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The chef's way or the highway

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In the January issue, editor Michael Sanson discussed a dining situation where the chef of a trendy burger joint refused to make changes to any item on his menu, even for customers who have allergies. He asked readers whether they have any interesting substitution and alteration practices or hold tight to a strict no-substitution policy. The following are excerpts from those who responded.

We are open for lunch at one of my restaurants on Fridays only and we only serve burgers, even though we don’t have burgers on our regular dinner menu. I said that if I’m going to do lunch I’m going to do one thing great—burgers.  We turn tables 2.5 times and I’m running my tail off. I want to tell every customer with a special request to go to Burger King. But as an owner I understand that customers are our blood and without them we have nothing. Food allergies are becoming more and more prevalent. Either restaurants get on board [and deal with them] or they’ll be thrown overboard.

Jason E. Clark
Executive Chef/Owner
BIN112 on Trade Street
The Strip Club 104 a steak house
Greer, SC

I simply cannot understand what’s so hard about making the dining experience as positive and memorable as possible. The restaurant industry is so competitive that we bend over backward to please our guests so they will make our establishment a favorite. In all my restaurants over the years I have always given guests the freedom to customize their meals within the menu borders. Service isn’t limited to the front of the house. At the end of the day, it’s the guests who keep the doors open.

Wanda Radosti
Operations Manager
Coquina Café
Ormond Beach, FL

If the chef has an aneurysm every time a special request is made then you have a big problem. In most cases even a seasoned waitperson will avoid a conflict with a chef who has this problem and will tell the customer “No.” Most owners (myself included) take umbrage with staff members allowing themselves artistic license to control special requests.

A lot of times we inform guests that we’ll gladly honor their request, but we’ll take no responsibility to comp or otherwise be responsible for the end result. I spent 10 minutes trying to explain to a customer why our $75 South African Lobster Tails should not be pan blackened. The customer insisted, but later said he wished he would have listened to me. Honor special requests whenever possible. It makes a lot of people understand that you care. Caring is sometimes a real pain in the ass, but always works out in the end!

Scott Patchin
D.W. Heiney’s Dining & Spirits
Black Earth, WI

Early in my career at a world-class hotel company I learned a valuable lesson from a mentor: “If it’s not illegal, immoral or unethical, do it!” I’ve gone so far as to include it in our company philosophy and you can hear servers repeat it to the kitchen if they get a little spirited about a customer request.

Although most of our requests will never fall into this category (there’s no crime in cheese or no cheese), I think it sends a great message not to overthink it and do what we can to make a guest happy. The easiest thing we can do in this business is say “No.” The hardest task will be to find customers to replace the ones who do not return because we said “No.”

John Meehan
Meehan’s Irish Pub & Seafood House
The Backyard at Meehan’s
St. Augustine, FL

At Hideaway Pizza, we sell pizza, and have been since 1957. We have been voted the best pizza in Oklahoma year after year after year. Why? Because our guests not only love our specialty pizzas, but because we completely encourage them to adapt any pizza on the menu or create one of their own liking.

We would never presume to tell them what they should or should not eat. We are just happy they came to share their lunch, dinner, birthday, business meal, happy hour, pre-concert, post-reunion, afternoon break and late night meal with us!

Janie Harris
Marketing Director
Hideaway Pizza
Tulsa, OK

I attended a Restaurant Hospitality conference in Vegas and there was a speaker [Cameron Mitchell, president/founder of Cameron Mitchell Restaurants] who runs upscale restaurants/seafood and his take on this issue was: “The answer is yes, now what’s the question?” It’s something I have remembered and use to this day.

At Popeye’s Galley and Grog we have a 600/700-seat restaurant with outdoor dining in the summer. We do whatever we can for the guests. We always get customer questions about gluten, allergies and special requests. It’s amazing all the allergies I see now as opposed to the ’80s and ’90s. We’ll do whatever we can within reason to please our guests and they are very appreciative for our attention to detail.

Dimitrius Anagnos
Popeye’s Galley and Grog
Lake Geneva, WI

We own a 36-year-old vegetarian restaurant. We have a sign that indicates that we will tell you all ingredients in any of our recipes and that we will be glad to omit any ingredient that is added to dishes just before service. We won’t add ingredients that customers might think would make a dish better, though we might give them a side of, say, avocado (and charge for it). On ocasion, when requested in advance by a customer (usually a regular one who has new health restrictions), we make a dish specially to conform to their needs.

Selma Miriam
Bloodroot Restaurant
Bridgeport, CT

Over the years we have done different things to remember regular guests’ names and their drinks. When a server recognized a guest who frequented our restaurant but couldn’t remember their name, they would apologize by saying, “ I’m sorry, I should know your name but don’t remember it.” The guest gives their name and the server would make note of their name and their drink in a notebook we keep. We have been successful in doing this and have had fun by having their drinks at the table when they arrive. They love it! And occasionally I treat the regulars to a drink on the house or a dessert.

Patti Jennings
General Manager
Jakers Bar & Grill
Meridian, ID

Why would this chef or any kitchen want to irritate his customers for fringe changes? I’m sure his burgers are excellent as designed, but a totally satisfied customer is always a better outcome. This chef needs to temper his ego or tempers will rise!

Nigel Leeming
Murphy’s On The Green
Hanover, NH

We really enjoy and benefit from your editorials—from servers getting too familiar, to managers mishandling the unexpected crowd, to those unfortunate young chefs who may be in a bit over their heads. I run copies of each issue for the entire crew. We are a small independent swimming amongst some big fish on the San Antonio River Walk. We try to do the right things for our guests every night. Thanks for your insights and inspiration.

David Snyder
Bella On the River
San Antonio, TX

I have respect for established chefs (minus the arrogance) and understand that they had created something that was intended to be unchanged. In respect to Picasso, no one would tell him how to paint. In your case, though, you are absolutely correct. If a request relates to health, guests’ requests needs to be met.  In respect to that chef, I am sorry, but he is wrong. He should have altered the burger. Besides, as you said, it was not a substitution, it was a deletion.

Joe Agraviador
Operations Manager

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