Some Questions for You

At a midtown restaurant last week, I ordered corn soup.  

It was pretty good, except for the pieces of plastic in it. These had the texture of drinking straws, or perhaps shattered plastic fork, or even squid quills – thin, not too sharp, not especially dangerous. They wouldn’t have broken a tooth, but they wouldn’t have been pleasant to swallow; they certainly were not pleasant to find in my mouth. There were two of them. In about four, maybe five ounces of soup. Which means there were probably quite a few of them in the pot.  

I handed them to the server: “You might want to show these to the chef,” I said. “They were in the soup.” She barely flinched, then proceeded to ignore us for the rest of the meal. (Quite literally: A runner brought our second courses, and she only asked if we wanted coffee after I’d asked for the check.)  

As we were leaving a manager came over. “Sorry about the stuff in your soup,” he said. “The chef is investigating right now, and we’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again.”  

This didn’t exactly inspire confidence. And no, they didn’t take the soup off the bill (in my view, the absolute minimum they could have done, along with a more sincere and immediate apology, if they wanted to seem like a class act), and they didn’t provide a drop of other consolation.  

Last night, with the opportunity to go back there, I went to Ma Peche instead. (And it was fabulous. It’s getting better by the week, it seems.) 

My questions are these (of course they’re all things I thought of after the fact):

  • what more should I have done? After all, other people were going to eat this soup too. Should I have gone into the kitchen and insisted witnessing either a re-straining of the soup (not much good, now that I think of it, since there were pieces of corn in there) or a pouring of it down the drain?
  • should I have raised some kind of stink? (“Everyone here! Don’t order the soup!”)
  • should I be publishing the name of this place?
  • should I have called them and asked for something for me and my guest?
  • or what?

 I find these intersting questions, both in my role as a citizen and as a person whose name carries a little influence in this industry.

Posted in Behind The Scenes

37 Comments

  1. emelab said...

    I have two questions: 1) did you leave the server a tip? and 2) to pay your bill, did you use paper of PLASTIC :)

  2. Maggiestatas said...

    Asked to speak to the restaurant manager, definitely.

  3. alkali19 said...

    I think you did all that you could reasonably have done. I agree they should have taken the soup off the bill and provided an immediate and sincere apology. Publishing the name or asking for compensation seems excessively retributive. (If you had been there to review the restaurant, you might have some obligation as a reporter to say what had happened, but that wasn’t the case.)

  4. Hawkalicious said...

    A discussion on whether you should pay for the soup would have been appropriate. Then, a discussion with your local food inspector, I would say. They don’t seem to care about potentially harming customers, so have the food inspection department come down on them.

  5. guyol said...

    As soon as you encountered the first shard you should have summoned the waitperson to witness, then return, the problem to the kitchen and provide you with a replacement (different) soup.

  6. MattKuzma said...

    At the restaurant, I would not demand anything but ask the manager if he really meant to charge me for the soup in question. And see what he or she would do. Afterwards, I would tell my friends what happened. I think you should share your honest experience with readers (including the name of the joint), just as you would if you had a really great experience. If you give recognition for great meals or service, we also want to hear about places that just don’t care about their customers. This is not because you are a big shot, but because people trust you.

  7. EssEppis said...

    You pretty much did all you could. The people who should have done more was the staff, especially the manager. For the manager of a restaurant to not know who the "players" in the food world are says something about this business.At minimum, even if they don’t know you from Adam, they should have immediately taken it off the check.You are exhibiting a lot of restraint not publishing their name. That could go either way – name them and out them as a company that apparently doesn’t care that much about the food or don’t name them and don’t give them the attention (only bad press is no press?).This one always makes me laugh. If I get something gross or unacceptable at a restaurant, why do I want a gift certificate to eat more food I find unacceptable? If anything, a letter from you to the management explaining your experience from the food to the staff issues may cause them to up their game. But if they do try to send a gift certificate or something, I’d send it back with a note saying I have no immediate plans to return, but if I do return in the future I’ll pay my bill and hope to see improvement.

  8. Anonymous said...

    That strikes me as an unfortunate missed opportunity for the restaurant to do the right thing – especially if the food was otherwise worth eating. Were I the owner, I’d be interested in hearing from a customer of some renown about this, and you can bet I’d be instructing my staff about how to better address the situation. I agree that, at a minimum, the soup should have come off the bill, and even better, the manager should have thanked you for bringing the problem to his attention. If I’m selling my jewelry at a show, I’m happy to have the chance to share my craft with people and am still a little bit giddy at the idea that someone is willing to *pay* for my work. If I ever lose that appreciation, then I’ll know I’ve also lost pride in what I do, and that’s a sad thing for anyone. I’m sorry for the chef who’s reached that point. :(

  9. 1tsplove said...

