On a recent business trip to a popular beach resort in California, I was called upon to find a good local restaurant for two important California-based contacts who wanted to meet with me over dinner.
As it so happened, both of them liked steakhouses, and the hotel where I was staying boasted one of the top steakhouses in the area.
I made it a point to check out the restaurant: It had a gorgeous interior design, an impressive wine list and write-ups from just about every gourmet magazine imaginable. The restaurant also had a large bar area with seating, but this was clearly separated from the more formal dining area. Duly impressed, I made a reservation for three at 6 p.m.
When my guests arrived at the hotel, I was surprised to find a jazz trio playing in the bar area of the restaurant. Not bad. We sat down, ordered our meals (which, for the record, were delicious) and began our business discussions.
All of a sudden, around 6:30 p.m., the noise level from the bar rose to a level where my colleagues and I could not hear ourselves think. At the same time, the restaurant's waitstaff disappeared: We did not see a waiter for at least 15 to 20 minutes. We, along with the other couples having dinner at the restaurant, all commented on the change in atmosphere.
When I excused myself to go to the men's room, I found 35 tipsy people sitting around a large table in the bar area. Wearing Hawaiian shirts and board shorts, these people were screaming at each other, singing along with the band and breaking into choruses of "Happy Birthday" every few minutes.
Virtually all of the waitstaff was attending this raucous party.
When I asked a waitress what was going on, I was told it was a convention of surfing enthusiasts (as in "Cowabunga!" and "Gnarly, dude!") that was staying at the hotel and had just showed up en masse at the restaurant to have dinner together.
When I complained that the restaurant was ignoring its other (presumably higher-paying) guests and blowing its image as a high-class venue for expense account diners, the waitress said she would speak to the manager. I asked that someone tell the surfing party to pipe down, as they were disturbing other diners in the restaurant. The manager never showed up, the party continued in full swing and the dining room patrons did not see a waiter for another 20 minutes. Two tables of guests left the restaurant without paying their bills, and no one stopped them.
Needless to say, my colleagues were a bit put out. One of them said, "Cliff, if we had wanted this sort of environment, we could have gone to T.G.I. Friday's or Hooters! This is ridiculous for what we're paying." To appease them, I treated them to dinner. The waiter received no tip. I apologized but told him the restaurant's failure to control the surfing party might possibly have cost me much more — a relationship with some key clients (when stuff like that happens, everyone questions your judgment, not the restaurant's).
On our way out the door (the surfing party still in session, with dancing at the bar and high-volume requests for Beach Boys classics from the jazz trio), I once again asked for the manager but was told he was too busy to speak to me because he was personally waiting tables for the surfing party. I had already made up my mind to write a column about that evening; about how restaurants and other small businesses need to cultivate the image their clientele demands and stick with it, to avoid giving their customers flea-market service at Cartier prices, etc.
But that's when things — and my mood — changed.
The lady at the cash register apologized profusely for the chaos and told me: "We really had no choice but to take these surfer people. You are right, we pride ourselves on being a high-class establishment. But the tourist business has been off badly this year, and that's affected the local business community. Frankly, we're not seeing as many customers like you. When a party of 35 people shows up unannounced, unfortunately we cannot turn them away. We need their money too badly."
I'm still not happy with the way the restaurant managed things that evening. Someone (preferably the manager) should have explained the situation to me and my guests and should have offered some sort of discount (or at least a free drink) as an apology for the disruption. They should have kept at least one waiter focused on the dining room so customers didn't have to wait an hour for their creamed spinach.
Still, it's hard to fault the cash register lady's logic. Coping with troubled times often means throwing away the rulebook and doing whatever it takes to survive. Gnarly, dude.
Cliff Ennico ([email protected]) is a syndicated columnist, author and former host of the PBS television series "Money Hunt." This column is no substitute for legal, tax or financial advice, which can be furnished only by a qualified professional licensed in your state. To find out more about Cliff Ennico and other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit our webpage at www.creators.com.