A couple years ago, I was following an online chat during which a question was posed on whether it is fair to demand top-level service and food during the days and weeks immediately following a restaurant’s opening. The majority of the respondents sympathized with new eateries, which, so the conversation went, ought to be granted a grace period to work out the kinks in the service chain and to allow the staff and cooks to familiarize themselves with the menu. It was agreed that it’s only natural that slip-ups would occur during this time, known increasingly as a soft opening*, which is characterized by limited menus, limited hours, general inconsistency and, evidently, lowered expectations. (*An overused term once reserved for invite-only meals that were warm-ups for the staff and often free of charge to those lucky enough to be on the list. This seems no longer to be the case.)

Presumably, proprietors take for granted that the inevitable mistakes and disorganization won’t deter their earliest customers from becoming their repeat customers. Here’s the thing: There is no other industry on Earth in which customers are expected to accept below-average products or service and pay full price for the privilege. Why should restaurants be any different?

I  met a friend on the Monday of Columbus Day in Columbia Heights for what I hoped would be a quick lunch. We picked a 24-hour diner/coffeehouse/lounge that was in its third day in operation. After waiting 40 minutes in the packed lounge area before being seated at the horseshoe-shaped diner counter, we waited another hour for our sandwiches, mine a decent bánh mì, all the while watching several other groups order, eat and pay their checks. The restaurant is the newest venture from the group behind three other very successful joints in the area, and I have every reason to believe it will become an anchor of the burgeoning neighborhood dining scene of which it’s a part. Our misplaced order was handled with tact and aplomb by the waitstaff, none of whom bore any direct blame. Regardless, the quick lunch ultimately turned into a nearly three-hour meal. That this admittedly minor transgression should be excused simply because the restaurant had recently opened is a notion I can’t support.

It is by no means the first time I’ve suffered substandard service at a new restaurant recently. In most cases, I suspect an extra week or two of training would go a long way to minimizing mistakes once normal service begins. Instead, this training takes place on the fly. The restaurant business is famously unforgiving, and given the considerable cost of rent, build-out, utilities, staffing and other overhead, it is fully understandable that a restaurateur would be motivated to begin generating revenue as quickly as possible. But if lapses in service are the rule and not the exception, if patrons know full well we will enjoy a far more positive experience a month or so later, why do we continue to subject ourselves to this racket? I find it offensive that any business, regardless of the industry, would knowingly provide services or products that are simply not as good as they should be, and expect its customers to pay full freight. Would you accept the same of General Motors? I think not.

So I ask you, scenesters: Is sketchy service (and the full tab) a reasonable price to pay for being among the first to dine at the District’s (or your city’s) hottest, most hyped new restaurants? For me, the answer is an increasingly emphatic no, but it’s clear I’m in the minority. I think we can all agree, however, that regardless of whether you think it’s fair to expect a perfect dining experience on opening day, it’s definitely not wise.

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October 17, 2012

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Except this — if you’re an NFL season-ticket holder, you’re charged full price for both home pre-season games. Sounds like an equal racket in which “below-average products and services” are offered at full cost!

Regardless, this does sound maddening; and I’ve never heard of this practice. But is the food good enough to inspire a return visit? People tolerate bad service for good food repeatedly, but few people will return to a place just because the service is good.

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