Sunday, November 28, 2010

The bar can’t get any lower - my experience at Spice Route

Recently, I had an opportunity to endure what I could probably call the single worst customer service experience I’ve ever encountered.

It was a good friend of mine’s birthday, and in honour of the special day, she decided to have a birthday dinner at Spice Route (owned by Liberty Entertainment Group) in King West. Since she was expecting somewhere in the range of 16 - 20 guests, she requested two booths of 10. She was told by the booking coordinator that the restaurant had a policy about large parties - and that to get two booths together there would be a minimum spending requirement of $1000.

My friend told the coordinator that she wasn’t interested in committing to a $1000 minimum (who would?) and asked if there would be a charge for booking a single booth. The answer was no, and so my friend asked if she could reserve two separate booths. My friend figured it didn’t matter if we all had the chance to sit together - not for an astronomical price like that. The booking agent confirmed that two booths could be reserved, not together, and with no minimum expense requirement.

On the night of the birthday, we arrived to find that the two tables were beside each other. Thinking it was a lucky break, we all sat down. Our server spoke to my friend, and told her about a “minimum spending requirement” that we had allegedly committed to. My friend contested this, told the server about what she had agreed to on the phone, and the server said there was nothing she could do about it but my friend could speak to the manager.

In the meantime, we all sat at the table starving to death (Spice Route apparently has another customer-friendly policy - no one is allowed to be seated until the entire party arrives. Since all 16 of us didn’t arrive together, and since some who weren’t planning on eating dinner decided to join us later, the rest of us had to stand around and wait for everyone to arrive before we could even sit at our table).

And while my friend was working out the details with the manager, our server completely ignored us. We didn’t even receive bread at our table. If we tried to make eye contact with our server or say, “excuse me,” she pretended not to see us or hear us.

When my friend returned to the table, she looked stunned. She said that she’d been trying to explain to the manager that there had been some kind of miscommunication over the reservation, but that he refused to listen to her and threatened to kick her whole party out of the restaurant if we weren’t happy with their policy. When he calmed down, he said he’d let us stay if we spent at least $750. My friend stood her ground and said she’d never agreed to any policy at all, and she shouldn’t have to negotiate a price. She wasn’t trying to pull a fast one - we didn’t want to eat at Spice Route that badly (have you had their food? Trust me, if you’re looking for asian cuisine, you’ll get it better in Chinatown and for a lot less). If she had ever been told that she would have to commit to a silly policy like this one, she would have made the reservation elsewhere. They are not the only show in town.

In hindsight, this is when we should have left. But with 16 guests, at 10 p.m. on a Saturday night, by this point ravenous enough to eat the napkins, we knew we weren’t getting in for a dinner reservation anywhere other than McDonald’s.

We decided to start ordering. The thinking was, maybe we would spend the minimum amount and the argument would be moot. Maybe we would spend at least enough that they’d be willing to waive the remaining amount. We thought, we are paying customers in this restaurant, can’t we expect a little bit of rationality from the restaurant management?

When the bill arrived, we were $220 short of the $750 (before tax and gratuity I might add - with those items added we were at $1000 anyway), so $220 was added to the bill.

My friend tried her luck with the manager again. He was even more rude, dismissive and condescending than the first time. He cut her off before she finished speaking. He told her she had to pay it and she didn’t have a choice in the matter. He raised his voice. He got nasty. She still stood her ground.

Seeing that he wouldn’t listen or reason with her, she put her foot down too. She told him that she wouldn’t sign the bill with the bogus charge, but if the server brought her a bill with the amount that we actually spent, minus the $220 fee, she would be happy to sign it.

He told her that was fine, she didn’t need to sign it, he had her credit card number on file anyway from her booking.

We told her to call her credit card company and contest the amount - what other option did we have? We got our coats and got ready to leave, when the manager approached our table. With him were four burly bouncers.

The manager barked at us, “Nobody leaves. Nobody gets up until you’ve paid your bill. I’ve called the police.”

We were flabbergasted. We thought it was a joke. There we were, a group of young nicely dressed twenty-somethings, entirely sober (did I mention a party of 16 didn’t add up to a $750 bill?), trying to share a nice evening of good food with good friends to celebrate a birthday. And just like that, we were captives, held hostage in a restaurant.

At 1:15 am, the lounge was packed and dinner patrons were starting to head home. And there we sat, with four guards monitoring our every move. It was unreal.

45 minutes later, the police arrived. They listened to my friend, and then they spent some time talking to the manager. And just like that, the server returned to our table with a new bill - one without the $220 charge. My friend signed it, and we were free to go. And the manager was no where in sight as we parted ways with the now infamous restaurant.

I was in so much shock and dismay over the way we were treated that in the next couple of days I tracked down the email address of Nick Di Donato, President and CEO of Liberty Group, which if you haven’t heard, owns half the bars in Toronto (for a complete list, see the end of this post).

