Return to Sender
Illustration by Dominic Bugatto
After taking a family member to dinner recently, and watching her not only send back all of her own food to the kitchen, but also that of her husband and three children, three things occurred to me. 1) I will never dine out with her again. 2) Was it possible to exit the restaurant without being noticed? 3) What a hard time chefs and waitstaff must have dealing with diners’ whims (and whining). After I recovered from the embarrassment, I had to wonder: how common around town is the phenomenon of diners sending their meals back to the kitchen?
Most of the restaurant owners, managers, chefs and waitstaff I talked with were, perhaps unsurprisingly, rather circumspect regarding the issue, voicing some variation of what Randy Marriner, the proprietor of Victoria Gastro Pub in Columbia, says. “We tend to have 100 percent guest satisfaction. For the most part, people don’t send food back. The plates come back looking like they’ve been licked clean.”
But even the best restaurant in the world can’t escape, from time to time, someone like my particular family member. So I kept asking. I flagged down John Shields, chef/owner of Gertrude’s at the BMA and the king of a good story, and asked him if people send food back. To which he replied, “Oh, yeah! In fact, we’re pretty sure that there’s a whole group of people out there that have these little boxes filled with hair. They’ll strategically place one on the plate only after they’ve eaten at least three-fourths of a meal. Suddenly that hair just appears.”
Con artists aside, Shields says there are any number of reasons people return food. “A lot of people, especially when they’re older, can’t sense ‘hot’ very well,” he says. “So they’re constantly sending very hot soup back, until it’s heading back to them a bubbling mass of gloop. This one woman, well, we couldn’t get it hot enough for her. So I asked the pastry chef to take out the torch and put it under his arm like a pepper shaker. He told her, ‘I can heat it up a little more if it isn’t hot enough yet.’”
Sascha Wolhandler of Sascha’s 527 agrees with Shields— like Marilyn, some of her customers like it very, very hot. “There are hot flashes, cold flashes and soup flashes,” she says. “The soup can never be hot enough for a menopausal woman. I challenge any meteorologist to get the temperature right for them.”
Misunderstandings can also be at the source of many a “return to sender.” Nino Germano, chef and co-owner of La Scala Ristorante, recalls one customer who “ordered risotto, but she thought she would be getting spaghetti and meatballs.” Nate Beachler, general manager at The Oceanaire Seafood Room, says some folks are put off by the char dish when it’s brought to the table. “It often surprises people to see the whole head and tail on it— it scares them,” he says. “That’s a dish that sometimes comes back.” And then there are those in search of a free meal. “People go online and get 5,000 coupons, read all the loopholes, stick them all together and try to get a meal for free,” says Nancy Longo, chef/owner at Pierpoint. “I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me?’”
From her perch at the Mt. Washington Tavern, Shannon Maddox offers up a plate of first-class returned meal vignettes. “First of all, you’ve got an older customer on a fixed income who’s trying to penny-pinch. She orders a burger, with lettuce and tomato on the side. Then she wants a little more lettuce. Then she wants more tomatoes. Then she wants dressing. Basically, she wants to build herself a little salad without paying for it.” Of course, that customer is balanced out by another who sent back a sandwich because it was too big!
And some chefs say that a lot of times the entrée is almost fully eaten by the time the complaint comes in.Allison Parker Abromitis, manager for the Charleston Group restaurants, says that she hears from waiters that they’ll offer to take a diner’s plate while the chef is making them a replacement, but the diner refuses, saying, “‘No, I’m just going to work on this until you bring me back my food.’” “Sometimes there’s not even any sauce left on the plate,” says Daniel Chaustit, the chef at Crush. “I have to think, ‘How horrible was it?’”
Scooter Holt, manager at Corks, points out that it’s not only about the food. “Let’s not forget the person who drinks three-quarters of the wine and then finds a gnat in it. You can’t tell me these same people buy a bottle of wine to take home and take it back to the liquor store or dump it if they find a gnat in that,” he says.
