Friday, March 6, 2009

Bubbles of Incompetence

(Originally posted 12/14/06)

I have long held the belief that incompetence is not merely the lack of competence, but in fact a noncorporeal entity that exists in two forms: static and transient. Static incompetence takes up permanent residence in a single person, like our current president, or a single institution, like FEMA. Transient incompetence, on the other hand, exists in discrete bubbles that shift from one location to the next, occasionally encompassing an entire establishment. How else can one explain why a favorite restaurant suddenly can’t make change, drops all their dishes, and screws up your order…repeatedly?

Actually, this time it wasn’t my favorite restaurant…it was my mother’s. A couple of week’s ago, my mother and I went out to dinner at Nick’s Patio, her favorite restaurant in South Bend, Indiana. Nick’s serves American home-style food in very large, very tasty portions, but the restaurant has become her favorite because it is one of the few places in South Bend that can accommodate her low-salt, low-fat, low-spiciness diet. Recently, the owner of Nick’s had to put himself on a low-salt diet, and he has repeatedly assured my mother that she can get a good low-sodium meal there.

But every now and then, there is a bubble.

She ordered the vegetable stir fry and told the waitress that it needs to be low salt. “No soy sauce,” she said.

“No problem,” said the waitress.

When the plate came, my mother tried to ask the waitress about the noticeable brown sauce on the stir fry. “This is no soy sauce, right?”

“Yes,” she said. “I told the kitchen, no soy sauce.”

So my mother started eating.

“Taste this,” she asked me. “Is there soy sauce in it?”

I tasted the stir fry. It actually had flavor, which is usually indicative of the presence of salt in some form. But who was I to argue with her favorite establishment?

“Um…” I said, “I’m not sure. Maybe they used a broth instead.”

My mother wasn’t convinced. After eating a third of the meal, she flagged down the waitress and asked her to ask the kitchen about the brown sauce. Eating with my mother is always entertaining.

It took a while for the waitress to get back to us. A long while. In the meantime, I had given my mother a third of my 4-egg omelette (which was low salt) so she wouldn’t starve. Finally, the waitress returned.

“It’s not soy sauce,” she said cheerfully. “It’s teriyaki sauce.”

There was an audible pause.

After my mother explained to her as politely as her New York blood would allow that a) teriyaki sauce was almost ENTIRELY made up of soy sauce and b) teriyaki sauce was extremely high in salt, she asked to speak to the owner. The owner wasn't there, so she spoke to the manager. The manager made sure that she got her meal re-made (although for some bizarre reason, it took two more times before the kitchen could get it right), and she didn’t charge us for my mother’s meal. It was very good customer service for one of Nick’s faithful patrons. If only the manager had left it there.

The manager patiently explained to us that the kitchen staff didn’t know what was in teriyaki sauce. “Furthermore,” she continued, “Most of them don’t even speak English.”

Sometimes honesty is NOT the best policy. Open letter to all restaurants that I patronize in the future: Please don’t ever tell me that a) the people preparing my food have no idea what they are putting into it or, b) nobody can accurately communicate my order to the kitchen staff. If necessary, make something up. Anything. “Oh, we’re sorry about that. The chef’s wife ran away today with the plumber, and he’s been messing up everyone’s order.” I’ll accept that. I’d prefer that.

Didn’t know that teriyaki sauce had soy sauce in it? Honestly. What did they think made it salty? Magic?

We decided to go elsewhere for dessert, and after another comedy of errors (where all of our favorite ice cream establishments were closed), we ended up at McDonalds to get chocolate-dipped cones. There were only about 4 other patrons in the restaurant, but after putting my order in, we had to wait about 7 minutes to get the cones because - and I kid you not - none of the staff knew how to make chocolate-dipped cones.

I felt like jumping across the counter and offering to make them myself. Look, I would say, ice cream…chocolate sauce…dip…twirl…done! But I didn’t. It wasn’t their fault. The bubble had simply encompassed all of South Bend, and there was nothing I could do but wait for the bubble to get bored and move on.

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