Erica Brown

Overheard In A Restaurant

Thanks for the amazing responses to last month’s “What NOT to Say” column. It simply confirms that foot-in-mouth disease travels far and wide as yet another Jewish genetic disorder. Oy. As a subset of your comments, I learned that there is a special category of what not to say if you are the owner of a kosher restaurant. Here are a few exchanges that don’t seem to work:

Customer: “This meat doesn’t seem to be cooked all the way through.”

Owner: “You’re the only one who has ever complained about this the entire time this restaurant has been open.”

Customer: “Can you please shut the door? It’s cold.”

Owner: “Well, I’m not cold.”

Customer: “Excuse me, I’ve be waiting here for over five minutes. Can someone please help me?”

Owner: “What? Do you think your needs are more important than mine?!”

Customer: “There’s a mistake in my order.”

Owner: “I’ve been working here for 20 years, and you’ve been here five minutes. Which one of us is more likely to have made a mistake?”

This is rich copy. If only it weren’t real.

In Customer Service 101, it seems that the customer is always right. In kosher dining, it too often seems that the customer is always wrong. How is that working in terms of keeping customers coming back?

I asked my good friend Marc Epstein, owner of Milk Street Café in Boston, for help understanding why this problem seems legion in much of the kosher food industry. He nodded his head hopelessly. “The dynamics are not geared to customer service. First there is the attitude that many but not all rabbis have to supervision: ‘You need me. If you don’t do what I want, I will remove your hashgacha (supervision).’ Second, the customer has driven 10 miles to eat at your place and passed 250 better restaurants than yours. The person behind the counter also knows that the person eating kosher usually has nowhere else to go.”

Why would any kosher restaurant owner get better at pleasing customers, especially in areas with few kosher restaurants? Marc nods his head. “There is no economic incentive to change a kosher restaurant, but owners could adopt a different mindset. First you have to love feeding people and then you focus on the food.”

So here’s an incentive. Love. Pride. Distinction. It seems that if you viewed providing kosher food as an expression of both love of people and love of mitzvot, you would want to do everything you can to drive the non-kosher market to join you and make the kosher market feel great about observing this tradition. As if to say, “Hey, people, this is what kosher looks like.”

In “Setting the Table,” restaurant entrepreneur Danny Meyer makes a critical distinction between service and hospitality. Service is what customers expect: food on time, food served at the right temperature, good service. Hospitality is all that you do for customers that they don’t expect that makes them want to come back. We of the Abrahamic faith know that our forefather was great at service and hospitality, but we don’t always remember to live up to that tradition.

Meyer offers this advice when a customer is unhappy: respond graciously, and do so at once. “Err on the side of generosity. Apologize and make sure the value of the redemption is worth more than the cost of the initial mistake.” Learn from mistakes and make new mistakes instead of repeating old ones. Most importantly, Meyer advises people in the people business to write a great last chapter. When your relationship with a customer is compromised, don’t let the customer leave unhappy. Turn the situation around and write the last chapter.

“Until you change the dynamics of the equation,” Epstein quips, “you have the kosher food industry that you deserve.” If you view kosher restaurants as a community service, there should be a community cost, Epstein argues, and not one borne by the vendor alone. In synagogue life today you pay membership with building funds, and there are eruv funds and mikvah funds to support community institutions you value. And if you don’t do this as a service, then make your restaurant a business. Operate as if it’s not kosher, and then customer service is critical. If it’s a chesed (an act of kindness), then the community has to share the cost. If it’s a business, then run it like a business. In business, customers matter.

And when it comes to foot-in-mouth disease in the kosher restaurant business, the customer also needs to be careful. We need to watch our pleases and thank yous, and change our orders and complain with a little more class and a lot more kindness. Marc shared this doozy he heard from a friend at an event he catered: “The food was delicious. No one can believe it came from your restaurant.”

Dr. Erica Brown’s column appears the first week of the month. Her latest book is "Take Your Soul to Work" (Simon and Schuster). 

About the Author
Dr. Erica Brown is the Vice Provost for Values and Leadership at Yeshiva University and the director of its Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks–Herenstein Center. Her latest book is Ecclesiastes and the Search for Meaning (Maggid Books).