Tuesday, November 07, 2006

All Bad Service Isn't Created Equal

One of the common complaints we all say and we all hear (especially in San Francisco) is that a restaurant disappointed because of "bad service". A quick tour of Yelp will validate this. While the descriptor itself definitely conjures up a clear image of what the diner felt like while dining, it's terribly limited in its accuracy. There are different types of bad service that occur for different reasons and discerning between them can give you a better idea of whether or not to give the restaurant a second or third chance.

I see two categories of poor service - systemically-bad service and bad service created by individuals. When it involves individuals, this is a restaurant that generally has its act together, but you happened to get a server or staff member who's generally apathetic or incompetent. This can bum out your meal, but this is a correctable problem for the restaurant. Systemically-bad service is what results from a poorly-managed restaurant that is either disorganized or chronically understaffed. This is a much tougher problem to fix, and often makes hard-working waitstaff look unfairly incompetent.

To give a quick football analogy, in one case your offense doesn't move because a receiver drops passes, and in the other case the offense didn't move because the offensive coordinator put together a bad scheme and everyone was in the wrong place. Same result - very different causes.

As example of systemically-bad service, there are two breakfast restaurants in Noe Valley that are pretty good examples. One, Pomelo, attempts to serve a very large crowd with only two waiters and no busboys. It appears that these two are the owners and they're either cheap or unable to hire from some other reason. They run around frantically with a sort of ants-in-their-pants look about them. The effort is there, but the end result is that it takes way too long for everything to occur at that place. Many people like this place, but I can't get past what a missed opportunity it is.

Another example is Toast, right down the block. They're quite new, and I generally like them, so I think they'll get things ironed out quickly enough, but they have the opposite problem - too many servers. They have a bunch of young girls running around and nobody knows what they're supposed to be doing. Whether it's waiting on a table, getting water, or clearing dishes, they have to have a conversation every time about it to see who's going to do it. The result is highly inefficient and you never really know who to ask about anything. One good staff meeting could clear this up. I hope it happens.

There are plenty of examples of poor service by individuals, and you all know what it looks like so I don't think I need to go into a bunch of examples. A recent dinner at Foreign Cinema comes to mind, but there are oodles of these.

There is, however, a combination of these two types of service that creates the absolute perfect storm of miserable dining. This occurs when you have apathetic inexperienced staff managed by idiots. The staff is disorganized, leading to poor morale for an already-incompetent staff, the management doesn't know how to fix it, and on and on. Polkers on Polk St comes to mind (even though I love their food). There are others, but I'll stop picking on people.

Usually an honest smile and some attempt at an effort makes everything alright in the end. But recognizing the cause of "bad service" can help you make a more-informed determination on a restaurant.


Sean said...

Couldn't agree more. I'm perfectly willing to forgive a restaurant if they're unexpectedly (or even chronically) short-staffed, or at the very least if they're making a clear effort to accommodate the customer. But far too often have I been stuck in a restaurant with just empty glassware and dirty plates on the table, with servers more interested in lingering near the kitchen and commiserating about whatever their beef is than taking care of my table. I'm a generous tipper, but I'm starting to get a little more hardcore when it comes to cases like these. I think we San Franciscans are generally overgenerous to bad servers, and so we propogate the problem. If the servers' livelihoods really depended on the tips, and those tips really depended on how well they did their jobs, you'd better believe the service would improve around these partes.

Holla from a fellow Noe Valleyan, btw!

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