The Customer is Not Always Right
A couple of years ago, we decided to sell our house. For fifteen years the house had heaved and hummed with the bustle and thrum of its inhabitants: my husband and myself, a live-in nanny, three growing children, a dog, a cat and a tank full of fish. And then we crammed in all the necessary accoutrements like strollers and wagons, toys and games, scooters and skateboards, briefcases and backpacks, tennis rackets and hockey sticks, and at least six pairs of shoes, boots or slippers in the front hall at all times. Until my children decided to be singers, there had also been in residence various, cacophonous and always large musical instruments like a piano, a double bass, and an assortment of guitars, amplifiers and foot pedals. Of course, the children often invited their friends over, so that meant even more school bags, sneakers and music makers. Sometimes it felt as if the house would implode from all that oxygen consumption or maybe the windows would blow out from the yelling, stair thumping and guitar shredding. There was no escape anywhere in the house from other people and their stuff, noise and needs. But our family evolved: the nanny moved on, the dog died, the kids grew up and two set off with all their worldly belongings (plus some of mine). All that remained was me, my husband, my daughter, and a mangy old cat. Suddenly, and it felt very sudden indeed, the house was disturbingly quiet and strangely tidy. The space previously occupied by people, pets and all their attendant stuff was space again.
With more time to notice and more space to notice it in, I saw that the house had suffered – or enjoyed, depending upon your point of view – the shit and shenanigans of a boisterous family. The plaster walls showed dents from errant indoor golf swings and holes where posters had once hung. Kitchen cupboard doors that kids had swung on now dangled lopsidedly. Bedroom doors didn’t close properly after years of temperamental slamming. The back deck was speckled with paint from various art projects and spackled from years of dripped BBQ sauce. The garden (such as it was or ever had been) was decimated by the naked toddler sprinkler sliding of years past and late night lazy dog pooping. And I became aware of all the other house-related frailties that we had been too busy or broke to attend to, like a leaky roof, a sputtering furnace, ragged carpeting, dodgy electrical, peeling paint, crumbling slate pathways and rampaging weeds, nevermind dated décor and lumpy furniture.
We couldn’t afford all the repairs and replacements that were needed, and we knew that whatever we could manage to do would eventually be undone because the house was basically a gut job as far as a future purchaser was concerned. Besides, we thought, the real estate market couldn’t keep going on this trajectory and was bound to bottom out eventually. Why not get out at the top of the market we asked ourselves. We figured we could double our investment, maybe buy a smaller house in better condition and use the remaining cash to pay off debts, perhaps even be mortgage-free. So we hired a real estate agent and told her we would do whatever we could to spruce up the house for sale. “I’m all about the money, honey”, I said, “if you don’t like that painting on the wall, BOOM, it’s gone.”
The agent suggested a home stager, an outsourced impartial and critical eye. The stager, impeccably coiffed and immaculately dressed, traipsed blithely through my house one afternoon in killer stiletto boots and, with equally killer stiletto derision, pointed her perfectly manicured finger at everything that had to go. The art (mostly framed paintings done by my kids), the photographs (mostly of the kids and many in their original hand-made macaroni frames), most of the furniture (including the Regency dining room table and chairs once belonging to my husband’s grandmother, and probably the only beautiful and marginally valuable furniture in my house), all the gewgaws and tchotchkes, and most of the contents of cupboards and closets. There was a lot of “no, no, no, no, definitely not, no, maybe, okay, no, no, no …”. Then there was fix this, paint that, strip this, redo that, hide that, repair that, replace that and so on. She instructed us to paint the whole house in Benjamin Moore “Bland Beige for the Unimaginative Potential House Purchaser”, but I just couldn’t do it. I went with a soft grey because I would still have to live with it for a few months. I also refused to paint one side of the door frame in the kitchen that marked my children’s increasing height over the course of fifteen years. There were dozens of slashes with initials and dates, starting at about knee height and reaching up well past the six foot mark. My favourite ones were marks my daughter had once made with initials for her and her brothers, and the helpful time stamp “now”.
For two solid months my we moved furniture, clothes, ‘art’, sporting equipment, books, and various and sundry crap to an off-site storage locker. Then we scrubbed, scraped, cleaned, washed, filled, painted, and repaired everything on the stager’s to-do list. I have no recollection of any world events occurring in those two months as my entire universe consisted of the restaurant, the house, the storage locker and the Home Depot. When we were finished, the stager kitted out the joint from her warehouse of trendy furniture, making my home unrecognizable (and unliveable as far as I was concerned), but hopefully enticing and deserving of multiple competing bids. On open house weekend, hundreds of people wandered about my house. We planned to accept offers on the following Tuesday, but none came. The house stayed on the market for a month. A month of daily toilet scrubbing, window washing, dog bowl hiding, hospital corner bed making and cinnamon potpourri bowl stirring. After a month without an offer, without even an insulting low ball offer, we took our house off the market.
