The Customer Is Not Always Right

March 14, 2011

"...but hold the mustard!"

Oh, you didn't want mustard on your burger? Too bad.

Not something you may expect to hear from your waiter, but at a growing number of restaurants operated by so-called puritan chefs, this is a daily conversation. From refusing to allow food and drinks "to go" to not supplying condiments, New Yorkers (and restaurant-goers across the country) are facing a new kind of food service experience where the customer is not always right.

Those of us in customer service know that saying "No!" is a violation of the most basic tenet of the industry -- provided that laws are not being broken, policy is not violated and the health and safety of employees or other customers is not endangered, refusing a customer request isn't really done. Consumers choose when and how to spend their money, and if they are going to drop $5 for a cup of coffee, they deserve to have some say in how that beverage is prepared, right? Starbucks agrees. According to the company's official website, Starbucks offers more than 87,000 possible drink combinations - a staggering number of beverages and ways to make them. With the company's 40th anniversary celebration in full swing, the new advertising campaign is very customer focused; their 40 years of success are a Tribute (the commemorative whole bean coffee blend) "to you and you and you." The company is even featuring posters of paper cups with the word "you" marked in the drink identification box.

For Starbucks, it isn't just customization - it is personalization. If you don't want foam on your latte, there won't be a single bubble (or that vanilla latte is just a little bit too sweet? That's ok, we can make it with 2.5 pumps instead of 3. Your coffee just needs a little something? We'll add that quarter of a Splenda for you). Your drink, your way, every time.

But there is a point when you make enough modifications to a recipe and the final product suddenly has little or no relationship to its starting point. While asking for ketchup at Zucco: Le French Diner (pictured at right) does not fundamentally alter the nature of french fries, it seems to be an insufficient and insulting accompaniment to coq au vin. Chefs are artists, they create something (delicious) from nothing, they perfect combinations of ingredients and their proportions, the method of preparation, etc., and the final product can be stunning. If a chef pours their heart and soul into creating their menu and wine list, shouldn't consumers appreciate their creative effort in its totality?*

Of course, you can't have a conversation about restaurants denying customer requests without mentioning Kenny Shopsin and his diner on the Lower East Side. With literally hundreds of menu items, Shopsin won't allow tables more than one order of any given dish, there are absolutely no substitutions, and don't even think about showing up in a group of five. Maybe Shopsin is starting a trend, maybe not.

Photos by Skånska Matupplevelser/Gunnar Magnusson and "Zucco: Le French Diner" by Joe Fornabaio for The New York Times

* I do want to add a footnote for food allergies. As a hardcore foodie, I'm going "No! Take the menu as it is and be grateful!" and as someone with Celiac Disease who cannot tolerate even the slightest trace of gluten, I cannot tell you the number of times I have ordered a salad with no croutons, a bunless burger or my food prepared in a very specific - and inconvenient - way. Don't think I don't feel guilty each time I do - but if I ever want to dine out, this is the reality. All of that being said (or written?), although food allergies are becoming more and more common each year, they do not account for the majority of customer requests -- but how do you draw the line between necessity and desire? I have heard too many anecdotes from waiter and bartender-friends of customers faking food allergies to receive better service or get away with a particularly complicated request. So how do you know? You can't. *