You’re out for dinner with a few of your closest friends, and your delicious meal comes to the table. Unfortunately, it arrives burnt, cold, or in a form you just did not expect. How do you tell your server you’re unhappy, without giving them cause to spit in your food? We spoke to a couple of top restaurateurs and an etiquette coach to get their insights on how to resolve this dining dilemma.
1. Inform your server as soon as the problem arises.
Max Rimaldi, proprietor of the Libretto Restaurant Group, explains that most establishments will give you the opportunity to raise complaints. In his restaurants, servers are trained to visit the table two bites into the meal and ask how things are going, a practice common at many restaurants. “If [diners are] not happy about something, we’ve asked them about it along the way,” he notes. The sooner a problem is discovered, the sooner it can be solved.
Leanne Pepper, a certified etiquette coach, puts it simply: “Bring up an issue with your food right away; don’t consume it all.” This makes staff aware of the problem immediately, and it also shows that you want to solve it, rather than just score a free meal after the fact.
2. Be discreet
“I think it’s polite to say, ‘I’m having a problem; can we take this aside?’” says Carlo Catallo, proprietor of Splendido. He explains that addressing the manager in front of your six friends is unfair to the manager, and embarrassing for your friends. The manager needs to be able to listen to your complaint, understand it, and speak with you directly to ensure the solution is satisfactory. Putting someone on the spot will just make him or her want to save face, instead of ensuring you leave happy.
3. Be specific
You’ll know right way if your soup is cold, or if the table wobbles, so make sure the manager knows these details, too. At Pizzeria Libretto, Rimaldi has received complaints such as “your pizza just sucked,” to which he responds, “Was it burnt? Cold? Not fresh?”
“Some people just don’t like [Libretto's style of ] Neapolitan pizza; I need to know what’s wrong to fix it,” he explains. Specific complaints have specific solutions, and they ensure the establishment will do their best to solve the problem.
4. Keep your cool
Both Catallo and Rimaldi agree that throwing a temper tantrum won’t solve anything. “Making demands only adds more friction,” Catallo explains. “Communication is what’s going to solve the problem.” When Catallo fields a complaint, he tries to catch all the details, and then he asks the customer directly about what they’d like to see done. As long as a diner feels like the manager is actually listening, the problem should be solved without anyone yelling.
Pepper explains: “Do it in a graceful way; if you start rashing someone out in front of other people, you’re just going to make them feel bad.” She adds that being polite ensures the person receiving the complaint will listen to you, instead of reacting defensively.
5. Expect service to get better
Catallo notes any good establishment should be prepared make an effort to help customers with concerns, because a bad experience will be shared with everyone. “Word of mouth works for you and against you,” he says.
Catallo usually tries to solve the original problem and add something extra to the experience. “We need to reset the balance of the meal, and I need to make sure things are better than they were.”
Rimaldi reveals that dealing with a complaint properly has paid off for him many times over, so he ensures every complaint is handled properly. “I’ve had people who started as complainers who are now our best customers.”
6. Don’t take it to Twitter
“When you use a social forum, you’re not giving the opportunity for the establishment to make it right,” Catallo explains, calling the practice “malicious” and “cowardly.” Most complaints expressed through these forums are ignored anyway, he explains, so don’t expect any freebies.