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July 31, 2008 at 9:09 AM

Sending food back: a how-to

Gaynol Flora teaches cooking for Operation Frontline and is familiar with the goings on in professional kitchens — having worked in them for the past eight years. Though she’s well aware of how hard chefs work, she says she’s still uncertain how to handle a problem we’ve all come across when dining out:

“Could you provide some guidance on the best way to send food back to the kitchen? My husband and I were dining out on a recent Friday night and our appetizer and one of the entrees was so incredibly salty they were inedible. They had a big party in the house, our server was distracted and inattentive, and the kitchen looked like it was really busy so we didn’t send the food back. Now I wish I would have been more assertive. How do you tell your server the food is bad? What’s the best way to get problems with your meal taken care of?”

Take the advice of this old waitress, Gaynol: Get your server’s attention as quickly as possible — regardless of how busy he or she may be. Failing that, hail any other service personnel walking by, whether it’s the busboy or the boss. Once you’ve got someone’s ear, tell them exactly what’s wrong and politely ask to have the situation remedied.

As an example, allow me to, er, quote from those beloved cartoon “customers,” Goofus and Gallant:

Goofus says: “WAIT-er! How about some water over here! And, yo! What’s with this salt lick disguised as a chicken breast?”

Gallant says: “Excuse me, but my proscuitto-wrapped chicken with tapanade is oversalted. Would you be kind enough to take it back to the kitchen and have the chef prepare me another?”

Goofus says: “Hey, you with the apron! When did they reel in this `daily’ catch — during the Reagan administration? And what’s with the embryonic veggies?”

Gallant says: “Pardon me, but my $32 troll-caught salmon tastes a bit `off’ and those baby vegetables are just adorable — but they’re also undercooked.”

Seeking the opinion of professionals who deal with complaints from a variety of customers like Gaynol, Goofus and Gallant, here’s what I learned:

“I’ve always been appreciative when people let me know there’s a problem,” says Guy Kugel, who handles the busy front-of-the-house at Belltown’s Flying Fish. “If they don’t, they’re doing the restaurant” — and themselves — “a disservice.” From a management perspective, Kugel says, speed is key. “They should let us know there’s a problem right away, so we can have the opportunity to fix it right away.” Yet he recognizes that it’s not uncommon for patrons to keep mum, as Gaynol did. “Sometimes people don’t want to create a problem at the table,” Kugel says. “And that’s something the restaurant can’t fix.”

He recalls receiving letters, later: “They’ll say, `I didn’t want to tell you this at the restaurant, but. . .’ and then they complain about the food.” As a manager, says Kugel, his job is to make sure that when things go wrong, they’re swiftly remedied and that the problem — oversalting in the kitchen, for example — doesn’t occur again. As a dissatisfied customer, your job, he says, is to “flag the server down, tell them `It’s a little too much this, a little too little that,'” and have the problem fixed to your satisfaction. “Any restaurant should want to send everyone out the door happy,” he says. “Because word-of-mouth” — especially bad word-of-mouth — “is a very powerful thing.”

Of course, there are those who believe sending back food, especially in a busy restaurant, means you’ll be sitting there uncomfortably while the rest of your party lets their food get cold, shares it with you, or waits for your “fix” to arrive. I’ve eaten at high-end places whose policy calls for taking everyone’s entree back to the kitchen to keep it warm, even resaucing or remaking dishes, as necessary, when one diner’s food is being repaired or remade. But you should rest assured that at any restaurant worth frequenting, your “do-over” gets first priority. That priority even has its own lingo: “Give me a burger, medium-rare, `on the fly!”

At Schwartz Brothers’ Spazzo Italian Grill & Wine Bar, in Redmond, GM Scott MacRae explains that food-fixes are “the first priority, even if we’re up to our elbows in alligators.” There, servers present the kitchen with a bright-orange “re-fire ticket” — bearing their name, the table number, an explanation of the problem and what the remedy needs to be. “It goes right to the head of the ticket queue,” MacRae says, and then “it’s the manager’s duty to run [the fix] out and make sure the guest is happy with it” — standard policy at Schwartz Brothers Restaurants.

