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Diary of a Restaurant: Ch. 22 – Great Expectations

Jan 21, 2021

A Story Written By Kevin Gallagher

In order to insure sustained success, a restaurant has to meet or exceed its customers’ expectations. Ideally, guests are warmly welcomed, made comfortable and with attentive service, presented with the kind of food and drink they appreciate. This is not to say that everything has to go perfectly – a misstep acknowledged and corrected often strengthens the guest-host relationship and reinforces customer loyalty. But a regular, arriving with friends and anxious to introduce them to his “favourite place” who is not recognized, is almost certain to be unhappy. One unsatisfactory dinner can cause a long standing regular to decide to try new restaurant the next time.

It is important then for the floor manager to touch each table to establish a connection so there is a level of familiarity if a complaint or a service issue arises. Comments and complaints are a good way to monitor the success of a menu item and whether it’s likely to be ordered again. The more comfortable a guest is, the more likely they are to give an honest opinion.

Canadians tend to be reticent about complaining – slightly less so at brunch. Eggs, it seems, often have to be presented in a particular way to avoid trauma. A young woman, cutting into the egg on a Veda’s Choice is shocked,

“It’s runny”

“That’s usually how poached eggs are presented.”

“It’s too runny. That’s not good.”

“Would you like the eggs with hard yolks?”

“Not hard, just not runny.”

“Medium rare, then?” said the waiter, with the slightest edge of sarcasm.

A middle aged man, presented with a plate of moist and fluffy scrambled eggs, thrust it back in horror, 

“J—- C—–, these eggs are G–D—-d raw!

His mother, looking up at the started waitress said flatly, “Just be thankful you don’t have to cook breakfast for him every morning.”

Considering the number of eggs served each brunch, there were actually few problems. Egg dishes are fairly quickly redone and if the cook scowls at turning eggs to sawdust, it’s soon forgotten.

Gradually we got to know the preferences of regular guests. Many of them never varied in their menu choices week to week, so they were reliable barometers of the consistency of the dishes. If the salsa was too bland or the cheese too sparse in the Monty they would let us know, usually in a friendly way.

One weekend in January, Anne decided to change the pancake recipe. Wild blueberries weren’t available and the cultivated ones that were, were bland and expensive. She created an apple and cinnamon version, which married with maple syrup and topped with whipped cream was a delight. The reaction from our regulars bordered on outrage. How could we? How dare we?

So blueberry buttermilk pancakes were back the next week and have stayed on our menus, unchanged, ever since.

There were other menu items that made it to the ‘DO NOT CHANGE’ category too – the biscuits and scones from the brunch menu, profiteroles with Lindt milk chocolate ice cream and chèvre baked in vine leaves. The occasions when these last two were taken off the menu did not produce a huge outcry, just a series of disappointed sighs.  People used to starting their meal with it while perusing the menu,  regulars who stopped by for a glass of wine after work or servers who had messed up the timing of an order all missed the baked chèvre. Pre-portioned and prepped, the cheese, served with crisp onion crackers, was ready after a few minutes in the oven.

Early one evening, one of the servers asked me to speak to a disappointed regular customer. Lisa often came in for an early dinner after work at the nearby Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. She seemed upset and a bit weepy.

“I had a really awful day at work today, but I kept telling myself that when it was over I was going to go to Mildred Pierce for dinner, have a baked chèvre and profiteroles. First there was no baked chèvre and now no profiteroles”

And she really did begin to weep.

Profiteroles were back on the menu.

Maintaining consistency is essential to meeting expectations. Fortunately Vera, now in charge of the daily prep, ensured that recipes and procedures were adhered to. In addition to scaling out dry mix for pancakes and making stocks, he baked the profiteroles and onion crackers every morning, ensuring they would be fresh and crisp for service. (As he would be doing now if we were open for service.) Everyday he fanned out brined vine leaves in rows on a prep table, carefully added a disc of soft chèvre, topped with roasted red peppers, gently wrapped the leaves around the cheese and covered the bundle tightly with plastic film. In the years that Mildred Pierce was open, we estimated that Vera made about fifteen thousand of these, each one done with care and attention.

Anne had put a Moroccan chicken tagine on the menu which sold very well at first. The preparation was complicated and included pressing the chicken under a heavy weight while it was marinating in olive oil, wine and herbs for a couple of days. Noticing the popularly waning after a few months, Anne investigated and tasting it found that the flavour had changed. Why? Because, one of the young cooks to whom she had delegated the prep to had decided to cut out some steps he deemed unnecessary. Anne explained the importance of each step and together they prepared more chicken.  But a few weeks later, the recipe went again awry. This time, someone had decided when he couldn’t locate one of the herbs that the dish was “good enough” without it.  Anne was not impressed with “good enough” and decided to replace the item on the menu.

Because people are reluctant to make negative comments about their meals, sales figures are often relied upon to determine the success of a menu item, but it is extremely important to follow-up with guests while they are eating to try to gauge their level of satisfaction.

It’s not always as apparent as when the early dining older couple, sipping their cocktails wave me down and ask, “is there no lamb?”

I explain that the cost of lamb has shot up, effectively pricing it out of our menu range. They nod politely, say they’ll just finish their drinks, if you would be so kind as to bring them the bill. 

There are times when it’s difficult to judge whether the seeming lack of enjoyment of a meal has anything to do with the food or the service. It’s one thing to lose a customer because you’ve failed to meet their expectations and another to see that the couple is not eating because their relationship is ending. Finding out which can be tricky. It is possible hopefully to recover from the first but a couple who have split over dinner are likely lost as customers. To avoid tears and recriminations, relationships are often ended in restaurants with quiet sobs and fish uneaten.  We have failed to play our part in the happy expectation for the future.

There are no guarantees that it will end quietly though. On one occasion,  a young woman, having tossed the wine from her glass in her date’s face, stood and tipped the contents of the table onto his lap including, as I recall, a hot bouillabaisse. Not a chance that either of them would be back. – but at least we knew it wasn’t the fish.