“Speak your mind even if your voice shakes.”
― Maggie Kuhn
I’m an avid Gordon Ramsay fan, particularly of his Kitchen Nightmares series, most-especially the UK version. Whatever your feelings about him, he gives me a glimpse into dysfunctional restaurants run by dysfunctional families that make me irrationally nostalgic for my own childhood days lost to the machine that was my parents’ restaurant. Also, he teaches me a lot. A lot about what exceptional service looks like, and what I, as a customer, should expect from a dining experience.
One of the most shocking lessons I learned through watching Ramsay’s show is that if I don’t like a dish I’m entitled to send it back and ask for something else! A place with exceptional service will work to immediately correction the situation. Working in restaurants my whole life, this totally makes sense and yet for some reason I never thought to apply it to myself as a customer.*
So, snap back last week when I went out to a long-anticipated happy hour with a couple of my favorite co-workers/friends. We ordered a round of drinks and some food. I got a vegan meatball slider and a side of polenta with spicy tomato sauce. The polenta came in a size-able bowl, no sauce. When I asked for sauce, I was brought a tiny little cup of it, just enough to get me through a few bites. Upon trying the polenta, I found it to be flavorless and having a tacky, instead of silky, texture. There was a total lack of seasoning. Even with the sauce I couldn’t eat it. I thought about it for a minute, and knew that if I paid $6 plus tax and tip for this bowl of polenta, it was going to ruin my night. I made the decision to send the polenta back and order fries or another side.
I turned to my friends and said, “I’m about to make you guys uncomfortable, but I’m going to send this back and say I don’t like it.” My friends immediately got nervous, as I knew they would, being non-confrontational just like me. Channeling my inner Ramsay, I politely told the busboy I didn’t want to take my polenta to go because I didn’t like it and he left to tell my server.
Expecting the server to be gracious and helpful, I was caught off-guard when he came out and proceeded to tell me that polenta is not supposed to have a flavor and that they don’t add anything to it because of people’s allergies. He explained in great detail, essentially, why my opinion was wrong (which you should never to do a customer in a restaurant, even if they are wrong). He asked me if I wanted cheese, to which I said I don’t eat cheese, and he sniffed at me like, “See?” He then offered more sauce and I said even with the sauce it didn’t taste good. He said if I could eat the gorgonzola sauce it would have lots of flavor but since I couldn’t….At this point I was in shock and just kind of sat there staring at him. Finally, he offered me something else but at that point I was so uncomfortable I said I didn’t want anything.
We had been planning to stay for another hour and have one or two more drinks, and possibly dessert, but after this terrible interaction my friend said she had to go so we asked for the check. When our bill came, the server said he took off the $6 polenta, I thanked him and I meant it.
“What’s the point?” you’re probably asking yourself right now. Simply that I tried to be more assertive and sort of half-failed. Or half-succeeded. I choked. I could’ve said a million things to this guy to stand up for myself and let him know that I know what polenta is supposed to taste like when it’s properly seasoned, that I don’t appreciate being talked down to or that he was not providing me with the level of service that I expected, but instead I basically sat shocked into a completely unresponsive state. And, that’s ok! Being assertive takes practice, y’all! The next time I’m in a similar situation, I’ll likely be able to eek out something in my defense. And the time after that I might actually be able to keep my wits about me.
It pains me that I know that that server went and made fun of me to the owner and to the other servers (trust me, he did, I know how these things work). It pains me that I was made out to seem ignorant, and that I was embarrassed in front of my friends. But I did get my money back and I took one more step towards being more assertive. Personal growth can be painful and awkward, but is well worth the discomfort.
I thank veganism for giving me this new-found courage. Years of having to special order and ask questions has helped me realize my power as a consumer. If you are paying for something, you deserve to be satisfied with your purchase. Just don’t be a dick about it. Be calm, polite and reasonable, and know that you are well within your rights to ask for a substitution, refund, or modification.
This philosophy extends to your whole life. “Speak your mind even if your voice shakes” is a beautiful way to illustrate that we can’t always be fearless, but we can always do our best to be brave. This may be speaking up in a meeting, standing up for someone else, or voicing your opinion to your friends. It may seem trite to correlate this to sending a dish back, but I’ve come to realize that bravery takes practice and we should take these small experiences as opportunities to prepare for bigger ones. My experience with the server helps prepare me for the next time I have to present an unpopular idea at work, someone challenges my veganism or I see something that I know is wrong and feel compelled to take action.
Have you experienced a time when you choked? Did you think of the perfect comeback after the fact (I do this ALL THE TIME!)? Please please please share your bad service OR bad customer experiences in the comments – I absolutely love these stories after spending so many years on both sides of the table!
*For those of you shaking your head “no,” sending food back is totally legit. This practice encourages the customer to return, to order another glass of wine (alcohol is where restaurants make their real profits), to order dessert and a cup of coffee, to tell your friends. It is far more important to appease the customer than to fret over the cost of one dish. Some mom and pop shops may not do this because they take the cost of each dish personally, but again that means they are offering poor customer service. This is coming from someone whose father used to scream and throw things if someone dared place a special order, so I know all about poor customer service, yo!**
**True story: my dad once tried to refuse to make a dish without garlic for someone who was allergic to it. His rationale: “If you don’t like garlic, don’t come to a fucking Italian restaurant!” Insanity! My dad was the Soup Nazi of spaghetti. People put up with it because his food was the bomb like tick, tick.