we have open dialogue with our staff to encourage them to ask the right questions of their guests. It’s much too easy to dismiss your server and say “everything is fine” if the best you can ask is “how is everything?”.  We pay close attention to what gets eaten and not.  We watch for clear plates coming back into the kitchen, and when we see that a guest has left a large portion of their meal uneaten, we make sure to follow up quickly.

With all this said, people still don’t complain all that much. I never do. When I eat out in Charlottesville, I am not judging or grading my fellow restaurateurs. I’m simply enjoying a night away from the stove. I eat what’s served to me, and unless something is simply wrong with a dish (spoiled ingredients, foreign object, etc), I typically enjoy it and move along.  If I’m asked by a chef or owner about my experience, I’m honest, and I’m not a judge on Top Chef. 🙂

Donnie GlassPublic Fish & Oyster

1. A. Any chef/restaurateur that’s worth a damn is looking for honest feedback, including when something is deemed unsatisfactory by a guest. It’s the only way to know that our food, service, atmosphere, etc. is being well received by the public, as well as an accountability system for all employees. It’s really as simple as that.

The real challenge for us as service industry professionals is to read between the lines of the “complaint” in order to determine if a change in procedures is necessary or if it’s simply a personal preference, ridiculous claim in search of a free meal, or simply a grumpy person that wouldn’t be happy with anything you put in front of them or did for them. As a guest, the more specific you can be with the complaint, the better. Especially when it comes to food. If you order the Amberjack, not realizing it’s a member of the Mackerel family, thus it’s a wicked oily fishy fish, and send it back because you simply aren’t into that polarizing flavor THAT’S TOTALLY COOL. I, as a chef, understand completely. I’m happy to personally talk you through some other menu items and put something in front of you that you’re going to actually enjoy. Not every dish is liked by everyone, but hey, sweetbreads aren’t FOR everyone.

The other side of that “complaint” argument is when there is an error on our part. As hard as we try (and trust me, the good ones all really do care), sometimes things get f#cked up. Sometimes hot food cools off, sometimes steaks are overcooked, and sometimes a server hits the wrong button on the computer and you get the wrong dish. When these things happen, it’s embarrassing for us. You’re our guest, in our house, spending your money on something we’ve created. Of course I want you to get our best! The quicker you can point out a legitimate flaw in food, service, wine, etc, the quicker we can fix the problem and ensure it doesn’t happen again.

B. The other portion of your first question relates to the internet reviewing craze. So many times I’ve read a Yelp review about Public where the guest says something negative from the previous night’s experience, and we’re small enough to often narrow it down to the exact table and time of the unhappy guest. More times than not, our service staff, all of whom are well-trained and versed in detecting unhappiness and finding a way to make it right, had absolutely no clue there was an issue. And for us, that’s completely unfair. We’re in the business of being hospitable, and if you (the guest), doesn’t make it clear to us (your host) what it is you’re displeased with, at least do us the decency of not trashing us online about it. You never even gave us a chance to clarify a miscommunication (it is so often that simple) or correct a mistake!

2. You know, I don’t complain at restaurants as much as you’d think I do. But I do give honest feedback, always as politely as possible. I always find it easier to “complain” about food over service. If my food is cold, I ask for them to please heat it up. If my medium rare steak is medium well, I ask for a new one. But if it’s something really specific like “this needs salt, this needs acid, this needs to be blanched a touch longer to lose that raw flavor, etc”, no, I rarely say anything unless my specific direct opinion is asked.

If I feel like I’ve been given terrible service, it’s often awkward to bring it up. The guilty party is usually present, sometimes within earshot, and I’m not a particularly confrontational person. If I feel it’s an egregious error, of course I’ll say something, but if its simply a service team member that sucks at their job (they’re pretty easy to spot), I usually just don’t go back. Keeping your money out of a restaurant is the most powerful thing you can do as a consumer.

Tomas RahalMAS Tapas

This is so complicated but it boils down to the Don Corleone School of Retail: you want bad news fast so you can take care of it. I never want to hear complaints so we try to have a short feedback loop, and we communicate a lot. Training is key, we just finished a test for our staff on wines, cheeses, jamónes, etc. This helps with answers and anticipating needs. Our staff eats our food and drinks our wines. Because they make a good living, they can afford to travel and dine out too, be guests. Sincerity and empathy are key to making guests feel satisfied.

I always speak honestly when visiting other places, but we have so many good spots I am never anything but happy, full, and sleepy.