Not every restaurant encourages customers to “have it your way.” I was at a new burger joint recently, one run by a young chef who had gained notoriety for cooking at high-end restaurants. And I’m crazy about his burgers. But on my last visit, a friend with a dairy allergy accompanied me. She ordered a burger that comes with several ingredients, including Raclette cheese, but asked our server to have the cheese removed. The server, without skipping a beat, pointed to a notation on the menu that said “no substitutions.”
My friend responded that she wasn’t asking for a substitution, but rather for the removal of one ingredient that would make her ill if eaten. “You don’t understand,” the server said, “the chef makes his burgers exactly how he believes they should be eaten and he won’t change them for anyone.” This was an unfortunate response, because all of the burgers on the menu come with some sort of cheese. We left the building with empty stomachs.
I know where this chef is coming from: He has a grand vision for every menu item and to alter them in any way would be an insult to his art. On the kitchen side of the counter it may make sense. On the customer side, for most, it’s pretentious crap. We’re talking about a burger. More importantly, we’re talking about the health of customers.
I’ve been to some restaurants with a tiny kitchen and a large menu. And I understand why two cooks in a tight space don’t want anyone messing with their menu because of production challenges. They’ve got their systems and routines down. Any menu alterations would slow them down. And I’ve been to other restaurants that are so wildly popular that they have made turning over seats a competitive sport. Special requests, I guess they’re thinking, would slow the entire process down, including moving customers in and out.
On the other side of the coin, I’ve eaten with plenty of people who think a menu is a toy that they can play with. Changing menu items is a game with them, and I find them completely annoying to eat with. I can only imagine how much they irk restaurants. But in the above case, there was nothing capricious about the requested menu change. It was a matter of health. And it was not a matter the restaurant in question considered. Can you not make art of a burger without cheese? I think you can.
I’ve written hundreds of columns about bad service. Almost all of the cases involved clueless restaurant owners and/or managers who were simply bad at their jobs. What’s disturbing about the case above is that the chef/owner has made a conscious decision to put himself first, ahead of his customers. If you ask him, he’s not delivering bad service, he’s delivering art on a bun.
I’d love to hear your take on this. Do you have any interesting substitution and alteration policies, or do you have a strict no-substitution policy, and if so, why? Email me.
Michael Sanson, Editor-in-Chief