I was at a premium Steak House that is part of a large publicly traded chain of restaurants. When I say premium I’m not talking Outback or some kind of mid-tier experience. This is the kind of place where a meal costs approximately $125 to $150 a person. The meal for four was in excess of $500 and we didn’t drink a great deal. For that kind of money, I would expect an absolutely stellar, and highly personalized, experience. It was nice, but far from stellar, and wherever I looked all I could see were behaviors designed to drive improvements in corporate metrics.
I’ll start with the first order error that may have been partially my fault. There was a mix up with the lobster bisque and I never received it. Even though I was told the mix up was mine, there wasn’t a synopsis of our order. I.e., our waiter, who was good other than this issue and the bread issue i’ll discuss in a bit, did not carefully make sure he had my order correct. Why not? He had so many tables to care for that he didn’t really have the time to get to know our table. Probably four or five from what I could tell and even with the assistant waiters, he didn’t stop moving all night.
I mentioned bread. There were two types, one which I think had cranberries in it, and one that was plain white bread. I had to order extra bread at least two, and possibly three times. Each time I did I asked for more baguettes, the plain white bread, which was confirmed by our waiter. Each time the bread came out the basket was filled with a combination of a couple of pieces of white bread but mostly the cranberry bread. To be fair, I don’t think this was our waiter’s fault as he didn’t deliver the bread to us. He subbed out the work to the assistant waiter, and the assistant waiter just grabbed one of the baskets that were prepared in advance. To me this was industrialization at work. It was all about throwing the bread out quickly and personalization was not something the system dealt with very well, at least not on a crowded night during the holiday season.
In lieu of a steak, I decided on the lobster mac and cheese as my main course. The mac and cheese was dry and the lobster consisted of small overcooked pieces which had a rubbery texture. You would expect this type of ill prepared food at some mid-tier restaurant, not a premium steak house which is supposed to have highly trained chefs who would know what is unacceptable. I found it ironic that I have had significantly tastier lobster mac and cheese with creamier pasta and bigger chunks of lobster from food trucks at half the price. This experience told me that the emphasis in the kitchen was more likely focused on production capacity rather than unparalleled quality.
Finally, when I asked one of my dinner companions how his meal was, he responded “it’s a steak”. I know my friend well enough to know he wasn’t impressed with the cut and was trying to be polite. I didn’t inquire further, but this was not a good sign that he was enjoying a premium dining experience that I was trying to provide. From a metric driven perspective I wondered if the steak issue had to do with keeping food costs down in an inflationary environment or if it was related to the kitchen production.
Although there seemed to be a good selection of wines and other spirits, all available in a leather bound folio, I was surprised to find that the beer menu was mostly populated by mass market selections and it was listed on a little laminated card. We live in an age that includes an explosion of local microbreweries. They would not exist if it were not for the high consumer demand for craft beers. We have at least four craft breweries and at least three distilleries in my small town alone. Most fine dining restaurant beer menus are populated by at least as many local craft beer options as there are commercial choices, and often more. It’s not uncommon to find a local restaurant to have a dozen craft beers on tap. To meet changing customer tastes, it seems to me that for every Michelob Ultra and Blue Moon, the steak house would want to have a Hugger Mugger Pour Favor and Catawba White Zombie to name some of the craft beers popular in North Carolina. For my own part, the beer menu was so disappointing I chose to only have water, and my friend, a big beer drinker, chose a Jack and coke. My guess at this decision is that there is simply much more money in fine wines and overpriced liquors than there is in a $6 craft beer. I also wouldn’t be surprised if the culture around craft beers influenced the decision to downplay the beer menu with quick and known solutions. For restaurants and bottle shops which serve craft beer, part of the experience includes tastings of all of the selections before the customers select an option. That slows down the turning of tables at a restaurant with seated patrons, something that no metric driven restaurant manager would ever want.
Even though we had reservations the restaurant was absolutely packed, I’m sure in part because of the holiday season. The layout of the restaurant seemed designed to prioritize customer density over customer experience. It was hard to get around. It seemed to me that if a restaurant is targeting the premium end of the market, then some consideration should be given to restaurant capacity and table spacing to allow easy navigation. There were also some issues with the HVAC. The temperature was uncomfortably hot at first, and when the air conditioning was turned on, it overcompensated. A vent was blowing air directly on me. The environment became uncomfortably cold to the point where I had to go back out to the car and get a sport coat because I was shivering. It seems to me that if there was more spacing for tables, bad seating locations would be known and customers located appropriately to avoid drafts. Again, I want to reiterate this is a top tier restaurant. I’d expect to freeze my rear end off at an Olive Garden, not a five star steak house.
