The federalist

Good food and service can save America’s bad restaurant experience.

Why Restaurants Need to Drop the Tricks and Focus on the Basics

It was a nice, long holiday weekend — God bless the troops! — and I’m not ready to kill my buzz by talking about politics just yet. But I am ready to address this highly important New York Times article about how dining out is so often now a miserable affair worth neither the money nor the time it takes me to put on my shoes.

Included was an absolutely enraging quote from a restaurant owner in Norcross, Georgia, who said, “You have to come up with different tricks to get them (customers) to stay in your building.”

I feel like Mrs. White in 1985’s “Clue”: “Flames on the side of my face. Breathing, breathless, heaving breaths…”

There are no “tricks” to providing a pleasant dining experience. Prompt and friendly service isn’t a gimmick. It’s timeless. And good food isn’t added value. It’s the bare minimum. If those simplicities aren’t consistent or provided at all, no amount of mood lighting or sexy menu adjectives is going to “get them to stay in your building.”

On the contrary, all the “tricks” are not only not the solution, they’re precisely the problem. They’re the endless excuses that restaurant owners give customers for charging unjustifiable prices. Don’t forget about those new “service fees.” That “unique experience” (potted plants, wall art, and servers who wear chef coats) won’t pay for itself, you know!

May I please see a menu? “Scan the QR code.”

This one looks good… “We’re sold out.”

How do we pay? “It’s on the app. And just a heads up, there’s a 22 percent gratuity already included.”

I placed an online order last week at a fast-casual Mexican restaurant in Washington, D.C., and when I went to pay, it asked if I’d like to leave a tip. I entered $2.00 before noticing a banner at the top of the web page stating that there was a “2.5% surcharge” added to my bill “to support our environmental responsibility efforts.” The note concluded with, “Thank you for partnering with us!” I deleted the $2.00 and hit the confirmation button.

I’m not “partnering” with them. I don’t work there. But they want to charge me for giving them my business? They can go play in traffic.

I don’t care about the “unique experience.” I care that the servers are nice and the food is good. Let’s not overcomplicate it.

The Times article questioned whether there was anything restaurant owners could do to “win them (customers) back.” Yes, they could! And here those things are, free of environmental surcharge:

  1. Knock it off with the QR codes and require that your staff hand customers real menus. Directing a 65-year-old woman to “scan the code” when she asks to see a menu is the same thing as telling her, “Get it yourself.” It takes work to pull out a phone, pull up the camera, scan the code, click the corresponding link, figure out the web page, and on and on. The agreement between the customer and the staff is that the customer is paying money for the staff to do the work. The paying customer shouldn’t be required to do any work. And if she is, she should get a share of the gratuity. (And make sure your real menus have been wiped down.)
  2. Speaking of gratuity, if it’s going to be taken for granted, then so is perfect service. That means prompt, friendly, deferential, and clean. Anybody can take or leave an $8 “small plate” (otherwise known as “less food for more money”). But nobody should have to tolerate a filthy restroom or crumby bar top when it’s demanded that they hand over another quarter percentage of whatever their bill amounts to. That’s a shakedown.
  3. Putting words like “New” and “Fusion” in your restaurant descriptors doesn’t compensate for unremarkable food. Putting a toothpick in your tiny burger bun or teriyaki sauce on macaroni doesn’t entitle anyone to customer enthusiasm. If the food is genuinely good and priced fairly, people will like it. They will come back. If it’s a gimmick — it always is — they won’t.

Drop the tricks and start there. And maybe, restaurant owners, just maybe, you can get them to “stay in your building.”

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