What Le Bernardin Can Teach Us About Bad Service

Le Bernardin, one of America’s Top 50 Restaurants, turns away customers seeking a $55 lunch over a $3 cup of Starbucks tea and in so doing offers many lessons in what not to do.

Ever since my days at The Breakers Palm Beach – a Five Star, Five Diamond hotel with a Five Star, Five Diamond restaurant – I have wanted to visit Le Bernardin in New York City.  During my stint at The Breakers I was responsible for marketing the $50 million food and beverage operations at the hotel and off-site venues.  We hosted the very prestigious and elite Mobil Awards honoring the top 50 restaurants in the United States and Le Bernardin was a recurring winner.  Le Bernardin was also a case study we considered as we created our own new fine dining venues.

Le Bernardin, in case you are not familiar with it, was Zagat’s Top Pick for 2007, has been awarded 3 Michelin Stars as well as the New York Times’ very highest rating.  In all, the awards bestowed upon Le Bernardin read like a checklist of the restaurant industry’s most coveted accolades.

During a recent business trip to New York City (February 7-9, 2010) I made it a point to finally check Le Bernardin off my list of must-visit restaurants.  I checked in to the Westin Times Square and gleefully marched the ten blocks down the road in 18 degree weather to try my luck without a reservation.  I suspected that it might be hard to get a table, even in this recession and on an off-night, but I was so excited to finally eat at Le Bernardin that I was willing to wait or reschedule if they could not accommodate me.

With a big smile and fully loaded credit card I made my way to the maître d’. “Can you accommodate one this evening?”  I inquired.  With an indifferent, sarcastic and almost insulted tone, the thin French maître d’ said with a chuckle, “No sir, we cannot accommodate you.”  Fine. I knew they would be busy and I knew the odds were against me getting in without a reservation. So instead, I paused, waiting for him to ask to schedule me for another evening or time.  That didn’t happen.  Rather, he stretched his insincere smile a bit further and squeezed his face as if he was at once humored I was still in his presence and disturbed that I had bothered to find my way there. Apparently this was the end of our conversation – with no further effort on his part to help serve a hungry customer.

I ended up at Charlie Palmer’s Aureole back near Times Square and my hotel.  Equally famed and comparably priced, Aureole graciously and warmly welcomed me in – even without a reservation.  Their dining room seemed more bustling and lively.  My meal was superbly cooked and the service was professional, experienced and very accommodating.  From my table I sent tweets (www.twitter.com/qmg) out to nearly 8,000 Twitter followers with a play-by-play of my meal.  Several people tweeted back to me with all sorts of positive remarks and more than a few said “I’m adding Aureole to my list of must-visit restaurants.”

After a satisfying meal I slid into my Westin “Heavenly Bed” and started flipping channels.  As fate and irony would have it, one of the guests on Jimmy Fallon’s show that night was Chef Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin!  I almost couldn’t believe it!  Chef Ripert was funny, charismatic and his appearance convinced me that even with the bad experience I had with his maître d’, I should give him and his restaurant another shot.  Every restaurant deserves a second chance – especially one as famed as Le Bernardin – and given this new “sign from above” I decided that I should return.

So the next day I walked back to Le Bernardin, figuring that I would try their $55 prix fixe lunch.  I ordered a hot tea from the Starbucks near my hotel and started the march in the freezing headwinds back to Le Bernardin.  (Did I mention that I’m from Florida? Making another wintertime walk in New York City was a sacrifice for me.)

This time, I was greeted with a less restrained and not so seemingly forced smile and told that I needn’t have a reservation and could be accommodated immediately.  One catch – “Sir, we will dispose of that for you, but you cannot bring it inside,” the hostess said, referring to my Starbucks tea, while looking at it as if I was holding a bag of freshly scooped dog poop.

