The following article originally appeared in the May 2009 edition of The Myers Report newsletter published by the firm.
Coffee Catastrophe – A Breakfast Business Lesson
By Jane M. Myers, Esq.
They are the classic “Mom and Pop” business. Diners are the office annex for countless business people who routinely network at breakfast meetings.
Owners greet patrons by name. Before the economy took a nose dive, booths and tables would bustle with repeat customers. It’s still the way to catch up with colleagues and forge new business relationships. The waitstaff know how you like your coffee and eggs. The upbeat atmosphere makes you feel good. It’s a great way to start the day.
It’s Cheers…without the beers.
For diner owners the weekday breakfast shift is a cash bonanza. It wasn’t that way ten years ago – before “networking” became a vital part of the workday. Today, the loyal business breakfast crowd is the savior of the diner business, especially since the crowds for lunch and dinner have thinned a bit. (I always ask the owners and waitstaff how it’s going in these cutback times and this is what they tell me.)
So, against this backdrop, what recently happened to me at a local diner was an astounding shock. And a valuable lesson in how not to conduct your business…ever.
A few weeks ago, a colleague and I met for a breakfast meeting at a diner where we were “regulars” and had been so for years. An easy-going neighborhood place where we’d go on weekends for lunch and dinner too. At this particular meeting, we were greeted with the usual smiles and hellos from the hostess and escorted to a window booth. It felt good, as always.
We had several business issues to address, so this meeting took a bit longer than usual. And as always when we stayed longer than usual, we planned to leave a big tip.
Neither of us was hungry this particular morning. I had coffee and one re-fill, my colleague had tea and a splash of hot water to refresh her cup – that was all. When it came time to leave, I turned over the check and saw it was close to $9 – for coffee and tea. I figured there must have been a mix up with another table. No big deal. I went over to our server to make the swap. “Nope,” she whispered sheepishly. “It’s no mistake. The owner has a new policy – if you don’t order food, you get charged for refills, at full price, plus a surcharge.”
What??? We had just been there two days earlier and that hadn’t been the case. Maybe it would have been justifiable if there were patrons waiting for our table, but I looked around and the place was practically empty.
My colleague took the check to the register and the hostess told us the same thing. We couldn’t believe it and asked to speak with the owner. We were polite. He was not. Rather, he was dogmatic and unrelenting. He let us know that coffee was expensive. He told us times were tough and that if we’d gone to Starbuck’s they’d charge us for each refill so why shouldn’t he charge us, and if he didn’t charge us other customers who weren’t regulars would demand the same break. The fact that we had been regulars for years, referred huge amounts of business by bringing in other colleagues, friends and family, the fact that this new “policy” had never been mentioned to us in advance – none of this made any impact on him. We were astonished. What in the world was he thinking???
We let him know how disappointed we were in how we had been treated. He shrugged.
Of course, we paid the check and left a big tip but the damage was done – we would not be back.
Needless to say, we let our colleagues know about this experience.
How do you treat your clients and customers?
There are a lot of other diners out there…
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Please note that this article is intended only as a general discussion of issues pertaining to the operation of a business and that it should not be taken as creating an attorney-client relationship or as legal advice with respect to any particular person, business or situation. Circumstances and the applicable legal principles vary and you should consult with an attorney and/or other professionals regarding the facts of your particular situation.