Slip Ups On The Upswing?

Yesterday I waited 90 minutes for some Chinese restaurant to delivery a single order of General Tsao's chicken. When the driver finally showed up, cold food in hand, he offered one of those difficult to refute not-my-fault excuses: "we're really busy," he said. "And we only have two drivers."

Think I tried something like that on my high school coach once, but...Well, sorta makes you wish you could tell the delivery guy to run laps.

Anyway, this was only the latest in a series of underwhelming performances by area restaurants, at least where customer service is concerned. At Reikyu the waitress readied our bill after bringing only half of our order. Seems both she and the sushi line forgot to turn over the menu card to see if we'd checked anything on the other side. A waiter at DiTerra Urban Italian completely blanked on an entire course one evening. When the owner brushed by to do the "how is everything" bit, I mentioned the oversight--not in a complaining tone, though, which is perhaps why she failed to even acknowledge the error. There was also the waiter at Blue Collar Bar who got so involved balancing a can of Red Bull the chef himself had to bring my entree, the one at Go Fish who scampered away after taking drink requests from the men, leaving the women poised in the "I'll have" position, staring dumbfounded as he disappeared toward the bar. Oh, and the ticket salesperson for FC Dallas, promising a parking pass with each season ticket, then reneging at the last minute.

Yeah, I know--not food related (although their concession stand people show a unique level of unpreparedness), but the problem appears to be endemic.

When times were good a few years back, service at aspiring Dallas restaurants ranked up there with the best in the country. No matter how good or bad the cooking, you could (in general, for there are always exceptions) count on a solid front-of-the-house performance. Since the recession hit, however, customer service has lagged considerably.

At least that's my impression, and it doesn't make sense.

Just when a place needs new and repeat business, they slough off and trim staff down to a couple sorry drivers. Or they dump more work on the manager, who then spends less time with his or her wait staff. As a result...

Then again, maybe it does make sense. The first people cut loose in times of economic crisis, at least on the corporate side of things, are marketing and public relations folks, those with the most direct understanding of branding. MBA-trained executives--and we know how proficient they can be--react first to protect the upper echelon, then hold onto key sales or other inside staff.

But the face of the company (or restaurant) is not really the white collar (or white toque) person. Yeah, some may fawn over the chef. Most diners, however, spend more personal time with the lowly wait staffer. It's from interaction with the server (or retail sales person or office grunt) that we form impressions of a place.

The corporate-restaurant analogy may be somewhat of a stretch, I know. In the corporate world, if a CEO leaves for three weeks of vacation, business continues apace. If the janitorial staff takes off for the same period, things grind to a halt. Meanwhile the chef and line cooks are just as critical to the success of a restaurant as front-of-the-house personnel. If either messes up, they can ruin the customer experience.

So where do restaurants cut back in times of economic crisis? Judging by some of the slipshod service I've witnessed lately, I'd say training.

But I have a nagging suspicion nostalgia may affect my judgment. Maybe service in Dallas hasn't changed at all. The FC Dallas person did, after all, try to make amends with a few free T-shirts. Maybe, with money on the tight side, we're not as forgiving of little mistakes.

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