“Um, yeah, but I just bought it and it’s only now cooled to the point to drink…I’m happy to buy another here in addition to this one, but I’m suffering from a bit of a caffeine headache and would like to finish it,” I said, while my eyes scanned for a manager that might see to my rescue.  As my luck would have it, the same maître d’ from the prior evening was on duty for this shift too, and with an even more prejudiced, marginalizing and catty-cheerleader smirk said, “Sorry sir.”

I tried to appeal to their senses. “I’m in the restaurant business, I have had this restaurant on my list for years, I tried to come here last night, walked back today, plan to order an expensive tasting menu and you are honestly going to turn me away if I want to keep my tea?” I asked.  “Yes, sir, I’m sorry.”

I can fully understand a restaurant turning away a patron who is trying to bring in alcohol, or a movie theater refusing to allow outside food and beverage.  I cannot, however, understand why such a highly rated restaurant would turn away lunch business in the middle of a recession with such careless abandon.  The point wasn’t to keep the tea.  It was the rudeness and disdain of the door-cop.

Not only was I extremely frustrated by the situation, I immediately shared this experience with my nearly 8,000 Twitter followers (most of whom are restaurant industry professionals and media).  I vowed to never again attempt to return to Le Bernardin and – no matter the company or occasion – if the name Le Bernardin comes up, I plan to deliver a very passionate message about why I am boycotting their restaurant.

So, what can a top 50 restaurant teach us about bad service?

Lessons:

1.    Don’t Believe Your Own Hype – While publicity can be worth its weight in gold for a restaurant, vanity and “celebrity” can be its downfall. When a speeding locomotive goes off the tracks, it still maintains forward momentum for quite a while.  Similarly, when a restaurant reaches its pinnacle it can fall into the “too good to fail” mindset.  When this happens, standards drop, customers are turned away as if there is a never ending supply of them, and a kind of resentment can build that turns the tides on the restaurant’s success.  Chef Ripert seems to be on television more than in his own restaurant these days.  Sure, they still are winning the awards and can afford to turn away customers like panhandlers today, but it’s that exact sort of taking your eye off the ball that leads to people saying, “That place sure isn’t what it used to be.”

2.    Boycott & Protest – As diners, when we receive bad service, it is not only our “right” but our duty to complain.  And when complaints fall on deaf or indifferent ears, it’s our duty to boycott.  It won’t be until Le Bernardin starts to notice an empty dining room and falling reservation count that they take complaints and issues like this seriously.  For more, also read this article on your duty to complain.

3.    Everyone is a Critic with an Audience – There was a time when restaurant critics could make or break a restaurant with a review.  In those days, Siskel and Ebert could also make or break a movie with a thumbs-up or thumbs-down.  These days, celebrity blogger Perez Hilton sways moviegoers with his film reviews and it’s the modern day food blogger that carries the power to influence the opinions of restaurant customers, not the local newspaper restaurant critic.  The power to influence customer opinion is more diffuse – instead of relying on a few central opinion leaders for restaurant reviews, people use Urban Spoon and other user-generated sites where “average” restaurant customers post reviews from their laptops and cell phones. Not only is the power of restaurant reviews changing and evolving, but the new universe of social media makes it possible for word of mouth to spread faster than ever: if Facebook were a country, it would be the 5th largest in the world.  Twitter has made instant news and communication a global phenomenon and within the reach of anyone with an Internet connection.  Before I even stepped onto the sidewalk after my disappointment at Le Bernardin, I had tweeted my frustration to my personal audience of Twitter followers – and many of them promptly forwarded my story on to their other friends in the restaurant industry.  In the past, an upset customer would tell 10 friends; today they can tweet 10,000 from their table.  The stakes have grown.  Everyone is a critic and has an audience.  For more on that, also read this article on restaurant social media.

4.    Don’t put Cops in Charge of the Door – We’ve long heard how important it is to make a good first impression and how you never get a second chance – especially in the restaurant business.  While generally few would disagree with this adage, it’s painfully surprising to me how many restaurateurs still put the least hospitable people they have at the door.  For instance, bouncers at night clubs or a stuffy and indifferent maître d’ in this case.  Why spend so much time, effort and money to get customers if you have a maître d’ that greets them with a shin-kick at the front door?

