Customer Dis-service


I recently had one of the strangest customer service episodes I’ve ever experienced. It took place at Café Bon Appetit in downtown Chicago. A group of twenty of us were eating lunch there. It is one of those places that has many food stations to choose from, then you pay for your food and find a table. There is no table service. It’s a huge restaurant. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the restaurant can seat 300 people. That is one of the reasons we go there in a big group — there are always plenty of seats.

One of the diners, who is on some sort of vegan, non-gluten health kick, had brought her own lunch. The rest of us had bought our lunch there. We found a table in the nearly completely empty back seating area. About halfway through lunch, the restaurant manager appeared. I assumed it was to thank us for coming and to ask how the food was. It turned out his mission was quite different. It had come to his attention, he notified us, that one of the diners had brought in outside food. That was expressly prohibited, he said.

I want to pause here to offer you the opportunity to guess the reason why outside food was not allowed in Café Bon Appetit…

The reason why outside food was not allowed, he continued, was because of the litigation risk: They can’t risk the possibility that someone brings leftovers from home, gets sick eating those leftovers and then sues the restaurant. If I had been thinking more quickly (and if my Minnesotan upbringing hadn’t conditioned me to say only nice things to people who work in restaurants), I would have asked whether there had ever been a restaurant anywhere in the world in the history of mankind that had been sued on such grounds. If there ever was, I can’t imagine the restaurant lost the case. I can think of some reasons why he might not want outside food in the restaurant (like seats were limited, but they weren’t limited), but that may be the single worst one imaginable.

Can anyone think of a worse reason than the one he gave? 


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  1. VBinNV says:

    “The food you brought in is clearly more appetizing than the crap we serve. Other patrons want to know where to buy it.”

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    • Nanno says:

      Nice one, only hard to believe since in this case it was “vegan non-gluten health kick”-lunch

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      • VBinNV says:

        Which might indicate the truly awful quality of the food being sold.

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      • Jennis says:

        Enlightening the world, one helpful aritlce at a time.

        [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘0 which is not a hashcash value.

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  2. rbittmann says:

    I was told at a coffee shop in the Chicago Loop that outside food was not allowed because it was a health code violation. I tend to believe the employee since she is very friendly to me and I go to the coffee shop frequently. She had no incentive to try to get me out of the shop.

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    • Bryan says:

      “bringing in outside food to a restaurant constitutes a health code violation. ”

      The health code violation would only apply to food brought into the kitchen, wouldn’t it?

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  3. Mike B says:

    In several independent situations I have heard or been told that bringing in outside food to a restaurant constitutes a health code violation. Without commenting on the wisdom of such a regulation I believe that the manager in question has either confused private lawsuits with the health code or that a private lawsuit would be made possible due to the health code violation. My question is how did this guy know the food had been brought in and why didn’t you attempt to offer a bribe or threaten to make a scene to see if you could change the manager’s payoff matrix.

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  4. jaspaw says:

    for an economist, surely the only worse reason could be “because it’s rude to bring your own food”

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    • Steven Wright says:

      “Last time I went to the movies I was thrown out for bringing my own food. My argument was that the concession stand prices are outrageous. Besides, I haven’t had a barbecue in a long time.”

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      • MattieShoes says:

        The concession stand prices are outrageous because almost all of the outrageous ticket price goes straight to the movie makers, not the theater. You’re messing with their primary source of income.

        Now, the whole movie theater business model seems wrong to me, and I wouldn’t mind seeing it changed, but I understand why a theater would not allow food from outside. It feels kind of like servers who make their money on tips. Even if I think tips in the US are dumb, not tipping is just going to hurt the server who had nothing to do with the idiotic setup.

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      • Ulysses says:

        I would never sneak in food to a theater–I don’t really need M&M’s and Coke just because I’m spending 90 minutes at an entertainment venue. I’d rather use my calorie intake on something good. But, and it maybe contradictory, I do almost always bring in alcohol, because (almost) no theather offers it.

        I have no guilt in doing this because I’m simply consuming something that is unavailable. If they did sell tall beers to bring in (as in a ball game) I wouldn’t bother with saving a marginal amount of money by bringing in my own booze.

