Thursday, July 26, 2007

Going Live...!!!

For those of you clamoring for me to start producing a podcast, here's your chance to hear me: The Critical Palate will be going live in an appearance on the Jordan Rich Show on WBZ 1030AM on Saturday night, July 28, 2007 starting at midnight. Tune in, or listen to it on line at www.wbz1030.com.

A Malpaso production...

Thanks to you readers that have been contributing to this blog, by either posting comments, or emailing or talking to me about topics that drive you nuts. And yes, Michmash is correct-this blog isn’t entitled “Critical…” for nothing, so keep the complaints coming...

Just so you don’t think I only complain about restaurants, some of you have recently complained to me about the local movie theatres, from the prices, to the food (or lack thereof), quality of the film or temperature of the room. I’ve had some “great” movie experiences as well. As you all know, I like the movies, and have since I was young. The law of averages says that sooner or later, there’ll be some bad experiences. Its high time that the viewing public gets what they pay for. For the prices they charge, they should have someone view the movie for you.

Well, there are eight million stories in the naked city, this is one of them…

“Dear Sir or Madam: I am writing to express my extreme displeasure and dissatisfaction with my movie experience yesterday, November 13, 2005, at your location in Framingham, Massachusetts. I have never been met with as much rude behavior and poor attitude before, in this setting.

My wife and I took our two children (ages 5 and 9 1/2) to see the 2:30 pm showing of "Chicken Little" in theatre Number 9. When the previews began, there appeared to be a dark line running down the center of the screen; on occasion, there would appear two or three lines, but there was always at least the dark line running right down the center. I went out to the ticket taker to let him know, and he assured me he would have it taken care of. After all the previews, once the feature began, the line became even more noticeable. I again went out to the ticket taker (a different staff member this time), and was told that he would call someone to address it.

After another 15 minutes had passed, with the dark line becoming more annoying with each passing second, I again left and spoke to the ticket taker (a third time) and asked that this be addressed. Frankly, the outrageous cost of going to the movies with a family should be at least counter-balanced by showing a clean print on clean projection equipment, but apparently, that is not a concern of the management staff. After the third opportunity, with an apparent inability to address the situation, I went to the Guests Services desk; it was there that your company demonstrated its total disregard and disrespect for its customer base.

I approached the desk and two young women were sitting there. I told one of them the problem, and the other, who was not dealing with me, but another patron, said "we know about it. There's nothing we can do." I addressed both of them, asking if there was anything that could be done, to which the woman responded "I told you already, that's the way it is." I then addressed the woman I was talking to, and told her that was not acceptable; I wanted a better explanation. She responded by saying "I'm sorry-that's all I can do." I then asked to speak with the manager. The other young woman, having finished her business with the other patron (no doubt treating her rudely as well), picked up her walkie-talkie and called the manager. Not waiting for a response, she and the woman I was dealing with just walked away, leaving me standing there. Not once did they say "hold on, a manager will be right with you", or address me in any other way; they merely stood up, and walked away. Their behavior was rude, and disrespectful, to say the least.

Roger, the manager, spoke with me, but surprisingly, he did not apologize for their behavior. Apparently, rudeness and disrespect for the paying customers is a requirement to work at this theatre. Roger called the projection booth and was told that the print has a scratch and that it will likely run through the entire film, so there truly was nothing that could be done. While Roger was nice enough to give me passes in lieu of a refund for my tickets, I could not, and did not leave, though that was my preference, because by the time this resolved, we were 45 minutes into the movie, and taking my children out was not an option.

On a bi-weekly basis, I, and at least 5 of my friends, meet at this theatre to see a late movie (I usually invite over 30 people via email, and I assure you, I have sent a copy of this letter via email to that entire list, and then some). Given the dearth of quality films, we are extremely judicious in our movie choices. We go to your theatre because it is slightly more convenient than other theatres; however, within close proximity are Lowes, Regal and National Amusement theatres, in addition to a variety of independent ones. I see no reason, especially in today's economic climate, to spend money at your theatre, supporting a business that accepts such poor customer relations as part of their operating plan, when there are so many other choices readily available.

