Tasting every wine from 2006, a decade later
A 60 year career in a bottle of Domaine Delaporte Sancerre

Customer service lessons from an overcrowded restaurant

On the Monday between Christmas and New Year's, I called into a favorite local restaurant from my 8-year-old's soccer practice to get takeout. I had volunteered to provide dinner that night for the large group of extended family who were in town for the weekend, who were relaxing and watching football back at my house while I collected Sebastian. The restaurant I chose isn't fancy, but it's the kind of solid neighborhood place that forms the backbone of a lot of communities. Good food, an unfailingly helpful staff and no fuss. We eat there (or order from there) a lot.


This experience was pretty much a nightmare. When I called, I was asked if I could hold. Sure, no problem. But when no one came back to the phone for a minute, then two, then five, it became clear that whoever had answered had put down the phone to take care of whatever else she was working on, and then forgotten about me. I hung up, and called back. Busy. I tried again. Busy. Over the next twenty minutes, I called another half-dozen times, getting a busy signal each time. The phone was evidently still off the hook. I was about to abandon the attempt -- worried at this point I wouldn't have any food for the assembled dozen people, but without a plan B I could think of -- when the phone rang through, and was picked up. I ordered, and she let me know that because they were so busy, I should count on a half-hour for the food to be ready.

I had been planning to pick up the food on my way back home from practice, but at this point, the ordering had taken so long that I figured I should drop Sebastian back home to play with his cousins and then head back out to get the food. And it's a good thing I did. I arrived at the restaurant about a half-hour after ordering, and it was absolutely slammed. Every table was full, there were people waiting at the entrance, and the bar was full of patrons waiting for orders they'd called in. It took another twenty minutes (which felt like an hour, at this point) before I got my food and headed home to a very hungry household.

I'm a regular customer, and knew enough to cut them some slack after dozens of good experiences. But, I thought, what if I had been one of those people in from out of town, and this was my first visit? I wouldn't be writing this blog; I'd be writing a review on Yelp (if I were that sort of person) or at least telling my dozen or so assembled friends and family what a disorganized mess the restaurant was.

I realized later that this experience held two clear lessons for restaurants, winery tasting rooms, or really any other retail business with an ebb and flow of customers.

  1. Keep good records, and use them. Clearly, the restaurant was surprised by the traffic they saw on this Monday night. Should they have been? Probably not. That week is always one of our busiest of the year in the tasting room, with what feels like an entire week of Saturdays. The restaurant has been there for several years, so they should have data from past Christmases. Maybe they had someone call in sick. Or maybe things sequenced badly for them, with several big groups arriving all at once. Things happen. But they're a lot less likely to take you by surprise if you're looking at past history. This year, we saw 931 people at the Tablas Creek tasting room that very week. That was a lot. But since we had 836 the same week last year, we were prepared. Similarly, after being blindsided by exceptionally busy weekends thanks to other wineries hosting wine club events, we started a calendar in conjunction with other wineries out near us that we all share. Now, we know when to expect the overflow from an event at Justin, or Halter Ranch, or Adelaida.
  2. Staff for your peak times.It's easy and logical to look at your staffing costs and decide you can save a little by aiming to be appropriately staffed when you're averagely busy. But I think it's usually a mistake. Customer traffic rarely comes in an even flow. It comes in rushes and pauses, and a rush when you're unprepared can put you behind for some time after. But, more importantly, if you're staffed for your average traffic you're guaranteed to be providing the worst service when you have the most people there. Far better, in my opinion, is staffing for when you're busy, and being creative with your staff so they're not unproductive when customer traffic is light.

These lessons were always important. Research has shown that a bad customer experience gets retold many more times than a good one. But with the increasing popularity of review sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor, and the easy sharing of information over social media, it's more important than ever. Go back to my initial experience. If I had written this up on Yelp, how many customers do you think would have read it and decided not to chance a first visit? How many of those customers might have become regulars? Suddenly, the cost of the extra person to work the floor, or answer the phones, doesn't seem so substantial.