June 1, 2017

By Todd Duncan

This past Saturday, my wife and I headed out to one of our favortie Orange County bars and restaurants.  We chose R&D Kitchen in Fashion Island Mall.  We love R&D; their food and ambience are spectacularly perfect and after two years, and one hundred visits, the experience has always been exceptional… until this one.

The bartender listed the daily specials, which included a waffle with a fried-egg on top. They also have an incredible cheeseburger — one of the best we’ve ever had. We contemplated our choices, ordered a drink and settled in for the afternoon watching college basketball on the bar TV. A competing local hangout, we recalled, allowed you to have a fried egg on your burger, so we thought we’d try it here.

We were there for about thirty minutes when I asked the bartender to place an order for a burger and asked how much more it would cost to put an egg on top of the burger.  She said, “Two bucks, but I’m not sure the kitchen can do it.”

Now… I’m not a high-maintenance customer, but I’m thinking really, a fried egg?  

How difficult could that be?  She went and checked and said, “The kitchen can’t add the egg. They are too busy.”

I found this interesting as it takes about two minutes to fry an egg, and honestly, the restaurant was half-empty — it was still only around 11:45 in the morning.  Strike 1!

I decided to get another drink, wait a few minutes, and then try to order the same thing with another bartender whom I knew better and thought we’d have some pull with.  He said, “Let me see if the kitchen can do it.”  Then he came back with the same answer, “They are too busy and aren’t prepared to do anything that isn’t on the menu.”  Strike 2!

I then asked the second bartender if I could speak to the manager.  

The minute she arrived at the bar you could tell she was ready for a battle.  No smile. No positive gestures. Just a bland, “How can I help you?”

I explained my situation very clearly to her, that I simply wanted a side-order egg to put on top of my burger.  She said, “We can’t do that.”  And I asked, “Why?”  Her response was, “We only order a certain number of eggs per day and we have to save them for our special waffle.  If we don’t have the egg, we can’t sell one of our most popular dishes.”

“So you can’t do it?,” I said.  “Nope” she responded.

It was time to test this restaurant and their culture around customer service.  

Off I went…

“So, let me make sure we are tracking here. I spend at least $6,000 a year at your restaurant and I have one simple request for a two-dollar egg on my burger and you are telling me you can’t make that happen because you only order enough eggs for your waffle dish?”

She responds, “Yes.” I pressed on.

“So, a one-time visitor who orders a waffle for $15 is more important to you than a $6,000 customer who comes in at least 4-6 times a month for whom you can’t figure out how to get him his egg?”

Her response was, “We have to be able to serve the dishes we advertise, and we usually run out of the special. If we run out of eggs, we can’t serve the waffle.”  

I ask the same question.

My thought was, wouldn’t you rather be one egg short and throw a waffle away versus holding to your stupid policy and “throwing a loyal customer” away?

It was very clear to me at this point that this manager, and perhaps this whole restaurant, and maybe even their parent company, Hillstone Restaurant Group, have no clue of the value of a customer and what they should empower their employees to do in a simple situation like this.

But wait, it gets even better.

I say to the manager, “You know what I would do if I were you?  I’d send a busboy 200 feet to Whole Foods to buy a half a dozen eggs. That might cost you a couple of bucks. He could be there and back in less than five minutes and for a minimal cost to R&D, you’d have my egg and I’d be a happy customer. In the time we’ve spent arguing about the egg, they could have been there and back.”

She said, “I can’t do that.”  Strike 3.

Game over, I thought.  

You are not going to believe what happens next.

She said, “I’m happy to take care of your bill for your inconvenience.”  I responded with everything that I could muster, “That’s stupid.”  She looked at me dazed and confused.  I then responded, “You would rather spend your companies money and pay for my $75.00 tab for food and drinks than figure out how to get me a two-dollar egg?”

I looked her squarely in the eyes and said, “This egg just cost you and R&D $6,000.  I’m never coming back.”

By the way, we left immediately and went next door to Whole Foods.

Our motive was to check on the price of their eggs.  We found them for as little as thirty-three cents a piece.  Then, to our surprise, we found a bar in the store.  It’s called Back Bay Tavern.  We shared our horrible negative experience at R&D with Sandy, their bartender.  She was shocked.  At the Tavern, we had a great experience.  Sandy told us their company creed is,  “We don’t say no here.”  In fact in less than one hour, they:

  • Customized two drink orders
  • Made a pizza that wasn’t even on their menu for us
  • Sent their wine guy into the store to get us the perfect wine for that pizza that was not on their menu

Every employee at this place needed not to place a phone call or get an OK from any other person to do for the customer what he or she requested.

This is where I can spend my money and get treated the right way.

I think it’s absurd that any business owner can think for a moment people that frequent their place of business don’t have other options. There are over 100 restaurants in Newport Beach, California we can choose from.  Why in heaven’s name would a business like Hillstone Restaurant Group, who owns four restaurants in my zip code; R&D, Gulfstream, Banderas and Houston’s, ever allow for such a stupid service breakdown?

This is what is wrong with business today.

They don’t understand the changing dynamics of how consumers are spending their money. There is a new day, and it’s here. It’s not coming. Today, the only way a business can survive is by following the new rules of customer loyalty.

Get clear on this – we’ve been going to R&D for two years and they were canceled out after one exceptionally bad experience.  Ready for a blinding flash of the obvious? An unsolved service breakdown will lose the customer and they will share their story with everyone.

Leadership Questions To Contemplate:

1. Are your employees and teammates trained and empowered to make intelligent choices about taking care of customers during a breakdown?

2. Isn’t it wiser to throw away a fifteen-dollar waffle, give the customer a two-dollar egg and not buy his seventy-five dollar tab?  All of this should make sense fiscally for a business.

By the way, R&D stands for Research and Development. This was powerful research!

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