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    Monday, April 15, 2024

    Five tips on complaining in a restaurant without being a jerk

    Complaints about restaurants? I field dozens every week as the host of my every-Wednesday online chat, where readers can ask me anything and everything about the industry I cover. Some people want to know how they should be compensated when a server drenches them with ice water. Others want to know if it’s okay to criticize restaurants that are just out of the gate. And everyone — young, old, straight, gay, White and not — thinks they’re the ones led to the “bad” table.

    You name the gripe, I’ve probably heard it. Call me Mr. Manners. Better yet, let me serve you some tips on how to best raise problems with restaurants.

    Know before you go (out): “We come from a place of pleasing,” says restaurateur Jill Tyler, the smile and the style behind Tail Up Goat and Reveler’s Hour, both in Washington. Speaking for her peers, she says the adversarial exchanges between diners and restaurants in the movies are more fiction than fact.

    “No one goes into hospitality with a negative mindset,” says Lilly Jan, a lecturer of food and beverage management at the Hotel School of Cornell University. “We want to give guests a good experience.”

    Erick Schmitt, general manager of Ralph’s on the Park in New Orleans, says restaurants recognize the “megaphone guests have” thanks to social media. The hospitality veteran emphasizes “guest recovery” should anything go wrong.

    Not every restaurant bows and scrapes — and not every diner is right. But instead of looking at the relationship as “restaurant versus customer,” says Jan, take the approach that “we’re on the same team!”

    Here are five ways to forge that bond:

    Address a problem in real time

    Waiting until you’re halfway through — or worse, done with — a meal to raise a concern is too late. Give the establishment a chance to right any wrong the moment you see it. “Be proactive,” says Jan. “Restaurants want the opportunity to fix it.” No need to stand up with a bullhorn. If you can’t catch someone’s eye, you can half-raise your arm and do a little wave.

    Tyler recently had a guest with a concern email her less than a minute after she left Tail Up Goat. “If you’re in the building, we can send you a glass of wine or a new dish,” she says. “Once you leave, all we can do is apologize,” or, in the case of some places, offer a discount or reimbursement.

    Speak to the right person

    Don’t like your table? Ask the host if you can change. Parched for water? Enlist a bus person. If there’s an issue with your food, you want the attention of your server, and if your server is the problem, you might ask for a manager, who has the authority to make a switch or help smooth things over.

    If you still feel you haven’t been heard by following the chain of command, email the restaurant or owner of the establishment. Corporate restaurants typically list contacts at headquarters.

    Be reasonable

    While they’re in the business of making people happy, restaurants are also a high-stress environment, says Schmitt. “We’re human and we make mistakes,” he says. Don’t let hanger, a bad day at the office, or problems with the kids follow you into a restaurant.

    At Tail Up Goat recently, a would-be diner was outraged he couldn’t get a table; every spot was spoken for, but that didn’t stop him from berating a service director whom he tapped on the shoulder multiple times in anger. “Don’t touch,” Tyler would like to remind customers. Which leads to another bit of advice:

    Be respectful

    Think honey rather than vinegar. Do not threaten to Yelp a perceived slight. “We appreciate complaints made with kindness, graciousness and empathy,” says Tyler. Also, be specific and don’t make complaints personal. “I hate this wine” or “This dish is bad” sounds harsh and isn’t going to help a sommelier or chef understand the problem.

    The better strategy is to invite the sommelier to try the wine you think is off (“Would you mind tasting this, please? I think it might be corked”) or see if the kitchen can fix something. “I like salt, but there seems to be a mistake,” a diner might say to a server. While I don’t make a habit of sending plates back, on occasions when I have, some kitchens have thanked me for identifying a problem — a cook with a heavy hand with the salt shaker or someone misreading a recipe. The bonus: by raising a complaint, you could be saving future customers from a similar issue.

    Know when to let it go

    Managers can ask rowdy groups to pipe down, lower the music or the lights, or otherwise make things more comfortable for customers. The crying baby at the next table? Maybe you can be moved discretely; maybe you’ll have to endure some wails with your Wagyu beef. In some situations, diners just have to shrug things off.

    Jan shares the story of a long-ago scene at the St. Francis hotel in San Francisco, where she looked up from her meal to see a neighboring diner in flip flops — picking at his toes. She could have caught his attention and made a face, or enlisted the aid of a manager. Instead, she put some props in the way, turned and stared “intently at my fellow diner,” she texted.

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