Not at your service

A dish may be great, but if it's cold or the waiter's surly, that's what you'll remember. A dish may be great, but if it's cold or the waiter's surly, that's what you'll remember.

April 09, 2000|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Staff

Never have our restaurants been so sophisticated and so varied. And never has service been so lousy.

For every restaurant like Hampton's in the Harbor Court Hotel, which got as high a ranking for service as for quality of food in the latest Zagat Survey of Baltimore-Annapolis eating places, you have 10 others where the help makes you wait for a table even with a reservation, ignores you after you've been seated, forgets to bring the steak sauce and never clears the dirty dishes.

"A lot of these complaints are anecdotal," protests Steve Anderson, president of the National Restaurant Association in Washington. "Because of the competitive nature of the business, we can't afford to have our customers unhappy with the service."

Tell that to Susan Lefko. She and her husband and another couple were having dinner at Vito's Cafe in Cockeysville. The waiter forgot her first course. When the foursome realized it wasn't coming out, they tried to get the waiter's attention but couldn't. They finally flagged down a busboy.

The waiter returned to their table, apologized for the mistake and explained that by now the entrees were ready. Lefko said she'd just as soon have her Greek salad, which was substantial, and skip the shrimp scampi entree. The waiter said fine.

Moments later a cook appeared at their table.

"Who ordered the shrimp scampi?" he asked.

Lefko's husband took the blame for her. "I did."

"You order the shrimp scampi," the cook told

him, "you have to eat the shrimp scampi."

The four paid for their drinks and appetizers and left -- without eating the shrimp scampi.

"He shouldn't have gone to the table," says Tony Petronelli, co-owner of Vito's, who hadn't heard about the problem. "We don't [confront] the customer. I apologize, and I hope she'll stop by and talk to me in person about it."

Steve Anderson believes that, in spite of such incidents, restaurant-goers in general are happy with the service they get. In a survey by the National Restaurant Association last October, 80 percent of customers gave service at sit-down restaurants an "excellent" or "good" rating.

Which sounds fine. But the problem is that 20 percent of those customers weren't happy with the service they were getting. If you're in the hospitality industry, that's a lot of people who might never be back -- and who are telling their friends about the fair or poor service they got at your restaurant.

"Service is the weak link in the restaurant industry," says Tim Zagat, whose popular consumer surveys rank some 30,000 restaurants nationally. "The ratings we get for service are consistently two points below that for food [on the Zagat's scale from 10 to 30]. From our perspective, that's a huge deficit." Zagat gets 20 to 30 letters a day, almost exclusively about service problems.

Of course, inept service goes far beyond anything the waiter or waitress has control over. It can start with a telephone call.

New York restaurant consultant Rozanne Gold called to make reservations at a hot new restaurant. She was told, "We only have 6 [p.m.] or 10 [p.m.]."

"Wait a minute," she said. "Don't you even want to know what night we're coming?"

No, the maitre d' didn't. He knew he could fill his tables with walk-ins at 8 p.m., the most popular Manhattan dinner time. What did he care about his customers' comfort or convenience?

But it's not just maitre d's at hot new restaurants. "It's an attitude problem in general," says Gold. "People think it's all right to be out there with their moods. [Servers] don't play their roles well enough."

Recently Bob Stotler took his wife to Jimmy's Famous Seafood on Holabird Avenue for her birthday. The waiter came up and leaned on the table while he took their order.

"He had hairy arms," says Stotler. "I kept looking at him and looking at his hands on the table, so he knew I had a problem with it. But he just kept them there. I didn't go to be confronted. I just went to have dinner."

Then their waiter brought out the wrong entrees, which the Stotlers sent back. He also forgot a side order.

"He comes out with the onion rings at the end of the meal," says Stotler. "I told him we didn't need them now and to please take them off the bill. He rolled his eyes."

Irene Minadakis, manager of Jimmy's and daughter of the owner, says that she would have switched servers for them immediately if she had known. She patrols the dining room, which has more than 100 tables, so that customers can bring such problems to her attention. "I would have apologized and made it up to them -- bought them dessert or something."

At one time the spirit and attitude of a restaurant was a reflection of the owner, who was always there keeping an eye on things. Nowadays, Gold points out, if there is such a thing as one owner, that person may very well be circulating through more than one restaurant. Or the owner may not believe the customer is always right.

Theodore Edlow discovered that when he asked for a table at McCabe's in Hampden.

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