I wrote to him about my experience, laid it out in fervent detail, and expressed my extreme disgust with the manager of Spice Route and my overall experience. I guess I was hoping he'd be appalled. I figured he would at the very least take some ownership and responsibility, and tell me that customers at his establishments aren't usually treated so horribly. Instead, his response was what I consider a half-hearted apology, if that. According to Mr. Di Donato, both parties were at fault and therefore he can not “sympathize” with the way we were treated. The following is Mr. Di Donato’s response, via email:

It is unfortunate that this situation occurred and I do apologize for managements actions.

I do believe that if you were told when seated that there was a minimum charge, you should just have left. it would be your choice to do so.  I don't feel it appropriate for you to decide to stay and completely ignore our policy. I would be able to sympathize with you had you not been informed of the minimum charge policy but from your email it appears you were informed of this policy upon your arrival. The manager cannot just decide not to follow policies and your refusal to comply with the such put him in a difficult situation.

It is completely your prerogative to speak negatively about Liberty Group but I feel it is totally inappropriate for you to do so as you are just as responsible for the situation as was management.   It sounds like both parties are in the wrong in this case.  Management should not have let this situation escalate to the level it did. They should have taken the higher road.


Nick Di Donato P.Eng, B.A.Sc.
President & CEO
Liberty Entertainment Group

Mr. Di Donato thinks it’s inappropriate for me to speak negatively about Liberty Group. I think it’s inappropriate to hold your customers hostage -- I guess that’s the difference between he and I. What he doesn’t seem to understand is that my speaking negatively is not my own concoction - the experience itself was the negative part - all I’m doing is telling people about it.

I responded to Mr. Di Donato to reiterate my disappointment with his position and to point out to him that in no situation, no matter what has transpired, is it okay to kidnap your customers. It is not okay to yell at them, belittle them or make them feel like criminals. He never responded. I guess he didn’t agree.

I don’t expect much to change. As far as I’m concerned, based on some of the reviews I’ve been reading and some of the experiences I’ve been hearing from other friends of mine (since I started posting this story on Facebook), Spice Route is building a reputation for having terrible service and will eventually sink itself without any help from me. If they keep it up, people will get tired of being treated like filth and give up going there. Spice Route will shut down, and Liberty Group will open up a replacement down the street, and probably churn out an even better profit for being the “new and different” place to go in town (as if such thing exists in King West).

I get that’s how it works. In most industries, customers are king (even to a point where perhaps they shouldn’t be). But for some reason, even in a poor economy, the bar/entertainment industry thrives on treating their clientele like slimy, despicable unwanted creatures who are trying to bust in to their classy, high-end establishments (how dare they!).

Why will people line up to get into a bar? Why will they pay $20 just to walk in the doors? Why will they dish out $200 for a bottle of vodka that costs $30 in a liquor store? Why will they pay hundreds of dollars for a bottle service booth - just so they can be treated a little better than the rest? Why is there a premium to be treated well? Aren’t we the customers? Aren’t we the reason these places make profits? Aren’t we the demand to their supply? Aren’t we necessary?

Not so much, it would seem.

I don’t work in the bar and service industry (clearly), and maybe I don’t get what drives it. I know it is an industry that operates by separating patrons into different classes of people, so to speak - why do you always see multiple lines outside of every coveted bar? These days, there’s usually a VIP bottle service line, a guest list line and a regular line. There’s nothing particularly special about a guest list line, other than you called ahead and asked to be on it, but there is value in letting people feel like there is a certain order to things - and people either feel more special for being in a faster-moving line (even if it isn’t), or it makes them wonder what they have to do to get into it.

It’s also an industry comprised of establishments that are bound to experience feast or famine. For a new, unknown bar with little notoriety, the owners will beg you to come in and if they’re smart, drinks will be discounted (Blondie’s in Parkdale was great at this when they first opened; Libra Lounge - in King West, in fact - is also fantastic at treating their customers well. Drinks are often on the house for big parties, and let me tell you, there is no charge for sitting at a booth).

As soon as a bar becomes a hot spot, customer service goes out the window, and the bar will start gouging the customers with cover charges and treat everyone with a little less respect -- I guess because they can. Maybe it even boosts their popularity to do so. And what does that say about us, the clientele, who return? Are we that masochistic?

I don’t think so. Nobody wants to be treated poorly. The only reason people will go back to a place that rewards the “special people” is for the chance to work our way through the crowds to get to those VIP lines. As long as there’s another line, then there’s something else we can aspire to. And the club will keep turning a disgusting profit. And when the customers finally get fed up, they’ll shut it down and open up a new spot next door, and start all over again.

And that’s the way it is. Maybe it’s the way it always will be.

I do know that no Liberty Group bar is ever going to see another dime from me, and maybe that’s all I can do.

I just think we all owe it to ourselves to demand a little bit more respect, a little more class and a little more dignity. Let’s face it, if we weren’t a society addicted to alcohol, this kind of thing wouldn’t fly. If we’re gonna keep going to the bar, I think we should all expect that establishments start raising it.

