Eat This List: 5 ways to complain effectively in a restaurant
March 6th, 2013
12:00 PM ET
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This is the ninth installment of "Eat This List" - a regularly recurring list of things chefs, farmers, writers and other food experts think you ought to know about. Today's contributor is the pseudonymous "Manuel T. Waiter." He's the author of the wildly popular blog Well Done Fillet, and works as a waiter at an undisclosed restaurant in Belfast, Ireland. He'll be right with you.

Complaints, eh.

Complaints are magical little moments that allow you, as a waiter, to look deep into the soul of the guest and see what makes them tick. You see beyond the well-dressed (or otherwise) exterior and deep down into their insecurities and paranoid psychosis. Or something, not that I want to over-think things. Sometimes a steak is just an overcooked piece of meat and not the start of a mental breakdown.

But quite often when a customer complains it's less about you or your restaurant's inability to sling three appetizing courses over two hours down onto a table, and more about the punter and their state of mind. Honestly some days I know they're only one overcooked tuna away from a William "D‑Fens" Foster moment.

Take this bed wetter extraordinaire who asked me to change his steak as there was a grilled tomato on his plate.

What?

"Yeah I don't eat tomato, don't like them. Never have done, they taste yuck."

He actually said yuck. This fully-grown, professional looking, man of about 40, maybe 45 years old, said tomatoes are, "YUCK." I was tempted to ask if they made him sicky in his tum-tum. But I didn't.

So you want a new steak?

"Eh yeah...it's just the tomato..."

Mmmmmkay....eh. I'll see what the chef says. He'll probably just take the tomato off though.

He looked really upset, I mean it must have been a great relief to him that he had his wife with there to help him through this difficult time. She held his hand across the table as I spoke to him the way someone would as if they knew their friend was about to get bad news.

Good grief.

This incident saddened me somewhat. Men - they used to be more, you know, manly.

I have another regular guest who comes in every single week in life with his large and raucous family. Every week he complains. Every week it's something different, and every week we deal with it. The man, in his late fifties, doesn't get to speak at home, probably hasn't been listened to in years.

So he comes to my restaurant every week and complains about something because he knows I have to deal with it, I have to listen to him and I have to make it right. He rarely has grounds to complain but what are ya gonna do? We are his last refuge, his last ear, in a world that stopped listening to him years ago.

Complaining isn't easy. Some people don't want the confrontation and some just get it all wrong. But it needn't be a them-versus-us moment nor does it need to ruin your night. A well-dealt-with complaint is a beautiful thing but it all starts with you explaining yourself properly. Actually, it all starts with us making a mess of things but you know what I mean.

Here's the top five things to do when you're going to complain.

1. Calm down
First thing to do is breathe. Seriously, calm the f*** down. It's a tomato on your plate not the contents of a 1-year-old child's nappy. Flying off the handle will do nothing for your cause, no matter how justifiable it may be. This is why terrorism doesn't work. You're not a terrorist are you? Your waiter is your greatest ally in this situation unless they are the one you are complaining about obviously. Alienating the waiter will make everything so much harder. You need them on your side.

2. Act fast
If you have an issue with your food, then bring it to the attention of your waiter as soon as you possibly can. The countless times I have checked back on tables a few minutes after they have started to be told everything is tickety-boo only for them to complain at the end over empty plates would make your head actually spin. I CAN'T DO ANYTHING WHEN YOUR PLATE IS EMPTY!

3. Be clear
Clearly state the nature of your upset - the upset with your food that is, I care not for your religious, personal and/or political gripes. Just shrugging your shoulders and saying, "Didn't like...not nice" like a huffy teenager will seriously get you nowhere. If I'm going to the kitchen with your plate of food to face thy mortal nemesis in ill-fitting whites, I'm doing it armed with the facts not with shrugged shoulders and the word "meh." You gotta help me to help you.

4. Trust me
Trust the waiter to do his job. If he says he's gonna fix it for you, then let him do so. A good waiter will rectify the food issue and make changes on your bill accordingly. Telling him you want this free and that free and wine for everyone is just gonna get his back up. Like I said, you want the waiter on your side; he's the one that is going to go to the chef and the manager and make everything lovely again.

