In restaurant business, sometimes you have to eat it

A friend who owns Germano's Piattini once told me of a young fellow who ordered a $55 bottle of wine, took one sip, scrunched his nose and announced in a loud voice, "This wine has turned." The fellow was maybe two years past senior prom, and he apparently did this to impress his date. It looked like something he might have picked up in frat-boy class.

Or so my friend, Germano Fabiani, suspected.

He came to the table, smelled and tasted the wine and concluded there was nothing wrong with it. But he didn't argue with the customer.

"What are you going to do?" he said. "We took it back and sent another bottle to the table."

I doubt the stunt cost my friend $55; all restaurant wine is marked up, and some distributors will credit a restaurant for a returned bottle.

Still, in Fabiani's case, there was some money lost, and maybe some reputation dented. It happened in a loud way on a Saturday night, the busiest time in the restaurant week.

"But you don't argue with a customer," said Fabiani, a successful restaurateur in Baltimore for more than 30 years. "Sometimes, you just have to eat it."

I don't think I would last in the front of the house.

If a customer tried to pull that on me, I'd become Nick The Bartender (Sheldon Leonard) from "It's a Wonderful Life," and I'd bounce the frat-brat and his girlfriend: "Out you two pixies go. Through the door or out the winda'."

But that's me.

People with more patience and business acumen achieve long-term success in restaurants because they serve food of consistently acceptable quality, or better, and care about whether their customers return.

That means accepting that the customer is always right, even when the customer is wrong.

I bring this up today because a woman contacted me about a bad experience in a Baltimore restaurant. She ordered a seafood dish and, after a couple of mouthfuls, concluded that it was sour. Few things are as wretched as fish gone bad. You know it when you smell it.

But instead of accepting the customer's complaint, the manager on duty was dismissive and tried to impress on the woman that the seafood he served was costly. She said he made no immediate effort to make her happy.

I spoke to the manager a few days ago, and he insisted multiple times that the seafood he served was fresh and that the customer was wrong.

And that's the problem.

Instead of taking up a defensive posture, the manager should have taken up the smelly dish and headed for the kitchen. "Please order something else, ma'am," he should have said, "and I'll bring it to you. And can I bring you a glass of Chablis on the house?"

Over the years, on the rare occasions when something was worth complaining about, I never encountered a server, manager or restaurant owner who argued with me or anyone seated at my table. That's not the accepted practice.

Baltimore restaurant owners and managers I contacted on Friday all agreed: Most of the time, you just have to eat it.

"The relationship with the client is much more valuable than the individual transaction," says restaurateur and wine expert Tony Foreman, who co-owns several restaurants in Baltimore, including Charleston. "The client does not have to be correct about the issue. Much more importantly, they have to be pleased."

Even in the case of a dishonest customer — the frat boy who wants to impress a date by rejecting a $55 bottle of wine — Foreman says sugar works better than vinegar.

"They still may be recoverable as a good and honest client by your kind and professional treatment of them," he says. "It has happened a number of times for me."

Nancy Longo, Pierpoint Restaurant owner and chef, says responding with deference to a customer's complaint has always been important, but more so in the age of instant and widely disseminated messages about service and quality. Social media and online reviews have made it possible for all of us to be restaurant critics, even if we are wrong.

And we're wrong sometimes, maybe even a lot of the times.

I collected these choice complaints from John Shields, owner of Gertrude's in the Baltimore Museum of Art and a chef and cookbook author:

•"Take this sorbet back to the kitchen. It's too cold."

•"I can't eat this crab cake. It tastes too crabby."

•"Your pastry chef has obviously not been to Key West. The pie is not even green!" (Key lime pie is usually only green because a pastry chef, often at a chain restaurant, has added food coloring.)

•"The mushroom Alfredo is awful. It tastes of red wine and has an unpleasant undertone of mustard. Tastes nothing like any Alfredo I've ever eaten." (This, says Shields, when the menu clearly says "Mushroom Stroganoff," made with "red wine and grain mustard.")

But you don't argue, says Shields. "If someone insists that something is wrong, we just go along with it."

So the customer might not always be correct, but the customer is always right.

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