Friday, February 12, 2010

Addressing A Restaurant's Worst Fear

[Ed. Note: In a somewhat unusual blog entry, here is a two-part story that touches on a topic that all restaurants fear, a customer service breakdown. Every restaurant experiences it, from small coffee shops to expensive dress code enforced, four star establishments. The key to surviving is to have a strategy in place ahead of time and always remember to keep calm and above all, never forget that for every new customer that good word-of-mouth brings, many more will be turned away by bad. We all fail occasionally; it's those who learn from their mistakes that are destined not to repeat them.]

Visit The First

Today has just not been a good day for the restaurant universe. After my lengthy breakfast at a restaurant earlier in the day with my aunt and uncle, I was set to return to Miss Molly's Tea Room just off the Medina square to help celebrate my aunt's belated birthday. As I mentioned in my previous article on Miss Molly's, you'd be a fool to simply show up at 1 PM on a Saturday afternoon and expect to find a table available. Apparently this time, not even a reservation could help.

As with my visit last time, this sign was outside of the West Washington Street location of Miss Molly's, just off the Medina square:

Once we managed to find a parking space in the incredibly small and crowded parking lot next to the restaurant, we walked inside the building. Inside the front door was a mural announcing both the tea room as well as the gift shop:

My first thought upon seeing this mural was that it reminded me of the illustrations in the Harry Potter novels. Sadly, we probably should've brought one along to keep us company.

Our lunch party, consisting of my aunt, mother, grandmother and myself, promptly showed up five minutes early for our reservation only to discover literal chaos in the hallway outside of the main dining room, just down from the mural. When we've come in the past, it wasn't unusual to find ourselves waiting a few minutes with a small group of others until the hostess could process our reservation and find us a table. Today, however, there had to be at least thirty people waiting. My mother, deciding that she needed to make it through the fray to the hostess stand in order to let her know that our party was here, was met at first with no hostess and when the hostess finally did show up, was subject to not only the curtness of her remarks, but the obnoxiousness of the other patrons waiting in line.

When my mother finally got her attention, she hadn't even finished uttering two words before she received, "I'm sorry, but if you don't have a reservation, I can't even talk to you!" When my mother told her that we did, indeed, have a reservation, the hostess responded with a simple, "Oh." Clearly exasperated, the hostess then turned to the crowd in general and said, "For those that have reservations, who was here first?" A woman standing next to my mother, quickly shot her hand up in the air and most snottily exclaimed, "I was!"

It was at this point that my mother returned to our group with a defeated look on her face and confessed that the prospect of celebrating my aunt's birthday today at Miss Molly's wasn't looking good. Seeing as my eighty-six-year-old grandmother was with us and there wasn't a place for her to sit, it became apparent that we needed a Plan B. At that moment, my mother suggested another Medina square restaurant she had eaten at previously that was within walking distance. Everyone agreed that Miss Molly's had simply failed us. As the cool kids say nowadays, EPIC FAIL.

The only logical step that I could take regarding Miss Molly's was to visit their website and find the contact email so that I could tell them of my concerns. Here was the email that I sent:

To whom it may concern --

I recently attempted to have lunch at Miss Molly's. Yes, it was a Saturday afternoon at 1 pm, however, our party of four did have a reservation and we were all present at least five minutes before the stated time. What bothered me was not the fact that we had to wait. What bothered me was the inappropriate behavior of the person working the hostess stand. I will admit that the attitudes of other patrons waiting to be helped didn't much add to the pleasantness of the situation either. After getting no help and realizing that the visit today was futile, we left and went somewhere else instead.

I currently write a food blog and have written about my experience at Miss Molly's in the past. I intended to write about this visit as well, but sadly, there wasn't any food on which to comment. That doesn't mean I will be neglecting to mention my experience, however, in an upcoming entry.

As I'm sure you're aware, front of house staff needs to always be professional and calm, especially the host/hostess. This is the first person your patrons meet and if they leave a bad taste in your mouth, that can go a long way to damaging the experience for your guests.

