I tend to be very disciplined about looking for the positive, the silver lining, or the glass half-full. But what happens when I have a blog deadline and an experience that disappoints? I made honey out of vinegar!
This weekend I visited my son in Arlington. He’s fresh out of college, living with 3 young professional friends, in a high-rise urban building and learning to navigate the long work week. Since it was my first visit, he was eager to show me the neighborhood with its many bars and restaurants. As we walked to dinner, live music filled the streets and the number of restaurants and bars astounded me—a kebab house, an Australian eatery, an Irish pub, an upscale Latin restaurant, and even a bakery featuring “bayou” cuisine. With its vibrancy and youth, this neighborhood is truly the epitome of urban living.
We headed into a bright and bustling restaurant, Tupelo Honey Café. The entrance was adorned with hundreds of amber-glowing honey jars, chicken wire light fixtures and vintage American objects. I felt as if I was entering a southern farmhouse!
After a wire basket of warm biscuits with honey appeared on the table, I was eager to order. The menu was definitely influenced by Appalachia—fresh raw ingredients, home-made, but with a twist. Goat cheese grits, fried green tomatoes with pimento cheese and jalapeños, prosciutto and gruyere on challah bread. I hadn’t eaten since the night before, so even though my mouth was watering, my stomach was rumbling.
My son and I chatted about his new job, his amazing boss, and his restlessness to advance. Then, our food arrived. That southern farmhouse feeling I mentioned earlier? Gone. My plate was a mish-mash of shredded pork bits on a small bed of watercress with a huge slice of white onion with two dark “painted-on” grill marks. I was disappointed. Where was the pork belly? The grilled shallots? And that grapefruit marmalade?
This is the point where I stop and think. I had expectations. The delightful wait staff, the warm jars of honey, the chicken wire lights, the steaming biscuits, and the creative menu all created a terrific atmosphere. I was enjoying the experience! Yet it struck me how quickly my emotions changed. This is what I DO NOT use as inspiration in my own career. I contemplated sending the dish back, but honestly, I was so hungry, I nearly licked the plate clean.
I know that when I am working with a client who is not 100% pleased with a project or event, I want to know. My objective is to make sure everyone’s expectations are not just met, but exceeded. And Tupelo Honey Café had met my expectations—the atmosphere, the wait staff, the southern gentleman feeling. But the food fell woefully short. So I thought I would bank on the fact that the owner of Tupelo Honey Café would appreciate knowing about my less-than-satisfying meal.
As if on cue, the waiter cleared our plates and asked, “Happy with the meal?” I paused and replied, “Well, truthfully?” He nodded, “Of course!” I explained that I chose this plate because the description on the menu conveyed a concept that was incredibly unique. However, although the actual plate wasn’t inedible, it was a missed opportunity.
The waiter smiled and said, “You know, that’s a new item on the menu. Let me take this back to the kitchen.”
Within no time at all, the manager approached the table with an outstretched hand, “Hi. I’m Sam. I am so sorry about your meal. Please tell me what the issue was?” I told the manager what I had told the waiter, even going so far as suggesting how it could be improved. (I thought to myself…am I about to give a consult gratis?) “I can picture this dish in my head--a caramelized red onion, with a square chunk of roasted pork belly resting in the center. Then a drizzle of marmalade and a handful of watercress, finished with the grapefruit vinaigrette.” At that point, my son leaned closer to the manager and said, “He does this for a living.” The manager laughed and said, “I am so glad you brought this to our attention. I will remove this from your bill.” He pulled a business card out from his pocket, wrote something on the back and shook my hand again, thanking me for taking time to convey my thoughts. I slipped the business card in my jacket pocket and thanked him for being so attentive.
This restaurant’s brilliant customer service, humility, quick initiative and responsive behavior turned my experience around. It was powerful enough for me to go full circle-- having expectations, to being disappointed to having those original expectations exceeded. Now THIS is what I use as inspiration for true hospitality! The truth is, most businesses can run like well oiled machines as long as everything is going smoothly. But throw a wrench into the engine and that’s when a business’ true colors shine.
As my son and I left Tupelo Honey Café, I reached into my jacket pocket and read what the manager had written on his business card. “Next visit… small plate on me! Thank you, SJ.” A sweet ending provided by a southern gentleman after all.