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Worst Spills, Best Recoveries

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By Carolyn Walkup May 2013 Service

William Smith, now general manager of Jackson 20 and The Grille at Morrison House in Alexandria, Virginia, recalls some disastrous incidents from his 17-year-career—but none as traumatic as when an obese customer broke through his barstool, falling to the floor.

Fortunately, the man was not hurt, but Smith, after apologizing profusely for “a faulty stool,” moved him into a booth. He then completed the routine paperwork, and later had the restaurant’s engineers take all the stools apart and re-glue them.

The lesson was duly noted, and in future restaurants where he worked, he made sure all new bar stools he ordered were solidly reinforced.

A more common mishap is when servers spill a dark beverage on customers’ clothes. “It’s happened multiple times throughout my career,” Smith says. “Inevitably, the wine is red and spills on a woman wearing light-colored clothing.”

Typically the restaurant offers to pay for dry cleaning. However, Smith has also become a huge fan of an off-the-shelf solution: “Now, I always keep a spray bottle of OxiClean on the property—and the stain is usually gone in 30 seconds,” he claims.

For Matt Rafferty, currently general manager of Square 1682 in Philadelphia, his unforgettable spills moment occurred a few years ago during a super-busy Valentine’s Day dinner at a another fine-dining restaurant in Philadelphia where he was manager.

At the time, the restaurant was under­going an upper-management transition that contributed to the restaurant being vastly overbooked for the special occasion, which is typically one of the busiest nights of the year at any fine-dining restaurant.

“We had to rent two-tops and scatter them throughout the restaurant,” he says. At some of the tables, the tight spacing required servers to reach over customers to place food and drinks on the tables.

“We had three or four spills on that one night—and being Valentine’s Day made it even worse,” Rafferty recalls.

“That’s where the magic of human nature comes in,” he says, noting they saved many customer relationships that night because the staff acted promptly to fix the problems.

“Comping the meal is the easy part; taking on the issue as a personal challenge is tougher,” Rafferty advises. “But people are looking for a great experience, so taking care of the problem on the ground floor is the best solution.”

Inside Jobs

Accidental breakage of glassware is probably the most common internal problem, and delicate stemware is especially susceptible to breaking when it’s being hand-polished.

“If you’re not holding the stem correctly, you can snap it,” says Dena Grunt, manager at Nick’s Cove in Marshall, California. Her solution: Train employees to slow down and polish methodically—“sort of Zen-like.”

During the busiest meal times, Nick’s Cove managers designate one person to be in charge of supervising the buffing of glassware and flatware.

Another common breaking point is when glassware is washed. Despite the best-laid plans and precautions, sometimes an entire bin of 36 glasses crashes to the floor—usually when an employee is trying to put it in or take it out of the dishwasher. Both Grunt and Smith have witnessed these accidents and warn that the ensuing crash can usually be heard throughout the restaurant.

Pragmatically speaking, Grunt says, “It’s part of the restaurant business, people are going to break things.” Her policy is to be supportive of the staff and make sure they have the proper tools, such as special polishing cloths. She also encourages vendors to visit and demonstrate how best to handle their wine glasses.

In addition to breaking glass, occasionally an employee will accidentally drop a piece of flatware into the garbage, Smith notes. His way of minimizing reoccurrences is to require the employee to sort through the day’s garbage at the end of the shift until he finds the missing piece.

“Word gets out pretty fast to the rest of the team,” he says.

On a positive note, David Flom, proprietor of two Chicago eateries—the high-end steak house Chicago Cut and the newer, more casual Local Chicago—says manufacturers of bar glass are making their products twice as strong as they were 10 years ago. And manufacturers of fine crystal are “moving away from 23 percent lead-crystal content,” Flom observes, which is a good thing because “lead causes things to break.”

The down side, Flom says, is that high-quality glassware and sturdier china now costs more. However, he believes the initial extra cost eventually pays for itself.