In: Business 101,
We arrived in the pouring rain. And by pouring rain, I mean torrential downpour. Because that's how Costa Rica rolls.
We didn't have a reservation–100% our fault–so we quite agreeably had to be seated in the back of the restaurant, in the billiards room, at a lone table, watching the wait staff run back and forth from the kitchen to the main dining room. Which, really, was more than fine. Our fault. We didn't mind. Hey–at least we were there. At the infamous Benedictus. Hooray!
So tall/dark & I begin to do that thing that you do when you know each other so well there isn't really a lot to talk about, but since it's a special occasion at a nice restaurant, you need to make conversation, because that's what you do on special occasions at nice restaurants (and because you never want to look like those two miserable people who have nothing to say to one another because you've always secretly picked on those kinds of people) so you start commenting on the wood beams and–look!–the type of bug that just landed on your napkin.
And then no one comes to take our drink order, prompting us to continue the charade a little longer, since neither one of us wanted to acknowledge the fact that were kinda sorta being ignored, because it's uncomfortable, because you both feel stupid.
And then still no one comes to take our drink order, so we began to get impatient. And by we, I mean me. Because, fuck, it was a long day, and as great as it was, I was just getting over a bout of bronchitis, and my contacts were stinging my eyes, and it was raining, and I was tired, and I was hungry, and we were now seated in what felt like the back of a barn, with bugs, and NO WINE–I mean, at least the wine would have helped, because wine helps everything–and then I started thinking that maybe they were punishing us for not having a reservation, but why wouldn't they just say “reservation only?, or maybe it was the fact that my blouse wasn't entirely ironed, and my hair was a little frizzy, and perhaps the people at Benedictu's only like well-coiffed tourists with British accents who make proper reservations and wear white linen pants. I DON'T KNOW.
But then finally, a frazzled, breathless waiter arrived to our table looking a bit irritated at our existence ( I KNOW MY BLOUSE WASN'T IRONED, OKAY?) and hurriedly took our drink order.
Me: What types of red wines do you have by the glass?
Me: Is that it?
Me: Okay. Cabernet it is.
Waiter: *writes furiously* *flares nostrils* *rushes away*
And so, tall/dark and I go back to commenting about the wood and trying to make conversation, which leads me to reaching into my purse and pulling out a random deck of playing cards decorated with toucans, because every girl should always carry a deck of cards decorated with toucans. Rule #11 of being a girl.
I pull a card.
Me: Guess what card it is.
Tall/Dark: Is this really the game?
Me: Shut up, what card is it?
Tall/Dark: Okay, Jack of Hearts.
Tall/Dark: Aren't I going to get a clue, then?
Tall/Dark: This is a terrible game.
Me: Whatever, we have no wine.
Tall/Dark: What's that have to do with it?
Me: I'm much more creative with wine.
Tall/Dark: You are ridiculous.
Me: You are boring.
Meanwhile, we continue to wait for said wine. We're feeling a little like second-rate citizens because we're still waiting, 10 minutes later, and there's no wine, and we've now resorted to a game more embarrassing than Go Fish, while I'm silently hoping they don't shun us even further for the playing of said cards, at said table, at said restaurant, without said reservation.
And then the wine finally comes, I restore my faith in humans, we place our order, and all is right again with the world.
Until we hear it.
The big, sweaty waiter towering over the little, helpless waiter, yelling.
Right in front of our table.
Because, you know, our table is there in the back. Where the waiters trapeze back and forth. Can I say trapeze there? I hope so, because it feels like a great word.
Anyway, I ask tall/dark what he's yelling about, since it's all in Spanish, and while my Spanish rivals that of the most fluent of Americans, I wasn't getting all of it, and obviously this upsets me, because if there's going to be any unprofessional yelling in front of our table, it at least better be good.
Turns out, it was about who called which taxi for which table. Big deal. I was hoping it was something juicy, like the little, helpless one had stolen big & sweaty's tip money. Or his girlfriend. Or his smock. Or…something. I mean, I don't know what happens in the restaurant world.
