Here's the Beef

Do you have any stories of bad service?

There was the time at a local home-cooking place when a waiter kept pouring as the glass overflowed, covering a portion of the table with a sticky puddle of vanilla shake. He apologized each time he passed but never bothered to wipe it away. Or the day some fry cook at a sit-down chain plopped a frozen fish into his cauldron of hot oil without realizing the pre-battered item contained no meat, just bones. Waitstaff didn't notice, either--they brought the crisp fillet of fish rib out to the customer.

Seems everyone has had a bout with bad service. Dallas lawyer Bradley Anderson caught servers at two establishments tacking a few extra bucks onto the tip by altering the amount. Another Dallas lawyer, Ross Martin, idled at an Addison wine bar hoping for a refill as an overburdened waiter rushed around frantically.

"What pissed me off," he recalls, "was watching the manager leisurely bullshitting with some guy over at the bar."

We could continue telling stories, but there's something a bit more intriguing here: Customers ignore repeated service miscues at some establishments but vow never to return when other places mess up. For instance, Breadwinners on McKinney Avenue has a reputation for dawdling. Many people complain, at least to us, of bread crumbs scattered over the floor and chairs, lengthy waits, that sort of thing. Flying Saucer in Addison is known for prolonged service delays as well. Yet both remain popular.

"People tend to expect a certain level of service here," explains Robert Hutchens, manager at Parigi. "They go somewhere else, they expect something different."

In other words, at casual places patrons willingly put up with casual service. But when they decide to part with small fortunes at Aurora, Nana or Pappas Bros., a single misstep ruins the evening.

Perhaps it's not such a curious thing, really. We feel more comfortable with mediocrity (candidates in the last two presidential elections, for example). Not the bumbling, inept form of mediocrity, but the familiar, steady and predictable type.

"Service is more important than the food for most diners," says Jim White, host of Eats and Drinks With Jim White on KLIF and WRR's Making Reservations. They know what to expect at Good Eats or Black-eyed Pea, so the correlation--approachable meals and semi-professional service--makes sense. But, White continues, "that five-star cuisine leaves a bad taste in one's mouth if Buffy is snippy or dippy."

That's why top restaurants invest so much time training staff members and why the best managers respond quickly to complaints. The National Retail Merchants Association in a survey found that 14 percent of griping customers never return to a place that fails to handle the problem in a suitable manner. What's suitable? "Number one is to listen to the guests," says Brian Perry, manager at Del Frisco's. "When it's handled promptly, they become your best customers."

Indeed, some data suggests that resolving issues on the spot satisfies 95 percent of all complaints.

As if to confirm that bit of information, Arnold Wayne Jones, features writer for the Dallas Voice, recalls a frustrating moment at Asian Mint. "Getting silverware, refilling water glasses and just taking away our used plates was slow-w-w-w." He praises the restaurant, however, because "when they realized the mistake, they could not have been cheerier about attending to it."

Mistakes happen, agrees Jes Smith, manager at Ciudad, "but it's all how you recover."

Mind you, we're not talking about the occasional glass of water tipped onto a customer's shirt, or the rare moments someone conks a guest on the head with a bottle of wine (happened to a crew member)--those are random, one-time occurrences. No, we're referring to the men and women who chat with buddies while you wait for the bill, ignore eye contact or empty glasses, interrupt, display an attitude and generally make things miserable.

Patrons overreact sometimes, too. "Nothing annoys me more than watching smug little junior vice presidents who've never worked at a bar scowl at a slammed bartender because they didn't get their Amstel Light in the requisite 10 seconds," Martin says.

Patrons need to recognize, Martin continues, "that servers are just busy." True enough. The demands of a full room at times overwhelm even the most professional waitstaff. In the aforementioned case at Mercy, he commended the sole waiter working that particular moment and directed his wrath at the manager. Ended up with free wine for the evening.

"There's such a thing as overcompensating a person," Hutchens warns. "They think they can get away with it then."

So to answer this week's Burning Question, yes, we have stories. Patrick Columbo at Cru dealt with the wine-bonking incident calmly and with great concern, earning our respect. On the other hand, we've vowed never to revisit Pappasito's after waiting 30 minutes one wretched Saturday for much-needed chips and salsa. A 45-minute wait for a beer at Flying Saucer pretty much wiped that place off our charts. The bartender at Chuy's who handed us a shot when we ordered good, sipping tequila annoyed us as well.

That's right, never mess up our drink order or ignore our post-binge misery.

 
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