The Hospitality Business
October 3, 2017
People in the restaurant business here in Washington nearly all of whom read the weekly “chat” of Tom Sietsema, the Post’s restaurant critic, have been abuzz with an exchange from last Wednesday’s “Ask Tom.”
A woman (I presume) wrote to Sietsema as follows:
Hi Tom, This is more a public service announcement / discussion topic than a question, but please give it a read. Pineapple & Pearls’ policy –announced upon booking and in follow-up reminders–is to charge half the prix fixe cost for your party upon booking and the balance on the reservation date, with a refund of the first tranche available only if the reservation is cancelled at least 5 days out. I reserved dinner at the bar for my husband and myself in July. My husband, who’s an active duty military officer stationed overseas, was flying in for a few days, and I booked us for the night he was scheduled to arrive. He arrived on time…and went straight to the emergency room with hallucinations and a 106-degree fever that developed on the flight from something he’d had contact with before departure for the U.S. Very scary. I called the restaurant, repeatedly, as I was driving to the hospital to advise that we wouldn’t be coming; no one picked up, and voicemail wasn’t offered. I sent an email. My husband spent the night in the hospital but recovered fairly rapidly after a generous dose of Cipro. I heard from the restaurant the next day: They very kindly inquired about my husband’s welfare (good) but explained that they did not make exceptions to their cancellation policy and would not offer either a refund or a credit (wow). So, PSA for those booking at Pineapple & Pearls: No refunds / no exceptions. Period. Full stop. If your dining companion dies, you’ll still have to pay for his or her meal. And, discussion point: Is P&P’s policy, as implemented, reasonable? On one hand, they advised me in advance, and I implicitly consented to the terms. I appreciate that it’s a slippery slope–where to draw the line once you begin making exceptions? On the other hand, COME ON! REALLY?!?! If the food is as soulless as the management, we didn’t miss anything.
I reached out to chef-owner Aaron Silverman, who provided the following response:
When competing in a market such as ours (fine dining) it is becoming necessary and often common practice to treat the experience like that of a sporting event or a concert/show; treating it like the sale of a “ticket”. Just like a concert or show, when one gets sick or has to cancel for any last minute reason, you unfortunately forfeit the ticket. With that said, we only apply this policy for cancellations within 24 hours of the experience. Cancellations made prior to 24 hours are issued refunds of varying amounts depending on the timing of the cancellation (5 days, 3 days, etc). This type of policy is something we have to stick to in order to provide the experience we do at the price point we offer.
In situations like these, please know that our front of house and guest liaison team do not take it lightly. We understand that dinner with us is often times a celebratory event and something that our guests have been looking forward to for quite some time so when situations like these arise, we do our best to offer options if they are available. We offer guests to transfer their reservation to friends or family members and we reach out to concierges in the area with calls to see if they might have guests that have interest in dining with us and filling the open seats. I can assure you that last minute cancellations keep our staff up at night more than any other issue.
For us, the only fair way to handle these situations is to firmly hold to our policy because otherwise we would then be in the business of quantifying hardship, which is an inconceivable practice. In our ideal world, circumstances would be different but we strive to do the best we can with what we are given.
Thank you for the opportunity to weigh in.
This response stunned me and I have been talking since last week’s chat to colleagues about it.
Restaurants these days have to endure costly uncertainty. “The people we have always called guests are becoming just customers.” That’s what Ben Arnold, our head of production, says; and he is putting it gently. What he means is that the civility and dependability on which restaurants and customers always depended has broken down.
I get annoyed when a restaurant – or a dentist for that matter – calls to ask me whether I am going to honor my reservation or appointment, but I understand why they do that. People aren’t dependable anymore. Plumbers fail to come after having promised to do so. Bills don’t get paid when they are due. And on a bad night 30 percent of the people who have reserved space in a restaurant don’t call to cancel and don’t show up.