5. Follow up
But hey, if you still don't get satisfaction on the night then you need to take it further. You can of course e-mail the restaurant with your complaint but if you are going to do that then don't do it from your smartphone on the drive home. Best leave it a few hours and do it calmly. Spelling mistakes caused by anger or shonky driving will adversely affect your complaint, seriously. But nothing, and I mean nothing, works like a handwritten letter to the manager. It makes them tremble. If you really want to get your point across and instil fear and upset into the restaurant then handwrite them a letter. Woo-hoo, things get done on the back of a hand-written letter.

We want you to leave happy. And in the long run, it is cheaper to take something off the bill or give you a free bottle of wine than have you leave all bitter and grumbling under your breath. In 'round-about terms, the manager or waiter should ask you what they can do to make you happy and act accordingly within reason. Touching the bum of the 19-year-old waitress or 40-year-old waiter isn't an option.

Most food-related complaints can be dealt with straight away by the waiter: wrong sauce, not hot enough, wrong side order, etc. These problems are solved with a quick dash to the kitchen. If the complaint is related to the waiter, my advice is to go straight to the manager. Bypass all other staff and go straight to the guy in the fancy tie. If you ask the waiter to get the manager, chances are they will know what you are up to and that's when the misinformation will start. I have never done that, oh no, not me.

Waiters want a smooth shift, we want our customers to be happy, and we want them to return. More customers means more cash for Manuel.

Chefs share those goals too. We don't want it to happen, we don't want you to be upset, we don't want to have to stand there in the middle of the restaurant and get a dressing down from an irate customer. You should bear that in mind before you let loose with the hairdryer rant.

But from time to time, things get screwed. Fact. How we unscrew them is quite often up to you.

Complaints? Share 'em in the comments below. See more of Manuel's musings at welldonefillet.com



soundoff (299 Responses)
  1. Pizzachick

    Even though I am not a waitress, I am still in the customer service business. Main point, customer service. I totally understand that things happen beyond the face that you deal with. I as a delivery driver am the one that is the last resort in checking to make sure all items of request are taken care of before it leaves the store. This should be the last check point before delivery to the table for the waiter/waitress. So if sides or special requests are not met, I blame the waiter/waitress. Something not made correctly, well... A few points. Either the wait person didn't write it down correctly, the chef ignored the request, both of those things could have happened, or the wait person did not double check to make sure it was right before they took it out. As a human being, I know mistakes are made. I usually leave a 20% tip if service was up and up on their customer service skills, and as long as the problem was rectified and dealt with the correct level of authority (if necissary). If it is obvious that the waitstaff if new or still learning, depending on effort, I will leave a 10-15%tip (or more, depending on effort). If it is made clear that the waitstaff just doesn't care, no, they will no receive a tip. That is the whole point of tipping! You tip for the service you appreciate or don't tip if you feel you got bad service. Only thing I have to say is that for delivery service, people do not know what 20% tip means for great service. I get to people's houses within 20 minutes for delivery sometimes, and people will just tip the change. Say the total is $19.56, and they will literally tell me to keep the change out of a $20. How much do you think that it costs us for gas, tires, oil changes, upkeep of the car? And most commercial places only pay us like waiters or waitresses? Not all of us are slackers, as movies or shows portray us to be. We really care about providing great customer service. Do we not deserve the same courtesy as a waiter/waitress? I appoligize. Slight rant. Anyway, what really gets me is when our customers order online, then blame us for following their order to the T. They will call in and complain that they didn't get what they want, when we just followed their order that THEY gave US! Next thing you know, they expect to keep the "messup" AND for us togive them exactly what they request on the phone when they call in and complain. What it boils down to is that we are not chefs, but we do absolutely everything we can to make things right, yet there is always something the customer will complain about, even with online ordering. It is annoying to us as workers that take pride in our work. My point is despite your perception of who is to blame, there are many possible factors. Just try to be a considerate and patient customer depending on the circumstance.