Tom Noe

To Miss Molly's credit, within one business day I received a response from co-owner Ed Wright. Mr. Wright apologized profusely for the service we had received and acknowledged that between the tremendous amount of overbooking and all of the negative energy that only Murphy himself could muster, it all came to a head precisely at 1 PM on the day that we went. Through a series of back-and-forth emails, he laid out a multi-point plan for not only avoiding the overbooking problem in the future, but also providing staff with additional training and safety valve "releases" in case something like this were to happen again. As the original visit happened in mid-November 2009, I told Mr. Wright that I would certainly be willing to give Miss Molly's another chance after he had taken some time to implement the changes he had graciously explained to me.

Visit The Second

Roughly two months after our first visit, my mother, aunt and I decided it was time to pop in to see how Miss Molly's was running. I made a reservation for January 23rd at 1 PM (which was the identical day and time of our previous disastrous visit) under an assumed name. Since my real name had been revealed during my prior email conversation with Mr. Wright, I wanted to make sure that we had as anonymous an experience as possible. We arrived about ten minutes before 1 PM to find the hallway outside of the restaurant commotion-free and calm. While my two companions availed themselves of the ladies room, I waited and watched. A group of four women showed up without a reservation and tried to weasel their way into a table. The hostess was pleasant, but firm and said that she would unfortunately only be able to seat them around 2 PM and invited them to check out the gift shop. To be fair, the hostess today was different than the one we encountered the last time we came, but I was still glad to see that they were willing to delay walk-ins so as not to overtax the waitstaff and the kitchen.

When we finally approached the hostess stand, I gave her my assumed name and we were immediately seated at a table for four that had the good fortunate of being located toward the front of the restaurant. This gave me the ability to occasionally monitor the flow of people coming and going in the hallway. While the number of people swelled from time to time due to large parties arriving, the entranceway was never congested or impassable like the last time. Clearly they've taken steps to properly book and seat patrons in a timely fashion to keep customers moving. At the same time, none of us ever felt rushed during service, so it seems that Miss Molly's has finally struck a very nice balance.

Once seated, I took a photo of the cover of the menu:

I didn't take additional photos because the lighting in Miss Molly's is quite dim and I didn't think that the resulting photos would be all that legible. Additionally, the entire menu is posted on their website, so you can check it out there to learn more.

Truly one of the treats to experience at Miss Molly's was the tea service. They have a two-sided menu of loose leaf and bagged teas that really ran the gamut in terms of style and flavors. After we ordered our tea, they came out in individually filled tea pots (at least the loose leaf teas) with enough hot water for three cups of freshly brewed tea. Another nice touch was that everyone's tea pot and cup was slightly different, thus individualizing the experiencing for each diner. Here was a photograph of my tea pot and tea cup:

For those who have never seen one before, the strange metal looking contraption on top of my tea cup was a tea strainer and the strainer holder. You place the metal cup sitting on top on the table, thus exposing the tea strainer below. When your tea has brewed to the strength you desire, pour the tea through the strainer, thus catching the loose tea leaves and spices and then place the entire strainer in the metal cup you just placed on the table.

Today I choose a black tea infused with cinnamon and cloves:

This was a lovely cup of tea, but not quite as good as the one I had the last time I visited for a full meal. I was hoping for a slightly more aggressive cinnamon edge, but this variety was just a bit too mellow for me. Since it had steeped longer, my second cup was a bit more to my liking, but still lacked that spicy and fragrant Vietnamese cinnamon flavor I've learned to love since discovering it.

Having tried the chicken divan the last time I actually ate here, today I went a different direction and decided to try the vegetable cornbread. Seeing that it came with a cup of soup and one of their signature salads, I figured that this would be a nice way to try a variety of flavors in one meal. It seemed like only minutes before all three of our meals arrived at the table.