The stager’s white shag carpet and glass-topped dining room table aesthetic was replaced by our cat fur upholstered sofas, and the return of coffee-stained counters and laundry in the living room. I was relieved, to be honest. Just the thought of actually packing everything and really moving to a new house exhausted me. Although we had shelled out a pretty penny for the stager, nevermind all the time and effort we had expended in cleaning and repairs, the house had never looked better. The stager’s and the realtor’s edicts had forced us, in a tight timeline, to tackle all those little projects that homeowners always seem to put off. The big projects survive (the landscaping remains a sorry mess and the lights still flicker disturbingly) but we plan to get around to them eventually.
Around the same time, a friend of mine experienced much better luck selling her house. Mind you, her century-old home was substantially bigger and objectively nicer, in a more prestigious neighbourhood and on a larger lot. Plus, she had spent a huge sum of money fixing it up for sale. I didn’t want to ask how much she had spent on renovations (truthfully, I DID want to ask but I knew that it would be rude – even for me) but I estimate that the renovations set her back about $200,000. Yup, that’s right. I’m telling you, the real estate market in this city is completely stupid. Anyway, the house where she had raised a family, where she had marked her kids’ heights on the kitchen door frame, where she had celebrated more than a decade’s worth of birthdays and Christmases, was successfully sold and at a tidy profit. The new family, one presumes, would start their own traditions while continuing to burnish the soul of that old and beautiful house. But six months after the sale all that remained at that address was a hole in the ground. The house had been razed and a construction crew had started digging the foundation for a palatial and tasteless new house, as is the current fashion.
That could have been me. That could have been my house, the site of so many memory-making events, just obliterated. My friend was heartbroken, as I would have been. Sure, when you sell something, you no longer have any claim to it. When you sell your house you can’t object when the purchaser changes the paint colour, or the light fixtures, or the landscaping. And you can’t object if the purchaser knocks down the house altogether, as sad as that is. Something that is sold is no longer yours to protect, celebrate, admire or cherish.
Every dish that leaves our restaurant kitchen is a treasure, but the whole point of the exercise is to make something delicious and beautiful, and then sell it for consumption. A restaurant is a business after all and it’s all about the money honey. We can’t be nostalgic or prescriptive about the food that you are purchasing. You want the rack of venison to be cooked well done? Of course. You want to slather the wild salmon with ketchup? That’s entirely up to you. I’m not saying that the customer is always right. I think some customers’ eating habits, food predilections and bizarre requests are flat out gross and bordering on criminal but, as one chef told me, “if you want me to cook my shoe for your dinner, then I’ll do it”. I’ve never intimated to a customer that they shouldn’t pour a $200 bottle of Barolo over ice in tall glass, that they shouldn’t dump a $50 shot of XO cognac in a cup of decaffeinated coffee, that they shouldn’t mash their vegetables, meat and potato all together into a big mess of baby food pulp, that they shouldn’t eat gravy with a straw or chocolate mousse with their hands. If a customer wants their steak cut into bite-sized pieces and fed to them with an espresso spoon, I’ll do it. If the customer is happy, then I’m happy, never more so than when they hand over a Visa card and say “our dinner was delicious”.
Sometimes I think I’ve seen it all. Sometimes I think there is nothing left that a customer can do that will surprise or appall me. And, in any event, as long as the customer cheerfully forks over the cash for their dinner, I will betray no sign of my horror when they order a clamato juice Cosmopolitan or a poached Kleenex with a side of deep-fried sugar packets. And then this happened.
On a slamming Saturday night a middle-aged couple arrives for their 8 pm reservation. They are turned out for the event: her ostentatiously bejewelled and him flashily be-Rolexed. As it transpires, they are surprisingly quite delightful. All smiles, pleases and thankyous. Pleasant and considerate. The kind of people who rack up a huge bill, and cheerfully and generously tip their server. But they are also the kind of people who like what they like. Everything goes swimmingly as long they are treated like VIPs. I enjoy this type of customer, even though they can be demanding (and, some might say, difficult), because they are genuinely grateful and generally easy to get along with as long as everyone plays their part.