    I wouldn’t have made a big stink, but I would have refused to pay for it. I would have asked to see the manager and insist that he remove the soup from the bill. They have a lot of nerve!

  10. Tapper42nd said...

    I think you could still call and speak to the GM, assuming that’s not the same person you spoke with the night you were there. I also agree there’s nothing wrong with sharing the experience as well as the name of the restaurant. It’s the random ranters that don’t lend credibility; your experience indeed inspires trust that you wouldn’t take down a place mindlessly.

  11. Anonymous said...

    In the restaurant, you did all a person should reasonably do, in terms of your obligations to other diners: you told the restaurant. And yes, this restaurant sounds pretty lousy in terms of how they handled it.But should you name the restaurant online? I think not. There are already plenty plenty plenty of sources for online complaints about restaurants. You’ve got a much more positive vibe, and there aren’t enough people in the online food-discussion world who maintain that affect.

  12. johnguild said...

    I think the combination of plastic junk in your soup and the dismissive attitude of the waiter warrants naming the restaurant online. As a potential customer, I want to be sure to avoid the place.

  13. savvysavingbyte said...

    I am Madame Queasy about stuff like this. In returning the soup I would have pointed out the plastic bits and their possible danger (especially to kids). Since the chef or manager did not immediately apologize for the incident, indicating it was a rare event that disturbed them as much as you, and instead ignored it for the rest of the meal, that could indicate the incident (and those like it) were not such a rarity there. With all that silence on their part, I would definitely have been leary about eating the rest of my meal and might well have asked for a check and left. Paying or not paying for the soup would be less important to me than eating further suspect food.

  14. ziba said...

    I would have called the manager over to let him/her know about the problem since the server seemed do indifferent. And, I would have asked to take the soup off the bill. And on top of that, since no other acts of hospitality were offered to make amends, I’d never go back and would share the story w/my friends. Restaurants need to know that the power lies with the consumer these days and many channels are available to us.

  15. delectablecooks said...

    At that moment, I would have asked immediately for a replacement dish, and asked to speak to the manager. I would have questioned them regarding the safety of continuing to serve the soup. If the waitperson continued to ignore the issue, I would have asked to be served by a different person, and made sure the manager understood that the waitress did not represent the restaurant properly. When receiving the bill, and noting that they still charged for the soup, I would have requested, politely that it be removed from the bill. I understand though that sometimes, especially when youre with friends, you dont want to make a fuss. But the restaurant and the management SHOULD make a fuss – they should be very concerned. Given that they were not — I would write them a letter. Wait a suitable number of days to see if there is a response. if none is forthcoming, or it is not up to par, I would publish the letter – and the name of the place – to warn people off. I wouldnt eat in a place like that – and I wouldnt want my friends to either. Making food for public consumption is not just about the business – its about love and nurturing – or should be.

  16. Anonymous said...

    You should have asked to speak to the manager immediately. I don’t think its too late to notify the health department. And certainly since you don’t want to eat there again its only fair to warn the rest of us by providing the name of the place.How would you have felt if your newspaper had reported the next day that someones throat had been pierced by a broken piece of plastic?

  17. Anonymous said...

    Yes, your duty, your job, is to name the place. Not because something ended up in the soup, but because readers are owed knowing how to avoid a restaurant who responds so poorly.

  18. Anonymous said...

    You did the necessary and there is not much else you can do except talk to the manager and then never, but never return. Speak with your feet!

  19. bpjedi said...

    Given that the manager didn’t say anything until you were leaving, I’m wondering if someone w/o your prominence in the industry would have even gotten an apology. In other words, if you hadn’t been recognized by someone in the restaurant (or if your name hadn’t been on the bill), would the manager have said anything at all? I find it curious that they waited until you were leaving to say something.

  20. hbh said...

    You’re kidding when you ask what you should do – What would your reaction have been if the "plastic" had been "metal" or "glass" – If the manager did not take an interest in the situation – you should blast the place – particularly if this was high end – no excuse – can’t believe you actually paid for the bowl of soup –

  21. Anonymous said...

    I would have immediately called over the manager and made a fuss. Inexcusable on their part, not only in the kitchen, but in their responses (or lack thereof). Mark, you really need to publish the name of this place – god forbid any of us goes there. This kind of behavior deserves to be publicized. Bad enough when it is a tacky fast-food chain restaurant, but I am assuming that was not the case.

  22. Anonymous said...

    In similar situations, I have generally called the manager over, particularly if the waitstaff is unhelpful. But in this case, I think you should publish the name of the restaurant! If they don’t care enough to provide good customer service (or to train their staff to), that’s their own dang fault and we should all know to avoid the place, as Rayna says.

  23. ajrowe0615 said...

