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Diary of a Restaurant – Ch. 37: All Unhappy Customers

Aug 3, 2021

A Story Written By Kevin Gallagher

Michael, our new landlord, began implementing his grand plans for the building immediately.  We would see him striding across the parking lot, one hand on his hip, talking loudly to building suppliers on his cellphone. Unfortunately for us, all the work seemed to involve embellishments to his new living space, but not some urgent repairs.

I caught up to him in the parking lot one day,

“Hey Michael, have you got a minute? We really need to have some work done on the roof.”

“Oh yeah,” he responded, “We’re going to redo the whole roof, but we can’t do it yet. We figure it’ll cost over thirty grand,” he laughed.

“Well meanwhile, do you think you could get somebody to do some caulking? When it rains and there’s an east wind, water runs in around the exhaust hoods in the kitchen and the AC unit in the dining room.”

“I can’t really spare anyone to do that.” he said, doubtfully.

“Could you find someone?”

His cellphone rang. Raising his index finger to me, he said, “Gotta take this.”

We still hadn’t heard from him about the leaking roof when, a few weeks later we had a flood in the storage room where we kept our wine. Apparently in preparation for the installation of a roof deck, a large hole had been cut in the ceiling of Michael’s second floor den, directly above our storage area. It had been a hot and sunny Friday afternoon, and at quitting time the crew had covered the hole with a big tarp anchored with a few bricks, and gone home.  A massive thunderstorm in the evening filled the tarp with water, dragging it down into Michael’s den and dumping water through his floor into our wine cellar.

Fortunately our bartender, having gone to get a few bottles, had seen water pouring through our ceiling and we were able to quickly move most of the wine out of the way, although we could do little about our sodden business files stored beside it. 

When we caught up with Michael to complain, he shrugged with a dry chuckle.

“You should see my place. I just got some new furniture. Why do you keep your wine there anyway? It doesn’t seem like a very good place.”

“Well, it is dark, cool, well away from the heat of the kitchen and up until tonight at least – dry.”

“Any damage?” he asked.

“A few smeared labels – we managed to sponge most of them dry. A lot of our business records though are ruined.”

“Give me a figure and I’ll pass it along to the insurance company” he said.

“Any progress on the roof caulking? I’ve left you a few messages?”

“I’m working on it. I’ll get back to you. Gotta go.”

The following week, while I was manning the host’s station, I caught sight of a commotion in the parking lot. One of Michael’s construction crew, a piece of aluminum scaffolding balanced on his shoulder, was arguing with a heavy set woman in a flowered smock, who was gesticulating at the side of a car.

“Oh no” I thought, “It’s Ursula!”

Let me describe Ursula…

To mangle Tolstoy’s famous line  – All happy customers are alike; every unhappy customer is unhappy in his own way. Happy customers come out to a restaurant to enjoy themselves and even if something goes slightly amiss and an effort is made by the house to correct it, they’re generally happy. It is a restaurateur’s compulsion to bring every customer to this point of happiness, that keeps us welcoming back unhappy customers, when there is no clear path to making them happy.

Ursula first came to the restaurant for dinner on an early spring night, arriving with her grizzled and rather grumpy companion, Donald, and another couple in a white Rolls-Royce. Donald drank heavily throughout dinner, dominating the conversation at the table. When Ursula attempted to dissuade him from ordering another bottle of wine, he reacted angrily, relented, but blew-up when he was told that we didn’t accept the credit card he presented. After berating me in the middle of the dining room for my arrogance, he tossed the exact payment on the table in crumpled bills and left.

Ursula was back the next day apologizing, and with a tip for the server, promised that the next visit would be better. I wasn’t overly cheered by the thought of another visit. But visit she did, sometimes with another friend but often escorted by her sour paramour.  I was surprised to see him again, but assumed that the parking lot being right outside the restaurant doors was a factor. He didn’t have far to walk and he could keep an eye on the Rolls from his table. 

