Le Bernardin Update

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I have received an overwhelming response to my recent article about the bad customer service I experienced at Le Bernardin.  Some readers sympathized with my story and felt that the restaurant staff was wrong to refuse me service just because I wanted to drink a cup of $3 Starbucks tea. Other readers were less charitable toward my point of view – in fact, some of the comments were attacking me personally, questioning my knowledge of the restaurant world, and generally accusing me of being an arrogant rube (there’s a combination you don’t see every day) who doesn’t know anything about restaurant etiquette.

I always appreciate comments on my articles – whether or not you agree with what I have to say. But many of the responses I got to my Le Bernardin story were troubling to me – because of what they revealed about certain attitudes in our industry toward customer service.

Let me re-visit this story and further explain why I wrote it – and why I think my experience offers important lessons for the broader restaurant industry.

It’s not just about a cup of tea.

I totally understand that restaurants (especially the “high end” establishments) might be hesitant to allow outside food and drink. And it’s true – it was a cold day in New York, I needed some caffeine, and so I bought a cup of Starbucks tea to bring with me on my wintertime walk to Le Bernardin. In hindsight, I suppose I should have guessed that they wouldn’t want me to bring my tea into the restaurant – I wasn’t aware of their policy and it caught me off guard. But still, even if I was wrong to bring the tea, the restaurant staff shouldn’t have turned me away so carelessly.

Here are three options for what SHOULD have happened at Le Bernardin when they saw that I had a cup of tea:

Option 1: “I’m terribly sorry, sir, but we cannot allow any outside food or drink into the dining room. Would you be willing to spend a few minutes finishing your tea outside, and we will have a table ready for you when you’re done?”

Option 2: “I’m sorry, perhaps you were not aware of our policy. That is OK. I’m sorry that you won’t be able to finish your tea – but please come to your table and we’ll provide a fresh cup of tea on the house.”

Option 3: “Please let me pour your tea into one of our mugs and you can drink it at the table – I’m sorry, but we just cannot allow any other restaurant’s packaging into the dining room.”

But the staff didn’t do any of those things. Instead, they were completely inflexible and did not make any effort to explain their policy or think of alternatives to accommodate me – a new customer. Yes, I had a cup of tea from Starbucks, but in that situation it’s not my job as the customer to figure out what to do with my cup of tea. Instead, they should have discreetly and courteously found a way to resolve the situation and get me seated for lunch.

And not only did they not do that, but they acted with haughty elitism and condescension. They acted as if I had committed an unforgiveable transgression against them and all the other patrons of Le Bernardin, as if I was unworthy of even setting foot in the building. Their response made me feel disrespected and embarrassed – and this should never happen to any restaurant customer.

We are in the “hospitality” business.

As restaurateurs, we are part of a noble tradition. The word “restaurant” comes from the French word for “restore.” Every visit to a restaurant is meant to be “restorative” – people are hungry, and they come to us. We feed them. And more than just providing food, we offer them an experience. Eating at a restaurant should always be a pleasant experience – whether it’s a crowded, boisterous deli at lunchtime or a Fast Casual place full of rowdy kids and families, or a quieter, more contemplative fine dining establishment.

Most of all, no restaurant customer should ever be made to feel inferior or embarrassed or intimidated. This is one of the fundamental aspects of restaurant service – as members of the hospitality business, we restaurateurs are humble servants to those who choose to dine at our establishments. Customers are our lifeblood and our reason for being. People are hungry, and they come to us. We need to remember to be humble and ready to serve.

But what about creating a “brand image” of exclusivity and prestige?

I know, I know – Le Bernardin is a high-end restaurant, one of the best in the U.S., if not the world. They have to maintain certain standards for what to allow in the dining room – after all, what if some tourists walked in with a bag from McDonald’s and wanted to bring it in with them?

This argument is valid to some extent – but even the best restaurants in the world need to treat their customers with respect and a spirit of humble service. No restaurant customer should ever be made to feel intimidated by a restaurant. Even if you’re a naïve high school student or a tourist from a remote part of the country who’s never eaten at a really nice restaurant before and who doesn’t know which fork to use, that restaurant should do everything possible to make you feel comfortable and confident and cared for. Remember the old saying, “the customer is always right?”

