Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Applebee's - horrible experience rant

Two weeks ago we ate at Applebee's in Owatonna, MN.  I had the riblette platter and it was great.  It's the only thing I order at Applebee's because I don't particularly like most of their menu.  But my wife really likes Applebee's, so I go from time to time.  Service was good, food was great, we left very satisfied.

I should also preface this by saying I have almost 15 years of experience in the food industry - 8 of which were serving and training servers and managers - plus lots of cooking, cleaning, and bar tending mixed in.

Last week Monday (day after Christmas) we went to the east side Sioux Falls, SD Applebee's - my parents had some gift cards they'd collected over time and wanted to use them up.  We arrived at 6:15PM, and there was a 20 minute wait.  Applebee's is apparently the place to be this particular Monday evening.  There were 5 of us, so we had to wait the full 20 minutes to get seated since there are fewer places we could sit than if there were two of us.  No problem, comes with the territory.  Once seated though, things started to go downhill.

The table was cleared and cleaned, but when I sat down, there was still a used toothpick about an inch from the wall sitting on the table.  And upon further inspection, while the table was still damp from being recently wiped, there were residues of the previous diners food stuck to the top and side of the table.  I pointed it out and the server seating us (not our server, and not one of the two hosts) reluctantly went and got a towel and wiped it down like it should've been the first time.

After being seated it was clear our server was busy.  Took nearly five minutes to be greeted, and another five minutes to get our first beverage.  Server was polite and answered all our questions - except she was unprepared to answer a bar coffee drink questions one of the ladies had - what drinks the bar could make etc.  This was complicated by the fact that there isn't a drink list containing any hot bar drinks.  We asked for a decaf drink with Kahlua plus something.  Never were told if or what the "plus something" in the drink was.  For what drinks cost, it'd be nice to know.  Especially since there apparently wasn't any other flavor in the drink (I never tried it, I hate coffee).

As we worked our way through the menu picking what we were going to eat we struggled to see much of anything because the lighting was down so low.  This restaurant was remodeled two weeks ago, so I suspect they might still be figuring that stuff out, but it was very dark in our booth.  When we were seated we weren't given a children's menu for our 2 year old, so it wasn't until the food order was taken that we actually got to look at the children's menu and then had to quick pick something to not slow down our server.

Food order was taken, then it was a pretty lengthy wait until the food arrived.  Probably reflective of how busy they were, but slow nonetheless.  Not slow enough to have asked the server on it, but certainly not the speed of any other Applebee's experience I've had previously.

Food arrived in two stages (4 meals ordered) and the servers bringing the food had no idea who had what.  A simple system could fix that, so they wouldn't have to ask "who had the..." on every plate but the last one.  We had wanted extra napkins, but the servers were off before we could ask.

As I dug into my riblettes, it was clear there was something very wrong.  The meat temperature was cool - like it has been sitting on the counter and never actually got cooked cool - room temperature.  The edges of a couple pieces were warmish (not hot, not a temp indicated they were once hot).  The table was so dark that I literally couldn't see if the ribs were pre-cooked to quell my fears that I had just eaten raw pork.

Good service protocol dictates checking back with your guests within the first few bites.  I waited tables and trained others to wait tables for 8 years of my life.  This bails you out because if something is wrong, you can fix it right away and the guest can still leave happy.  Our server didn't come back until 2 of the other 3 eating at the table were halfway through their meal.  I ate part of my potato and some fries (yes, two potato sides) while waiting, so at least I had food.  Ketchup was nearly empty and therefore made the farting sound while squirting - much to my 2 year old's delight.  But it took a bit of work to get out enough to use on the fries.

Server arrives, and to her credit immediately takes the plate back to the kitchen.  No apology, just "I'll get that taken care of for you" leaving me with no food on the table.  3 minutes later she returns with a new plate with a fresh potato and what I strongly suspect were the fries off my first plate because these ones are cold and soggy and look familiar.  I start back in on the second potato and leave the fries to my two year old who isn't as refined in his fry tastes.  5 minutes later a new plate arrives with riblettes that are just barely above warm.  Not hot, but at least warm enough that I'll eat a few and pray they don't make me sick because my family is now needing to head home to get our 2 year old to bed.  I can't imagine these were temped back in the kitchen and sent out having met the threshold for cooked meats.

By this point I had run out of my diet Dew, and two other glasses on our table were 75% empty of their water.  Server never once came to offer refills during the meal.  And good service wouldn't have to even ask, they'd just do it.

