Reader questions: Unhappy campers

My new question-and-answer forum sends the questions to me and only me, with no place for me to answer them publicly. So from time-to-time, I’ll try to answer some of them here. (For the record, I answer one question every week in my “Dining with Denise” e-mail newsletter, which you should sign up for IMMEDIATELY if you haven’t already.)

Today’s topic: Customer complaints. I often get e-mails from readers unhappy with their experience in a restaurant, and here are a couple of examples.

A reader named Sharon writes:

“Problem…ordered from a vegetarian restaurant the dish Macadamia Surprise. My friend and I were splitting the meal because we also wanted to try a few appetizers.  The dish sounded so delicious but when it arrived it had cashews and broccoli. Two items that were not mentioned in the dish. NO macadamia nuts.

When we asked the waiter if there’d been a mistake he said, “no, we just ran out of macadamia nuts.” They did NOT offer to make us anything else or rectify the situation. They didn’t mention being out of any of the items before serving us, nor did he suggest we could order something else even after we expressed our dislike with the whole situation and especially broccoli and possible allergies to cashew nuts.  They just expected this to be okay.  What should have been done to insure happy customers? We will not return due to lack of concern shown to us regarding our visit. Thank you!”

Well, Sharon, I run into this a lot at restaurants. There was a time when unhappy customers regularly would be taken care of by comping part of the bill or offering something extra for free. That’s rarer these days. Although these kinds of situations infuriate me, I think there are really only two options. First, you have to complain to the manager on duty on the spot. You can’t just imply that you want something taken care of. You have to say it explicitly, and a lot of people aren’t comfortable doing that. It’s also better to complain before you dig into and devour a meal, I find.

That’s no guarantee it’ll be taken care of, though. In fact, many disorganized restaurants with insufficient help don’t have any idea how to deal with this issue. They’re just trying to stay alive day-to-day. Then, your only recourse is to not return and to advise friends not to go. I’ve had some luck in the past sending letters to restaurants when I’ve been particularly dissatisfied, but sadly, lack of customer service is more of the rule rather than the exception anymore.

Here’s another dissatisfied customer named Tom.

We ate Easter Brunch at the Marriott, advertised for $21.95 per person. When we got the check, there was an 18% “Hotel Buffet Charge” added to the ticket along with the expected sales tax. Why wasn’t this posted in the “where to eat”? Is this a usual practice? The $21.95 per person for 2 meal turned out to be $66 for 2 with tip.

I called over to the Corporate Hills Marriott this morning and talked to the food and beverage director, who says it’s always been the hotel’s practice to add an 18 percent gratuity charge on to holiday buffets, such as Easter, Mother’s Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas. (My presumption is that people usually don’t tip too well on buffets, and they want to make the holiday shifts worthwhile for the staff.) She also said, Tom, that if you added a gratuity on top of that, not realizing that you weren’t expected to, she’d happily refund it.