    March 23, 2014 at 3:34 am | Reply
  2. Jess

    I get what you are saying. I have served for years and even now that I have a 9-5 I still work a weekend shift. I like it, but I don't like self-titled customers and oh I have had some pretty awful ones. I have to say, your response to man about the tomato was wrong and if that is how your restaurant handles complaints, it is a wonder you are still in business. There are better ways than that to calm down a customer being rude and keep your dignity. For instance, "a simple let me take care of that for you" and then suggest a better solution such as bringing the steak back to the chef and have him take off the offending ingredient and sear off the tomato juice. If that wasn't good enough then tell the customer we can prepare him a new steak, but he will have to wait, and for next time just let us know what you find yucky and we'll make sure to tell the chef to leave it off. Most of the time if you can give them a good explanation on how you can fix it, people will accept it. Part of being a good server is asking the guest if everything that comes on their food is ok and telling the customer about ingredients that might not be listed on the menu. That will save you from having to deal with complaints like this. Of course you will always get the vegan/crohns disease/gluten-free diner who expects you to know all of his dietary needs without telling you and then loses his cool when his food comes with dairy while he is sipping on whisky and coffee (hint: whiskey is bad for people with crohns disease). Just a gentle apology, We'll fix it for you and a simple I am not familiar with all your dietary needs usually calms the angry customer and makes them feel bad about exploding. Or if they are really rude I give them good service, just not with a smile. And don't forget there is always 18% gratuity for parties of six or more!

    December 31, 2013 at 12:33 pm | Reply
  3. random comment

    I complain only when there is a real problem with my dish. Something screwed up, or my steak not cooked right (it's surprising how often "rare" means "burnt brick of ash" these days), or a hair in my food. When I do, I'm very polite about it, and if it's a lot of fuss to fix, I tip a little extra.

    I have complained to a manager when I've received exceptionally, and I do mean exceptionally, bad service. But again, politely, no drama.

    Being calm and gracious makes a huge difference. It actually gets you a lot more than making a huge spectacle.

    October 30, 2013 at 5:46 pm | Reply
    • goatsandgreens

      Excellent points, Random. I send food back for things like "this chicken is raw", which is a health hazard. Overcooking my beef, however (or other mistakes), I will comment on but not send back (as I don't want my compatriots to wait for me, or for me to eat after they are all done) - but I figure a polite word back to the kitchen is appropriate, as I think it important that they learn from feedback for future events.

      December 7, 2013 at 9:25 pm | Reply
  4. lydia

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    October 4, 2013 at 5:18 pm | Reply
  5. Beefburger

    Don't be a d0uche and tell the customer that "most likely they will just take the tomato off". Customers may be Asperger's or functioning Autistics. Just take the dammed plate back, and transfer the food to a new plate, please. Aspies are more than likely higher in IQ than you (and can therefore spot "tomato residue), which is why they can afford a decent meal but be set off by things that overstimulates their sensitivities. It isn't that difficult to please customers by not being an a$$hat and maintain their illusion of getting what they want.

    August 30, 2013 at 5:53 am | Reply
    • Snetterton

      There's no need to submit to unreasonable requests, Asperger's or no. If you can't control your dysfunctions, don't inflict them on others.

      October 16, 2013 at 2:07 pm | Reply
  6. designrestaurants

    Reblogged this on Design Restaurants and commented:
    This week a complaint about a restaurant on Trip Advisor went viral after the chef of the Blade Bone Inn's response to the complaint was posted below it. The reply from Kiren Puri was tweeted by thousands within hours and he told the Daily Mail that the review was 'unfair and untrue', and said the complainer was the kind of customer who is a 'disease upon our wonderful industry, and it must be addressed'. The review is available to read on Trip Advisor so make up your own mind. It does raise lots of questions however. As customers we reserve the right to complain – but how is the best way to do it? Here we have reblogged a great article printed earlier this year on Eatocracy by contributor "Manuel T. Waiter" which we think points all of us in the right direction...

    August 29, 2013 at 7:37 am | Reply
  7. James

    I do mention to the staff when things are good or lacking but always in a polite way and 90pct of the time they are alway receptive. But on new years eve we went to our favorite place Lucilles in Fort Worth it was about 730p, we wanted to order steak but they were all out of steak, we were very disappointed and mentioned this to our waiter. He was very gracious and polite. We order something different and as always it was delicious. The manager came by to apologize for not having any steaks and told us it was an oversight and was very upset himself and was not making any excuses. He also then went on to comp our meal. He didnt have to do this but we accepted and still have never had a bad meal or service at this restaurant. Service at restaurants and hotels have improved in the last 10 years and glad to say.

