Quick. What is a restaurant’s strongest or weakest link?

Last night my wife and I stopped into a local Lake Oswego restaurant to cap off the evening after a Blazer Game and take advantage of fact we had a sitter. We debated whether to go home and chat versus stay out a bit longer, looking for a place with a nice atmosphere.

So we settled on a popular place that caters to the business clientele near her office – and a place she often takes clients and referral partners to talk shop.

A dark and rainy fall night, we were welcomed by friendly front staff.  We went to their bar to enjoy a glass of wine and their late happy hour menu.

Bathed in rich tones and warm lighting, you could say the atmosphere exuded business elegance with great value. They clearly got the experience, with nice wine glasses, well-crafted comfort food. It’s an easy place to be. Tiffany (that is her real name) is where the experience fell apart. And highlights how you can execute all of the other details with precision, but fail on front line customer service and the whole experience falls flat.

It started when I asked about the Underwood Pinot Noir – not good at all she said with a wrinkled nose. And recommended the other two offerings. (9.50 / 10.50/glass vs. $6.95). Rather than slamming her menu, she could have said it wasn’t her favorite or not the best while promoting the alternatives.

She left abruptly while we pondered our selections. We ordered neither, opting for a Chardonnay and a rich red blend instead. She barely smiled when taking our order. Dropped the check off without a word (but did refill our water glass once). Took our card and returned with nary a word. Not even a ‘thanks for coming in.’ How hard would that be? I can’t remember when the server didn’t at least say thanks. Or “I’ll take your check whenever you’re ready.” Not a word was said.

I had observed her interactions with other customers and it was with mechanical precision she operated. But these are customers. We’re customers. Real people. Not machines. Having grown up working retail, I understand how tough serving the public can be. But on this night, I can assure you, it was not a high-stress crowd – the tone was very relaxed and subdued. No busy rush to contend with.

It was clear Tiffany did not enjoy her job. It was just a paycheck. Nothing wrong with a paycheck, but in a service position, you at least need to fake it that you care. Someone who thrives in the role tries to find out what brought you in. Had you been in before?

With so many choices, a restaurant can’t afford to fail on the front line. I’m willing to give them a second chance because my wife has had good experiences before. And it wasn’t as bad as another Lake Oswego restaurant that was so beyond rude I will never give them another shot.

I do think this place cares about their customers. They include a comment card with the bill and you can bet I sent my feedback.

So what if we were there for a late night cap. They’re open for that. If Tiffany had made us feel welcome, even though we didn’t order or spend much, her tip may have reflected her great service and been far above the 20% norm. But she didn’t. She didn’t seem to care. And I left 10% ($2.00) which my wife thought was even too generous. All Tiffany had to do was care. We’re not looking to be best friends. Just to know that our business is appreciated.

What was ultimately missed:

The opportunity to create community. This is a restaurant that caters largely to business. Regardless of when you go, you never know the potential for repeat business from patrons. A late night snack could lead to many repeat visits at other times. And referrals.

Your brand is only as good as the people on the front lines. The front staff were gracious when we arrived and when we left. Showed me that they’ve invested in training, and what service means. You can (and should) invest in design – light, finishes, mood all work together. It’s the details. But they can’t compensate for rude service. But great service can compensate for some flaws in design of the built environment.

The restaurant will get a second chance. I just hope the next server exudes a little passion for his or her job. Because that’s what makes or breaks a restaurant experience.  And may be why so many fail.


  1. Jeannette Baer says:

    Been there so many times! (not at the restaurant, but in your position) You’re absolutely right: If Tiffany had only cared! That’s all we ask for. I always wonder if telling management is ‘the right thing to do’, how else would they know to correct that.

    I have also made it a point to complement good service by letting management know that: “We sat in Tiffany’s section and service was superb! ” – as I don’t want to take good service for granted.

    It’s hard to connect with businesses that strive to reflect an image or brand of excellence, yet they hire mediocre staff…I friend of mine put best when he said:
    It’s like telling your costumers: I was kidding about excellence!

    Jeannette Baer

  2. Patrick says:

    Thanks Jeannette – I love your friend’s thought.

    I’ve not met anyone who’s not had poor service. In fact I think most of us are surprised when service is actually really good. Ten years ago in Vancouver B.C. I had the best server ever. He was engaging, knowledgeable and just incredibly fun to interact with. He set the bar for what it means to love your job. His positive energy was infectious. And we rewarded him nicely for making our evening special.

    Businesses continually put the lowest paid people on the front lines. Often without a lot of training. They give it lip service – focusing on the things they can easily control rather than investing in people who by the very nature of the job, don’t stick around long.

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