Friday, May 20, 2005 | Everyone who dines out these days is bound to have a complaint at least once. Whether things bother us depends on how hungry we are, how hurried we are and what preconceived expectations of the restaurant we have. Most people with complaints leave the restaurant without ever saying a word to a wait person or a manager. Many customers are intimidated. Some customers actually don’t want to hurt the feelings of the person involved. But mostly, we don’t complain because we don’t know how.

As a food consultant and frequent diner, I have done my share of complaining. This attribute, however, did not come easily. Many times I knew the restaurant owner or the chef where the problem occurred. I felt uncomfortable confronting someone I knew. But once I became a food consultant, I realized how important it is for restaurants and chefs to hear about problems from the dining public and from restaurant critics. Without knowledge, no one improves, and we all know that no one is perfect.

A local restaurant, which shall remain nameless, received the brunt of my wrath via a scathing letter. The meal was horrible from start to finish. The service was bad; the food was poorly executed; wine never arrived at the table. I decided that the problems needed lots more attention than complaining to the manager, so I took to my trusty computer. I outlined in very careful form every complaint about the dining experience from beginning to end. I sent the letter to the general manager. Not only was I called, but I was invited back to try the restaurant again. But even better than that, I found out that my letter had been used as a tool in staff training. I was thrilled because this operation really listened to its customers and wanted to make things better. My second visit to the restaurant was a huge improvement.

Here is a list of suggestions on how to handle complaints:

1. If your food is not cooked to your liking, call the waiterover and simply state the problem and ask for a new portion. Any wait person worth his or her salt will not argue and simply bring another dish. Really good restaurants will not charge you for the item.

2. If you order something, and you don’t like it when it comes, once again, call the waiter and explain what happened. A good wait person will immediately offer you something else. You should not be charged for the item you did not like.

3. If you have a series of small things that just “bug” you like empty water glasses, unfilled coffee cups, bread baskets not being refilled and long waits between courses, ask to speak to the manager on the way out. This is obviously a problem for a particular wait person. Be clear and concise about the problems.

4. If your reservation is not honored in a timely fashion, and you feel you are being ignored, speak to the host or hostess first. If you do not receive a satisfactory answer, ask to speak to a manager. A good restaurant acknowledges people who are kept waiting past a reasonable time. They are invited to the bar for a complimentary drink and given the kind of attention that makes them know they are not being ignored. If you are still unhappy, leave and then write a letter to the manager explaining why.

5. If the experience is truly awful, a letter is the best approach. Call the restaurant to find out the name of the owner or general manager. Address the letter to that person. Be businesslike and clear in your complaints. Unless the wait person was rude, you don’t need to write an essay on his or her personality. If the restaurant is interested in fine customer service, you should hear from them by phone within a week. Most restaurants will invite you in again hoping to win back your good will. Many restaurants leave questionnaires regarding the dining experience in the check presenters. Most people ignore them. Don’t. Take them home and fill them out. It is a great way to give feedback without intimidation, and the restaurant really appreciates it.

6. If you dine at a restaurant about which you read a positive review and your experience was terrible, write to the restaurant reviewer. Once again, document your complaints clearly and in a businesslike manner. Reviewers want their readers to be happy with the restaurants they review.

And always remember, that restaurants and their hard-working staffs like to hear compliments as much as anyone else. When you have a truly memorable restaurant experience, take the time to write and let the restaurant know about it. I can promise you, it will make their day. And, I can also promise you that the next time you make a reservation, not only will you be remembered, but you will be treated like royalty.

Pamela J. Wischkaemper is a local food consultant and is the founder of San Diego Gastronomically Correct, a group that goes on the road twice a year to promote the San Diego restaurant industry. The only criterion for membership is having cooked at the James Beard House in New York. Nineteen chefs in San Diego are members.

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