Dear Mister Manners: I’m a server in a restaurant and I can’t begin to do justice to some of the unethical behavior I’ve seen from some customers. Like waiting until after they’ve eaten their whole steak to inform me it was not cooked to their liking. Seriously? And of course, they’ll proceed to ask for either a replacement steak or even a refund. I’m curious about where we should be drawing the line between "the customer is always right" and "the customer is pulling a fast one."
(Mealtime with Mister Manners is a weekly column that delves into a smorgasbord of dining-etiquette dilemmas. Please submit your questions at the bottom of this page.)
A customer who takes unethical advantage of the good graces of any establishment — restaurant or otherwise — is certainly no patron.
Even the legendary Chicago retailer Marshall Field, the man credited with uttering the words that have confounded clerks and servers for more than a century, did provide that there should be room for exception — albeit in rare instances. In a 1905 profile that appeared in the Boston Sunday Herald, the profile’s author relayed the principle as follows: “Mr. Field adheres to the theory that ‘the customer is always right.’ He must be a very untrustworthy trader to whom this concession is not granted.”
At what point is a restaurant entitled to deem a customer a “very untrustworthy trader” versus a human being who should be kept satisfied even when reason would dictate otherwise?
For that answer, I sought the input of Seth Young, owner of the wonderfully named Snappy Lunch, a 99-year-old establishment in scenic Mount Airy, North Carolina. The town, famed as the birthplace of actor Andy Griffith and the erstwhile inspiration for the show’s fictional community of Mayberry, is just about as idyllic-looking as Sheriff Andy’s community appeared in the 1960s.
Founded in 1923 as a quick lunch spot for workers in the nearby mills, the eatery today attracts a mix of tourists and locals, some of whom would not have seemed at all out of place on a black-and-white broadcast of the once top-rated show. And yet, picture-perfect as the scene at Snappy may seem, not all patrons are on their best behavior.
Bringing home the bacon
Take, for example, the visitor who claimed his bacon cheeseburger had no bacon on it and that he’d been in the day before and had the same experience. “Are you certain it was yesterday you were here?” Young pressed him. “Absolutely, positive,” came the reply. The conversation came to a swift resolution when Young advised the man that Snappy had not been open for business the previous day.
Ice, ice, baby
Not all complaints come from carnivorous schemers. Some come from customers who are simply particular. To wit: the Snappy diner who griped that her drink (now fully consumed) had arrived at her table with ice, contrary to her request.
“I just wanted you to know that someone messed up,” she announced, pointing to the now-empty glass.
And perish the thought that Snappy prepares a cheeseburger with anything but its usual ingredients. “We had a customer who called us over to his table and asked if we had changed the cheese from what we usually serve.” Sure enough, an issue that week with the restaurant’s supplier meant that there had indeed been a swap.
“I actually thought the new cheese was even higher quality,” recalled Young. But the diner was having none of it. “He took one bite and put it down.” When an offer of a BLT was rebuffed, Young assured the man he would not need to pay for the cheeseburger; the disappointed regular summarily gathered himself and left.
“He’s now back ordering his cheeseburgers,” the owner happily shared. “If there is ever a cheese substitution, we’ll tell him. But now that we know, that rarely happens.”
Substitutions are prime candidates for complaints — particularly when the change-up is not advertised. Take for example the recent Reddit post from a customer who placed a delivery order for pizza that included a two-liter bottle of Mug root beer. Upon unpacking the contents, this thirsty individual was incensed to discover the bag contained not Mug but a Walmart's Great Value brand.
Perceiving no great value in the Great Value, the customer called the restaurant to complain, insisting on a refund. When the owner balked, predicting that the customer would gulp down the sugary soft drink regardless of its label, the customer pushed back that it wasn’t a play for a freebie but rather a gripe about “paying for one thing and getting an inferior product in its place.”
Particularly for a mom-and-pop eatery that subsists on reasonably priced menu items served at high volume in a fast-paced environment, the refund requests can take their toll.
When 'everything' doesn't mean everything
Other establishments are more forgiving and less cap-happy. Farley’s Famous Hot Dogs, a beloved establishment in Hurricane, West Virginia since 1989, and no relation to yours truly, is overseen by business owner Matt Leary. Although mistakes are rare, a first-time customer will occasionally make a non-regular slip-up like asking for a hot dog “with everything” presuming that includes ketchup and relish.
“At Farley’s, a hot dog ‘with everything’ has chili, mustard, onion and coleslaw … a version also known around here as a West Virginia hot dog,” Leary explained. No ketchup, no relish.
And if a patron were to wolf down half or more of the hot dog only to realize late in the game the absence of a desired condiment, Leary would happily offer a fresh hot dog as a make-good. Alternatively, for customers who are already full, Leary will put their name in a binder, inviting them to come back on another occasion for a free hot dog that’s more to their liking.
Keeping the staff happy, too
Owing to his own background in retail, Leary is a big subscriber to the Marshall Field mantra of the customer always being right. “We’ll take care of them unless it becomes a repetitive issue,” he said. “For the customers, it shows that we trust them. It almost instantly defuses any kind of hostile situation. And it wins loyalty.”
Although siding with his customers could run the risk of alienating his staff, Leary advises his team not to take his policy personally. “My employees are very vested in what they do, but I assure them it’s not their money, it’s mine. I want them to know that this is on me, not on them.”
Fool them once, shame on you
On balance, the owners with whom I spoke were willing to eat their losses to keep a customer happy.
To a point.
If a particular individual continued to be on the receiving end of “mistakes” that needed to be rectified during visit after visit, that person might be gently encouraged to take their business elsewhere.
For the rest of us, speaking up because an order is incorrect, incomplete or simply not as advertised is a judgment call. If you are feeling disappointed, you should gently say something. Just please do so right away … not after you’ve consumed most or all of the item. And much as you may admire the philosophy of Marshall Field, please do not pronounce, “Whatever happened to 'the customer is always right'?!”
Let restaurants interpret that time-worn philosophy as they will. For your part, try to live by a new mantra I’ll coin here: “The customer should always be reasonable.”
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