5.    Remember Acquisition Costs – In business to business marketing, the typical cost to gain a new customer is $170 each.  A study has not yet been conducted to accurately estimate this cost for the restaurant industry, but I would suspect that this dollar amount wouldn’t be far off.  With this in mind, it seems hardly worth chasing away customers over a $3 tea.  Keeping a $3 cup of tea out of your dining room isn’t worth ruining a new customer’s first-time experience (and throwing away their lifetime value to your restaurant).  There are only four ways for a restaurant to increase sales – New Trial, Frequency, Check Average and Party Size.  For more in depth descriptions, please take a look at this article on restaurant sales building strategies.  Of those four, the most expensive and least effective is New Trial; a new customer coming in for the first time.  I was “New Trial” business for Le Bernardin.  Not only will I not be back, but since my previous positive impression of Le Bernardin was so carelessly shattered, I will probably carry the experience and comments about it around for quite a while – being sure to share my story when the occasion arises.  Was that worth keeping out a cup of Starbucks tea?  Nope.  Do you think their maître d’ cares?  Nope.  Ultimately it’s the restaurant’s investors that get burned.

6.    The Restaurant Industry Need a New Awards System – Fine dining doesn’t always mean it’s the best dining experience.  I’d rather have street food in Thailand served by someone that loves what they do than be treated like a vagrant in a stuffy Manhattan eatery – no matter how good the food is.  The service was far better at The Spotted Pig (where I ended up the second time Le Bernardin turned me away).  Anthony Bourdain seems to be one of the few media commentators in the restaurant world who truly tries to highlight the best food and the best dining experiences – which doesn’t necessarily mean the high-end stuff.  In fact, with the rare exception of his friend Chef Eric Ripert, Bourdain usually shows his disdain for the boys club of slick celebrity chefs.  All in all, my recent experience at Le Bernardin leads me to believe that we need a new awards system for our industry – one that makes it possible for prestigious industry accolades to go to restaurants for reasons other than nepotism, large wine cellars, expensive décor, and a chef that cares more about television appearances than the daily grind of running a successful restaurant. Is it coincidence alone that Aureole is directly beside the goliath Condé Nast headquarters?  Or that Le Bernardin is just two blocks from Rockefeller Center where Chef Ripert frequently makes appearances on NBC Shows like Jimmy Fallon and The Today Show?  Many awards are political and have as much to do with proximity as substance – if your restaurant is in the same neighborhood as the media elite, then you’re more likely to get noticed by the people with the big media megaphones. But that doesn’t mean your restaurant is truly “the best.”

7.    Fame Precedes the Fall – Le Bernardin was no doubt once a world-class restaurant, and in many ways I’m sure it still is – although I didn’t get a chance to eat there.  However, the siren call of media opportunities, TV shows and licensing wealth has led many well-known restaurateurs and chefs away from their core businesses (just look at Rocco DiSpirito and Gordon Ramsay; Rocco is getting to the point where he’s best known for his appearance on Dancing With the Stars, and Gordon Ramsay’s restaurants are closing faster than a bag of fresh scallops).

8.    Never Hire People Who You Would Not Want to Represent You in Your Absence – The television persona of Chef Eric Ripert is very different than the real-life persona of the man hired to represent him (the maître d’).  As a rule, you should never hire someone who you would not willingly send to represent you in your absence.  I have not met Chef Ripert in person so I do not know if his on-camera persona is the same or very different than the man is in person.  I do know that the maître d’ does not represent the restaurant or Chef Ripert in a flattering way, and that is all I have to judge the restaurant at this point since that maître d’ was the extent of the experience that I was able to have at Le Bernardin.  Every well-known chef is a brand – and the more famous you become, the more vigilant you need to be in protecting your brand. When Chef Ripert goes on TV and appears to be a charismatic, funny, warm person – all while his maître d’ is being rude to customers – that creates a damaging disconnect in his brand image. Every restaurateur should take this lesson to heart – your staff is representing you to your customers every hour, every day. Hire accordingly.

