The Politics of Apologizing

No, this post is not about politics. As George Bush the elder once said, “Not gonna do it. Wouldn’t be prudent.”

This post is about an experience my wife and I had the other night. It’s about a “stuff happens” moment that was initially handled poorly and my thoughts about how it could have been handled better.

I won’t mention the name of the establishment; it’s not relevant to the story. This could’ve happened anywhere, at most any restaurant. It was a local, sit-down full-service restaurant that is very much like a “better” chain, in the vain of casual dining similar to Cheesecake Factory, or Bonefish Grill, etc., and it has to do with the length of time we waited for our meals to come to the table. For context, I think it’s reasonable to expect that you should be eating within 20-25 minutes after being seated.

It was a Saturday night, and the restaurant was busy, very busy. We waited nearly 45 minutes to be seated; the place was packed. That’s fine. After we had been seated, we received menus and our order was taken relatively quickly, and our drinks and bread were brought to the table promptly.

Then we waited. And waited. We waited 45 minutes, still no entrees. Finally, our waitress comes over and informs us the runner that was bringing our dishes to the table slipped and fell, and dropped our entrees (and hurt himself). They need to remake our dishes, she said, they were doing so quickly, and she added the manager would give us dessert on the house for our trouble.

I was immediately pissed off. Well, maybe that’s too strong a phrase. Let’s just say I was more than a little perturbed.

Stuff happens. I get it. I’m not a hard-ass about such things. Quite the contrary, I’m very understanding. We were in no rush; it wasn’t an issue. We were ok with the delay. It was the offer of free dessert that upset me. But before I get to how the manager handled the situation, I want to touch on how our waitress handled herself.

She was young. I’d guess about 20 years old. She was very sweet. She was empathetic. She obviously cared. She apologized for the mistake. But, after the mishap, we waited another 30 minutes for our dishes. It took 75 minutes for us to receive our entrees. In that ensuing 30 minutes, our waitress came over to the table several times to apologize. I realized she was flustered. Even though my wife and I were polite and understanding the entire time, she was a little bit shaken.

Years ago I read a dating advice book. One chapter discussed how to handle a mistake on a date, and the book’s advice has stuck with me all these years. Apologize once, and only once. After you apologize, you act as though the issue never happened. You made a mistake, you fessed up to it, you move on. Under no circumstances do you dwell on your mistake. When you apologize over and over, it’s like a festering boil or a nagging itch that won’t heal. It doesn’t help. Repeated apologizing has an adverse effect and makes the situation worse.

Though we sat at the table for 75 minutes she never once asked us if we wanted another drink (our glasses were empty for at least half an hour). Nor did she ask if we wanted more bread or anything else for that matter. Because she continued to focus on the one mistake—which wasn’t even her fault—she made our experience worse and ended up neglecting us. We left her a 25% tip. The irony is we felt sorry for her that she was put in a difficult situation by the kitchen.

I loathe the practice of managers offering free dessert for a screw-up. I suppose in certain, but rare circumstances it’s appropriate, but for the most part, it’s wrong-headed.

What if I don’t want dessert? And in this case, I didn’t. I had no desire to eat dessert. None. The slip-up caused us to be in the restaurant for an inordinate amount of time, and now the manager is offering that after we finish our entrees, we stay even longer and linger over dessert.

I’d much rather be comped a drink, especially considering we had plenty of time to consume another. Or, comp one entree and put money in my pocket. Comping dessert, something we may or may not want is a cop-out, and it’s cheap. It’s a lackluster, half-hearted attempt to assuage a troubled customer.

It’s common for managers to comp dessert for a snafu. Restaurant managers need to be aware of the situation, and the compensation needs to be apropos to the inconvenience experienced by the table.

The offer of free dessert came after waiting for 45 minutes, and the dishes were being remade, which would’ve made our wait about 55 minutes. As I mentioned the dishes didn’t arrive until the 75-minute mark, another 20-minute delay. The manager then did come over to our table and told us he was comping the entire meal. Everything was on the house. I was relieved, it was the right thing to do. Kudos to him. But it only happened after a second lengthy delay and the original feeble offer of free dessert.

Here’s an interesting addendum to this sordid tale. The whole time that we were waiting for them to ‘rush’ our entrees to us after the initial delay, I’m thinking to myself “I hope they don’t screw up our food.” I was afraid that there was confusion in the kitchen. Something had to have gone awry back there. I had the sneaking suspicion things were not right.

When our entrees finally came to the table, my wife received a dish she did not order. Sure enough, I was correct, and it confirmed to me that my intuition about these things is right on the money. My wife had to send her dish back (it contained cream which she cannot eat) and she waited another 10 minutes before she was finally able to eat.


2 thoughts on “The Politics of Apologizing

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