Granted, not every restaurant has such a policy, and I’ve worked with my fair share of chefs who’ve come close to grabbing their knives when I’ve suggested they’ve put out a less than exemplary product.

Chef Jerry Corso, now working the stoves at Betty on Queen Anne and a familiar face from many of the city’s best-known restaurants (including Betty’s sister-store, Crow) notes, “We often have people send food back because they don’t like it, and that’s sort of irritating. They’ll order stuff without [carefully] reading the menu, and don’t realize there’s garlic, or pinenuts, or a certain herb they don’t like.” That said, “I generally don’t have a problem remaking a dish. If it’s not cooked properly, you should send it back.” Over the years, Jerry says, he’s had people send back dishes they think are too salty, and after tasting the dish himself, he’s quietly disagreed. “But we’ll take it back anyway and say, `Would you like something else?'”

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that, when there’s something wrong with your food, don’t eat three-quarters of the dish and then call your server over and say, “By the way, I hated this!” And if, perchance, you’ve been ignored all night while the offending dish sits uneaten till it’s cleared away, if the server doesn’t ask, “Was there something wrong with your meal?” don’t go back. If he or she does ask, please speak your mind. How service staff deals with the issue then will help make the important decision regarding whether you should return.

So, waiters, chefs, customers and anyone else who’s dealt with this problem: Have you got tales to tell about sending food back? Tips on how to do so gracefully? Feel free to dish the details right here.


Posted by saltjudiciously

10:38 AM, Jul 31, 2008

I just have to say, in response to Jerry’s comment about the disagreement a chef may have with how salty a dish is, many chefs I know (very high end fine dining at that) WAY over salt their own food and are a bit desensitized to what person who does not regularly salt their own food excessively enjoys. Nonetheless it is good to hear that he would still replace the dish for a customer. Definitely shame on customers who take advantage of a restaurant’s slim margins by eating two dishes for the price of one by sending back what are really leftovers once they are done.

Posted by gypsydjango

10:55 AM, Jul 31, 2008

Good information, I’ve always wondered how to tactfully send something back. But I also wonder how to handle a dish that is just so-so, and usually at a pretty hefty $ amount? It’s not that I don’t like it, i.e. didn’t read the menu closely, it’s that it is very average and/or unremarkable? This experience tends to influence me to not return, as one dish can sometimes be representative of the prep/chef. What say you?? Suck it up and not return, or make some mention?

Posted by AVID

1:12 PM, Jul 31, 2008

The problem, pain and embarrassment is sending it back, and then waiting endlessly for a new one. Your dining companions feel guilty to eat their perfect dinners, so they get cold. (and isn’t always at someone’s 47th anniversary, and you don’t want to spoil the moment) What do you do about that? Arg.

Posted by formerserver

1:17 PM, Jul 31, 2008

Re: gypsydjango comment, if a dish is not extraordinary or just average, that is certainly not a valid reason to send a dish back and request another. It’s worth a mention at the end of the meal, however, just because you didn’t like it doesn’t mean it wasn’t prepared properly or wasn’t extraordinary to someone else’s palate. If every diner sent back a dish because they wish they ordered their dining companions dish instead or the dish wasn’t exactly as they imagined, there wouldn’t be many restaurants in business. Just keep in it our memory back so you know that you will want to try something else the next time.

Posted by KAG

2:55 PM, Jul 31, 2008

I think you can judge the customer service status of a restaurant not only by how well they handle a good meal, but by how they handle a mistake (like a steak being overdone or not cooked to the customer’s specifications).

I always try to let the wait staff know when I have Loved a meal — so they can pass along the compliment to the chef. I think it’s important to let the chef know when he or she has put out a superior product!

