When a brand you admire drops the ball on customer service

State of the Plate: Restaurants are in the relationship business. But as Menu Trends Columnist Nancy Kruse recently discovered, that connection can sometimes get lost.
Arby's customer service
Customer service is vital, even for massive chains like Arby's with millions of customers, as columnist Nancy Kruse discovered. / Photograph: Shutterstock.

State of the Plate

It’s no secret that, when it comes to restaurant chains in general and chain menu R&D in particular, I put the “super” in super fan. I am constantly amazed by and deeply respectful of the high level of both creativity and execution coming out of kitchens at multi-unit operations of all sizes and service levels.

Of course, I appreciate the brilliant work being done by gastronomic luminaries at well-publicized temples of fine dining. But they benefit from the singular talents and hands-on ministrations of a super-star chef, typically supported by cadres of dedicated, often unpaid, acolytes laboring at the feet of the master. Their collective efforts serve to generate worldwide acclaim; guarantee a slot on best-restaurant lists; cater to very well-heeled diners and elicit dining envy from those less fortunate; and court the favor of the media, influencers and stans of all stripes.

From my perspective, these operations truly cannot hold a candle to the real-life challenges of feeding appealing food to real people at high volumes in multiple locations. While chains come in for lots of eyeball rolling from the culinary cognoscenti, they do a remarkable job of satisfying a savvy customer base, whose expectations have been raised by the culinary revolution that turned regular folks into foodies, installed chefs in corporate kitchens everywhere and generated white-hot competition for the dining dollar.

To put things in perspective, over a decade ago, the great Catalan chef and culinary iconoclast Ferran Adrià, called “the most imaginative chef in history” by The New York Times, announced his venture into fast food with an operation he dubbed Fast Good. His dream was to open hundreds of stores, both in and out of Spain.

Realistic at the outset and speaking in the third person, he had this to say about global competitors like McDonald’s or Burger King: “Ferran Adrià and the 100 best chefs in the world cannot do better for the price.” He learned this lesson the hard way, admitting amusingly that he and his team spent eight months on French fries: “we were about ready to kill ourselves.”

He also shared his “sirloin issues.” When he found his preferred sirloin entrecôte wouldn’t cut it, he literally had to start over and teach himself the rudiments of a good burger. This was apparently his undoing, as a quick Google search found no Fast Good stores operating anywhere in Spain.

One successful brand that could teach Adrià a thing or two about working with both protein and fries is Arby’s, a former candidate for the restaurant boneyard that has staged the most dramatic second act in contemporary restaurant history.

The menu boasts that it has the meats and proves it not only with its core menu but also with creative limited-time offers. For the venison sandwich special, for instance, the meat was butterflied, marinated and cooked sous vide, then served in a sophisticated, white-tablecloth-worthy Cabernet sauce infused with juniper.  

A more recent Arby’s Wagyu Steakhouse Burger LTO was a no-bones-about-it tweak of the burger giants with a generous 6.4-ounce patty that was 52% American Wagyu, a premium product offered at around $5.99.

By now you alert readers may be waiting for a shoe to drop, and here’s the thud. The company dropped the ball recently in a customer-service breakdown that I take personally, not only because it reflected badly on a brand I admire, but also because it hit so close to home.

During the holiday season, my niece had lunch at her local Arby’s in suburban Minneapolis. Several hours later, she became ill. We’re talking big-time, Lifetime-movie ill here, which culminated in her collapse in the snow outside the local hospital emergency room, which she was too weak to enter and which left her substantially bruised in the bargain.

I got wind of this next day and called the chain’s 800 number on her behalf to raise the flag on a possible problem at the store in question and to find out what she should do when she was able. I fully acknowledge the “possible” problem here, although the timing of the onset of her illness, the many hours that had elapsed since her prior meal and the report of the doctor in the ER were all strongly suggestive that the lunch was the culprit.

Anyway, I spoke with a terrifically buttoned-up rep, who took details, gave me a case number and assured me that someone would respond within 24 hours to take my niece’s contact info and get me out of the loop. And after this promising start, all I heard were crickets.

The radio silence rankled, and on day two, I reached out to press relations, leaving a voicemail with particulars and my contact info including my Restaurant Business affiliation.

This prompted a call the following day from a nice fellow who, after chit-chat about our mutual exasperation with Atlanta traffic, inquired as to my niece’s health and assured me that the lack of response on their end belied “frantic, behind-the-scenes” activity, all of which concluded that there was no reason to believe their meal had sickened my niece. End of story?

Well, not quite. As we were signing off, he asked “had I filed,” meaning, had I submitted a story on this? I told him that I hadn’t but made no promises that I wouldn’t. And after we hung up, I went from deeply disappointed to titanically ticked. My sense was that I was on the receiving end of a CYA call that wouldn’t have been made to a non-media type, like, say, my niece.

Fielding calls from diners disgruntled for whatever reason must pose a massive challenge in the best of times, and I suspect that customer-service levels throughout the industry reflect the same worst-of-times labor crunch that has clobbered both front- and back-of-house employment. But restaurants are in the relationship business that continues after the food-for-money transaction ends, and this relationship was rapidly heading south.

Five weeks after the meal in question and literally, as I was about to press the send button on this story, I received a phone call, along with a couple of official-looking documents, from a third-party claims management and brand-protection company. Turns out that I’ve been named a claimant and assigned a 15-digit claim number. Yikes, what? I’ve no intention of filing any kind of claim and have made a mental note to never insert myself in the middle again. But at least I’ve been able to provide my niece’s name and number.

What’s the bottom line on this story? Well, my unfettered enthusiasm for the Arby’s brand is somewhat fettered, and I have learned that I would really rather stick to writing about menu trends. Most importantly, my niece is fully recovered and back to her usual vibrant self. Thanks for asking.

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