Try as we might, something was always wrong – there was a draft, the table was too small, the crab cakes “frozen” in the centre. I learned that she expected to be greeted shortly after arrival by the most senior staff member in the room. She could bring servers to tears with bizarre demands, calling them stupid if they failed to grasp her meaning immediately.

As she and a friend strode in one afternoon, I could hear a couple of the waiters behind me pleading, “Don’t put in my section. Please, don’t put her in my section.”

Ricardo, a novice server, a little too confident in his abilities, said,”Seat her in my section; I’ll charm her,” with a wink and a smile.

“No, no Ricardo, don’t try to charm her. It won’t work – and be careful about smiling. She’s suspicious of people who smile too much.”

I was still tableside when Ricardo approached rubbing his hands together, all business.

“You’re not in Yorkville, you know.” she sniggered, pointing to the cost of a glass of pinot grigio. Ricardo started to smile, but catching a look from me, suppressed it. 

As I left, I heard him say, “So, what can I get you ladies?” and winced. It was not a greeting she would like.

The lunch unfolded without incident it seemed, but after the bill had been paid, and they rose to leave, Ursula approached me.

“We’re just going to the washroom and I’ve left the change your waiter brought back to us on the table. He’s been sniffing around for his tip. He brought a five dollar bill as part of the change – on a thirty-three dollar bill! How are we supposed to split that?”

Taking him aside, I said, “Don’t go back to that table, Ricardo.”

“Why not? Did I do something wrong?”

“Probably not. I’m sure the others can explain the dynamics of dealing with Ursula if you ask”.

Returning, she and her friend rummaged through their purses for change, and having snatched the five dollar bill, dropped the coins onto the tip tray with a clatter.

So it wasn’t such a surprise to find that Ursula was engaged in an argument,  but why in the middle of the parking lot, I couldn’t understand . Reluctantly, I went out to see what the problem was. 

Working on our landlord Michael’s project, the man had been carrying the scaffolding into the building between two cars.

“You scratched my car!” she shouted, and turning to me repeated for my benefit, “He scratched my car with that!” pointing at the scaffolding. “I heard it.”

He, for his part, seemed more baffled than upset by Ursula’s verbal attack and stood in his work boots and cut-offs with the piece of scaffold balancing on his shoulder.

But he was not intimidated.

“I didn’t touch it” he said calmly.

“Look right there!”

“Ah lady, there’s dust over that scratch! Look!” and running a finger over a small scratch on the door, held it up to show the dust. The fact that it was his middle finger was lost on no one.  “I didn’t touch your truck!”

“It’s not a truck – it’s a Range Rover!”

Turning back to me, Ursula said, “You’ve got to do something”.

I decided to speak to some of the other parties seated on the patio closest to the cars. 

The first table I spoke to was a father and son that I didn’t know well, even though they came regularly for long, Friday lunches, spending the afternoon laughing, talking and drinking wine. Had they heard anything?

“Oh yeah,” said the son, “It was like Skreetttch,” drawing it out in a guttural roar. And they both laughed.

Geoff, one of our wine reps, was having lunch with his wife, a lawyer who worked in the Solicitor General’s office, at a table halfway down the patio. She was certain that Ursula could not have heard a scratch, since they hadn’t and she was sitting farther away from the cars.  

Returning to the scene of the altercation, I saw the worker shift the scaffold onto his other shoulder and head into the building.

Ursula turned to me, “You have to do something!”

I thought for a moment and said, “Well, you know Ursula, this parking lot isn’t under my jurisdiction and that guy works for the landlord. Why don’t I just give you his telephone number.”

Ursula never got a response from Michael and when she complained to me, I could only offer a sad smile and a shrug. But she continued to come to the restaurant, terrorizing the staff as we continued to try to please her. When, after lunch one afternoon, her credit card was declined, she raged at our son Rory for being inept, at our payment system for being inadequate and threw the exact payment for her bill on the table. Full circle.

Foregoing the urge to recommend arsenic as a solution, I suggested that since we had been for so long unable to meet her exacting standards, she should in future look elsewhere for dining opportunities.