I don’t hold a grudge toward Chef Ripert.  In fact, I believe he must be a quality person if he’s endorsed by Anthony Bourdain.  I do however hold a grudge toward the restaurant and especially toward the arrogant mindset that would allow such things to happen.  We’re in the hospitality industry, and we need to be humble and welcoming and solicitous toward our customers – not turn them away like bouncers at an exclusive nightclub. I guess I should be mostly thankful though, as being turned away twice from Le Bernardin turned me on to two other restaurants that I now highly recommend – Aureole and The Spotted Pig.  I am thankful also to have been reminded of several “what not to do” guidelines for successful restaurant management.

UPDATE TO THIS BLOG HERE.

Get our latest articles delivered right to your inbox.

Worth spreading? Share on Facebook

24 Responses to “What Le Bernardin Can Teach Us About Bad Service”

  1. Tania says:

    Hi. Great post… I couldn’t agree more with your points. Was wondering if after all this you’ve complained directly to Le Bernardin or if they’ve had any response to this story?

  2. Stephanie says:

    A New Yorker’s tip: Hit Jean-Georges or any of his other restaurants in Manhattan. Real Nyers don’t make reservations and his places try to leave a small percentage of his tables for “walk ins” Oh, and the food is to die for…Happy Dining :)

  3. Anderson says:

    They should have offered to put your tea in a cup or glass for you. I can’t believe that’s the kindof service a five star restaurant would offer. Unbelievable!

  4. heir says:

    i agree, proper customer service would have given you a tea cup for your tea, and kindly welcomed you in from the frigid weather.

    very poor service.

  5. William says:

    Yes, you are from Florida. You can’t bring outside food or drink into a movie theater but you expect to do so in a 4 star restaurant? What is more interesting is that you turned this incident into a way to market yourself. Do you actually think that your “tweeting” about how they were mean to you is actually going to affect them? You have that much sway in the business? I would think if you did then they would have welcomed you without a reservation and with your overpriced Starbucks tea. Go back to where dressing like Gilligan is considered fashionable.

  6. Aaron D. Allen says:

    Wow. Patrick, I find this utterly disgraceful. You spew venom and do so with a sort of pride. This is precisely the point. When our industry has reached a point that we find great satisfaction in calling people names like “dou…bag”, as you did, because a customer voices a concern in a calm and sensible manner, then we have lost the spirit of our industry. Don’t you see? If your customers have bad experiences – even if they are the names you call me – and your employees get a sense from you it’s okay to do so, then you’ve lost. Yes, you can say those things if I go to your restaurant. You can say and do far worse. But should you? Should your employees? Should we care so little what someone has to say or their impressions? You have that right, and I have the right to boycott. And don’t worry, if you conduct yourself in your restaurant the way you did in your reply, I won’t go there either. That’s not the point. The point is that our industry and the sense of hospitality is deteriorating. It happens each and every time we call a customer – who might have otherwise loved us – the types of names I’ve been called for giving my account.

  7. Aaron D. Allen says:

    In response to Christine… It is my background and experience that has me feeling we’ve lost touch with hospitality. Background and experience shouldn’t make us less attuned with the principles of gracious hospitality, but more so. Call me thin-skinned and a person lacking class, but I honestly feel that this is what’s wrong in the world of hospitality today. We have no regard for the feelings or sentiments of others. Rather, we stomp on our fans and crush them with the weight of our titles, accolades, know-how, egos, and contact lists. Oh, yes, I’ve heard far worse. I’ve experienced far worse. I, however, think that what happened and the callous responses show what’s lost in hospitality today. My complaint, opinion and views may be small in the scheme of things, but it is a slippery slope. Imagine if your employees said of your concerns and coaching that you’re too sensitive and too experienced to deal with a customer who had a bad experience? Would you rather an employee say “That’s interesting” or “Christine is just being sensitive”? We owe it to our guests and profession to be more sensitive than we are and that is precisely the point of the article.

