Anne's Kitchen: A diner's diary


Anne Freeze



First things first. The recipe for "Jane's Cheese Ball" in my last column (July 5) was misleading. She had called for "2 cups of pecans, divided," but I failed to add that the pecans should be chopped. Thanks to my friend, Bob, for pointing that out to me.  


I am most definitely not a food or restaurant critic. And I'm not a professional food journalist. I do read a lot of food writing and understand that there is technique, talent and skill involved in it. That being said, I am a stickler for service. I realize that I may order a dish and not like it. But if the dish was prepared correctly and is in line with the menu description, I just write it off to not enjoying that particular item. If prepared with no care (undercooked, overcooked, plated sloppily), then we have a problem. If the server recognizes the problem and takes ownership of it, then things are looking up. If neither the server nor the manager give a darn, then we're back to the problem, but now it is magnified. Terry and I don't feel we ask for much -- just to please cook what you advertise with love and respect for the customer, be it a hot dog or a steak or sea urchin. 


We recently had two experiences in Jasper, Alabama. Our family was leaving after a week with us, and we decided to have a farewell lunch at our favorite pizza spot. This place has really, really good pizza, calzones and so on. They had moved to a new location so we were looking forward to going. We got there a little after 12:30 p.m. and were greeted with a "how many" and no smile. By gesture only, I knew to follow her to a table. The rush was apparently over, and one table had been seated before us and two after us. We recognized our server from another restaurant and greeted her enthusiastically. She got our drinks and took our order, all from the lunch specials section of the menu. And then we waited, and waited and waited.  


The table right before us and the two seated after us received their food. No one else came in. The server apologized and told us it would be five minutes. Fifteen minutes passed, no food. My son-in-law got up and approached the server to ask what the problem was. Our food arrived 10 minutes later. It was all good, and it was all hot, especially the raw-on-the-inside French fries. No manager ever came to the table to apologize. No complimentary garlic knots were sent to assuage the hunger of the kids. Nothing was taken off of the bill. Nada, nothing, zero. Just a "How's everything?" once the plates were served. We had informed our server that we needed to be leaving at 1:15. We left at 2.  






The next day I suggested to Terry that we try another Jasper spot that we've enjoyed for dinner. We had heard that they had a good lunch menu. It is tiny with maybe 12 tables. The kitchen is tiny. There are three servers and one guy who just continually bussed tables, spoke to guests and brought plates and glasses from the back to the front. He never stopped working.  


The three servers worked seamlessly as a team. We waited under 10 minutes for a table and someone approached us immediately apologizing for the wait and took our order. The food was superb! But what we both noticed was how hard everyone was working. If one server had a pitcher of water he/she made sure all tables were hit. One guy was obviously the leader and he, like the busman, never stopped moving and smiling at everyone. What a difference between the two spots.  


Terry and I discussed it as we headed home and decided the biggest thing that miffed us about the first spot was the attempt to hide a problem. There was obviously a mistake of some kind. The kitchen lost the ticket, the server forgot to put the order in, whatever. But something happened and, as I learned from eight years in restaurants and three owning my own business, it helps to look the guest or customer in the eye and just say, "I am so sorry, but somehow that order was missed; they are on it now, it will take 10 minutes to have it out." Just be honest. If it won't be five minutes, don't tell me it will. Everyone in a restaurant has to work together, from the management to the dishwasher, and there has to be communication on all levels. 




At your service 


My last example of dining out started badly and ended well. While in Blue Ridge with friends, six of us went into town to shop and eat lunch. We didn't realize that another six of us had the same idea. We both ended up at the same restaurant within 10 minutes of each other. When I walked in, two from my car were pulling tables together for a six-top, with the server fussing at them for not making a reservation because "didn't we know that Wednesday is one of our busiest days." No, we didn't know that. The place wasn't full, so I'd think they'd be happy for our business.  


The server fussed and fussed at us as we sat down. I hate being fussed at, so after a few minutes I went to the front to explain to the woman there (perhaps it was the owner or manager) that actually I had emailed a month ago to bring my whole group of 17 in, but no one responded. She just stared at me. I asked her if she wanted our business, and she said yes. So I said, "Well, then my expectations are that you smile, welcome us and let us enjoy our meal." Everything changed from that moment on. Come on, if you want our money, then act like it. 




Winning formula 


John Musa from United Deli in Columbus just won a "Best of Mississippi" award in Mississippi magazine. It was for his sandwiches, but it should have been for his smile and honest thankfulness for each and every customer that walks in the door. We go a couple of times a month for lunch (often bringing half home), and I have never been there that he hasn't thanked every customer for coming in. It is my joy to give him money for a quality product and quality service. Same for people like the perky, friendly woman who works Saturday mornings at the window at Hardee's. You know who she is. Sonya Baldwin "appreciates you" for your order, and her voice is pure sunshine. If we get up at 6:30 a.m. to get to the farmers' market at opening, then we treat ourselves to a sausage biscuit from Hardee's. I don't think I would do it if she wasn't such a pleasure to order from. 


Anne Freeze was a restaurant general manager and owner of a gourmet food store before moving to Columbus. She can be reached at [email protected]



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