        One can only get so drunk over the course of a movie, so I would suggest they start selling tall plastic cups of watered down Miller Lite if revenue is a problem. I personally feel offended that I can’t be trusted as an adult to have a drink–in a theater, on the sidewalk downtown, etc–and not cause a scene, break stuff, get in a fight, or even be rude to someone. Frankly, I’m a more pleasant citizen/human being, if anything, when I’ve had something to drink. But at the end of the day, the same people who slow down to 5 mph to look at a traffic stop are the ones we’d be trusting to STFU during a talkie.

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      • Kiaser Zohsay says:

        Not to get too far off topic, but workers in jobs that receive are required to report those tips for minimum wage and tax purposes. The tip that you leave (or don’t leave) is literally part of their paycheck, which gives you a small amount of control over your server’s livelihood. So in a very real sense, for the 30 or so minutes that you occupy a table in a restaurant, that person is working for you, directly.

        I try to keep this in mind when I dine out. I wish that all of the the wait staff I came in contact with did as well.

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      • Mike Hunter says:

        Amen! Some wait staff seem to feel so entitled to a good tip, they forget that it’s direct payment for a service that they’re providing. Bad service = bad tip, it’s not that complicated.

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  5. Romanna Bint Abubaker says:

    1. The primary reason i would say comes down to consistency being impossible to manage if one individual in a crowd of 20 is permitted, what about in a crowd of 10, in a crowd of 5, then in a crowd of 2.

    If everyone saw others eating their own lunch in the restaurant – people would come in groups of 2, one eating his/her own lunch and the other from the restaurant. Now it’s foreseeable that the restaurant will A. Fill up much quicker and may well have a seating problem
    B. How does the restaurant then rule on this, it becomes a headache for management to define when it is acceptable and when it is not, you can’t create rules as you’re going along and it would appear to be inconsistent treatment to all other staff in the restuarant.

    2. Food from outside may take various forms, one day someone brings in their own specialised meal as you describe, which is wrapped up and fairly inconspicuous, but what of the next day the guy brings in a smelly fishy curry?

    It would:
    A. Damage the lovely aesthetic environment and the nice scents created by the restaurants’ own foods/ efforts

    B. Be a McDonalds/KFC box which is then on display – so as people walk into/past the restaurant they don’t see the lovely well presented plates served by the restaurant, they see these ugly looking boxes? You’ve lost some business there?

    3. When you walk into a restaurant, how often have you looked over at the person behind you’s dish? It’s natural – you like to see what they have? Each filled plate is a marketing effort – so if some of those plates are people’s own concoction – you’ve also lost some marketing angle/ maybe even put some consumers off!

    Romanna Bint Abubaker, CEO Qatar Consulting Group

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    • Mike B says:

      All are perfectly reasonable reasons, but you think that past a certain proportion it would be in the restaurants best interest to let the regulation slide. If you berate one person in a large party of 20 for having brought their own food…for which there was a good justification I might add, then you not only risk offending the entire group, but also will encourage said group to find a different restaurant next time, either one that can serve the one person’s dietary needs, or will look the other way. It’s probably a case of misaligned incentives common in retail chains, but I’m still surprised as workers always have the option to look the other way.

      It makes me wonder if these health code rules against outside food are actually a form of industry collusion to prevent rogue restaurants from gaining a competitive advantage by allowing outside food under certain situations.

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  6. Marc says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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    • Joe says:

      I think the REAL reason is the manager has (in theory and title) a position of power, however he is stuck with the fact that in REALITY, his only power comes in the form of harrassing either STAFF or CUSTOMERS.

      I guess the staff were fellating his ego sufficiently well this day, so he had nowhere else to turn…

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  7. Makarand says:

    As an employee I am not allowed to bring a lunch pack from home but forced to eat here, why do you think i would allow you to eat home food?

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  8. Roger von Oech says:

    Some finer restaurants allow patrons to bring their own bottles of wine but charge a “corkage” fee for opening the bottle. Perhaps the manager wanted to charge your group a “baggage” fee.

    Cheers to all!

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