“Having been in the restaurant business, our job in the restaurant business is to be responsible for our customers’ happiness. It’s the nature of the hospitality business. You need to take care of people. You take care of customers above all others. Customers are your lifeblood.” ~ Andrew Zimmern
It almost never fails that a trip, long or short, manages to produce at least one of those, “we’ll look back someday and laugh about it,” moments. Consider the time that an airline ticketing agent booked Cora and I out of Portland, Oregon instead of Portland, Maine where we just happened to be. We still look back on that one but we haven’t reached the laughing stage yet. And so it was that lunch at a little cafe in Virginia City, Nevada provided us with another of those moments. This one managed to produce laughs before we’d even digested our food.
We arrived in the little silver mining town of Virginia City, Nevada, mid-afternoon of an autumn Saturday, eager to stroll the town and soak in the mining and wild west history. Before the fun though there are those customary duties to see to when you pull into your destination. Those are the mundanities of travel; finding your accommodations, made easier in these modern times by Google; checking in, inspecting the room and then emptying the car of anything that can be stolen in a smash and grab, also made easier during these modern times because modern day thieves brazenly eschew the bothersome formality of stealth. Why go through the time and trouble of picking a lock when a brick through the window is so much quicker and easier? After all, time lost is larceny lost.
The Virginia City Inn is a quaint little single level motel on the edge of town. It’s a no frills place with simply furnished rooms, each with a different historical theme. We were assigned the Miner’s Room, decorated with some paintings of 19th century miners and a few pieces of mining implements.
At the Virginia City Inn you won’t be getting a spa, plush robes or marble counters. There are no little little bars of frou frou soap or mini bottles of designer lotions that you can stash in your bag to put in that little basket sitting in your bathroom at home (C’mon, you know you do it). The Virginia City Inn doesn’t provide a complimentary breakfast buffet like you get at the chain motels; single serve boxes of Sugar Frosted Flakes, mini yogurts resting in an ice bucket, hard bagels and scrambled eggs that look suspiciously like molded rubber.
The innkeeper at The Virginia City Inn is a friendly, hospitable and helpful guy who seems to take pride in his place and just wants to make an honest buck while making you feel at home. His is a simple, non-corporate, old school, family owned motel that provides a comfy bed, a fair sized flat screen and the comfort of knowing that you aren’t sharing your bed with creepy crawlers. It’s the kind of nostalgic place that helped shape the lore of Route 66. We checked in and then went foraging for lunch. It was at lunch that we were served a heaping helping of the “unforgettable moment.”
There are two barbecue joints in Virginia City, both were open and they were both wafting that extraordinary, enticing smoke that lures potential customers from blocks away (at least the downwind customers). I’m always up for some good ‘cue but I know that Cora isn’t an ardent fan – too messy she says. When we go for barbecue, I have barbecue but Cora orders a salad.
Here’s the deal with a salad at a barbecue joint; put simply there should be a law against it. A good barbecue restaurant is the promised land for meat eaters, a society of which I am a proud member in good standing. Good barbecue requires some essential ingredients besides meat. It needs time, care and hard work to come together to produce tender juicy ribs and melt in your mouth brisket. Vegetables, they’re just a hurdle; the occasional bother made necessary to accommodate the stubborn lettuce eaters who tag along with the family carnivores.
The salads tend to be sorry affairs made of sad browning pieces of lettuce, a few cucumber slices and a cherry tomato or two, all topped with bad bottled dressing. I really wanted barbecue but I didn’t want Cora to have to stoop to a wilted salad – at least not on the first day of the trip, maybe later.
I’d noticed a little cafe that serves sandwiches and salads and seemed light and eclectic, at least by little wild west town standards. We arrived about 30 minutes before the kitchen was about to close. In retrospect we should’ve waited 45 so that we could’ve been disappointed to be greeted by a Closed sign. As it turned out the restaurant was open and we would just be disappointed.
A young lady acting as hostess/server/cashier greeted us. As it would turn out she played a pedestrian role as hostess. While hostess is more or less a bit part, the server and the cashier are two major characters. It turned out that the young woman’s performance in those two roles was lackluster at best. She wouldn’t get consideration for an award for best performance in a restaurant role.
Once she seated us she went missing in inaction. We had just about reached that dining crossroads of deciding whether to weather the server who doesn’t seem to give a damn or just getting up and leaving. We decided to wait it out; a decision that probably disappointed the staff and in the end would leave us disgruntled and lighter in the wallet.
