Of course we all want to keep the customer happy, but what about when they're just plain wrong?
The customer is always right. Aren't they? What about if one goose-stepped up and down in front of a group of horrified German diners, shouting Sieg Heil and throwing out Nazi salutes?
Still, it's easy to deal with people like that; you get rid of them and call security if you have to. Then grovel, charm and do whatever it takes to placate other diners and make the rest of their meal enjoyable. But how do you deal with the difficult customers, the insistent customers and the devious customers?
Eamonn Elliott, General Manager of the Devonshire Arms in Skipton, Yorkshire, remembers an animal-loving battleaxe. "She went through everything on the menu and said she couldn't eat any of it. So we suggested lamb. ‘Lamb,' she replied. ‘I can't eat the screaming baby lamb, are you sick?' What about the Rabbit, madam? ‘The Bunny. You want me to eat the BUNNY?!'"
In the end they managed to coax out of her what she did actually like and created a bespoke menu. It took a while, Elliott says, but they eventually pacified "this absolute nightmare of a woman".
There is only so far some managers will go to mollify customers, especially those who refuse to admit that they're wrong. Darren Neilan, Manager of One-0-One in Knightsbridge, West London, remembers one. "He thought his butter was rancid," he explains. "He demanded to see the packet so we took it out and it was still in date. He clearly felt this wasn't kosher and ended up sending a letter to me and my manager." Neilan says that there wasn't a whole lot he could do. "We just assured him that we'd look after him when he came back. I wouldn't have offered him anything else. There are people who complain simply because they think they'll get something out of it."
There are others who'll attempt to blag their way to VIP treatment.
Nick Camara, HR manager at Roast in London's Borough Market, came across one woman who strutted in, nose in the air, announced that she was Fay Maschler, then started reeling off demands. It might have worked, except Camara knows what Maschler looks like. It wasn't her. "It left us all a bit bemused,"
says Camara. "I asked her if she was writing for Fay Maschler. She said, ‘No, I am Fay Maschler.' I wouldn't give her what she wanted.
She still sat down and had a meal. She even got out a pad of paper out and wrote notes. It was quite embarrassing."
Some people will go to almost any length to get what they want.
Camara recalls one particular case where a diner was absolutely determined to have his Sunday roast. After being told the restaurant had just run out, he spotted a table being served the last of the roast lamb. "He put his jacket back on," recalls Camara, "and calmly walked over to that table and said, ‘Oh, excuse me folks, sorry, there's a slight problem. I've just got to take these meals back to the kitchen.' And he took the four plates back to his table, put them down and started eating."
Camara was called across to the original table who had been waiting patiently for their meals to reappear. The baffled staff pieced together what must have happened and Camara was left to sort them out with a meal, and berate the sly diner who had whisked their plates away with such waiterly aplomb.
"He didn't care because he got what he wanted," Camara says ruefully. So how far should you go for these badly behaved customers? Nick Strangeway, Manager of the Hawksmoor in Shoreditch, London, has seen more than his fair share, including a vomiting diner. He thinks the answer is to strike a balance.
"You should bend over quite a long way for a customer, but not too far. If they say they don't like their dish, I'll go and get something else. If they complain again without cause, I would point out that they're wrong."
Painlessly transparent Sometimes, with customers, it helps to spell things out. Establish straight away what is OK and what is most definitely not. It's for this reason that we celebrate the straight-talking approach of restaurant Pied à Terre in London. Rather than getting into an ugly row about corkage charges with their oenophile customers, they state their rules in black and white on the website. Corkage costs £25 (for one 75cl bottle – see how explicit they're being?). "We charge £25 per bottle opened and ask that, in return, a bottle is purchased from our list." And a very nice list it is too. "Should you prefer not to buy a bottle from our list the corkage will be increased to £50." Over and out.