"Patronize your local, even if it's a little more expensive. Otherwise, one day, it won't be there."
My mother's words, which I've adhered to for years, even when relatively skint.
But do you "support your local" when it's clearly not up to par?
I celebrated my 46th birthday by landing in NYC and taking a quick reconnaissance around the block where I usually stay.
Cool! A new eatery right outside my door!
Opened just one month, said the server, stark as a niche statue against the empty bowels of the restaurant – at lunch hour.
I looked at the sandwich board, then the menu. The sandwich board is what drew me in – it said "Fresh Fruit Mojitos." I didn't even get those in Cuba . (Aside: never underestimate the power of the humble sandwich board. It's what you scratch on it that counts. I remember one that drew a bunch of us across a busy road - it simply said: Food. Good. Signs that are jiggled around on street corners by paid human posts – don’t laugh – we all look at those to as we turn right ...).
As I went over the offering I started to get confused. "Asian Bistro" it said on the sign overhead. On the sandwich board it said "Quesadillas" and "Fish & Chips". Inside the menu were "Nachos" and "Kung Pao Chicken". I've learned that an appearance of trying to be all things to all people not only confuses, it signals impending mediocrity.
How's business? I enquired, something I can't help asking after doing the dishes in restaurants myself . The server did that tilting hand thing.
My Zagat-thumbing friends had plans for a dozen other places, but I was intrigued by this brave new business, opening right outside what NYers like to call "the projects". I like to support honest new ventures. I know business owners have way more guts than career wage-earners like me. The least I can do is promote them – as long as they're doing a good job – and bring my friends along.
Undaunted and unZagatted, I rounded up a few customer friends at a loose end and arrived at 6pm as promised.
I asked the server about some of the dishes. She didn't know about half of them, and hadn't tried most of them. Hello, restaurant owners! Your servers are your salesforce. Not only do they need to eat your food to sell it properly, they need to know what the soup of the day etc is, without running off and asking.
A server need not like a dish. One server told me "I'm not a great fan of xxxx, I prefer the yyyy because …" Paradoxically, this is far more useful that the popular and wishy-washy "Oh everything on the menu is really good." People like to be given a strong, informed recommendation, and, with the exception of very, very good restaurants, "everything on the menu is good" is rarely true.
Servers also need to refrain from dumping the check on the table without enthusing about the dessert menu, and let the diner refuse. I learned that in restaurants, sales of an extra salad means tips and whether you'll be open for business next week. Running a restaurant is not a charity.
The Cobb salad that arrived was large but mediocre – the leaves were a limp and dry, like when you open packaged arugula then shove it to the back of the fridge and discover it a week later. The ingredients were by and large what you'd taste from the markdown Safeway Deli counter. The Peking duck wraps were oversauced – with commercial plum sauce. I'm no gourmet, but in a crowded market, there is just too much competition at this level to get it wrong. You're better off opening a greasy spoon and doing really, killer, greasy spoon. In Brisbane, I saw a scruffy guy in Fortitude Valley doing gangbusters against all the fancy coffee houses. He set up a coffee bar in a virtual demolition site. He just did killer coffee. People said so. And the occasional killer croissant. You couldn't even sit down unless you were one of the two who snagged the two stools. It made me wish I drank coffee so I could copy his style and retire at 50.
I remember a friend Barney being served some traditional French provincial steak dish. The owner asked Barney for feedback. Do you really want to know, said Barney? Nod. OK, it was good, but you could slice this steak in half this way and make more money, because the traditional way this dish is served is with a wafer thin piece of steak …. Even as he spoke, you could see the owner glazing over and resenting Barney even daring to open his mouth.
Constructive feedback is so valuable, yet people are primed to be offended by it. I've known businesses to ask for customer feedback and spend all their time saying "Yesbut" or thinking "what would they know" (the eyes and hunched shoulders don't lie). They won't take free feedback from the people who are actually opening their wallets, so they pay consultants to paraphrase that feedback and still don't listen. A permanently empty Indian restaurant near my apartment in Sydney asked my advice and it was simple: Turn up the heat, light some candles, cover the cement walls with saris, just a start. Cheap ambience, I read Martha Stewart too. Weeks later I went back and nothing is done and the restaurant is still empty. I can only assume restaurants who do this are a front for drugs or laundering and don't need the money.
And one more thing – when you ask customers for write feedback, make it sound like you'll actually read the card and do something with it.
I just filled in a United Airlines survey that seemed entirely statistical - a fashion buyer told me some department stores operate that way, re-ordering purely on numbers, rather than how frightful the mohair caftan "that looks like a rainbow threw up on it" (thanks to Janet Fitch for that one) actually looks like on the average Josephine.
How do do it right? Start by reading this booklet:
by CustomerEvangelists.com duo Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba. After having it on my shelf for 4 years, and even after they mentioned Bike Friday  so many times, I am ashamed to say I only just got round to reading it fully, on the plane to NY. 18 businesses describe how they use customer evangelism in bringing their customers closer, including the correct solicitation and processing of criticism and feedback - an crucial part of the relationship.
If you only read one book this year, make it this little one. Why? It's a free download, it's short, and it's not just telling. It's showing. It's free of pomp and high handedness. Unless you're someone who can't be told a damn thing, you'll think about business differently. Now that's a rare steak.
COPYWRITING CORNER – feedback card for a restaurant.
I'm always ranting about the power of the fine copyline - it extends to every little thing people read from you – even the "wash your hands" signage in your toilets.
Your feedback is important to us. Please take a moment to tell us about your experience at xxxxx.
We like making good food as much as you like eating it.
We also want to be here when you next visit.
Please don't leave without telling us anything – and we mean anything - we ought to know right now. We won't be offended, no decent restaurant can afford that luxury. If you come back, please tear off the bottom portion card and bring it along for a complimentary dessert – and see how we've taken your suggestions on board.
Too many words? Better than too few. If you have multiple choice questions to ask, let's use the excellent example given in Testify! by the Delaware Curative Physical Therapy and Rehab Centers submission. Their simple card said:
HEY BETH! I am ...
- Pleasantly Surprised
- A Bit Annoyed
- Mad as the Dickens (though I would have written, "Mad as Hell" by I'm a spade's a spade Aussie)
Get the idea? Start re-writing stuff that people read, don't try to be all things to all people, listen to what they say, resist the temptation to kee-jerk "what would they know"? They know one thing - how to spend money that enables you to be paid.
The Gal learned more about life than how to assemble a dessert sampler as a failed waitress  and commis chef when she did the dishes in County Kerry . She also believes she found the worst salad on Route 66 .
Pictured: "Stay off the tracks! Or cop a $150 fine. So don't say you didn't know." Talking to people in their language, without being patronizing, cuts through the clutter - and they're more likely to do what you ask. That includes giving valuable feedback. Seen at Brisbane train station, Australia.