I hope that you will address these issues on a corporate level, as I believe that this is a systemic problem. If you feel the need to speak with me, or would like additional information, feel free to call me”

EPILOGUE--I assure you, they contacted me, and to their credit, they said all the right things and seemed to have cleaned up the act of the employees. The moral of the story: stand up for yourselves. As my Nana used to say-“You got a mouth, use it!”

You’ve been great. Enjoy POCO!

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

OG...Ugh!

Sometimes a meal is just so bad, so utterly awful, from beginning to end, that you feel compelled to complain, at the highest level. Sometimes you have to go all the way up the “food chain.” What follows below, is just one of those occasions. While the name of the restaurant remains anonymous, I think you all can infer where this was. Why I ever ate there to begin with is still a mystery. We haven’t been back.

“Dear Sir or Madam: I feel compelled to write you about what could be the singularly worst meal I have ever had at one of your restaurants. In fact, I have never had a good meal at your Framingham location, and I have reached the end of my rope when it comes to giving this location any more chances.

My wife and I went to the Framingham location last evening and were seated promptly. Upon the arrival of our waitress, we gave her our drink order, which did not come out right; that was the beginning of a total breakdown of this meal.

My wife has a severe allergy to dairy products, shellfish and peanuts; when she orders, she carefully details her allergies. She ordered the Chicken Marsala after being told by the waitress, who was resolute, that it was dairy free. We also asked for breadsticks without butter, and salad without cheese, with oil and vinegar dressing; the waitress assured us that it would not be a problem. I ordered Chicken with Broccoli and pasta. Within two minutes, having now been in the restaurant no more than seven minutes, our meals were on the table in front of us; yet we still have not seen the salad or breadsticks! I told the server, who was not our waitress, that I would like to see our waitress and get the salad and breadsticks. I know that you need to turn over the tables, but can I have 15 minutes for dinner?

A moment later, a manager, "Rich", came over and asked if there was a problem. We merely explained that we wanted the salad and breadsticks prior to getting our meal, which we were not quite ready to eat. I told him that we merely wanted to speak with our waitress. He told us that our waitress was having a "personal moment" in the office and that things were not going well for her tonight; she would not be attending to our table-he would. So he took our meals away, and arranged for the proper salad and breadsticks to be brought over. When they arrived, he told us that they had run out of vinegar, and he only had oil, which he brought. What kind of restaurant runs out of a popular condiment? Alas, my wife enjoyed only a partial serving of salad, without dressing.

A few moments later, Rich came over and asked if my wife was "lactose intolerant." My wife responded that she has an extremely severe allergy to all dairy (she carries emergency medicine in her pocketbook), and he said that the Chicken Marsala had a lot of butter in the sauce already mixed in, so that she would have to order something else. In hindsight, it was a good thing that the manager intervened, since he probably prevented a trip to the hospital by telling us about the butter in the sauce, a fact to which the waitress seemed oblivious. That mistake could have had severe health ramifications for my wife, and the waitress would likely end up with a more severe “personal moment.”

While my wife was picking out something else, Rich decided to sit with us, and while doing so, the other wait staff brought over our meals. Rich sent them away, and had them "remake" mine and make my wife something different. Eventually, Rich left and brought over our food, and my wife's meal was fine, but mine at this point looked as if it had spent the past thirty minutes under a heat lamp, or in a microwave; it was certainly not "remade." The pasta was hardened and crusty at the edges, and the broccoli was shriveled and had darkened spots from overheating. When Rich asked if everything was okay, we told him no, but we were not asking for new food, because who knows what type of mess would come out of the kitchen. He apologized, and stressed that he hopes we will come back and give them another try. I assured him, and now you, that we will not.

