Monday, February 16, 2009

My Quandary

Most of my friends and family know that I am a customer service nightmare. When a company or its employees claim that they are going to do something, I expect them to follow through. My penchant for customer service has led to some interesting situations, like the time when I got the direct phone number to the Customer Service manager at Cokesbury and was told that I was only to call her when placing an order, or the time that the shady mattress store manager was called a series of foul names and had his card thrown back in his face. (I was 37 weeks pregnant. That's a good enough excuse right?) But I haven't had much reason to be a customer service nightmare lately. Until now.

Jay and I decided we wanted to go to the Flatiron Grille for Valentine's Day. It's a locally-owned restaurant that serves good drinks and good food, and it's got a really nice atmosphere, especially for Jackson. We've been there several times and have been mostly satisfied with the experience, particularly since it's one of the only two upscale dining options in town. So I called about a week before Valentine's Day to ask if they were taking reservations. The man I spoke to said that they weren't, but that they were doing call ahead seating. On Thursday before Valentine's Day, after seeing a full-page ad in a local magazine that implied that they were taking reservations, I went to the restaurant in person. I talked to the hostess who confirmed that they were not taking reservations, but that they would be doing call ahead seating. She recommended that I call about an hour before I wanted to eat in order to put my name on the list.

I arranged for a babysitter to arrive at 7:30 on Valentine's Day, planning to get to the restaurant by 8:00. I called the restaurant at 6:00, just to find out how long the wait was. It was 2 hours. Perfect!

"Great!" I said. "Can you go ahead and put me down on the list?"

"Ma'am, we're no longer doing call ahead seating."

*Stunned silence. It's 6:00 on Valentine's Day. I have a babysitter coming and nowhere to eat.*

"But I was told twice this week that you were doing call ahead seating tonight."

"We were, ma'am, but our waiting list is two pages long and we have people hanging out the doors. My manager told me a few minutes ago to stop taking call ahead seating."

I asked for the manager's name, but didn't ask to speak with him. Maybe I should have. I figured that if he didn't care enough about customers to honor his call ahead seating plan then he probably didn't care enough about customers to talk a really disgruntled one on that phone.

Despite the fact that my head was about to explode, I called our favorite sushi place and was told that there was no wait. We went there, had a good time, chatted up the owner, I got free beer, and Jay got the promise of a bowl of kimchi chigae every week, made by the owner herself.

Since then I've left scathing reviews on about ten restaurant review sites and sent a comment via the Flatiron Grille website. Today I received a reply. Here is an excerpt:
Ms. Bernheisel,

In an effort to serve our customers, we were offering
call ahead seating for Valentine's Day. By 6:00 p.m.,
our staff was overwhelmed with long lists of call-ahead
guests and large numbers of walk-in guests accumulating
inside the restaurant, waiting to be seated. It was at
that point that our Proprietor, XXXXXXX, opted to forgo
call ahead seating. He felt at that time that if we
did not do so, we might not be able to serve all of the
guests who were already inside the restaurant, waiting for

Please accept our apology for being inconvenienced. We
would like to offer you and your guest a complimentary
dinner. Please call me at your earliest convenience to
set up those details. My direct number is XXXXXXXXXX.

Mr. XXXXXXX would like for me to extend his personal
apology, as well. He would like to have the opportunity
to speak directly with you. He asked me to pass along
his number to you. His direct number is XXXXXX or you
may reach either of us at the restaurant number of XXXXXXX.

So here's the dilemma. I already said in my note to the owner that I was never going to darken the door of the establishment again, and I really don't intend to. What about this free meal? What about the fact that the whole first paragraph of this letter is one big lame excuse for miserable customer service? Do I accept the meal? Do I just drop it, even though the Marketing Director who sent me this note obviously doesn't get it? Do I call the guy? I'm really bad at ending up a big sputtering ball of mad during confrontations, so I'm not sure what good that would do. Could he really say something to make me less angry about the situation? What would you do?


Anonymous said...

Don't go back...stand your ground...wash your hands of the Flatiron Grille!

BUT if you do go back, order all the booze you can drink, all the appetizers you and Jay can eat, the biggest steak (or some other ultra-expensive entree, if you're not into red meat), and cap it off with a delectable dessert. In other words, make it an experience of pure gluttony!

And THEN make the decision to never darken their pathetic doors again. While I've never been to the Flatiron at night, the lunch service is quite poor. They are so dead that the wait staff acts like you've interrupted their nap when they come to your table.

If you want fine dining...go to Nashville!

By the way, what's the other fine dining option in Jackson?

Shane said...

I think you're being too hard on that first restaurant. Sometimes the unexpected happens. If the restaurant had continued with call ahead seating as promised, you would have been looking at a four hour wait. I waited tables for a couple of years after college, and that gave me another view of restaurant customer service. You're right, they shouldn't have promised call-ahead seating and backed out, but it sounds like they saved more customer service problems by doing it. The fact that they're making a peace offering is remarkable, and you should take it, forgive and forget. The measure you use...

Anna said...

I think their response is what most customers want and expect. I agree that had they went ahead and kept the call ahead you'd be complaining about the wait, the cold food, the miserable service and not because you are a complainer per say but because they couldn't handle that size crowd.

I'd say take the meal and enjoy then decide if you're going to go back or not. I think you did right by complaining and giving your two cents on review sites, but keep in mind it's probably "the" busiest night of the year....if you want an enjoyable Valentines dinner go the day before or the next day. We went the day after to a steakhouse and it was the best steak, best service, best everything we've had a very long time and we only waited 15 minutes and the place was packed.

Jenny said...

I'm with Shane. Clearly their call-ahead seating for V-Day plan did NOT go as planned. Clearly someone in charge did not think the whole "we're one of two fine dining establishments in the town" concept and realize they would be inundated.
I say you give them a chance to redeem yourself. Tell the proprietor that you appreciate the gesture and will be open to changing your mind. After all, it's free.
Think of how much we would miss out on if we wrote off everything associated with one bad experience.
Perhaps next year they'll realize the error of their ways and take reservations for V-Day. (at least they will from you!)
I think the fact that they made the effort to contact you after your email says they want to make it better.

Mary Beth said...

@Anonymous--We do go to Nashville, whenever possible. When I mentioned another fine dining establishment I was thinking Baudo's. It probably doesn't count, but it's as close as we can get.

@Anna--Yes, we could have gone before or after, but we're also used to living in a city where restaurant owners are actually capable and can plan for holidays. This garbage has never happened before. Guess we've been spoiled by the big city!

BTW, I have it on good authority that the owner does the same thing on every major holiday...plans for call-ahead and then abandons it at about 6:30.

Suburban Turmoil said...

I'd say give them a second chance- and be prepared to go back and write another review if they do a good job.

I say this only because I need all the second chances I can get! :)