Of course we paid much too much for the meal as it equates to our experience, but that wasn’t the only issue. I researched pricing before we committed to dinner. Unless I completely misread the menu, the actual pricing at the restaurant was significantly more expensive than advertised online. As an example, a seafood appetizer on the restaurant website showed a price of $119, the menu price was $150. The Shrimp cocktail (which we purchased) on the online menu shows $20, although my memory is not perfect, I believe the menu price was $23 or $26, I forget which. This told me that one part of the organization, the part responsible for setting pricing and keeping profitability at target levels was not talking to any other part of the organization, i.e. the web site managers. Pricing seems too important an issue to let corporate miscommunication get in the way.
When I got home I found a “how did we do?” email in my inbox asking for feedback on the meal. The concerning part about this communication is that I never gave the company my email address. I didn’t even make the reservation for the night’s meal. I believe the company somehow datamined my debit card number and matched it with my email. More than likely they pay a service that provides additional information on their customers by cross referencing credit card numbers with other information. I’m sure that there is someone from their IT department or some senior manager who’s feeling like they have provided exceptional service by connecting information on the back end and proactively reaching out to customers. For me it was creepy. They didn’t know who I was, nor did they care. I was just another data point on a metric for senior management and store management to pummel their people with. I can hear the team meeting conversation now: “Your satisfaction index is down .03% so we could miss our bonus!”
Lack of Personalized Customer Feedback:
How did I come to the conclusion that I was just a metric to the organization? I rated the experience two stars via the link in the email I received. In the comments section I left my phone number and asked for someone to contact me back. At the time of this writing, nearly a week later, I have yet to have anyone reach back out to me.
I’ve had several experiences where I’ve provided feedback to organizations that develop active relationships with their customers and there is always a personal touch back. I put in a mediocre rating one time at a pizza place where I know everyone who works there. I was contacted minutes later by the store manager, asking for more clarification of exactly what the problem with the food was and promising me my order will be correctly prepared the next time I came in.
The Big Picture:
I’ve seen this sort of thing before, the big transition from a company that cares about their customers to one that’s managed by metrics. For me the clearest example was Royal Caribbean Cruises. The first cruise I ever went on with them was amazing. Everything was ideal, and every member of the crew I interacted with resulted in a positive experience. The little touches from remembering the way I like my hot tea after dinner to double chocolates placed on the pillows all worked in concert to provide a magical experience. Then, as the years went by, I started reading articles about little changes. The specific changes, like eliminating chocolates on the pillow, weren’t as important as the volume of tweaks that were made by the company. Little by little the money making machine was honed to the point where the organization became experts at pulling every last penny out of their customers. I couldn’t turn around on my last cruise without some member of the crew trying to sell me on some drink package or some other service. I was just another metric for a large organization run by metrics.
In the end, the story with my Steakhouse concluded with me writing a letter to the CEO and sending it via priority mail hoping that someone in the C-suite would respond. That letter arrived today, technically while I’m writing this article. I’ll update this narrative with any response I get. Even if I do get a call I doubt I’ll get what I really want, which is a refund on what I feel was a sub par experience when I was expecting a premium one.
One thought that is in the back of my mind is how I wasn’t the true target customer of this steak house. They were selling a premium priced product with a corporate driven industrialized business model. They offered consistently good, but not great, quality with the veneer of a premium offering. The only customer who would understand and be happy with that experience at that price is another business. This made sense as the most crowded rooms in the restaurant were the ones hosting the corporate holiday parties.
The good news is that for every one of these steak houses there are several local options available. They will get my ‘special event dinner’ business from now on, well at least until they grow into a publicly traded chain. Then, if they also start managing by metric, I’ll respond like the customer of 123 Integration. I will inform them that their service has fallen to the point where it’s indistinguishable from their steaks after I’m finished digesting them and then go find someone else who’ll actually care about me as more than a number.
Coda: I never heard back from the corporate offices and that means I’ll never again eat at a premium steakhouse chain that uses two first names for its brand.