Nick Di Donato, I’m looking at you.

Liberty Entertainment Group owns the following establishments in Toronto:

Spice Route
Tattoo Rock Parlour
Phoenix Concert Theatre
C Lounge
Liberty Grand
Ciao Wine Bar
Velvet Underground
Lakeside Eats at Harbourfront

Thursday, November 25, 2010

It’s the most wonderful (nondescript) time of the year!

Well, it’s that time of year again. Just when you thought you had 364 shopping days left before you had to worry again, out of nowhere creeps the season that lulls you back into the quiet comforts of family, friends and unabashed consumerism. You know what I’m talking about. The season of joy and mercy and giving and getting. That one day of the year where we all get the day off work and sit at home so we can open presents, eat turkey and get ripped off the eggnog with our estranged relatives. The fact that you know what I mean is probably a good thing, since I’m not really allowed to name it.

I can call it the “holidays;” I can call it the “festive season;” I can wish you good tidings, greetings and cheer. What I can’t do, in the name of all that is politically correct and culturally inclusive and holy (or, technically, unholy) is call it by its name. But, you already knew that. You’ve already attended many a “holiday” party, or received a card in the mail that read, “Season’s Greetings,” from your second cousin you hate or been ambushed by a sweet smile from a sales clerk who wrapped your purchases and exclaimed, “happy holidays!”

Maybe you liked it; maybe you grumbled under your breath; maybe you didn’t even notice or better yet, maybe you didn’t care. After all, regardless of whether you celebrate it, does giving it a new name change what the day means to you? You will continue to celebrate it (or not celebrate it) the way you always have, and everyone around you will do the same. A day by any other name still smells as sweet, right?

Yeah. I guess that’s all there is to it.

I mean, when it comes to taking the higher road and choosing to include everyone so as not to offend anyone, it’s only natural and mature of all of us to go ahead and agree that the emperor is indeed wearing clothes and the sight of him is certainly pleasing.

Except, there’s just one thing that doesn’t make sense to me, and maybe I’m being childish, but, it’s that calling this day by its generic equivalent does offend. It offends me as someone who celebrates it. And I (like a lot of card-carrying Dec. 25 observers) don’t even go to church.

See, I don’t want to get into a religious debate. I don’t want to start something over whether Canada is a Christian country and that’s why this day is a national holiday or whether the multicultural mosaic we’ve become should be reflected in the methods we choose to celebrate.

Frankly, is this even about religion anymore? As far as I can tell, Baby Jesus (can I even say that?) was removed from this holiday a long time ago. With him went the little drummer boy, King Wenceslas, the three kings (was one of them Wenceslas?), harking herald angels and all references to stars, mangers and holy nights. Growing up, I knew that nativity scenes had a place in the privacy of our own home. Public displays of celebration were about Santa Claus.

But then something weird happened. Somebody somewhere decided to up the ante and declare that even Santa Claus was taboo. Good old Saint Nicholas had become an iconic image representing the same holiday that the birth of Christ represented, and therefore an extension of all the religious connotations we were trying so hard to avoid.

Wait, what?

This year, as planner of my company’s work “holiday” party, one of my tasks was downloading songs to play as background music. Only, the songs had to be “non-denominational.” Meaning, they couldn’t reference the day of which I can not speak. This was fairly challenging. Do you realize how many songs reference this day? Pretty much all of them. There I was, contemplating whether Ella Fitzgerald’s timeless rendition of “Sleigh Ride” fits the bill as non-denominational when it’s really just about a sleigh ride in the snow, or if there’s a subtext to this song linking it to the birth of Christ. The lyrics actually don’t reference any holiday, other than this dude Farmer Grey’s birthday, and other than, perhaps, Jehovah’s Witnesses, celebrating birthdays is welcomed by all religious and cultural sects... right? But then as soon as I hear this song, I think of presents and turkey and egg nog-induced warm and fuzzy feelings, so, is this appropriate or not?

Does anyone else have a headache?

So we’re calling this day by another name. But as we’re busy gazing at our Holiday Tree and patting ourselves on the back for slipping one past everybody, are we missing the giant pink elephant in the room? Where do we draw the line?

I mean really, no Santa Claus at the holiday party? When did secularism become the new religion? Is nothing sacred? Will we soon subscribe to a giant pool of nihilistic realism where nothing means anything to anyone, and we don’t even know why we get the day off work?

Or will we go the route the retail underworld is headed, and never close our doors, but stay open and keep working 365 days a year? After all, if we don’t know what we’re celebrating, why celebrate at all? Does anyone even know why we exchange gifts?

So yeah, I’m offended. “Holiday” tree at a “holiday” party? Isn’t everyone offended?

Just so you know, I’ll be blasting “Santa, Baby” every day for the next 30 days, in protest, while I ponder all the items I’ll be putting on my “holiday” wish list. After all, if we’re not a Christian country, then by golly, we’re a capitalist one, and no one can take that from us.

Merry (four-letter word) to all, and to all a good night.