  8. Aaron D. Allen says:

    Tom, Thank you for the reply. I hardly think being hospitable would make them look stupid. I would have gladly poured it in another cup. More importantly, I would have gladly accepted an offer to hold a table for me. A response like “Sir, I do apologize, but it is our policy that we are not able to allow outside beverages in to the restaurant. I do hope you understand. If you would like to finish your beverage outside, we will gladly hold a table for you”. A response like that and I would have stayed. Short, pithy and indifferent letter-of-the-law adherence to policies without explanation is not hospitality.

  9. Aaron D. Allen says:

    Thanks, Tania. Le Bernardin has not responded. I was unable to connect with management either time I was turned away and left to believe the people ushering me out were in charge and the final authority. Le Bernardin is not on Twitter that I can see (I believe this in part to be an indication of dated approaches and beliefs). I will be sending the letter to them as well. Thank you again for participating and your reply (and being more gentle than some of the others so far!) J My article wasn’t meant to be a thin-skinned “Yelp” complaint as one suggested, but rather an account of how I felt and the cautionary lessons I felt it offered for those of us in the industry. Thanks for taking it as such and for getting involved in the conversation!

  10. Aaron D. Allen says:

    Thank you for the reply and recommendation, Stephanie! I’ve heard great things about Jean-Georges in NYC and Paris. I’ve been to his restaurant in Las Vegas several times and loved it. Many thanks for the reply!

  11. Aaron D. Allen says:

    Hi, Gene, thanks for the reply and comments. Honestly, I think it’s perfectly fine to arrive at a restaurant – particularly in a place like Manhattan on a freezing cold day – with a cup of Starbucks tea, or an umbrella, or even a bad attitude. The word “restaurant” comes from the French word for “restore”. There’s nothing restorative about rudeness. When a guest becomes unruly or disturbs other guests, then certainly a hard-line should be taken. Manhattan alone has more restaurants than the entire State of Florida. There are many world class restaurants and many are on my list. I will never suffer through rude, indifferent and unapologetically pithy remarks from a restaurant. No one should. No matter the reputation or number of stars, customers should never be made to feel shunned or cast aside like someone inferior. I would have finished the tea outside as happily as I marched in the snow to get there if the response and welcome had been more “hospitable”.

  12. Aaron D. Allen says:

    In response to Please… Perhaps Le Bernadin was right. Perhaps their policy is dead-on. Perhaps I have no concept of social etiquette or class as you suggest. Does that make it right to be rude? To make one feel inferior? To sternly and blindly enforce a policy without explanation? I’m a third generation restaurateur and have worked for and in some of the finest establishments in the world. It would be hard to do that if I had no concept of social etiquette or class. Unless, perhaps, my superiors and clients that hired and entrusted so much to me felt I at least made up for it with gracious hospitality. Being an “elitist” isn’t a recipe for delivering great hospitality. It may be a good way to impress the judges for elitist awards, but I wouldn’t want to be associated with a restaurant such as that nor spend my money with them, and that was the choice I made that day. They are entitled to refuse me. I am entitled to express my opinion of how it made me feel and to boycott the restaurant. I hope that somewhere in between restaurateurs reading this will find something meaningful as they seek to continuously improve.

  13. heather says:

    I loved the blog – what jacknuts they were to refuse you to bring your tea in! Put it in a glass or a cup or whatever or offer you their tea on the house! The customer is always right – what happened to that?

    And to the people responding and belittling the author – how ridiculous are you?

    My favorite is the one saying it would hurt the other diners experience – how????? I could care less if someone has a paper cup on their table!

    Good for you for saying something out in the open!

  14. benjamin says:

    I think in making sure i did not have to sit next to a yokel like you, LB performed its (regular, not tourist) service with perfection.

  15. Sean says:

    It’s rude to bring tea to a restaurant. In any city. Would you have brought a glass of wine in with you? There is no difference.

