As a restaurant critic for both New Times BrowardPalm Beach (BPB) and Miami New Times, I'm often asked how the restaurants in the two territories compare, and which I like better.
I used to be able to sum it up easily. It all came down to service. Both regions had exciting eateries, but in BPB's restaurants, service was usually heartfelt and honest, while Miami-Dade's bistros and cafés came with a snotty attitude. Another factor that sometimes swayed me toward BPB was that the restaurants frequently included a house salad with the entrée, whereas every darn thing in Miami was à la carte (except for the insolence -- that was as free as tap water).
I'm no longer as confident of my reply. Not because Miami has cleaned up its act, or because BPB has stopped serving house salads. But I have to admit that the service I've been encountering here lately is akin to Miami's, and steadily growing worse.
I'm not even talking about recent run-ins with, say, the staff at the Addison. At least I was on the premises, being insulted face-to-face. No, these days, I'm getting flak on the phone, before I even step foot in the eatery.
For instance, I called White Diamond Burger to verify its address so I could publish it in Foodstuff. Without going into an extensive discussion of my modus operandi as a critic, I should say that if I'm looking for general information, I hardly ever identify myself. After all I'm just another customer, investigating a possible place to eat. I want the same kind of treatment everyone else gets.
So here's what everyone gets at White Diamond. "Hi," I said to the woman who answered the phone. "What's your address?"
"Who wants to know?" she shot back.
Confronted with such suspicion, I was tempted to tell her exactly who did want to know, but I refrained, explaining that I was a lost customer looking for the eatery. Only then did she deign to give me the address. Really, though, should a customer have to jump through hoops just to find out where the damn place is? The question is common enough; I worked for a decade in the restaurant business, and one out of every three callers was someone needing an address. Why should prospective clients have to explain themselves just to get the information that might lead them to frequent the place?
Because we're bothering the staff, I guess. At least that's the impression I got when I phoned Coffee Gallery Café in Lake Worth. I was curious about this spot and thought it might make an interesting Foodstuff. But again, I needed some details before I drove up there to sample the goods. The first thing I wanted to know was if the café was open for lunch, so that's what I asked when I called on a Monday around 11:30 a.m.
"Uh, yeah," replied the gentleman -- and I use the term loosely -- in a rather Chandleresque tone of voice. As if it were so obvious that they were serving lunch just because he'd answered the phone.
"OK, great. Can you tell me what kind of food you serve?"
"You know, lunch stuff."
Ouch. "Well, can you tell me if you have soup and salads and things like that?"
He grew even more impatient. "Look, I'm too busy right now. But I have your phone number" -- he had caller ID -- "so lemme call you back later today and tell you about the menu."
Fair enough, I thought. I had called around lunchtime, if only because they don't answer the phone until after 11 a.m. Of course he never did ring back. I gave him a week to make good and then called again the next Monday. The phone was picked up by the same guy (who, incidentally, had a voice identical to the voice on the answering machine and was Richard Kaminsky, the owner). He apparently recognized my phone number right off the bat. "Who are you and what do you want?" he screamed at me.
OK, psycho-boy, there goes your Foodstuff plug. Still, I was angry enough to reply that I had been a potential diner, but that I'd changed my mind about giving him my money. And honestly, he could have cared less. Even when I called him for a third time, at precisely 11:01 a.m. a few days ago.
When he answered the phone, I identified myself, and asked if he remembered either my phone number or the conversations. Vaguely, he said.
Fine, I told him. Good. This time, I said, I wanted to tell him who I was and what I wanted, and what I wanted to know was this: Did he treat all his customers this way?
"No," he said. "I don't know. I'm a cook and I get busy. Maybe you caught me at a bad time."
"That's a good question, that's a fair question. I have no answer for you."
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"Well, maybe you should hire someone else to answer the phone," I suggested.
"Maybe I should," he agreed.
Folks, let's look at the broader picture for a minute. The purpose of this rant is not to bash Coffee Gallery Café, though I'm still astounded at the lack of customer service on the part of its proprietor (though to his credit, he spelled his name for me). In addition to White Diamond Burger and Coffee Gallery Café, I've recently called several places where the phone was answered not with the restaurant's name but with a simple "hello" or worse, a "yeah." On two separate occasions, I've encountered staff who didn't know the address of the place where they worked and couldn't be bothered to find out.
So I'd like to suggest that owners and managers take a little more care in teaching phone etiquette on the job. And if you, the owner, know yourself to be somewhat gruff, hire someone who is not. It's that simple. Think of it this way: Every phone call is a potential customer who puts money in your pocket. Too hard to remember? Then try this: Every phone call is a potential restaurant critic, who can recommend that potential customers keep their money in their own pockets. Then maybe we'll all get a fair shake when we need an address or want to know what kind of food an eatery serves. And when readers ask me the differences between BPB and Miami-Dade restaurants, I can cheerfully go back to my original sentiment that restaurants in Broward and Palm Beach offer heartfelt and honest service -- even on the phone.