Friday, April 10, 2009

Waiter, what's that fly doing in my soup?*

A month or so ago, it was the woman who called 911 to complain that McDonald's wouldn't give her a refund, after she'd paid for something (McNuggets, I believe) that they were out of. Although calling 911 does seem a bit extreme, this dialer did have a point: since Mickey-D's was out of what she  wanted, they should have given her her money back. Holding back her money was, I guess, tantamount to petty theft. But rather than fork over her money, McDonald's tried to force her to select some equivalently priced alternative. (I'm guessing the clerk didn't know how to do a refund.) If you've got a jones for McNuggets, you've got a jones for McNuggets. Accept no substitutes.

Still, calling 911? When there could have been a real crime going down somewhere? Come on.

This is where you ask for the manager's name, and write a complaint letter to the store, or to McDonald's HQ. My guess is that they would have sent her something in return that was worth more than the price of her value meal.

Instead, she persisted in calling 911 - multiple times - and ended up getting herself arrested.

McDonald's offered her a free meal for her trouble.

Hmmmmm. I'm guessing a well-worded complaint letter - or even a phone call to some level of HQ - would have produced a far preferable outcome.

But calling 911 over a withheld refund almost seems like a righteous move compared to the one where the woman in Texas called 911 because she didn't feel she'd gotten enough shrimp in her fried rice takeout. (Source: AP article on

Unfortunately, this customer had departed in a huff before the police arrived (although I guess there's always the possibility that she can be back-tracked if she used a cell-phone).

Sure, there's less recourse if you get screwed in a mom-and-pop restaurant - which I'm guessing this one was - than in a chain or more established establishment.


What do you have to be thinking to whistle in the cops when you think you got short-weighted on shrimp?

And I don't know about shrimp fried rice in Haltom City, Texas, but the few times I've ever had it, there are never very many shrimp. And the shrimp that were in it are small, tasteless, and still semi-frozen. In a sense, you should almost want fewer shrimp and more water chestnuts which, while likely to be canned, are more likely to be tasty than are those heinous little bitty shrimp.

There are a number of ways in which this disgruntled customer could have vented her spleen.

She could have refused to come back.

She could have bad-mouthed the joint to friends and family, browbeating them to stop patronizing it.

She could have gone online and given the place a no-star review.

Truly, I don't believe anyone needs to suffer bad meals in silence.  I'm not a chronic complainer: I'm not much of a cook, so mostly what I get out is frankly better than what I'd cook at home. But I do speak up when something is out and out lousy. And I can honestly say it has never occurred to me to call the police - even when the wine smelled like formaldehyde, the de-caff coffee was poured from the same pot as the caff (I saw it with my very eyes!), and the salmon was way overcooked.

Sometimes your complaint gets handled to your satisfaction. Sometimes you're s.o.l.

Just a couple of weeks ago, the Banshees (sisters and cousins) were on our annual winter (actually, early spring this year) weekend getaway. We had a very nice breakfast in our very nice Portland, Maine hotel on Saturday. Since Sunday was pouring rain, we decided not to venture out for breakfast that day, either. Unfortunately, everything we ordered - omelets, French toast, oatmeal - was stone cold. We mentioned it to the waitress. She told the manager, who took the entire breakfast for six off the bill. The waitress got a huge tip. And we left feeling very good about the very nice Portland, Maine hotel.

On the other hand, a number of years ago, with a couple of my sibs and spouses, we took my mother out to a pricey restaurant for her birthday dinner. Everything about the meal was sub-standard, starting with the table they jammed us - six pretty much average sized people - which they insisted was a table for six. The food was mediocre at best - except for my husband's swordfish. Fifteen or so years later, I can still get my stomach to churn if I conjure up the image of that pile of taupe slime. Oh, and they made a big point of telling us that we had to vacate our table - which we had reserved well in advance - by 8 p.m., when they had another party coming in.

Our complaints mattered not to anyone at this outfit.

We left muttering we shall not return. And we couldn't have, even if we'd wanted to. A couple of months later, the place was out of business. We do still talk about it occasionally, as this event looms fairly large in our chronicles of family meals, out (or family meals, in, for that matter).

Having waitressed for a number of years, I was also on the other side of the counter when it came to complaints about food.

My first waitress job was at a Big Boy's Restaurant, where the special dessert was strawberry pie.

One day, a woman came in and ordered a piece.

She proceeded to mau it down to the last crumb, then told me it was terrible and demanded another piece. I was dumbstruck, but I was also 18, and this was one cranky old lady - she was probably 50. So I went and got the manager, and he told her she should have spoken up before she took the last bite. She came back regularly, always ordered the strawberry pie - and never complained about it again.

One day, when I waitressed at Boston's historic tourist trap, Durgin Park, I served a couple of young women on their lunch break.

They both ordered the Poor Man's Roast Beef luncheon special: a thin slice of rump roast au jus, served with potato and veg, plus a piece of cornbread and a cup of coffee. I believe it went for $1.25. (This was the early 1970's.) Anyway, the cook gave me two plates to take out. One held a nice, rarish piece of rump roast. The other held four small, gray end pieces, so dried up, they were curling up at the edges.

Given my long career in food service, I knew I couldn't very well put those two plates down in front of the same party, so I asked to cook for a matched pair of meals.

He told me to try to "sell it", but that once they refused to take the offending plate, he'd replace it.

A minute later, as I was marching back into the kitchen with the turned-back meal, the owner - a Grade A, no redeeming quality that I could ever find S.O.B. - stopped me.

"Where are you going with that," he growled.

"The customer refused to take it," I answered.

"There's nothing wrong with that meat," he said.

I explained that the two women were sitting together, one got a better looking meal, etc.

"Where are they?" he barked.

I led him back to the table where the two women were sitting and slammed the plate down.

"There's nothing wrong with this," he yelled.

The women started to argue with him, but he wasn't budging.

"Get the hell out of my restaurant," he told them. "And don't come back."

Well, I don't think he had to worry much on that count.

But The Boss wasn't done yet.

He pointed his finger at me, "You," he yelled, "Make sure you get the 10 cents for the cornbread."

Needless to say, I went out of pocket on that one. (And, needless to say, I bet that meal looms large in the chronicles of meals out for those two women.)

So, yes, I've experienced it all: bad food where complaining worked; bad food where it didn't; good food where complaining didn't work; and terrible, ghastly looking food where the entirely justified complaining customer should have just saved her breath.

But, for the life of me, I can't imagine for a moment calling 911 unless outright theft, violence, or general mayhem was involved. (Which reminds me: pre-911, pre-cell phone, while I was eating at Jack and Marion's, a famous, now gone Brookline, Mass. deli, I witnessed a knife fight between two cooks in what was a semi-open kitchen. Floor show!)

A few years ago, they came up with 311 for non-emergency situations.

Maybe we need a restaurant complaint line, a you-pay-for-it service, like a 900-number, in which any consumer can lodge a complaint and have the service follow up on it. $10 per complaint.

If only this service had been available, the Haltom City police might have saved themselves a trip to run down a complaint about skimpy shrink in the fried rice.


*The backstroke.


K. said...

If I learned one thing working in the food business, it's that the customer is always, always, always right. Of course, the guy who ran the place was only in biz for fifty years, so what did he know?

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