So in between arguing, the two waiters keep running back and forth from the kitchen to the main dining room, whizzing by us like Vin Diesel in a Charger. (Did you see Fast & the Furious 6? Because you should.) At one point we tried to signal for more wine, but Toretto was too preoccupied. The tension in the air was palatable between he and the other waiter, by which I mean, holy shit uncomfortable.
It was then that I saw big & sweaty fly down the nearby set of stairs, into a basement, still within ear shot, yelling at small & helpless. “I can't anymore! I just can't! I can't! I can't! I'm done!”
And men think we're dramatic.
Meanwhile, a random woman brings us our steaks, forcing a smile, as the waiter wars continued in the background.
It was then that we see big & sweaty re-emerge wearing his street clothes, by which I mean he had on a purple tank top and army shorts, which clearly makes me feel better about my blouse. He then proceeds to bound into the main dining room, gets everyone's attention, and announces to all of the guests: “I'm leaving everybody! I'm out of here! Have a great night!”
He bustles about a little bit more, before approaching our table on his way out. I clenched my heart. And probably my purse.
“Sorry, guys, see, I've got this big boil here on my leg,”–stops and points to leg as if this were the most normal way to start this conversation–“and it's hurting me, and, well, my boss thinks I'm a piece of shit so he fired me, you see, and now I'm leaving, so have a great night, and thanks for visiting!”
And we look at him sort of awkwardly and even more awkwardly say goodbye, because it's one of those situations when you really don't know what to say, because you're still in polite nice restaurant mode, but at the same time, you're also sort of mad that he's being such an unprofessional schmuck, and you don't want him to think you approve of his actions, so the resulting sound that comes out of your mouth is like a cross between a dying goose and a pre-pubescent boy.
So…that happens. We continue to try to eat our expensive steaks in peace, while faking conversation and feigning interest in each other's dishes, muttering about what the fuck a boil is, anyway, and what kind of person gets them, trying to pretend that, despite it all, we're still having the best meal ever because I'll be damned if I'm going to spend all this money and HAVE A BAD TIME.
We eventually finish up, and then proceed to wait 20 minutes for our check, because white-haired owner man, who was running around as well (and who was actually very nice), was probably having maybe the worst night ever, and he now only had small & helpless waiter, and surely we could be patient. Patience is a virtue. And…all that.
When the bill finally does come, we see that there's an extra glass of wine on it that I certainly did not order, though had I been able to get anybody's attention, definitely would have, so there's now an added layer of fun. Getting things removed from a bill when no body's working! Yay! Finally we get that figured out and wait another fifteen minutes to give someone our credit card. And then we wait another ten minutes to get the credit card back. And by then, I'm just so thrilled to be going back to my big, gushy, fluffy bed at the resort that I don't really care, but at the same time, can't help but think about things from a business standpoint. Because that's what I do. Business.
And I can't help but think about the reality that's just revealed itself, that every single person is a threat to your business, from the waiters you trust to do their jobs and be professional because you have no other choice, to every single patron that enters your establishment, because you never know who might happen to be a food critic. Or, you know, a blogger at TMFproject.
Except now, you don't even have to be a food critic or a blogger, because they aren't the only people that get heard anymore. Every one's opinion is heard–loud and clear–thanks to websites like Trip Advisor. Just ask this guy.
Which is a huge change from how things worked in the past, and that's precisely the problem–business owners aren't adapting. You like how I underlined that? Because I mean it. In the past, businesses had all the say. Businesses were the ones in control. Businesses were the ones who bought advertising to influence your opinion and businesses were the ones who controlled the message. The brand. The story. Whoever had the prettiest bill boards won. Whoever had the biggest ads in the local newspaper ruled the market. Whoever had the biggest budget ruled the land.
And the business owners who had that privilege in the past assume that's all it'll take in the future.
But the future is now, and the future is a finicky little bitch.
Because the future doesn't care about your billboards or fancy logos; the future knows that business owners say whatever it takes to get asses in the door. And that means that businesses, themselves, have less control than ever. Because when your customers don't trust what you say, then what you say no longer matters. Because what you say is no longer heard.
