When the Customer Is Never Right
In high school, I worked at a Chinese carry-out restaurant. It was my first real job and my only experience in the food-service industry. On my first day on the job, the hard-working Taiwanese owner/chef, who also was a Christian minister, told me: "The customer is never right!"
Those words have stuck with me ever since. Granted, Mr. Lin was joking in part, but he knew some customers could be nasty and very unreasonable. And he wanted me to be prepared for when the worst ones would come through. Mr. Lin would not hesitate to tell unreasonable customers—like the ones who were shocked by his usually dark brown fried rice and demanded he make a more traditional slightly brown fried rice for them—that they could leave. He had a loyal following and could afford to lose customers who just weren't worth bending over backwards for. (That being said, he would be happy make substitutions and honor most special requests in entreés. You just had to be civil about it and not make a fuss.)
So, when I watch chef Gillian Clark's YouTube videos where her General Store crew did some re-enactments of the stupid, impolite, and otherwise inane things customers can do, I'm not all that fazed. Some folks are, obviously.
First, the videos are clearly trying to be funny (even if they fall flat). Second, it's somewhat refreshing to see restaurant staff blow off some steam when they regularly have to deal with their more dense customers. So when I read the commenter from Todd Kliman's food chat earlier this week who said "this public mocking of the people who want to give her money seems to be beyond the pale," I have to laugh a bit.
Think about all the pent-up frustration that exists in the food-service industry. It's better to channel that energy on a stupid YouTube video than have a pissed-off waiter spit in your food, right?
Maybe the pair is trying to redefine the hospitality business. I don’t know. I don’t care all that much, either. Clark and Smith appear to channel all their energies toward the kitchen, not their customers. If that imbalance leaves a bad taste in your mouth, you’re likely not General Store material. I’ve learned after multiple visits just to accept that Clark’s warmth is hidden inside her dishes, whether her lightly dressed tarragon chicken salad sandwich or her chef-driven take on a Philly cheesesteak. Hell, her buttermilk fried chicken, all crunch and salty savor, is proof that a big, generous heart beats behind Gillian Clark’s moody public persona.
But I really hope that the gaggle of geese from Russia House last week pays the General Store a visit very soon. And I hope Clark records what would sure to be a spectacle.
Photo of Gillian Clark by Darrow Montgomery