How Restaurants Lose Customers

Posted by: Dave DeWitt

Tagged in: restaurants , recipe , lunch , fiery foods

July 30, 2009

I went to one of my favorite Albuquerque restaurants, St. Clair Winery & Bistro, for lunch and because of what happened, and how I was treated, I will never return.  Before I explain the details, let me say that I am a huge supporter of local restaurants.  For example, I have eaten lunch at The Quarters on Yale about once a week for 35 years.  More about that later.

Today, at the other restaurant, I ordered the soup of the day and a salad.  The salad was wonderful but I had a problem with the soup.  It wasn't the server's fault, so I asked to speak to the manager.  He came over to the table and I introduced myself as the producer of the National Fiery Foods and Barbecue Show and the author of more than thirty cookbooks.  He knew who I was.

“I like your restaurant and eat here often,” I told him,  “and I also visit your other restaurant in the southern part of the state.  But when I go to a restaurant, I don't expect to be served soup out of a can.”

His face fell.  Busted!  “What do you mean?”  he asked.

“This soup is Wolfgang Puck's Italian Wedding Soup.  I know because I've eaten it more than a dozen times, and we can buy it for a dollar a can at Big Lots.”

He blushed beet red.  “Uh, sometimes we don't make everything from scratch,” he stammered.  “But we do add stuff to it like wine.”

“Food service products are one thing because the consumer can't buy them,” I explained.  “But a famous chef's soup from a can, heated up for four times the price, is not acceptable.”

“Sorry about that,” he said, backing away.  When I got the check, the soup was still on it.  I paid the bill, thanked and tipped the server and left, never to go back.

What should the manager have done?  At the very least, taken the offending soup off the bill.  At the most, comped the meal, given me a certificate for another lunch, and agreed to take canned soup off their menu.  But he didn't do any of these—obviously an incompetent manager.

Now why have I eaten at The Quarters more than 1,700 times?  Because Connie Nellos knows how to run a restaurant.  The food is good, with substantial portions.  They pour a generous drink.  The servers are well-trained and very nice people.  My wife was a bartender there in the '70s, working her way through graduate school and she made good money.  And Connie takes care of his customers.

One time at lunch at the Quarters, my wife reached for her coat and a splinter from the rough, wooden wall got embedded painfully under her fingernail.  Connie came over, apologized, and said he would take care of all the medical expenses, which was essentially a trip to the emergency room at Presbyterian.  He was a man of his word and paid the bill I gave him later.

That's just one example of what keeps customers coming back.  Food made from scratch is another.

So, how hard is it to make Italian Wedding Soup from scratch?  You decide, from the following recipe, which, of course, I have spiced up.

Spicy Italian Wedding Soup

This Italian-American dish is popular in Ohio and Pennsylvania.  The term “wedding soup” is a mistranslation of the Italian language, minestra maritata (“married soup”), which is a reference to the fact that green vegetables and meats go well together.

1/2 pound extra-lean ground beef
1 egg, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons dry bread crumbs
1 tablespoon freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon chopped fresh basil
1/2 teaspoon onion powder
6 cups chicken broth
1 cup minced Italian parsley
1 cup uncooked orzo pasta
1/3 cup finely chopped carrot
Garlic hot sauce, such as Tabasco®, to taste

In bowl, combine the meat, egg, bread crumbs, cheese, basil and onion powder; shape into 1/2 inch balls.

In large saucepan, heat the broth to boiling; stir in parsley, orzo pasta, chopped carrot, and the meatballs. Return to boil, then reduce heat to medium. Cook at slow boil for 10 minutes, or until pasta is al dente. Stir frequently to prevent sticking.  Add the hot sauce, stir, and serve.

Yield: 4 servings
Heat Scale: Varies

Comments (15)

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I was recently with a group of women where one woman related her story of why she would never go to a local restaurant again! She complained about the children running around a "fine dining" establishment. I told her it was on her to call the restaurant to explain her experience. I also explained that Jinga was NOT a fine dining establishment. I feel that when a statement as bold as "Ill never eat there again" is said it needs to be quantified so everyone can make their own opinion.
c smoot , August 10, 2009

Maybe you should go to a restaurant where the soups are guaranteed to be made from scratch. Such as Luigi's ristorante on 4th street. Where my mom and I (Mama being 65 years old born and raised in Italy) work countless hours preparing soups from scratch such as minestra, italian wedding, pasta fazulli, and the customer favorite cream of green chile chicken. And meals as well such as Braciole. Gnocchi made by hand and lasanga made with homemade pasta sheets not those dry noodles you buy in the store. We work hard and long hours to give our customers the best quality food. And the main ingredient we put in all our dishes is "LOVE".
Hope to see everyone there soon

Luigi Napolitano
Mama Luigi
Luigi Napolitano , August 06, 2009
I've eaten at St. Claire's. It's not cheap...I'm sure your entree and libation more than paid for the dishwasher, busboy, that lackluster manager, and your share of the restaurant's carbon footprint. If the definition of having a "big ego" means you expect decent service and high quality when you go to a restaurant that's trying to be more than a Denny's, then move over, Dave!

Next time you might want to bring your own can of soup and have them decant it for you.
L. Manno , August 04, 2009
Yo, Dave!

This “was” one of your favorite Albuquerque restaurants --- yes???

Bryan Meagher may have a point: “That couldn't have been the General Manager, rather a manager-in-training who has a lot to learn.”