Here was a shot of the vegetable cornbread plate that I enjoyed today:

Here was a closer shot of the fresh homemade cornbread:

Infused with freshly grated bits of zucchini, onions, and carrots, this was a very tasty cornbread. It was served warm and had a incredibly moist texture to it. The one flavor that I felt it was lacking was a prominent corn flavor; it was fairly muted among the other tastes happening in my mouth. Along with the creamy and moist texture of this cornbread was the barest hint of an acidic flavor happening in the background. I guessed that it might be due to the addition of sour cream or buttermilk, but it turned out that the texture and flavor were due to the addition of cottage cheese. An unusual ingredient to say the least, but it worked quite well in the finished product.

Along with my cornbread, I decided on a cup of the soup du jour, chicken barley:

The soup was tasty and well seasoned and contained a nice blend of shredded chicken, tomatoes, celery, onion, garlic and herbs. The one ingredient I didn't see a whole lot of was the cooked barley. After stirring it around a bit, I did manage to find the barley, but I would've liked to have seen a bit more since it was part of the name of the soup. That didn't deter me from finishing the entire cup. Flavor-wise, it reminded me of a minestrone with chicken and barley (and no pasta, of course). The other soup selection for the day was broccoli cheese.

Finally, one of Miss Molly's signature side salads, the cranberry salad:

A combination of cranberries, apples, and gelatin, it was topped with a sweetened vanilla creme and finished with some crushed walnuts. I tasted each component by itself and each had strong flavors of their own. When I combined the cranberry salad, the vanilla creme and the crunchy walnuts, the flavors were very nicely balanced between the trio. I initially thought that it would be nice to have a little more of the vanilla creme since there was only a small drizzle on top of the salad, but it turned out that you only needed a little dab with each bite of cranberries. Too much vanilla creme and it overpowered the flavor of the cranberries and the apples.

While we were presented with an opportunity to order dessert, all three of us decided that we were pretty sated at that point and simply requested the check instead. We finished up our meal by paying the check at the gift shop in the front of the building and walked out into the sunless winter day, happy that the meal ran so smoothly today.

At the time of writing this entry, I have not had any further conversations with Mr. Wright or any of the Miss Molly's staff I encountered today as to what policy changes have been made since our last visit. However, based on what I observed today, I have to say that the service was polite, courteous and efficient. Clearly they have dealt with the overbooking issue they had the last time and even managed to accommodate walk-in patrons in the best way that they could without jeopardizing the experience of the customers who had the forethought to make a proper reservation.

While it may seem odd that I include my prior negative visit when the end result was a quite positive visit today, I felt an obligation to share a problem that all of us, whether we blog about food or not, have come across when we go out to eat. Sometimes restaurants have bad days. In the case of Miss Molly's, a bad day plus bad booking and bad customer service meant that something had to give. Management needed to really review the customer service experience from top to bottom and they succeeded in turning something that was very negative into something that is now very positive. I feel that they have now struck the right balance and I recommend that you give this charming and rather unique restaurant another look.


Mahala said...

As a fairly frequent customer at Miss Molly's, I am glad that you gave them another chance. I, too, have experienced some of what you did in your disastrous visit. And, unfortunately, the service nearly always moves at a glacial pace. But the servers always have a pleasant attitude and mostly the food is good. I think the decor has become a bit tired-looking and I wish they would address it, but I will continue to go back. I have my favorites and periodic cravings for them, so they have me hooked.

BONNIE K said...

BTW, for x-mas, I got a cannister of Hot Cinnamon Spice teabags from Caribou coffee and it is unbelievably good.

Anonymous said...

I wish you hadn't outed yourself as a food blogger in your original remarks to the owner/management, as the email response you received might not have been representative. It signaled you for special treatment--which is fine as a goal; who doesn't want that? But then it becomes a matter of wondering how people who lack media presence might have fared in a similar situation.

Tino said...

To be fair, the email response I received may have been different. However, when I returned two months later under a different name on the reservation, it wouldn't have mattered.

Anonymous said...

Point taken. I suspect it's worth trying the Tear Room again, and seeing if they truly learned how to deal with the appearance of unreserved parties. I hope that's the case. I'd like to take my 90-year-old mother there when she comes to visit in the spring, but only if every bump is smoothed out along the way.

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