On the other hand, I quite agree that you should complain right away if something is wrong with your meal. You can lean so much by how the manager fixes the problem. I don’t necessarily want the price reduced — I want the meal fixed so it tastes wonderful!

I’ve heard of wait staff doing horrible things to customers they deem as impolite or rude. I just cringe when I hear about that. I try to always be polite and treat my wait staff at any restaurant with kindness and respect. It’s a hard job — and I view it as part of my job as a customer to be a Nice Customer. No need to yell or be rude! Ever!


4:38 PM, Jul 31, 2008


Posted by A Thoughtful Person

7:41 PM, Jul 31, 2008

Great article, thank you, including advice from management in restaurants. Thank you to the many restaurant professionals that provide such a great variety of good experiences in this area. The only time I send food back is when it is contaminated by onions after I have had a careful discussion with the server to make sure I am ordering food that can be made without onions. I don’t want to create a hardship for a kitchen – if it’s too hard to make a salad with no onions, if it’s impossible to prevent “garnishing” a steak with chopped scallions, it’s okay, I just want to go somewhere else. I know onions deliver a lot of flavor for the price and so it is a cost-effective choice for restaurants, but I find the flavor disagreeable and wish there were one salad and one entree at restaurants that could reliably be made onion-free. (Vanilla ice cream is a pretty good bet!)

Posted by shoreline glutton

8:24 PM, Jul 31, 2008

Great point! If you can get the server’s attention, let them know. If you can’t, let the Manager know. I had that situation at the Daily Grill in downtown Seattle. The Manager made it right. Next time I went in, had the same server and had a FANTASTIC experience! I wouldn’t expect a ‘redo’ at McDonalds, but that’s not real food anyway.

Posted by alex

9:14 PM, Jul 31, 2008

what if they spit in your fud?

Posted by gnossos

10:04 PM, Jul 31, 2008

Twice in my life (sorry, it’s been a while and in Chicago and New York, so can’t remember the restaurants…) I was eating with friends and sort of pushing my entree around, not really eating it, like a kid with his veggies. I didn’t want to make a scene because of all the points mentioned; spoil the mood, cause others to wait, retaliation from the kitchen, etc.

But these two instances stand out because the waitperson noticed I wasn’t enjoying my meal and inquired if anything was wrong. I said, as diplomatically as possible, not really, it just isn’t what I expected, or something similar. The wait person said here, let me take it back; is there anything else that you might like to try?

In both instances they did not charge for the dish they took back nor the replacement. Which must have been on a “bright orange ticket” because it came so quickly as to not hamper the flow of my friend’s meal.

That is my definition of class dining.

Posted by Bruce

11:53 PM, Jul 31, 2008

Ironically, shoreline glutton, chains like McDonald’s will readily replace anything, in my experience. They may not smile (because there’s not much to smile about in those jobs) and the replacement will be almost as bad (because everything is bad there), but at least you don’t have to worry about offending the chef’s ego!

Posted by Bruce

12:01 AM, Aug 01, 2008

Funny thing — I usually return bad food, but a couple of weeks ago at the Paradise Inn in Mt. Rainier National Park, we were served so many horrendous dishes at two dinners that we couldn’t bear to return most of them. (We did return one berry crisp that they’d apparently forgotten to cook, although the replacement was just marginally better.) I am frankly mystified by why we didn’t complain more, though I’m even more mystified how any kitchen can produce such bad food. I think the failures were so dramatic that we abandoned all hope of something better. (I did email a complaint afterward, which not surprisingly has yet to be acknowledged.)

Posted by oversalted

1:05 AM, Aug 01, 2008

Does Jerry Corso smoke? I’ve had too many over-salted dishes cooked by people who smoke. Their tastebuds have been altered, not mine.

Posted by KevinR

8:38 PM, Aug 04, 2008

I have had several send back experiences. Funny, I have to agree that the Golden Arches may be the easiest to send food back!