If that’s the situation, venting your spleen directly to the GM may get you the “appropriate” response that eluded you at lunch. AND the satisfaction of knowing that you’ve given a restaurateur an opportunity to learn from your experience and hopefully to avoid alienating more customers during these harsh economic times. (P.S. Of course, you’ll refrain from bringing up the canned soup --- HA!!!)

Speaking of “complaints about restaurants,” people from around the world visit to discover how to voice their grievances about restaurant food and service.

Keep up the good work!

Marya Charles Alexander
Marya Charles Alexander , August 04, 2009
As much as it pains me to admit it, Mr. Marks is correct when he states: "You are paying for the fuel to heat the soup, the dishwasher, the manager, the atmosphere, the waiter, and all the other things you can't get at home for your $1." However, his comments highlight a larger problem, and that is we, as a society, are willing to accept that the "dump-and-stir" approach to "cooking" that is so pervasive today is acceptable at all levels - apparently even restaurants (there is an excellent cover story from this Sunday's New York Times magazine that addresses this very topic - If pouring mediocre wine into canned soup and calling it a "St. Clair signature" (their words, not mine) is acceptable for the owners and management of the establishment and guests are willing to pay for it, so be it. A wise restaurant manager once told me that "people compliment you with their money." If the food at St. Clair is not worthy of your compliment (and in my mind, it is not), then don't pay them one. In my eyes, Dave, you are not a "food elitist" but in today's environment, you might qualify as an idealist.
Brian Werling , August 04, 2009
I've been wondering if I should try St. Clair's food after seeing their wines at the wine festival earlier this year. I guess not. Any time someone mentions that name I'll remember this story, and probably re-tell it because it is funny. Though not in a good way. I suppose the best that can be said is that the manager did not try to deny it when he was challenged.
Ben R , August 03, 2009
What's the problem? Restaurants can serve soup from a can, a bag, powder, or made from scratch.

Just because you happen to know the brand they are supposed to give you the soup for free?

Here's a clue: restaurants charge more for what they sell than it costs them. It's called capitalism.

Sure, you can buy the VERY SAME soup at the store, and so what? You are paying for the fuel to heat the soup, the dishwasher, the manager, the atmosphere, the waiter, and all the other things you can't get at home for your $1.

What they did was neither illegal or unhealthy. You are just being a food elitist with a big ego.
John Marks , August 03, 2009

I went to culinary school with several individuals that worked (usually briefly) in the St. Clair kitchen. Based on their accounts, your soup du jour experience is not an isolated event, but rather the norm. I suppose that diners should be pleased that they have chosen a premium brand of soup (I assume) to serve rather than just Campbell's? Management certainly could have handled the situation better but I also feel that they should be ashamed of serving ready made product and attempting to pass it off as their own.
Brian Werling , August 03, 2009
Wow; only one way for them to recover from such bad publicity... call in the spin doctors: post ads saying "As mentioned in nationally famous food critic Dave DeWitt's blog" and nothing more.
Dan Prall , August 03, 2009
This is just one of many local examples of poor management. Why isn't there a mandatory "People Skills" class in high school?
Kevin Hopper , August 03, 2009
Hi Dave

I worked as a executive Chef at some Italian Ristorante's and we used acinni deppe
for the pasta and a meat mixture similar to the one you have, but we ran the meat mixture over a grate to make 1/4 inch meat balls, we would bake the meat balls in the grate and then force them out when done. and at the end added a little chopped escarole.
The pasta was cooked separate and added to the soup when served so it would be eldente and not elgummie. But the most important thing was to boil a stewing hen for 2 hours and then let the chicken cool for a hour out of the pot,then pull the meat off the bones and cut it in 1/2 inch pieces. The broth was rich and full flavored and the chicken meat was tender but firm. Then you would have the broth with the chicken and meat balls in it with the escarole. I like fresh chopped Italian parsley added with the pasta at the end and a pinch of dry ranch dressing
to get a little chive flavor, some folks like to add a little egg white to the soup when it is boiling and also some will use a little spinich instead of the other greens. But anyway you like it is the way to go, its all how it hits the different taste buds.

Thanks Dave
Nick Ney , August 03, 2009
It's inexcusable that the manager on duty did not make any effort nor offer to comp you the soup. That couldn't have been the General Manager, rather a manager-in-training who has a lot to learn.

Dave, I think you were remiss in not demanding compensation for a poor meal.
I would not blame you, and I think you should "out" the restaurant by name!

Brian Meagher
Brian Meagher , August 03, 2009
Before I retired I used to do the contracting for the largest biotech company in the world. I had just taken a group of hospital CEO's, CFO's and Pharmacy Chiefs to dinner that cost almost $3,500 but the restaurant made me pay the $5 parking for everyone. It was the last time we went there to entertain.

Love your articles and recipes,

Harvey , August 03, 2009
Hi Dave,

I really enjoyed this article (and the soup recipe, later) because it underscores a conclusion I came to years ago. Business is about people, not making money. Yes, you have to turn a profit. But if your clients are your priority, the profit will naturally follow.

The manager you busted made a classic mistake. He sacrificed a long term relationship for a short term profit.

Too bad for him and even more so for the owner of the establishment.

David Tinney
David Tinney , August 03, 2009
Sounds like a pretty simple recipe, Dave. So sorry they didn't take care of you. A study once found that a happy customer will tell 1 or 2 people, but an unhappy customer will tell an average of 15 people about their negative experience. Bummer for them.
Melanie Yunk , August 02, 2009

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