The more restaurant people thought about it, the more stories they unearthed about the types of food returners. There are the con artists— “Someone brought in a glass Coke bottle bottom and put it in the salad and they said they swallowed it,” says
Longo. And the braggarts— young people who have seen their parents return food. Says Maddox: “They’ll come in with a date and try to get it over on you. They want to show off in front of their companion about their knowledge of food. And there we are, taking this back and that back, making them look good, and us looking like we’ve done everything wrong, when actually, everything’s great.”
Then there’s the procrastinator. According to Marcie Prince, manager at the Iron Bridge Wine Co. in Columbia, “Sometimes you get somebody who’ll come in to complain about something they’d eaten a week prior, saying it was inedible. You know, we need to know if there’s a problem when it happens right away, not later.”
And don’t forget the “off-menu” type. “This guy, he wanted wasabi, even though it wasn’t even on the menu,” says Shields. “He’s screaming at the waitress, who finally just bursts into tears. He made everyone return everything they were eating. I had to ‘comp’ him 50 percent of the whole meal. He didn’t leave his waitress a tip. Not a penny. They had to give me nerve pills.”
And king of them all, says Holt, is the professional complainer. “This guy, he walks in the door, and you just know him upon seeing him. As a waiter, you’re like, ‘OK, here we go. We’ve got a code blue.’ You’re reading the specials, they aren’t looking at you, their arms are crossed and they’re defiant. You just put your seat belt on and get ready. The food will either be 1) sent back, 2) complained about or 3) something bad. Their goal is to turn the restaurant into chaos. A fellow server calls it ‘Dining as a Sport.’ Most people when they send something back are legitimately not happy. But the code blue is not going to be happy until that restaurant is falling apart around them. Don’t think for a minute that there aren’t people out there that don’t play this game. They do. It’s like the shark coming into the shallow waters to feed.”
Joking aside, most chefs, like executive chef at Sotto Sopra, Bill Crouse, take returned food seriously. “Any time someone sends food back, it’s a big concern,” he says. “For the most part, it’s a learning tool for all of us. We’ll redo the dish and I will walk it back to the customer and apologize.” Daniel Raffel, manager at Alizée at the Colonnade, adds, “We immediately bring an unhappy customer a demitasse of a soup, so they have something in front of them while they wait.An empty space on the table isn’t helping anyone.”
Which leads to the question— do these chefs, proprietors and managers ever send back food while dining out? James Kinney, the managing partner of The Capital Grille, says, “I’m pretty careful when I order. I might ask more than your general consumer. I try to make sure everything is perfect before my food comes.” Christie Smertycha, manager of Jack’s Bistro agrees, “If I’ve read the ingredients, then it becomes my responsibility if I don’t really like the food. Spoiled food is the only reason I’ll ever send anything back,” she says. Jesse Sandlin, chef at Abacrombie, agrees. “I can pretty much suffer through anything, but I really can’t stand an overcooked steak.”
Shields tried to send food back one time at a local pub— but failed. “When our food comes out, I’m looking at my crab cake and it’s got this yellowish-greenish hue and I immediately know it’s gone bad. … Once the fats in the crab break down, it releases ammonia, a very distinctive look and, more so, aroma. So I called the woman over and sort of whispered, ‘Well, this has gone bad.’ So she takes it back. My friends have eaten three-fourths of their meal by the time the cook finally returns. She looks like an Army cook out of a TV show— filthy apron, cigarette hanging out of her mouth, etc. She says, very loudly, ‘What the hell is wrong with the crab cake? Ain’t nothing wrong with this. Smell it,’ and she pushes it directly into my nose. So there I am with crab on the end of my nose. And the restaurant charged me for it. I thought about not paying for it, but then I realized that if I tried to get the check changed, I could be there another half hour. Plus, I didn’t want that woman coming back out of the kitchen. I was scared of her!”
Beyond all the misadventures, Shields remains strategically philosophical, as do most restaurateurs, about the phenomenon of returned food— even when he knows it’s a scam. “If that customer places that hair in the food at the last minute… it’s not worth having a fight over it. If you do that, they’re going to tell 10 people who tell 10 other people who tell 10 other people and it becomes all about that hair,” he says. “It’s easier just to give them what they want.”
But, readers— and my food-returning family member— don’t get any ideas. Shields is not going to fall for the hair trick every time!