We Didn’t Feel Welcome

Might You Be Running an “Elitist Club?”

My wife, Maggie, and I recently celebrated our first wedding anniversary. We had a memorable and fun weekend stay at the Antietam Overlook Farm (photo on left). This amazing, 95-acre mountaintop bed and breakfast in Keedysville, MD, happens to be owned by a longtime friend, who – along with his staff – made us feel quite welcome; completely taken care of.

We spent two nights there, enjoying delicious, creative breakfasts and taking in the charm of nearby 250-year-old Shepherdstown, along with history-drenched Harpers Ferry and Antietam. We enjoyed the inn’s outdoor hot tub (more than once), biked along the C&O canal and visited many quaint little shops and restaurants, all while enjoying perfect weekend weather.

One highlight quickly became the “low-light”

On our second night, the innkeeper recommended that we visit a Shepherdstown restaurant touted as the “nicest” among the area’s numerous dining options. She graciously offered to make the reservation on our behalf. This would be our official “Anniversary Dinner” and this particular restaurant was supposedly the “it” place. Upon our arrival we were told by the host, “We’re just waiting for a few tables to settle their bill so we can free up a table and seat you. In the meantime, you can visit our bar.”

Restaurant Server(By the way, never once have I witnessed a host/ess offering menus to review while you wait – doing so would obviously give waiting guests something to do, while preparing them for their server – “Can I get you folks started with something to drink?” “Yes, and we’re also ready to order our food.” – The server makes fewer trips, the guests (and server) have a more efficient experience and the restaurant gets its table back that much quicker, to then serve even more waiting guests! Not rocket science … but I digress.)

We headed over to the not-so-busy bar, where we stood ignored for four long minutes while two bartenders, a waitress and hostess all walked by. No one ever acknowledged our presence. We felt invisible. Finally, we were seated at a small table up front in the main dining room – a nice window seat – where we sat for another three long minutes before someone came by with menus. After about another five minutes our waitress finally arrived and asked what we’d like to drink. (Of course, we should have received water almost immediately and did not.) Maggie chose the New York Strip and I went with the Chilean Sea Bass (to be fair, my entire dish was delicious). About six minutes after ordering, our glass of wine finally arrived along with our waters. Time check: 18 minutes after arrival and we’re just receiving beverages.

But this isn’t about slow service

While the service was indeed slow AND Maggie’s steak had to be sent back (twice) for being undercooked AND our waitress barely spoke to us the few times she stopped by AND the owner carried as much of an elitist attitude as everyone else on staff (displaying a negative disposition and never admitting that the steak was undercooked (even as blood pooled on the plate)) AND no one bothered to wish us a “Happy Anniversary” AND Maggie’s underdone/underwhelming steak was accompanied by two spoonfuls of boring mashed potatoes and the most sour greens we’ve ever tasted AND we only received blank stares and eventual shunning from our waitress after communicating these frustrations (she simply stopped visiting us and kept her back to us as she addressed nearby guests) … most of those things could have actually been forgiven – particularly on a night this special when we were feeling good and focused on celebrating; not looking for negativity. But this was about more than a mediocre meal or even slow service. This was about the entire experience – how our concerns were being handled, managed, and communicated. Our overall experience had a common thread running through it:

What we noticed – above all else – was that we didn’t feel welcome.

Unwelcome MatWhen any of us go out to eat, don’t we just want to feel taken care of? Isn’t that one of the built-in benefits of traveling to, and paying a restaurant; tipping its staff? Sadly, the staff at this restaurant was clearly not on our side. Instead we felt like they were on an opposing (elitist) team – they were “over there” and we were “over here” and we didn’t feel welcome. Their attitudes screamed, “It’s your fault. All of it. We’re the ‘it’ place in this town and you two are nothing but annoying customers.”

It’s an intangible thing but you may have noticed that you know (and feel) this “unwelcomeness” in certain situations; certain customer experiences.

 

I wonder if they learned anything…

As regular 20% tippers, the most we could justify at the end of this terrible experience was $6 on a $62 tab, but not without some coaching for our server. I wrote a note to her that read, “A little communication goes a long way. You can’t go silent and ignore your guests when things go wrong.” I can only hope she (and her bosses) learned something. Do you think they did?

By the way, what I really enjoy sharing most – via the social web – are our positive dining experiences. This was the first – and, I hope, the last time – I’ve given anyone a 1-star review on Yelp.

Comments

  1. Steve, why no mention of the restaurant’s name? I would like to drive right past it next time I’m in the neighborhood. Maybe toss an egg or something.

  2. Traditionally, Lowell, I’ve only named names when sharing something positive, like Antietam Overlook Farm. That said, a curious investigator might find a clue here (hint: end of article), that would lead him/her to the culprit.

  3. It’s amazing how many people (especially in the service industry) are not trained on how to manage customers expectations when something goes “wrong.”

