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The customer is no longer always right

Have it your way? How 1970s. A growing cadre of restaurants is just saying no to diners and the traditional “customer is always right” modus operandi. They’re saying no to kids, credit cards and perfume, to cell phones, cameras and to lingering too long. Even, in the case of Rogue24 in Washington, D.C., to holding tables without a reservation agreement that prospective guests must sign and return within 72 hours of making a reservation. They’re thumbing their noses at the have-it-your-way generation and setting their own rules, despite the considerable risk of offending some guests.

At Santa Fe’s 60-seat Nostrani Ristorante, owner Eric Stapelman put a no-fragrance rule into play three years after opening. Anyone arriving for dinner smelling of perfume will be politely turned away. “At first, customer response was ‘WHAT?!,’ but now 95 percent of the people have heard and are okay with it. The other 5 percent, however, are the ones that go online and really blast you.”

Nostrani, which touts a 6,000-bottle wine collection and organic produce grown on-site, is now billed as a “safe haven” for both chemical allergy sufferers and serious food and wine enthusiasts. While the policy ticks some people off—in one extreme case an incensed guest refused to leave until Stapelman called the cops—he says check averages are up 35 percent since he lowered the boom on perfume. He correlates the increase directly to guests’ increased comfort in ordering high-end wines. “They can enjoy a great wine and not be encumbered by some strong, stinky perfume.”

A less radical house rule than Stapelman’s, though one that has generated a lot of buzz lately, is no kids. And it’s one that seems to be picking up momentum. At Sprout in Chicago, chef-owner Dave Levitsky has a ban on kids under 12 for the restaurant’s popular Sunday brunch. In St. Augustine, Florida, Cap’s on the Water owners Vivian and Bernard de Raad recently banned kids from the restaurant’s main dining room, noting in press reports that “we’re restaurateurs, not babysitters.” Despite a few upset customers, Bernard noted that business overall is up.

Citing both the declining behavior of young kids and parents who don’t control them, Mike Vuick this summer banned kids under six at his McDain’s Restaurant in Monroeville, Pennsylvania. Six weeks into the move, Vuick says he was getting 20 emails congratulating him for every one against it (he’d gotten thousands). Business is up dramatically, in part from the PR generated via more than 80 national and local media interviews. More significantly, he says, “people are coming from all over to eat here. I’m a rock star. I can’t even go to the mall without people stopping me and saying, ‘Hey, you’re the guy with the no-kids restaurant!’ We’ve picked up so many new customers who have already returned several times. ”

While kids are welcome at Diablo Burger in Flagstaff, Arizona, and Jolly Bob’s Caribbean Food & Drink in Madison, Wisconsin, credit cards aren’t. Diablo’s owner Derrick Widmark says no to cards as part of his locally driven operating philosophy. In a section on the restaurant’s Web site, Widmark explains: “When businesses aren’t owned locally, money leaves the community at every transaction. And last we checked, there are no locally owned credit card companies.”

Customer responses have been varied, but the policy hasn’t hurt business in any appreciable way, he says. “We’ve had people storm out, enraged, and there is no shortage of folks who think it is absurd, archaic, small-minded or in some way offensive to their rights as credit-card carrying Americans. Most folks appreciate it, understand it or perhaps simply indulge us in return for a really tasty (local) burger.”

Jolly Bob’s owner Tim Erickson admits the no-card rule is one that some customers simply can’t stomach “in this day and age” and likely keeps a handful away. In place since he opened the award-winning restaurant more than 15 years ago, however, it’s not a rule he’s inclined to change. “We have an ATM inside the restaurant that accepts all cards,” he says. “And we accept checks for dinner. That placates most. We’re a small, local restaurant and most everyone around knows the rule. The toughest situations are with business people used to entertaining on company credit cards. We once got stiffed on a $1,400 tab by a group of really upset salespeople. They couldn’t settle that night, and never came through with a company check as promised after the fact. So it can bite you pretty hard, but overall it’s still the route we choose to take.”

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