The Opposite of Delight (The Worst Dining Service Experience Ever)

A while back, I wrote a post describing the idea T=r+d: Trust equals reliability (meeting expectations) plus delight (exceeding expectations).

How about a story describing precisely the opposite?

I actually wrote this post about a restaurant experience my family and I had in 2011. I didn’t publish it back then for two reasons:

  1. I didn’t want anyone to think I was going to use my blog to gripe about bad service experiences. That’s not my objective at all.
  2. I like to keep things positive. You won’t find many negative posts here, and negativity isn’t part of my “brand”. So, the story seemed altogether inconsistent.

But, I’ve decided to publish [an edited version of] the story now, for two reasons:

  1. I’ve found myself telling this story a lot, and people seem to like it, so I’m putting it out there as a reference.
  2. The restaurant (which will remain nameless) is now out of business.

So – here’s the story:

My family and I eat out a lot. In fact, my professional biography includes “eating out” as a hobby. Recently [in early 2011], we ate at a restaurant, and had the worst experience we’ve ever had at a restaurant in Iowa. Ever.

What’s interesting is that it snuck up on us. There were missteps from the start – each one, individually, could have been forgiven, or chalked up to one person having an off night. The grand sum of the parts, however, created a mind-blowingly frustrating whole that my wife later described as being:

“bludgeoned by bad service for an hour and a half straight.”

There’s no value in naming the establishment. The value is here:

As you read through what happened, take a moment to consider each of these events, and ask yourself – at what point do you decide:

  • This is a bad experience, but it could still be okay…
  • Wow, this is terrible. Really, really terrible.
  • I am absolutely stunned, and will never return here.
  • Bonus: Would it make a difference if you’d previously had a decent experience there?

This is what happened, in chronological order. Here we go!

  1. I drop off my family at 5:50 – they spend a few minutes in the lobby looking at the menu, during which time an employee comes out to smoke a cigarette on the sidewalk, blowing smoke back into the lobby as people enter the restaurant.
  2. Family steps inside (I’m still parking); nobody greets them, and there’s no signage to indicate “wait” or “seat yourself”. My wife, Julie, catches the bartender, who points at the tables on the restaurant side and directs her to seat herself.
  3. 6:00 – Family sits down at a booth, and are ignored for 5 minutes. I show up, and we all wait another 5 minutes. FYI – The restaurant is only 25% full.
  4. A waitress comes by with a full tray of drinks for another table. She says she’ll deliver them and be right back. She seemed to know we had been there a while without service, but did not acknowledge that, or apologize.
  5. 6:15 – Waitress comes back for our drink order and is friendly; I asked a few specific questions about a menu and drinks and she quickly divulged that she was new and didn’t know.
  6. She came back with our drinks in short order, but told us that they were “out of menus.” Again, 25% capacity.
  7. We ordered appetizers. I ordered a grilled cheese sandwich from the children’s menu for my daughter. The menu said it came with fries or steamed veggies, but the waitress didn’t ask which one she wanted. Julie and I ordered entrees.
  8. Julie saw the first appetizer appear in the food window, then sit there for several minutes. Finally, the manager picked it up and started wandering down the aisle toward our table. Then, he looked confused, turned around, and went back for counsel about which table it belonged to. Once again, he started down the aisle toward our booth, didn’t quite make it to us, and turned back around to ask for clarification. A third time, he came toward us with the dish and finally set it tentatively on the table, saying “Here’s your dish, right?” The other appetizer came quickly, but we could not eat it right away, as we had to wait for silverware and napkins.
  9. 6:30 – Waitress served the entrees for Julie and I. She set them down with a cheerful “Here you go!” and walked away. If she had said, “Is there anything else I can get for you?” or something to that effect, I would have had an opportunity to say, “Just the grilled cheese.” But she didn’t ask, so we assumed that she’d be right back with it. There were, after all, three people at the table and she had only served two.
  10. The grilled cheese meal never came, and nobody ever stopped back by the table. We started actively trying to get someone’s attention. At 6:40 we hailed a different waitress on her way past our table and told her we were waiting on a grilled cheese meal for our daughter. She said “I’ll go see what’s up with that” and presumably went to check on it. She never came back, nor did our waitress. At 6:50, Julie and I were done eating, and Mara still had no food.
  11. Finally, at a complete loss as to how to get someone’s attention, I stood up in front of our booth where waitstaff periodically whooshed past without making eye contact. I positioned myself so that they would have to run into me to get past. I stared in the direction of the kitchen. Still, nobody came. After a couple minutes, our waitress, on her way to another table, came by and was forced to stop because I was blocking the aisle. I informed her politely of the missing sandwich, and she asked if we still wanted it, to which I firmly said “Yes. Yes, we do.” She said she would have the kitchen make it right away.
  12. 7:10 – TWENTY MORE minutes later the sandwich arrived; two pieces of bread and a piece of cheese. No fries, no vegetables. Just the sandwich.
  13. Before leaving, I went to a man who identified himself as the manager on duty, gave him my card, and told him politely that I would like an opportunity to speak to him on Monday about the experience we had just had, but that I was, frankly, too upset to talk about it at the moment. The manager said “okay” and DID NOT ASK what had happened. He didn’t inquire at all, didn’t apologize, and kept looking past me. He didn’t glance at my card, and clearly just wanted to move on from this moment.
  14. Monday came and went. I received no phone call.
  15. I then emailed this information to the restaurant’s owner.
  16. 3 days later, I inquired to see if he’d received it. He responded a day later with “I did receive it. The manager I believe you spoke to is off on Monday and wasn’t in until yesterday late afternoon and I had another commitment. I should be able to talk to him this afternoon an get back to you. Thanks.”
  17. A week later we were mailed a tepid apology, and a $50 gift certificate for a future visit. We were never tempted to use it, and the restaurant (which was in a historic location, and was perfectly situated for foot traffic) went out of business in about a year and a half.

The whole time we were there, there were so many opportunities for any one person to recognize the faults in this situation and kindly take action, but instead it ended with missed opportunities all around.

If you are part of an organization that has some weak links, you are not alone — but you can make a difference. Do what it takes to direct attention to problem points, make an effort to connect with people and make the situation better. Beware of systems where everyone involved collectively puts their heads in the sand, as we experienced.

The silver lining (if you know me, you’ve got to expect a happy ending 🙂 )

It was a great opportunity to teach our daughter this lesson: It’s okay to be very, very, very, very mad, and still be kind and respectful. It’s okay to stand up for yourself in a way that acknowledges that other people have feelings. She was such a trooper – starving and forgotten! (By the way, my rage was most intense when the waitress asked if we still wanted the sandwich – did she think that eating an evening meal is optional for seven year olds?) Our daughter saw us feel her pain, and share the rage, but still address the waitress and manager calmly and kindly.

Forgive me for this long post. An awful lot happened, and I hope you’ll agree there’s a lot to be learned here.

2 Responses

  1. Sally Wilke
    | Reply

    Beautifully written, excellently told, wonderful learning for all of us. Thanks for posting this.

    • Alan Feirer
      | Reply

      Glad you liked it! Thanks for affirming the choice to share.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *