This is the ninth installment of "Eat This List" - a regularly recurring list of things chefs, farmers, writers and other food experts think you ought to know about. Today's contributor is the pseudonymous "Manuel T. Waiter." He's the author of the wildly popular blog Well Done Fillet, and works as a waiter at an undisclosed restaurant in Belfast, Ireland. He'll be right with you.
Complaints are magical little moments that allow you, as a waiter, to look deep into the soul of the guest and see what makes them tick. You see beyond the well-dressed (or otherwise) exterior and deep down into their insecurities and paranoid psychosis. Or something, not that I want to over-think things. Sometimes a steak is just an overcooked piece of meat and not the start of a mental breakdown.
But quite often when a customer complains it's less about you or your restaurant's inability to sling three appetizing courses over two hours down onto a table, and more about the punter and their state of mind. Honestly some days I know they're only one overcooked tuna away from a William "D‑Fens" Foster moment.
"Yeah I don't eat tomato, don't like them. Never have done, they taste yuck."
He actually said yuck. This fully-grown, professional looking, man of about 40, maybe 45 years old, said tomatoes are, "YUCK." I was tempted to ask if they made him sicky in his tum-tum. But I didn't.
So you want a new steak?
"Eh yeah...it's just the tomato..."
Mmmmmkay....eh. I'll see what the chef says. He'll probably just take the tomato off though.
He looked really upset, I mean it must have been a great relief to him that he had his wife with there to help him through this difficult time. She held his hand across the table as I spoke to him the way someone would as if they knew their friend was about to get bad news.
This incident saddened me somewhat. Men - they used to be more, you know, manly.
I have another regular guest who comes in every single week in life with his large and raucous family. Every week he complains. Every week it's something different, and every week we deal with it. The man, in his late fifties, doesn't get to speak at home, probably hasn't been listened to in years.
So he comes to my restaurant every week and complains about something because he knows I have to deal with it, I have to listen to him and I have to make it right. He rarely has grounds to complain but what are ya gonna do? We are his last refuge, his last ear, in a world that stopped listening to him years ago.
Complaining isn't easy. Some people don't want the confrontation and some just get it all wrong. But it needn't be a them-versus-us moment nor does it need to ruin your night. A well-dealt-with complaint is a beautiful thing but it all starts with you explaining yourself properly. Actually, it all starts with us making a mess of things but you know what I mean.
Here's the top five things to do when you're going to complain.
1. Calm down
2. Act fast
3. Be clear
4. Trust me
5. Follow up
We want you to leave happy. And in the long run, it is cheaper to take something off the bill or give you a free bottle of wine than have you leave all bitter and grumbling under your breath. In 'round-about terms, the manager or waiter should ask you what they can do to make you happy and act accordingly within reason. Touching the bum of the 19-year-old waitress or 40-year-old waiter isn't an option.
Most food-related complaints can be dealt with straight away by the waiter: wrong sauce, not hot enough, wrong side order, etc. These problems are solved with a quick dash to the kitchen. If the complaint is related to the waiter, my advice is to go straight to the manager. Bypass all other staff and go straight to the guy in the fancy tie. If you ask the waiter to get the manager, chances are they will know what you are up to and that's when the misinformation will start. I have never done that, oh no, not me.
Waiters want a smooth shift, we want our customers to be happy, and we want them to return. More customers means more cash for Manuel.
Chefs share those goals too. We don't want it to happen, we don't want you to be upset, we don't want to have to stand there in the middle of the restaurant and get a dressing down from an irate customer. You should bear that in mind before you let loose with the hairdryer rant.
But from time to time, things get screwed. Fact. How we unscrew them is quite often up to you.
Complaints? Share 'em in the comments below. See more of Manuel's musings at welldonefillet.com