The menu lists mostly burgers and sandwiches but the fine print noted that any sandwich could be made into a salad. Perfect for Cora. All sandwiches come with a house salad and home fries. When the server returned to grant us an audience, Cora ordered the chicken wrap and I ordered the Swiss cheese and mushroom burger. The server informed me that they were out of Swiss but they could substitute bleu cheese.
“Well, howabout I just get the bleu cheese and roasted beet burger,” I suggested.
The clock started again but I usually don’t mind waiting for my food to be cooked. Do you want your food fast or do you want it good? After a while though Cora and I started exchanging nervous glances. Did they forget about us? It’s not as if the kitchen could be in the weeds. Our’s were the only meals left to prepare.
Our food arrived and I was hopeful that our experience had reached a positive turning point. The presentation was, well, different. It had the burger and the wrap sitting in wide bowls atop dressed salads. I get the presentation thing but only to a point. While it might seem like a novel idea to have a burger sitting on a dressed salad, in the end what you get is a burger with a soggy bun.
The burger itself was underwhelming. The patty was a little waif of beef peeking shyly out from a dressing saturated bun. The salad was ample, and off to the side was a nice little pile of home fries. I looked at Cora’s lunch and noticed right off that my partner, the lettuce eater, was given a meager little salad and in what looked like a gesture, a few home fries. Was it something she said? Did she insult the cook when I was in the bathroom? Compared to my helping Cora’s was a communion wafer.
I took a bite of my burger and that’s where my teeth met up with the impenetrable object. I was at another crossroads. Either force the issue and try to bite through whatever it was that refused to yield or go mining for the offending item. I hadn’t seen a dentist’s office in town and who knows, for the sake of frontier authenticity maybe the town barber performs part time duty as the community dentist. No matter, I’m not a fan of dental procedures, particularly of the emergency variety. Deciding to play it safe I lifted the bun and found two slices of beet that had all the tenderness of case hardened steel. Clearly these beets had never seen the inside of an oven.
I looked up at Cora and remarked, ” Ya know, when you roast beets you really should turn on the oven.” I jabbed at one of the tough discs with my fork. Aside from four little indentations the little slab remained stubborn, steadfast and uncompromised.
I was halfway through my now beet-less burger when the proprietor, a man with a beard that needed some TLC came to our table. He had the flitting energy of someone who’s had one too many coffees. “How is everything?”
“Mmm, great.” I lied.
Yeah I know I could’ve/should’ve complained about the rigid slabs of root hidden in my burger and the fact that Cora’s sides were scant offerings compared to my portions but to what end? I’ll never go there again and knowing that we were tourists he likely figured us for one timers anyway. At that moment I just wanted to finish and go about my day and they seemed to just want to close up shop and go home. We were at the mutual “who gives a shit” moment.
Given the general vibe of the staff and the blatant negligence of putting a jawbreaker in my burger I didn’t figure I would get much more than a “take it or leave it.” After our return home I was made confident in that original impression by a quick scroll through Yelp. Not one of the many complaints was met with an apology or a “come back again and we’ll do better.” Every negative review was met with push back.
The proprietor did apologize for the sad bit of beef. He should’ve left it with the simple apology but he didn’t. Instead he fed me a canard to go with my burger.
“We ran out of beef. I usually like to make em big and meaty. I’m going to give you a discount.” I was dubious. He mentioned the discount a few times and every mention convinced me that in the end he was just bullshitting me. To paraphrase the bard, “Methinks he doth promise too much.”
As we were finishing, a slim, blonde woman who I took to be the co-owner, dressed in what looked like a Victorian blue gingham dress exited the kitchen and sashayed past us. From my seat I’d seen her at the stove cooking, presumably our lunch since we were the lone survivors. A few moments later I caught a whiff of cigarette smoke. Turning around to see where the smoke was coming from I saw blue gingham woman smoking at a bench near the front door oblivious of the fact that the smoke was wafting into her restaurant. Perfect.
When it came time to pay up, the girl who had been our server switched roles to cashier and asked, “What was it you guys had?” Cora and I looked at each other, incredulous. I think we were both on the edge of laughter. Were we on Candid Camera? Did the young lady in the role of server not present the tab to herself, now acting as cashier? Ask anyone who knows me, if I want to be I can be unforgivingly sarcastic and the server/cashier had just presented me with a question that begged a snappy answer; the proverbial beachball. I held my tongue. After all she just works there; well sort of.