    July 24, 2013 at 9:35 am | Reply
  8. Kate

    My best experience with complaining was when I didn't even need to say anything. I was eating dinner with a large group of people. My pasta dish was delicious until I found a hair in it. Needless to say, I was no longer hungry. I didn't complain because what I had eaten was wonderful, but when the check came, my meal had been comped and the waitress had packed a dessert to go! She received an extra-large tip on top of the one we were already planning on leaving.
    My favorite complainer sighting was this very angry "lady" who complained loudly about her companion being "injured" and unable to walk far so they needed a table near the door. When given the option between a table slightly further away or a 10 minute wait, she chose to C. stomp away childishly, threatening to call the police, all the way to the fast-food joint next door. I'm not sure if she wanted the waiter to kick out the patrons at the closest table or physically drag a table to where she was standing. The best part? Her companion was already sitting at the bar, which happened to be closer to the table offered, and left without any sign of this mysterious "foot injury".

    July 16, 2013 at 3:52 pm | Reply
    • Alicia

      I saw something like that too!! This little boy opened a door for an elderly couple, only somebody from inside the restaurant shouted "injured lady coming through! injured lady coming through!" so this elderly couple steps aside and here comes this 30 year old woman on crutches. Here I was expecting a body cast. The little boy's father told her her behavior was atrocious. Funny thing was, I had a man on crutches hold a door for me not three minutes before this.

      August 31, 2013 at 10:13 pm | Reply
    • random comment

      Agreed. I recently went out to a restaurant. I ordered, and a few minutes later the waiter came back extremely frustrated and told me the dish was no longer available that night. No problem. I ordered something else. I half hoped they'd let me have it for the price of the other dish, two dollars cheaper, but I really wasn't all that concerned. When I went to pay, my entire meal had been comped. I ordered a dessert specifically so that I could leave the waiter a nice tip.

      It was something completely unexpected, and it was very nice. It definitely assured that I'll be eating there again.

      October 30, 2013 at 5:39 pm | Reply
  9. Kate

    My best experience with complaining was when I didn't even need to say anything. I was eating dinner with a large group of people. My pasta dish was delicious until I found a hair in it. Needless to say, I was no longer hungry. I didn't complain because what I had eaten was wonderful, but when the check came, my meal had been comped and the waitress had packed a dessert to go! She received an extra-large tip on top of the one we were already planning on leaving.

    July 16, 2013 at 3:45 pm | Reply
  10. Zoey

    I have never complained at a restaurant because I'm too much of a wuss. However, on one memorable occasion, my mother complained for me. We were in a Tennessee restaurant and I ordered the "authentic" Red Beans and Rice, which was bland and had an off-flavor. My mother thought I was just being a picky until she tried them herself. She immediately flagged our waitress, and when the chef came out, he insisted it was authentic; big mistake. We live in New Orleans, and my mother, a home cook, is from bayou country. She informed him that not only was it underseasoned, but that since it used black beans instead of kidney beans – the "off" flavor I had noticed – it wasn't even Red Beans.

    The waitress was great, but the chef was a prick. I think I got a free dessert or something, but I doubt the "authentic Red Beans" recipe was ever fixed.

    May 4, 2013 at 3:16 am | Reply
  11. Danielle

    Once in a while, I'll have a reasonable cause to complain, but I don't usually mention it. Generally speaking, if my plate comes and it has the wrong side, I don't really care, as long as it isn't gross. If my steak is medium well instead of medium rare, that's not ideal, but it's not the end of the world, either. Servers are busy, cooks are busy, and we all make mistakes now and then. I understand that people have a right to politely complain about these things, and I don't begrudge them that. I'd rather the servers and cooks have time to handle the complaints from the people that care more about these mistakes than I do, as that contributes to a happy experience for all.

    April 11, 2013 at 9:10 pm | Reply
  12. Habberdash

    To me, whether I complain about the food depends on the place. If I'm eating a $7 dinner at a crappy diner, I'm not expecting much to begin with. On the other hand, if I've order a $50 steak (which for me only happens every few years) I'm defnitely sending it back if I ordered it medium rare and it comes out well done.

    April 9, 2013 at 9:52 pm | Reply
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