After having cleared our table, Rich came back over, and told us that he wanted to offer us a free desert as an apology for our experience. I was shocked! Apparently, we not only had to suffer through this mishap, but now were going to have to pay for the privilege! He brought the desert, and presented the check, which although did not charge us for the desert, did charge us for the rest of the meal! I guess along with poor service, I should expect poor customer relations as well. After all my experiences with this XXX, I assure you I expect nothing more.

Your new ad campaign says “when you’re here, you’re family.” If this is how you treat family, I prefer to be a stranger.

The Framingham XXX is a disgrace to your chain; I hope you address their problems.” With so many family restaurants in Framingham, you give people little reason to patronize the XXX.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Stepford Food...

Back in 1989, Elayne and I were at EPCOT Center in Orlando, riding through “The Land” pavilion (I can still hear the song in my head, with this catchy little chorus: Let’s listen to the land we all love. Nature’s plan will shine above. Listen to the land, listen to the land…”). That is an interesting place, because it purports to show natural foods being grown in unnatural ways. Watching tomatoes, lettuce and cucumbers grow upside down without soil, with tiny water drops falling on them reminds me of something out of “Sleeper”. Interesting, but creepy. Then again, that’s what everybody says about Woody Allen.

It got me thinking, that while it would be nice to have a easily sustainable food supply regardless of soil quality or water quantity, my experiences eating out lead me to conclude that most restaurants have moved to mass-produced, commissary-style food. In fact, we’re a half-step away from reaching into our refrigerators and grabbing a can marked “Food” and just digging in, like in “Repo Man.”

You know what I’m talking about: rolls that are exactly the same no matter what restaurant you go to, vegetables that are perfectly cut and cubed, food that gives you the sense that it was prepared a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…There isn’t a chain restaurant that doesn’t throw off that vibe to me. Whether it’s the salad bar at Ruby Tuesday (you know that the lettuce was in a bag in back or that the egg salad was cubed and mixed somewhere else, like Bayonne, New Jersey), or the vegetables at the Olive Garden that are always cut oh, so perfectly, where if they put enough dressing on the salad, it’ll wash away the smell of the rot. Some of those salads look like they were made before olive trees were discovered.

There is something very unsatisfying in eating pre-fabricated food. Unfortunately, most places seem to use partially prepared foods and I know that I can do better. While I might enjoy pre-fab homes and pre-fab concrete; pre-fab food, not so much.

This idea extends to the d├ęcor of restaurants too. I understand that massive chain restaurants rely on their familiarity so that all the outlets essentially have to look the same, whether in Framingham, Massachusetts or Cortland, New York. But whom does Applebee’s think it’s kidding? That goofy commercial where they have the coach hang the picture of himself on the wall-the only reason he has a tear in his eye is because he knows what food is coming. He’s thinking “For the love of Moses, can’t we go somewhere for real food, like Subway”!?

Speaking of Subway, how pathetic is their quality control? It appears as if they only allow the employees to put three thin slices of turkey on a sandwich, folded in half to make it look thicker. Then they load it up with lettuce and other vegetables that they shipped in a month ago. The icing on this cake is when they bag your food, and they slip in one napkin! G-d help you if you’re a sloppy eater and need 2! Finding a napkin in a Subway is harder than getting an audience with the Pope.

The long and short of it is, until we stop patronizing these places, until we stop buying into the propaganda machine that tells us that Ruby Tuesday is now making “steak burgers” and has a “fresh” salad bar, and that at the Olive Garden, we’re “family” (maybe so, if you’re the Mansons), we’ll be getting our food from a plastic bag, or a Styrofoam container, heated up in a microwave, or boiled in a bag, just like the Pilgrims and my Grandma used to make…

Now if you’ll excuse me, my Soylent green is ready.

You've been a great audience. Enjoy Shields and Yarnell...