At one of the Asian fusion restaurants in town, we were served Vietnamese salad rolls with the noodles undercooked to the point of crunchy. When we tried to send them back, we were told that they made their noodles al dente. They would not take it back!

I hate to say it, but the easiest places seem to be chains that groups go to to when no one can agree on what they want to eat. At a Red Lobster I sent back a rather expensive crab meat stuffed fish for being the worst entree I had ever received. A new meal was out in moments.

At the Cheesecake Factory, someone got an entree that had not been heated. Then they forgot to bring it back. They comped us all cheese cake and paid for the meal of the forgotten diner.

The nicest place in town was Teatro ZinZanni. One of the times we went there, the food was not that great. I sent an email to the manager. They apologized, and sent us two free tickets.

Remember, be nice, and nice things happen. Be rude, and you get the bare minimum!

Posted by Daphne

12:58 PM, Aug 06, 2008

The comments are two-fold when sending food back. There should not be a mistake in the cooking and the quality… When you send food back – it delays the dinner, especially when you are with quests. I do not like that. Also I would not like to have their food sent back to keep warm, because of poor cooking or quality of my meal. Here we are all waiting. I would not return to that restaurant.

The other day at Columia Bakery (restaurant) I ordered a baquette sandwich with turkey,cheese and ham. The servers had wrapped them up for the lunch hour. You could not see what they looked like…. I went outside to eat and I noticed the bread was so heavily brushed with olive oil that the lettuce was warm and wilted. I took the sandwich back and I wanted a new one made without the olive oil and fresh lettuce. I was told I would have to buy a a plain baquette for the servers to make the sandwich. It would have cost me more…. I said I wanted my money back and I was told – did you not see what the ingredients were on the sandwich. I did not see heavily laced with olive oil and wilted lettuce. The head cook was very rude and finally gave my money back.

I will not go there again. In Asia restaurants you will never get a refund if the food does not turn out right. They will never subsitute either. Very chincy.

Posted by seatac57

6:46 AM, Aug 07, 2008

Flying Fish has a good plan. He should tell his wait staff.

Posted by sherrie wilson

9:20 AM, Aug 07, 2008

A few years ago, just before they moved to Green Lake, I had something wrong with my meal at Perche’ No on lower Queen Anne. I believe we were on the way to the theater; the problem couldn’t be fixed as we didn’t have time to wait for another meal, and I was unhappy with the way the wait staff handled the situation. Since I’ve always had such extraordinary meals and service at Perche’ No and neither owner was on the premises, the next day I simply wrote them a note about the problem I’d had. I did that mostly to bring to their attention something I didn’t think the staff had handled as they would have liked. I received back a very sweet note and a gift certificate for the whole cost of my meal! Not at all what I expected and a lovely surprise. They kept my business; I still dine there and it negated the problem so completely that I no longer remember the details.


>Sherrie Wilson


Posted by Elizabeth Bullock

3:48 PM, Aug 10, 2008

Yes, I have kept quiet at the restaurant and I have asked the waiter about what the dirt was doing on my lettuce at a local chain Mexican restaurant in Northgate mall. The response was, “That’s pepper”. I asked for the manager. Again I was told it was “pepper”. I know what pepper looks like and I know what dirt looks like. After asking politely to have the salad replaced without the “pepper”, it was actually returned to me without the “pepper” but the toppings of shrimp and egg were from the previous dish as it seemed trhrown back on while the previous topping was nicely arranged. Needless to say, they have lost a customer . Should I have asked for a different choice? I may sound paranoid, but could they have spit on it in the kitchen ? By the way, I was charged full price at the end of the meal without any apologies.

Posted by Nancy Leson

5:35 PM, Aug 10, 2008

Elizabeth: That’s exactly the kind of restaurant I’d never go back to. And I’d write a “nice” letter to the management, too, regarding my dissatisfaction.

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