  16. Jeremy says:

    Are you kidding me with this self-righteous indignation? You waited years to eat there and walked in with a cup of Starbucks? That is really rude- next time you have a dinner party, invite me and I will bring my own entree. See how you like it. Idiot.

  17. Stunned says:

    This is a stupid waste of a post. For some reason you can understand a movie theater refusing to allow outside food and beverage but you can’t understand a 5 star restaurant doing the same??? You are ridiculous! I suggest you stick to your comfort zone and clearly fine dining is not.

  18. Valerie says:

    I think that the restaurant in question
    shouldhave offered to put his tea in their cup.

    That is the first thing that should have
    happened besides a crisp salutations.

    They failed at customer service.

    Score one for the blogger.

  19. Josh says:

    First of all, the people commenting by leaving curse words and name calling should be ashamed of yourselves. Did your mothers not teach you any manners? I work in a fine dining restaurant in NYC and bottom line, a guest should NEVER leave feeling like this guy did. NO EXCUSES. FOH should have offered solutions like pouring it into another glass. The matri’d didn’t even do that. He should have been courteous and welcoming, but instead it sounds like he turned up his nose. On behalf of all of the fine dining establishments here in NYC where customer service IS important, I’m sorry you had to experience that.

  20. Nicole says:

    You are COMPLETELY allowed to voice your opinion of this establishment. As a respected restauranteur and expert in the industry – YOU dictate perception that other bloggers can’t appreciate or understand. I have worked in a restaurant for over 14 years. I currently work in marketing for the largest restaurant corporation in the nation. You ALWAYS make it right for the guest. No matter what type of establishment you are. I too will never dine at Le Bernadin out of principle. They clearly aren’t in the business to service the guest.

  21. Joe says:

    This post is hilarious. The gem in this article is probably this sentence “Le Bernardin is not on Twitter that I can see (I believe this in part to be an indication of dated approaches and beliefs).”

    Most of America, most restaurants, most celebrities aren’t on Twitter. If Le Bernardin was on Twitter, it would go down a notch in my book. Twitter is for self important egotistical douchebags that don’t really have anything going on in their life.

  22. Coyote says:

    It was rude to bring the tea. No New Yorker
    with any class would have walked into a
    fine restaurant with a cup of hot tea. We
    would have used it to warm our walk, and
    then asked to dispose of it when we
    entered or before we entered.

    That said, the gracious thing for the
    restaurant to have done was to have not
    batted an eye and poured it into one
    of their cups for him. Not turned him away.
    That was ungracious as bringing the tea
    in the first place, but it is their job to be
    welcoming.

    It doesn’t matter how fancy the establishment.
    There is an Italian joint in the East Village
    (not Supper or Frank or that family) where
    3 of us were crammed into a 2-top that
    wasn’t meant for 3. When we asked if we
    could be moved to a 4-top (the place was
    empty), we were told that “that table is for
    4″ and “you don’t understand how fast we fill
    up” and no one was apologetic, they were
    arrogant and snooty. No matter how good
    the food, I will not be returning to that
    establishment.

  23. [...] have received an overwhelming response to my recent article about the bad customer service I experienced at Le Bernardin.  Some readers sympathized with my [...]

  24. KitchenKat says:

    I get your point. It was not so much that they refused your request to finish your tea but the rudeness with which it was conveyed. I totally agree with you. I’d speak up and speak out too.

    Why is it that so many people in the service industry act like their presence is God’s gift to us consumers. The higher end the establishment the higher in the air go their noses. From flight attendants to wait staff, sales staff at designer boutiques to sales staff at the mall. I am tired of it and don’t accept it.

    My mom always says that I should “look my best” whenever I go out and for her generation that means make up, a blow out, heels and great bag. Puh-leeze. I’m a thirty-something mom of 5 who may be short on time but not on spending power. I shouldn’t have to advertise what I can or can’t afford in order to deserve good service. A different rant from yours but rude is rude and we customers never should stand for it.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.