What this means is that restaurants that under good circumstances make modest profits cannot be profitable. It means that each night when they open they open uncertain that their staffing will be high enough or not too high and their ingredients and preparation will be at the right levels.
Airlines deal with customer undependability by overbooking their flights. The executives who guide those sophisticated systems of prediction need never encounter bewildered or angry customers who can’t get on flights for which they are ticketed because the overbooking was excessive.
But a restaurant that overbooks inaccurately or whose customers stay longer than predicted has to deal face-to-face with customers who angrily endure 45 minutes waits for their tables, ruining their experiences that are supposed to be fun.
That’s why some restaurants these days don’t take reservations and instead make their “guests” stand rain or shine on the streets for hours just for the privilege of buying the restaurants’ food.
As you can tell, I dislike that solution to the problem, but the problem is real.
Until I read the exchange on Sietsema’s chat last Wednesday I thought that the “ticket solution,” prepayment of restaurant dinners was a good idea. I still think it can be but it hadn’t occurred to me until this exchange that it would be implemented with such rigidly.
If I buy tickets to a World Series game and find I can’t go, I have a chance to sell the tickets by going on line or to the stadium box office and peddling them. If I could afford a ticket to Hamilton and then be unable to use it, I could sell the ticket on line or go to the box office and make flirtatious eye contact with eager tourists.
But guests who pay in advance for a restaurant meal have no such selling opportunities, at least none that I know of. There is no marketplace. People don’t stand in front of a restaurant hoping to snare a ticket from customers who can’t go.
In this woman’s sad case only Pineapples and Pearls could create a means of selling tickets. But that would require the restaurant to devote resources to rescue customers who have paid in advance. Pineapples and Pearls did not answer its telephone and that woman who bought those tickets had no opportunity to ask for the help that an elegant and popular restaurant might be able to give – for example, to offer the tickets to a hotel concierge who could sell them to eager hotel guests.
It is the stark ungraciousness that upset me most about the exchange. We in the food business are in the hospitality business. We are feeding people. However much confidence we at Bread Furst have in our foods, if a customer complains about a food we make, we refund his/her money.
We in the food business are not performers, not rock stars, says my partner, our general manager, Eun Yim. We are one generation away from having been considered slightly ignoble craftspeople. Television food shows, of course, have changed our status but celebrity doesn’t justify haughtiness.
I sent the exchange to some of my friends, very well known chefs in this and in other cities, to learn whether I am simply being old fashioned. And they responded:
From one who uses the ticket system in a restaurant: “As you know this ticket system was inspired by those guests who do not have the courtesy of canceling reservations (but) my goal is to not burden the guests.”
From another who uses the ticket system: “If someone is in the ER and is sick right before their reservation, we offer to forward the deposit to a future reservation. We do not keep the money. I just don’t feel good about it and also would never assume a guest is lying about this.”
From yet another: “I find it disturbing and disconcerting. I prefer to believe that those of us who choose to be in the hospitality business do so because we like making people happy.”
We ought to be gracious to people who want to come to our establishments and as well to those who have good reasons for being unable to come to dinners for which they have already paid. Such people are not the same as those who make reservations at four restaurants before deciding at the last moment which one they fancy that evening. We ought not to allow this latter group of entitled and irresponsible people to drive us away from the graciousness that is a central part of our lives in food.
Mr. Silverman, if he didn’t want to refund the money, could, had he wanted to do so, have offered that woman a table on a different evening. Generosity, it seems to me, is among the powerful reasons for being in the food business.
I don’t go to restaurants like Pineapples and Pearls but not because of this. I am uncomfortable about spending on a dinner as much as these experiences cost. I go to restaurants to eat good food and talk to friends. I don’t go to restaurants to see performances. And in any case I just don’t care for multicourse meals.
But I know that to other people, particularly people younger than I, enjoy these showy celebration dinners, think they are fun and worth the money. What this celebration restaurant did, what Mr. Silverman calls “necessary” and “common” is neither.