Who do they trust?
The guy from Vancouver who was there this past weekend and labeled it an “Overrated, money-grubbing tourist trap.” Or the girl with the blog who wrote about the big & sweaty waiter who made an inappropriate exit.
They trust complete strangers, because they know that complete strangers have nothing to gain–and nothing to lose, either.
And so ultimately, these complete strangers end up having more power to shape the business' brand than the business themselves.
And as we quietly left the restaurant that night, I couldn't help but think:
Perhaps instead of ignoring the uncomfortableness of the situation, white-haired-owner-man could have maybe apologized to each and every table with a heartfelt, “I'm so sorry–I promise we will still give you our best service, regardless” instead of a nervous face of “Please don't notice what's happening.”
Perhaps instead of charging full price for the bill, white-haired-owner-man could have maybe offered a small gesture of acknowledgment–or even a complimentary X on the house because making money in the short run is never as important as your reputation (and money-making power) in the long run.
And perhaps instead of letting people like me control the conversation, since this post will inevitably be indexed on Google, they'd step up and control it themselves. This is what things like blogs are about. And, as someone with a background in PR knows, you better believe that if I were white-haired-owner-man, I would have instantly been online writing a blog post about what happened that night with a positive, optimistic spin, to balance out the angry reviewers that are going to say far worse things that I have right now. In fact, I'm not angry about this at all. I'm a very empathetic person. I know that shit happens. That waiter? He happened. But I can't help but use this as an example to contribute to the greater, more important conversation of: Okay, so shit happened. Now what?
Because shit will always happen.
It happened to him, and it will happen to you.
The question isn't whether it'll happen; the question is what do you do when it does?
How can you gracefully preserve your brand, and in some cases, actually elevate it?
How can you make the customers that were there still have the best experience possible–despite the bullshit? (Hint: A free round of drinks for everyone wouldn't have been a bad idea. Not because I like free rounds of drinks, because I DO, but because even something as simple as a free rounds of drinks softens things. They take the edge off. They demonstrate good-will. And they make people that much less likely to feel neglected. Unimportant. Ripped off. And angry.)
Because in this case, as in many cases, those people dining there weren't just having any old dinner. They were there on their anniversary. Or their honeymoon. Or their vacation that they saved for years to be able to afford. And that meal? That experience? Was the one they chose to have one of the two nights they're in town–maybe the only time they'll ever be there in their lives. And that makes it so much more than a dining experience; it's a lifetime experience. So expectations are higher than normal. And when that's the case? You can certainly charge more, as most tourist destinations do, but you've also got to BRING MORE.
And guess what?
When shit happens, you can't cave to it.
You've got to perform in spite of it.
And that's hard.
Of course it's hard.
There's definitely someone reading this thinking, “easier said than done,” to which I'm thinking, “suck it up, because that's what it means to run your own business.” It's not just about simple supply and demand; it's about so much more than that. And more than anything, it's about finding a way to provide a memorable, one-of-a-kind human experience–whether you're selling steaks at a restaurant, or pretzels on the streets of Philly.
And when things go wrong, you've got to still provide the best experience you can. Because your ass is on the line–more than ever–and it's more vulnerable, too. And sometimes, the best way to repair a bad experience is to replace it with an excellent, generous, unexpected one. Right there. In the moment. With a whatever-it-takes approach. Because what it takes is empathy on the business owner's part; empathy to remember that the people dining in front of him are not just “tables” or “seats” or “orders.” They're the most important people in the world. And that's no exaggeration.
If you can't do that?
You have no choice but to learn.
Because while the rewards of owning your own business far surpass the bullshit?
The bullshit will win if you aren't prepared for it.
And that, in itself, is bullshit, because really?
If you're running a business you need to actually run it. And when you're running something, that means that you aren't slogging behind; you're running. And when you're running? You're two steps ahead of everything else. And when you're two steps ahead of everything else?
You'll know exactly what to do when your moron of a waiter makes you look like an asshole.
And you'll take a deep breath, shove him out the door, and take back control…before he can ever utter the word “boil.”