    If this happened to me I would have asked to talk to the manager right away, and again if and when the bill showed up with the soup not removed. My expectation would be to have an explanation of what was in the soup and what protections they would take to prevent the contamination from happening in the future by the time I was leaving. Without that I would not return until the restaurant has a new chef and manager. I would tell my friends about it.

  24. WILLIAMASEARS said...

    You did all that you should have as a guest, the lack in management shows the inexperience of the restaurant.Lots of places have policy for issues concerning food. Those that dont, should.Soup should have been comp’d asap. If part of a prix fixe, a discount on the prix fixe.A manager should have touched your table before the next course and multiple times before you finished regardless of whom you are.Publishing the name of the place? All a matter of choice, but in order to be a better establishment the GM should know. A Letter, e-mail, or note would suffice greatly. it would also give them the opportunity to better themselves and make up for it on your next visit.Raising a stink? probably not, restaurants with any sense or sensability, would recognize you for addressing the issue professionally and be sure to make it up to you before you leave.The hardest part of managing a restaurant is not having eyes for everything that goes on. With that said, accidents happen: for the local deli all the way through a four star restaurant. It’s bad to read a review and not know what happened or when it happened. Its worse to have a staff who dont communicate issues to managers or to have floor managers who dont know how to address issues. In the end, Solely bad press wont close a restaurant. Bad management and staff and all that come with it will.

  25. Anonymous said...

    Great question. As both a frequent diner, and as a restaurant owner, I have an answer for you, and it all breaks down to basic human nature and the way we interact with each other.* Don’t assume that a particular isolated incident is endemic to a restaurant. A couple pieces of plastic could simply be a one-time incident. An unresponsive Server might also be a result of the circumstances of that day. I see the broad paint brush all the time. A gate attendant doesn’t give the response an angry passenger wants when it comes to a late flight that’s beyond their control, and they’re the umpteenth passenger to give the gate attendant a ration, and the gate attendant is curt…and bam, the passenger vows to "never fly this lousy airline again." A single incident becomes much more than single incident with that unneeded vow. It forgets that the gate attendant is actually a person. Sure, they should be exhibiting the utmost in consummate professionalism, but the percentage of people capable of that level in this world are quite few. And why is it that is should be one-sided? If you were the highest level of passenger, you’d have comprehension of the fact that there are circumstances beyond the gate attendant’s control, and compassion for the fact that they’re having to do their best to respond to a long line of fuming people.* It might be obvious to each individual what they feel the ‘right’ answer is for this scenario. So obvious that the Server or Manager should just ‘know,’ right? Maybe, but probably not. Everyone’s ‘right’ answer is different. So, the answer is to tell them yours. Simply let them know. As in "Excuse me, but I noticed that the soup is on the final bill. I think it would be appropriate to remove it considering the circumstances. If you need to send the manager over again, please do, and I will be happy to discuss with them."* From my experience as a restaurateur, I’ve noticed that when we get complaints via email or online reviews and we follow up asking if they had brought the matter to the attention of the Manager On Duty, a common reply is "We didn’t want to make a stink about the situation." I think it’s great that the goal is not to make a stink, and that’s because it is RARELY necessary. Instead, we appreciate it when a situation is brought to our attention as that gives us the opportunity to fix it! We have a large operation, and we do make mistakes…and when we do, we like to fix it.* I recommend that Guests treat a dining experience as if the restaurateur WANTS their dining experience to be excellent. From that perspective, "making a stink" isn’t necessary, but instead simply identifying the situation is all that’s needed. The restaurant should then be judged on how they respond. If, conversely, a Guest prefers to assume that the restaurateur doesn’t care, then likely their experience will reflect that attitude. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: Go wanting and expecting a great time. Encounter a challenge. Approach that challenge from the perspective that the restaurateur wants to make the situation right, and more likely than not you’ll end with a great experience. Expect the opposite, and treat it like you expect the opposite, and it’s more likely that’s what you’ll get…a reason to complain later via email or an online review. Don’t be passive/aggressive, be straightforward, pleasant and communicative. Yes, the staff in the restaurant should beat you to the punch, but when a mistake is made — and mistakes do get made — it’s how it’s approached from both sides that sets the tone for success or failure!Cheers,Greg

  26. Anonymous said...

    I def. would not have paid for that soup! You should have told them to take it off the bill for sure, that is unacceptable!

  27. Anonymous said...

    You should have…- got up (after the server reacted in an ambivalent manner), went to the manager and calmly, but firmly stated your concerns: 1) the plastic and 2) the response;- suggested that they remove the soup from the menu (that ‘batch’ anyway);-Again- calmly, but firmly state that you would not be finishing your dining experience there and that you will not be paying for food that you did not consume, none-the-less enjoy.Further actions would be retributive (as another comment stated) and although could be seen as necessary due to your influence- could also be quite harmful in an unnecessary way if this truly was an ‘uncommon’ or circumstantial occurrence (i.e. Although an experience could most typically be seen as a reliable snapshot of the overall restaurant quality, it could also reflect other temporary issues, such as an ‘HR issue’ or another technical issue.).

