‘I don’t mean to complain’ deciphered

Every restaurant will get a complaint letter eventually. In these days of Yelp and online forums one might think that the complaint letter is a thing of the past. No one really writes letters anymore, but they do send emails. If the medium for the complaint letter has changed, the content itself has not.

One complaint letter went a little something like this:

“Dear manager:

Normally I never complain but I felt it necessary to bring this to your attention. We had dinner at your establishment last week. We ordered our dinner and when it came we noticed that we had no bread. We looked around and noticed that everyone else had bread. Now we don’t eat bread, and we didn’t want bread but we felt that we should have at least been offered bread. It really ruined our experience. Just felt you should know.”

That’s correct — the sum total of his complaint was that he and his dining partner were not offered something they did not even want. Not that their table was late or that their food was overcooked or they never received silverware or they were overcharged or a million other things that can actually go wrong. Sometimes in the restaurant business, patrons are not concerned with their own experience, but instead with everybody else’s.

One time a woman pushed her way to the bar spilling the remains of her drink every which way.

“Excuse me! Excuse me!” she said.

I have noticed that the most virulent attacks always follow a platitude.

“Did you make this?” she asked waving the remains of her lemon drop around.

I nodded.

“So I guess this isn’t the kind of place that fills the drinks so full that you can’t lift them without spilling them?” she said, again spilling some of her drink.

“No, I guess not,” I said. I thought about explaining how it would be business stupid to fill a glass so full that much of the product never gets to the customer. Instead I just gave her a little more lemon drop and hoped for the best.

She watched every single drink I made from bar to table, trying desperately to discern if someone else was getting more than she, her eyes snapping back to the bar only when she was satisfied that wasn’t the case. She was poised and ready to pounce on even the slightest perceived injustice.

It didn’t matter that she had already received more (not counting the amount she spilled on her way to and from the table); she was determined that no one else should get the same.

Not how I would choose to spend an evening out, but then I don’t write complaint letters either. I also realize that I am getting more and more unique in my restaurant dealings. Just bring me my food and drink and let it be edible. That’s it. If I don’t like a restaurant, I just don’t go back; there are certainly plenty of them out there.

Recently, a restaurant manager friend and I looked at some complaint letters going back a decade and discovered the following constants. I offer them with a commentary on what’s really being communicated.

• “I never complain, but …” The biggest lie ever, especially now that it’s actually possible to determine exactly how many times someone has complained. And usually it is a lot.

• “It’s not a big deal, however ” If it’s no big deal then why write a letter? Passive-aggressive behavior at its best.

• “My friend/daughter/cousin works in the restaurant business, so I know ” My cousin is a doctor, but that doesn’t mean I know anything about podiatry. Just saying.

• “I once worked in the restaurant business, therefore I know ” A personal favorite.

• “Even though what I am complaining about could have easily been fixed while I was still at the restaurant, I didn’t say anything then. Instead I am making a fuss about it now, when it’s too late. Because I didn’t want to cause a scene.” Which is another way of saying, “I didn’t want to seem petty in front of my friends, but in private I will be as petty as possible.”

• “I am not looking for anything free.” Really? Somehow I doubt that.

There are, of course, many real complaints, too, but after reading dozens of letters like the ones above it becomes remarkably easy to pick those out, just as easy, as it turns out, as it is spotting the problem in the flesh.

As Ernest Hemingway once said, “Or don’t you like to write letters. I do because it’s such a swell way to keep from working and yet feel you’ve done something.”