As expected the proprietor hadn’t told the cashier about the discount and he was nowhere to be seen. That was fine. I just wanted to pay and go so we paid full ride. On our way out we passed blue gingham woman still smoking at the porch and then saw broken promise man sitting at an outdoor table. Neither uttered a thank you and come again and the man never dredged up that matter of a discount.
“While we’re on brunch, how about hollandaise sauce? Not for me. Bacteria love hollandaise.” ~ Anthony Bourdain.
The next day as we ate our dinner at the Atlantis in Reno Cora remarked, “At least they can cook here.”
“Well, you know,” I said, recalling our lunch, “that was certainly a unique dining experience. Did you notice that on their dinner options they offer duck?” I asked. Cora shook her head.
“Yep, they offer duck, something that you can really screw up if you don’t know what you’re doing or you’re just not feeling like cooking. And their breakfast menu? Did you notice all the benedict dishes with Hollandaise sauce? Undercooked eggs coming from that kitchen is a little scary.”
So maybe they don’t deserve my harsh review. Okay well they do. The trio didn’t seem to care a whit about service, quality, presentation, professionalism and in the end their restaurant’s reputation. The girl acted as if we were wasting her time, the woman who cooked and plated did a rush job and the guy who promised to give me a break on the bill lied to me.
Things are never simple, especially when you own a small business. I know that because I’ve owned a small business. It can be an unforgiving slog that dictates its own stubborn and oftentimes seemingly unfair will on the owner. There are times when it seems that the business owns the owner. You have to be committed to hard work, very hard work. Oftentimes you don’t get the luxury of sitting out a bad day because many times you’re the last man standing. You have to be willing to deal with the whole spectrum of customers and all the headaches they can bring with them.
One of those headaches is the pain in the ass customer like Cora and I who arrive just as you’re ready to start the end of day cleanup. You either serve them with the same energy and friendliness that you provided your first customer or you explain to the late arrivals that some items might not be available or you can simply apologize and admit that the kitchen isn’t prepared to make any more meals. My practice was to always make amends for my shortcomings and follow through; a free side or drink, a discount or a 50% off for the second meal. Customers like free and are usually willing to give you a pass when you’re honest and accommodating. In the end its honesty that’s rewarded with good reviews and repeat business.
Indifference and poor quality, even just once can break your business. When tourists make up the bulk of your clientele you don’t get the luxury of a do over. They come, they leave and then they give you a thrashing in the reviews. I don’t do Yelp or Tripadvisor reviews but plenty of people do and plenty of potential customers rely on those reviews.
I’ve no idea what the cook was thinking when she put those slices of rock hard beets in my burger. She was probably out of prepped beets and found herself faced with the decision to take the time necessary to properly roast the beets or come out of the kitchen and apologize for not being able to add beets. Instead she chose the third and absolutely wrong decision that it would be better to serve up a couple of hockey pucks and think I wouldn’t notice rather than own up to the truth. That was an invitation to a dental bill at best and a lawsuit at worse. And what was the proprietor thinking when he blithely tossed out a promise that he probably never intended to keep?
I’ve not mentioned the name of the restaurant in this post. For my part the owners get a mulligan. As a former small business owner I don’t feel like being a party to putting someone out of business even if that might be in their own best interest.
“So you want to be a chef? You really, really, really want to be a chef? If you’ve been working in another line of business, have been accustomed to working eight-to-nine-hour days, weekends and evenings off, holidays with the family, regular sex with your significant other… then maybe you should reconsider what you’ll be facing when you graduate from whatever six-month course put this nonsense in your head to start with.” ~ Anthony Bourdain.
I didn’t last long with my business. Not because I didn’t do well but because I was doing well. As a matter of pride I wanted to be successful but I found that in the end I prefer family time, weekends and holidays, regular hours and yes, regular sex. The decision to dump that second significant other that the business had become was not an easy one. It was an admission of sorts that I’m not the hard worker that I thought myself to be and I’m a snivelling quitter to boot. In the end I found that I could be a hard worker. I just needed the right work. As for the quitter part, I simply found that dumping that business allowed me to quit being miserable. The owners of that restaurant will arrive at the same crossroads that I came to and it might not be by choice. I wish them luck.
I do appreciate them for the “look back and laugh on it” moment though. Makes for a blog post and a funny story to tell at cocktail parties.
Note: This was originally published on October 28th. Due to a WP glitch or more likely user error the original publication fell off the grid.