    You and Maggie are very loving and generous, and could’ve easily overlooked the mediocre experience, but your waiters inability to simply address the situation and show basic leadership qualities turned a bad situation to worse. Sorry you two had to experience that…on your Anniversary no less! Here’s to history not repeating itself next year 😉

  4. You’re absolutely right, Mina. It’s all about generous communication and then impeccable service *recovery* when needed. If we didn’t know any better, we would have believed that this was the first time in this restaurant’s history that they’d ever made a mistake … and they had no idea what to say or do. We won’t be returning there (of course), but the next time we’re in town we’ll be sure to visit a few others that were all great: Bistro 112, Yellow Brick Bank and Blue Moon Cafe.

  5. Steve: I do hope the rest of the weekend was good. You and Maggie deserved a better experience for your anniversary. It’s a good thing you are so good natured. But it does make a good story…

    Sally

  6. You’re very kind, Sally. Yes, every other detail of that weekend was exceptional and we had a great time.

  7. Steve – your customers engage you to solve these very issues. Naturally, everyone assumes that “the other guys” have an issue, but they have it figured out. The staff went silent for one reason: They had not been trained how to recover.

    You have written before how an establishment can make a remarkable recovery and leave a lasting, great impression. Sometimes, our best success comes on the heel of failure.

    I used to ask my clients back in my IT company days if they had ever been involved in a perfect project. Everyone would smile with anticipation while they said “No.” I would respond “Me neither. So, here’s how we’ll work together when something goes wrong.” Setting expectations early helped us make many stellar recoveries while staying on the same side as the client.

  8. Wow, Ian. What a great example of setting/managing expectations right from the start. A nice illustration of “partnership,” which, according to Gallup is the highest level of customer engagement.

  9. Gallup – I always thought of it as more of a trot… is that what you meant? 🙂

  10. Eric Abramson says:

    At least the fish was good… I’d like to discuss the value of a tip and the weight it carries with a server sometime over a cup of coffee. I waited tables for years (as you did) and often found that servers viewed tips as expected, not as a report card, which it should be. Another great article by a great man. Thanks for your insight as always.

  11. I agree, Eric. Having spent 8 years in the restaurant/hotel business, there’s actually a lot I’m willing to forgive.

    Funny thing is, I imagine (just my story) that she said to herself at some point, “This couple isn’t happy and probably won’t be tipping well, so I might as well ignore them now and give more of my attention to my other tables/guests.”

    If that’s accurate, then of course this became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  12. You had a lousy experience at a restaurant but didn’t name it. So what’s the point? Without the name, you don’t alert others who may be going there and it doesn’t alert the staff so that they can improve (or not). Comes off as a pity party.

  13. Traditionally, Billkie, I’ve only named names when talking about a positive experience. That said, the link to my Yelp review is above (bottom of article).

  14. wayne jordan says:

    To answer your question, the chances of the server or her bosses learning anything from your visit is close to zero. Their attitudes will not allow it.

    My mind immediately went to a similar, but worse experience I had years ago in Ocean City, Md. There wa a restaurant in a terrible hidden location that had a good reputation. I took my family there twice over a period of several years. Each time I noticed that the owner and staff treated man customers, their regulars, extremely well. It was quite impressive. But, if you weren’t already a regular, you were ignored. It was absolutely horrible. You were a non person. Now, this restaurant had a good thing going, and they survived like this for years. But then they went out of business. Maybe it is because they didn’t pick up any new repeat customers during their last five years of business?

  15. Great point, Wayne. I don’t think these “elitists” even realize how they’re alienating paying customers who happen to not (yet) be in their “club.”

    Not that this should matter, but the restaurant I’ve written about above — especially this time of year — has just as many tourists and first-timers as it does regular locals. It’s clear that they just don’t get it, and could end up like their Ocean City “siblings.”

  16. You guys are very generous. I would have left on the second return of Maggie’s steak and settled for anything else. That experience would have totally blocked my vision of what that night’s experience was to be and I’d do anything necessary to get it back on track. I might make my vision into an adventure, but at least it would have been an adventure on our terms. 🙂

    BTW – I envision a show where you and Chef Ramsay (or another, possibly more well-rounded chef) go around the country saving restaurants. He’d work the kitchen and design and you’d work the staff and owner.

  17. Masoud, after our fiasco we ended up going back to a great lunch spot, Bistro 112, for an anniversary dessert. The owner prepared a couple of sweets for us, included a candle, and her whole staff treated us very nicely.

    I love your idea of going on the road to fix “broken” restaurants in front of a TV audience. For now, though, I’m keeping busy (locally) with I.T. firms, insurance agencies, medical practices and franchise operations.

  18. Just rereading this over a crispy bagel and coffee…what a shining example of opportunities to impress.

    It’s often said that businesses that can recover from a “bad” situation actually walk away with a better reputation with the guests than even if it had all gone well.

    Best service, best food and clean environment stands above all, but as you have eluded to…”stuff” can happen, recovery is the magic sauce. (pardon the pun)

    I’ll keep reading.. .and just as I’m seeing, THIS well rounded Chef would LOVE to travel around the country fixing places, if you’re ever up for it. 🙂

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