Notwithstanding his kitchen being under siege, the chef accommodates their particular requirements: the bread (which was freshly baked and removed from the oven only a couple of hours ago) must be reheated to a precisely calibrated temperature, the cocktails must contain 3 ice cubes, no more and no less, that sort of thing. But it is her unique stipulations for her dinner that are the most vexing for the kitchen and, let’s face it, a temperamental and bombarded chef. The exquisite 2½ inch thick 16 oz veal chop, the star of the menu, needs to be butterflied and then roasted until, as per her request, it has absolutely no juice, and is as dry and hard-packed as an aging celebrity’s Botoxed forehead. The substituted fries must be cooked well-done, almost burnt, to the point where they snap. Similarly, vegetables are required to be steamed to grey mush such that cauliflower is indistinguishable from broccoli. It goes without saying that nothing can be seasoned: no salt, pepper, roasted garlic, olive oil, butter or, frankly, flavour. The herbed jus must be on the side. In fact, so much jus is requested that the chef serves it up in a soup bowl. Fine. No problem. You can make as many bizarre and crazy requests as you like if the end result makes you happy. No judgement. This is a business not an art exhibition.
Later in the evening, after the plates have been cleared and these customers have ordered dessert, and during a momentary lull in the madness that is Saturday night, I rush downstairs to use the washroom. As I am going about my business, I hear a woman in a neighbouring stall upchucking into the toilet. Holy crap! Do I say something? Should I offer to hold her hair? Did we overserve her alcohol? Has the food we served her made her ill? Will she slam us on Yelp? Sue? Call the health inspector? And what if someone else comes in? Then I hear the distinctive sound of someone deliberately gagging and yakking on a finger down the throat. I know that sound; I didn’t go to a private girls’ school for nothing. I exit the stall, wash my hands and make a speedy departure.
For the next few minutes I hang around the bar, near the entrance to the washroom stairs, waiting for the bilious customer and wondering who she is. I casually peruse the reservation book, polish wineglasses, pretend to be on the phone. Here she comes up the stairs… It’s her! She of the dessicated veal chop! I suppose that she needed the vat of jus for lube. Avoiding eye contact with her, as if I haven’t just made intimate acquaintance with her alimentary regime, I sidle downstairs. I inspect for splatter and adequate flushing, and then unload a can of Febreeze in the ladies’ toilets. When I return to the dining room, she is enthusiastically tucking into her dessert. Did that just happen? Did that actually just happen? Did she insist that the chef contort his skill, time and beautiful food so that she could spew it all up again? And then the bill is paid, coats are retrieved, handshakes and thankyous and goodnights. When I relayed the story to the kitchen and floor staff later in the evening, I was still in shock and somewhat fearful that perhaps we had done something to make her ill. But she didn’t say anything, and she seemed content, even happy, when she left.
A few weeks later, these customers returned. The same dinner and the same outcome, so to speak. This time I saw her go downstairs to the washrooms. I waited a few moments and then sent one of the servers down to, I don’t know, check the toilet paper supply or wipe the spots off the faucets or something. The server surfaced a short time later and, yup, the customer was choking and upchucking her dinner into the toilet again. And then she reappears, spotless and cheerful, and returns to her table as dessert is being served. Of course, I race downstairs Febreeze in hand. Again, the bill is happily paid and the server generously tipped. With a wave and silently mouthed “thank you” to the kitchen, off they go.
Ok. She’s bulimic and that is tragic. I completely understand that bulimia is a disease; I’ve known girls that were anorexic or bulimic, and a couple of friends from my younger days became so ill that they were hospitalized. I am totally sympathetic – in theory. I’m sorry, I know it’s harsh, but please don’t make yourself vomit in my restaurant. Maybe go for a walk? Wait until you get home? Take a day off? I understand from the experience of trying to sell my house, and seeing what happened to my friend’s house, that once you sell something it is no longer yours. When we sell a thick slab of rib eye to a customer who douses it in hot sauce or drowns it in ketchup, I shrug and figure well, you bought and I guess you can do what you like with it. Except sometimes you can’t. I’m gonna put my foot down on this one. I know that I said, well, you are paying for it so go to town because it’s not mine anymore. But, even if you suffer from a wretched disease, and even though I am terribly sympathetic and concerned, you absolutely, positively may not regurgitate or otherwise return your dinner. Not at my place of business and not on my time. How about a barf bag, I mean a doggie bag, for the drive home?