 At this point, you might think a manager might stop by, apologize, explain what happened and why it won't happen again or something to that effect.  But instead we get the check placed on the table and asked simultaneously if we wanted dessert. 

Thankfully the riblette platter had been removed from the bill - so I suspect at the very least a manager had been informed somewhere along the line.  Truthfully, I'd much rather have paid for the meal and enjoyed it.

Everything can and sometimes will go wrong.  I get that.  I've been there more than once as a server.  Truthfully, I'm the last person who sends food back because of it - to the point my wife gets frustrated with me because I ignore things I shouldn't have to.  While I might say something to her, rarely do go beyond that.  But this was so over the top that it couldn't be ignored.

System flaws - doesn't appear to be a greeting system in place.  When I worked at Red Lobster either one of my team members or a manager would've been to that table (and on my butt) if it sat for more than 2 minutes without being greeted.  Two-bite check-back not in place - it is critical to check back in the first few bites to make sure the food is great, and if it isn't, to fix it.  Any later than that and you can't fix the problem in most cases.  Menu knowledge is lacking - it did not appear that our server was well trained on the bar menu.  This costs the restaurant money because the server can't make suggestions and certainly can't up-sell on drinks.  Drinks are profit machines, so at a corporate level that is mindblowing.

Problems in the kitchen - there is no way you can tell me that my meat was ever temped on either plate.  You'd think at the very least after the mistake on the first that the second one would've been, but clearly not.  As a server I'd have come close to killing a cook had they not put fresh and hot fries on the second plate.  There is NO WAY I'd have walked it out of my kitchen (and yes, our own server delivered them).

Training failure/systems failure - there is no reason servers should have to ask who gets what plate unless people moved seats at the table.  Walk up to the table, first person on your left is guest one and then work your way round the table clockwise with ringing in your orders so that the person closest on your right is last numerically.  Line food up in the window of your kitchen this way, walk it out this way, and then hand the first plate to the first person on the left, 2nd plate to next person and so on around the table.  No guessing involved, even if it isn't your table that you are delivering the food to.

While it wasn't my table, the server for the table next to ours walked out with so many drinks in her hands/arms that she had to ask a guest to take one out of her hands before she could set the others down.  I can't believe they are trained to do this, and beverage trays would fix that all together.  Tacky and unprofessional.  And then there is the lack of bar menu knowledge - this too is a training issue.

Huge management failure - If I owned this restaurant I would be greatly concerned.  There were far too many problems at far too many levels - every level in the restaurant save for the hosts was screwed up.  And the manager never stopped by our table. In fact, I don't think I ever saw the manager in the dining room, and since it was a dinner rush, I suspect there were still two managers in the store if they staff anything like every other restaurant I've worked in.

Will I go back to Applebee's?  I'm sure I will.  My wife still likes their menu, and the Owatonna one has always been pretty good.  Would I return to this Sioux Falls store?  Possibly, but I would certainly be more vocal on the spot if things haven't improved.

What went right?  The other two hot meals were hot - with one being a plate of fajita's that was smoke up the room with delicious smells hot.  The salad my wife had was particularly good and had a beautiful presentation.  The wait time in the lobby was accurately quoted (which can be really a tough thing to do) and people took action to correct problems.  But the problem was, they were problems that shouldn't be problems to begin with.  I've seen enough servers to know when I get a new one (I've literally trained over 200 servers and 15 managers how to wait tables), and our server wasn't new.


Michelle said...

It's so refreshing to hear someone that really knows the meat and potatoes (so to speak) to great customer service!

Chris Meirose said...

I've trained in the neighborhood of 200 servers and managers in how to wait tables in a restaurant. That means I generally just turn my brain off when I go out to eat so as to not nitpick the server/restaurant. But there are times where it is just so over the top that something must be said.

Porter Apple Company - the parent company that owns that store and about 10 others did send me a letter (got it yesterday) apologizing and explaining that they do have a new manager there and they would follow up with it. They also acknowledged that it appears the training there is lacking. I specifically asked that they NOT comp me anything when I submitted my complaint. They did send me a couple of gift cards that only work in their group of Applebee's stores. Since I didn't want them to begin with, and I live 3 hours from their nearest store, I'll be sending them to someone else to use.

Michelle said...

Well it's good that they put your constructive criticism to use and changed management. I worked at the Green Mill for a little while as a waitress and loved it but I was extremely shocked at the lack of training they gave me and the other servers. I definitely learned a lot of extremely helpful serving facts from reading your post!! haha :)