Monday, July 2, 2007

To Insure Proper Service

Once again, a “mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa” to all my peeps who have been clamoring for most posts (or for me to kill this blog.) Sometimes, even with all good intentions and planning, life just gets in the way. But alas, I have returned, with my fingers intact and ready to roll across the keyboard…

One thing that hasn’t really troubled me until recently is the “tip jar.” However, like Bob Costas, they seem to be popping up everywhere and now I am getting irritated. My sister is really anti-tip jar, and I think I am starting to agree. I set before you two examples:

First, (dunkin donuts)…so I was at Dunkin Donuts a few weeks back, and I order a medium iced coffee, with cream and two “splenda” (for those of you thinking of bringing me a delightful beverage…I also take the “venti” iced coffee at Starbucks the same way); the total comes to $2.06. I give the girl three singles and she says “thank you”, puts the cash in the register and then puts MY change in the tip cup. Doesn’t offer it to me or even look at me, but just dumps the coinage into the tip cup and walks away. Is it me, or does pouring me an iced coffee for a $1.98 plus tax warrant a 94-cent tip? Never mind the audacity of just taking my money! It’s legalized larceny! A license to extort!

As an aside, I should say that I usually load a Starbucks card and use that to pay for my coffee. By doing so, there’s never really an opportunity to drop any change in the tip jars. Starbucks is a little different that Dunkin’ Donuts in my mind, and I refer you back to my earlier postings explaining why. Especially nice is that by the time I’m at the front of the line, my Venti Iced Coffee is waiting for me. That’s what happens when you spend as much time there as I do. These “baristas”, whom I know by name, and who know mine, are a little more focused on the “experience”, and deserve a little token now and then. So last week, I ordered my coffee, paid with three dollars, and dumped all the change into the jar.

But today, the Starbucks tip cup has reached a new low. Up in Haverhill, Massachusetts, there is a freestanding Starbucks, WITH a drive-through; I had to go and see this for myself. Like moth to flame, I sought out my personal grail, the siren song of the espresso machine serenading me right into the drive-through lane. I ordered, and commented to Elayne that I am unsure how I am going to like my Starbuck drive-through experience. When I pull up to the window, I pay, but I see, OUTSIDE the window, on a shelf…a tip cup!!!! For some reason, this just seems to be a bit brash. The tip jar concept has now reached an all-time low. They might as well have a guy standing there with his hand out!

This makes me wonder who’s next to whip out a tip cup; how far will this go? Given the way of the tip cup, I have to wonder if retail clerks at places like Barnes and Noble, or Wal-Mart, will start to put out tip cups. (Sure, let me shop for myself, load my cart, put it on the conveyor belt…but of course, you deserve a tip for checking me out). Do I tip the deli clerk, because he changed his gloves between slicing cheese and slicing the turkey? Do I tip the clerk at the Exxon station when I go pay inside? How about the checkout clerk at the take-out restaurant? They hand me the food, and I noticed a tip line on my charge slip-am I supposed to tip them too?

My friend Lynne mentioned that it irritates her when she sees tip cups with “college tuition” written on it-that’s why they’re working!

With all these tip jars popping up, maybe its time for me to put one out too.

Feel free to post your own thoughts on this.

Apropos of nothing: I was in line at Stop & Shop yesterday, and the person checking out in front of me has a huge cartfull of food. The total comes to over $200.00. The person hands her $60.00 (3-20s) in cash, and says “I’ll put the rest on my debit card.” So the clerk takes the cash, processes the debit, and says “hit ‘no’ on the ‘cash back’ screen” and the person says “but I want $20.00 back!” The clerk says “Are you serious?” The person was dead serious, and took the $20.00 back.

Now, he deserved a tip for that!!!

Gratuitous shout-out: For all your auto repairs, Japanese and domestic, try my buddies Dave and Bob at “Speen Street Automotive”. Good, honest opinions and work, at fair prices. (508) 620-0005. Tell them I sent you.

You’ve been great-and now…Gino Vanelli.