Of course, there are limits to this.

I’m not arguing that restaurants should be forced to serve anyone and everyone. If a restaurant customer is belligerent or berating the staff or creating a public disturbance, then of course, that person should not receive service.  But I was not causing a scene or being rude to the staff – I was just a hungry lunch customer who wanted to drink some tea after a bone-chilling walk through New York in February. And they treated me like I was the stupidest person they’d ever seen.  The harsh and mean-spirited remarks left both to my post and on blogs throughout the New York dining scene were even more pointed and inhospitable.  I was called a “fool,” “tool,” “idiot” and nearly 30 other names which can’t be posted due to the vulgar and obscene language.  Several insulted not just me, but all Floridians and “tourists” that make their way to New York City.

It’s not just about one person’s bad experience at a restaurant – it’s about the U.S. (and our industry) as a whole.

My intentions in writing that article about Le Bernardin were not just to complain about one bad experience – I wrote it to highlight some ideas and insights and trends that are affecting the restaurant industry as a whole. I wrote it because I care about our industry and I’m concerned about where it’s headed.

You will not find anyone else on this planet that loves and cares about the restaurant business more than I do. I’m a third generation restaurateur – I grew up in this business, learning from my father and grandfather, and I have a whole circle of friends in this business who are like family to me. I’ve worked at every restaurant job imaginable, from dishwasher to line cook to general manager, and I’ve consulted with mom-and-pop restaurants and emerging international chains all over the world. I’ve traveled to over 40 countries and I eat in over 300 restaurants a year worldwide – everything from Michelin-starred fine dining to street food in Southeast Asia. I have fought for this industry and advocated for greater respect and public appreciation for the millions of hard-working people who make their living in professional kitchens and restaurant dining rooms.

So when I see comments (including some from people in the restaurant industry) who think that complaining about a bad customer service experience means that I am arrogant, or ignorant (or both!), I worry for the future.

You see, the U.S. is becoming more and more of a service-based economy. Much of the future job growth in this country will be in the service sector. If our country is becoming more of a service economy and we have standards of service that are declining – especially compared to the service economies in other competing countries – then I fear that we as a nation are losing our competitive edge.

Most of all, I think we need to remember that people are still people – even when we passionately disagree, even when others are outspoken in their beliefs. We need to be able to debate and discuss the issues that affect our industry (and our country) without resorting to personal attacks, rage and vitriol. We are tearing our country apart from the inside. We are allowing our worst instincts to dominate the public debate. It doesn’t – and shouldn’t – have to be this way.

The end of entitlement

Finally, let me close with one other idea that ties into a lot of the feelings that this recent experience has dredged up.

Here in America, we’ve had it pretty good for quite awhile – not just in the restaurant business, but in our lives as a whole. And the recent economic downturn has reminded everyone that the future is uncertain, there are no guarantees, and maybe some things aren’t going to keep getting better and better – maybe the future is not going to be a straight line of progress going ever-upward

Before the crash, I think a lot of Americans were starting to feel an air of entitlement. We expected the value of our homes to keep going up, our 401(k)s to keep going up, everything was supposed to keep getting better. In the restaurant industry, a lot of people in the industry started to get over-confident. Working in a restaurant took on less of an air of service and became more of an ego trip or a path to fame – this is where customer service starts to suffer. And I think there is a lot of frustration in our industry right now – people are struggling, the boom years (for a lot of restaurants) have come screeching to a halt, and yet there’s still this mentality of entitlement at some restaurants – the attitude that we can treat customers with condescension or disrespect, because they need us more than we need them.

In my travels, some of the happiest people I’ve ever met are food service workers in some of the world’s poorest countries. When you travel to Southeast Asia, to places like the Philippines, or Indonesia, or Thailand, you can enjoy some of the most amazing food – but it’s not being served in three-star restaurants with white tablecloths. Some of the best meals I’ve ever eaten were served from a food cart on a dusty street – doled out by family members working together at family-owned small businesses that go back generations. These people are happy to serve – they work with a welcoming spirit of humility and generosity and gratitude.

I think there’s a lesson there for all of us. Be humble. Be happy to serve.

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