No Substitutions! No Exceptions! No Service!
By Roberta Nedry President & Founder, Hospitality Excellence, Inc. | June 2010
When entering any dining establishment, guests should make sure they read the fine print at the bottom of the menu. It could be an indicator of service and whether or not they'll get much. The phrase "no substitutions" may mean trouble is lurking for guest taste buds. It's always amazing when restaurants take the extra steps to actually print the word 'NO' before the guest or customer even asks. How do they know the answer is no when they don't know what a guest might ask or if it is even possible? Maybe it's a slice of tomato instead of hash browns. Maybe it is low fat milk instead of whole milk. Maybe it is romaine lettuce instead of iceberg lettuce. Maybe it is extra rice instead of beans or extra vegetables. What's the big deal? Will it really take that much time or extra effort to make the switch with staples that most kitchens have anyway? In some cases, the time the server takes to explain the "no substitutions 'policy is the time they could have been spending in the kitchen making the substitution! This is not to say that unreasonable requests should be accommodated but simple switches that require little effort yet yield big rewards in guest satisfaction should be considered.
Today's nutrition and allergy conscious world merits more recognition in restaurants as well as room service. Hoteliers and restaurants should be prepared to meet the needs of concerned guests as part of service delivery. This again is not to say that food preparation should go off course and change each dish a lot to meet all individual needs. It is not to say that food establishments should absorb more cost due to substituted items or dramatically change their kitchen operations. However, there is room for some flexibility and understanding and just plain service.
Some guests may arrive with requests beyond personal preferences. Perhaps they have allergies and must stick to a gluten-free diet so must request food free of breadcrumbs and any flour products. Others may be on a diet to lose weight and are watching their carbs (carbohydrates). They may ask that their sandwich be served without the bread, chips or French fries and substituted with a vegetable or fruit. Guests with high blood pressure must make sure foods have low or no salt. More and more guests are vegetarians and want to be able to go to mainstream restaurants and still find tasty solutions. Each of these guests may often have simple ideas or suggestions for minor adjustments that will not stress out the kitchen. They may even be willing to pay for them. Guests with food concerns are sensitive to the food choices they must make but they can become insensitive if the answer is 'NO' before they even make their request.
At a national chain restaurant, known for its fabulous pizzas and salads, two of us wanted to share a salad and order two bowls of soup. The salads were extra large so we thought that was a good way to get a taste of both. When the waitress brought the salads, she brought an extra plate. We were a bit surprised since we had told her we wanted to split the salad and had hoped she would do that back in the kitchen. We asked her if she could take it back and do that in the kitchen so it would be less messy and since they had the counter space. Her response was "no", that doing so was against management policy and there were 'no exceptions.' We were aghast. Something so simple and so easy to do to help us enjoy our meal was out of the question. Instead, she brought us extra utensils and we awkwardly sloshed the salad around until we successfully moved the appropriate ingredients from one plate to another, leaving lost leaves and dressing on the table. The extra time and aggravation it took us to do this simple task left us with a very bad taste for this restaurant.
Somehow, management had determined that the server staff needed to focus on efficiency and speed even if it meant sacrificing service. They had actually established rules to guide their team in saying "NO" to guests. Their rule of "no exceptions" led to less than exceptional service.
In the hospitality industry, guest service presents so many choices for each organization, each individual, and each moment. Those choices will affect the guest in a positive, negative or indifferent way. To make the right choices for guests, hoteliers and their employees may rely on training, procedures, rules, guidelines, leadership, experience and instincts. Presenting "NO" as a policy before employees even greet guests does not set a great tone for exceptional or even basic service delivery. It does not give employees much choice in how they can directly serve their guest. These "no" policies close the door before the guest even walks in.