  28. Kathryn Ringer said...

    If management was passive to the situation, you should publish the name of the restaurant so people will avoid this restaurant. Just putting the name on your blog and your followers reposting, retweeting, etc. should make you feel you are reacting in a proactive way. When you’re dining with other people it is hard to react to something you might otherwise have reacted differently if it was just you dining at the restaurant by yourself. Causing the restaurant to lose customers now and in the future will force them to reconsider quality control and addressing customer complaint.

  29. jameslgb said...

    A good friend recently had a bad experience at a Chick-fil-a, such that he left before ordering. He did post the story to Facebook and a mutual friend mentioned it to the manager of the Chick–fil-a. Shortly thereafter my friend received a personal apology and a care package from the manager.If a Chick-fil-a, can provide their customers with such personal service, then I expect the restaurant should be able to rectify the situation for you. They should also have done it before you left the restaurant, the manager should clearly have made sure that you not paid for the soup and made an offer of a free bowl on your next visit.

  30. jeffmarcus46 said...

    What would make you happy. As an disappointed guest they must make you happy. Turn your experience around. Do you think they continued to serve that soup?

  31. zippyelchimp said...

    This is a basic customer service question, and that is where the restaurant failed. This was an opportunity for the restaurant to impress you and keep you coming back. They failed. So what should they have done? From the server to the manager to whomever, the process should have been:1. Acknowledge your complaint. Clearly, the server failed to do this.2. Accept responsibility. Again, failure by the server as your "touchpoint" with the business.3. Apologize. The server should have done this, and also alerted the manager to the issue, who should have immediately approached your table and both acknowledged your issue, and apologized for it. 4. Make good. At the very least, your soup should have been taken off the bill. That’s just plain old common sense. But what the restaurant failed to do was ASK YOU what it could do for you to make it good. At the moment, you may have said "everything’s okay, but please stop serving the soup." Or you might have asked for more. And they should have done whatever you asked. You’re the wronged party here.5. Do more than expected. Going above and beyond should have been the next step. You soup comped? Why not comp you your whole meal? Why not send over a complementary dessert? Why not just do something nice for you? It wouldn’t have been that hard.6. Follow up. On your way out, the manager should have just reiterated the apology, made sure the rest of your meal was to your liking, and done whatever it takes to make it all good. By the way, I’m shocked and dismayed by Greg Koch’s response. Sure people have bad days…and businesses have bad days. That’s not the issue. If the server didn’t know how to respond, then that’s a BIG problem for the restaurant. It’s a SERVICE business. If the server can’t provide basic customer service, and the manager can’t either, then this business is doomed for failure.

  32. Anonymous said...

    I was in a restaurant in the East Village and there was a bug in my diet Coke. When I pointed it out to the waiter, he apologized profusely and comped our entire meal. I didn’t even have to ask and probably would have been satisfied with a new drink–maybe from a bottle! But that was such great customer service that I’d go back there any time! By the way, I would have refused to pay for the soup.

  33. ncpaul said...

    Send the manager a link to this post.

  34. Anonymous said...

    As many others before me have said, I would ask for the soup to be taken off the bill; I don’t think I should have to pay for something that is inedible, with floating pieces of things that not even nature can "digest" after thousands of years.If I were you, I’d name the restaurant, because other diners would want to know which restaurant this is, so they could avoid it. Otherwise, there’s no pressure for the restaurant to improve their service, and the staff feel as if there are no consequences for such horrendous service and attitude.

  35. Anonymous said...

    So… Mark Bittman, WHAT DID YOU DO? :) I read every single suggestion, every single post, and I was on the edge of my seat waiting to hear your response at the end to find out whose ideas connected with you, or if you came up with a completely different approach. But no luck — you haven’t posted the outcome, or if you did, it wasn’t here. If you did respond in another column, would you give the address of that page, and if you didn’t, would you consider doing so? FWIW, as a representative of "the other side", I somewhat agree with Greg Koch about how the breakdown in proper response etiquette might have occurred, and I, myself, definitely appreciate it when a customer tries to see the situation from the other side. But I also think that when you received the bill with the soup included, it would have been appropriate to ask to speak with the manager again, and then you could have pointed out the charge on the bill because he might not have known that his server had left it there or condoned that. That would have been an opportunity both for the manager to make amends and rectify his original lukewarm response, and for you to see if he was as cavalier as he seemed the first time. And finally, I agree with ncpaul, who suggested you send him a link to this thread. That would provide an opportunity to fix things AND a whole lot of feedback.

  36. softshellcrab said...

    Yes, you should absolutely name the restaurant. As someone who comes from a restaurant background, you should hold the establishment accountable for their actions.

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