Cesar Ritz, founder of the Ritz, whose kitchen was headed Escoffier (known as roi des cuisiniers et cuisinier des rois), famously once said ‘If a diner complains about a dish or the wine, immediately remove it and replace it, no questions asked.’ ...
After much cajoling Remi and Aaron have indulged my wish to use the website as a platform for some of the shared thoughts we as a team have on the restaurant industry.
Being part of Smoke and Salt and seeing it (literally) be built up has been a fascinating and enriching experience. Remi and Aaron have decades of experience working in restaurants between them, however in embarking on their first restaurant, they have themselves, discovered fresh insights into the industry. Whether it be ordering fresh produce, haggling with wine suppliers or fastidiously measuring the ceiling to install LED strips for lighting the restaurant, running S&S has seen us all go beyond our basic remits.
Through these experiences there have been ample opportunities to talk about the changing currents and shifting trends in food as the twenty-first century races on. One point of discussion arose when the all too familiar refrain of the “customer is always right” was proclaimed proudly (and patronisingly) as the last stand defence from a customer whom took a disliking to one of the dishes. On a side note - I am happy to say that we hear this mantra infrequently, and that the vast majority of guests leave happily sated with their bellies full of delicious grub. In any case, it was from a terse exchange with a customer that led to an informed, well-reasoned discussion amongst the team that has prompted me to write something in the slim hope that people might agree with our conclusion – that “the customer is always right” is an outdated mode of thinking that fails to reflect how the restaurant industry has changed since the time of Cesar Ritz and Auguste Escoffier.
The idea, that customer satisfaction should be of paramount of importance, has long been central to the hospitality and service industries. Let’s take a fairly regular occurrence in the ‘decade of greed’ - the 80s. Bankers lunching on an otherwise mundane Tuesday would perhaps order a bottle of bubbly or two. One raises a hand to flag down the waiter, ‘Lobster thermidor ‘ees not to your taste sir? Pas de probleme, monsieur. We weel ‘ave the chefs make you another’. This was a time when global food prices were reasonably low. The tradition of illustrious French restaurants with chefs carving their fortunes in the Anglo-Saxon world was continued by the likes of the Roux brothers, Pierre Koffmann and Anton Mosimann (well ,okay, the last is Swiss). In those days, if you wanted the freshest, finest asparagus you would order it from Peru and not bat an eyelid at either the financial or ecological cost. This was an era when the margins were more generous and the food considerably more adventurous. In other words, the cost of produce was lower while the customer demand was high enough to warrant menu prices that would not look out of place in a restaurant environment today.
A confluence of these factors - a steady rise in global food prices, recognising the impact food’s carbon footprint, as well as publicity campaigns emphasising the virtue of organic produce and super-foods has significantly impacted the current industry. The trend focuses on ‘farm to table’ with many menus revolving around seasonal ingredients, all sourced locally. Not only is this more ‘green’ and a boost to local agriculture, it is also indicative of an industry coping with certain economic constraints.
In the meantime, as food trends have chopped and changed and opened up many avenues for culinary competition (it is worth noting that chefs start these trends, not the customer…) the digital age has also endowed Joe Bloggs with enormous power to potentially tarnish a restaurant’s reputation. I can attest to how often we at S&S check our ranking on TripAdvisor’s list of best restaurants in Brixton. In the Internet age the likes of Google Reviews, tweeting, Instagram and the innumerable other devices to hand, enables one unhappy customer to turn into a savage keyboard crusader intent only on destroying a restaurant’s reputation. How many times have you, perusing through TripAdvisor’s recommendations, read the vitriol filed under the 1 star section?
In conclusion, in the last two and half decades the price of food has gone up significantly, competition has increased exponentially and yet the relative salaries of chefs and waiters have not proportionally increased, and nor has the consumer willingness to pay more for a meal out in line with these increased costs. The combined impact of all the above factors is, sadly, that the margins on food are far slimmer than they used to be and the restaurant business is just not as profitable as it once was. In other words, it costs significantly more today to throw away a plate of lobster thermidor simply because it wasn’t to the transient specification of the customer.
Considering this, the second conclusion to make is that the mantra, ‘the customer is always right’ is an out-dated mode of thought, the persistence of which is, I believe, financially detrimental and wholly unreasonable for the restaurant trade to adhere to today.
I am happy to say that the disagreement in which this discussion arose was dealt with diplomatically and an accord was reached. I haven’t checked yet to see if an abusing review has surfaced online.
I would like to add a final caveat that, of course, there are lots of times when the customer is right.