Sunday, February 22, 2009

BBQ Miscue

Following up last week's dinner at Asian Bistro, my intrepid dining companion and I set out in search of some low-n-slow barbecue in the Northwest suburbs. I did a little research online and selected Smokin' T's in Long Grove. We were hungry as we pulled up and ready to tear into some ribs, pulled pork, and whatever sides they offered.

The place is located in a strip mall, one of these humongous small-town-size ones where you can't really even see the stores from the street, which I hate, and as we navigated the convoluted path into the parking lot, I spotted T's.

It looked like a Chipotle--which isn't what I expect from a quality barbecue joint. And it had a drive-thru. It also wasn't clear that they were actually open. We parked anyway--we were the only car within sight--and walked up to the restaurant, still uncertain whether this place was, in fact, open for business.

Well, they were. At least technically. The door opened when I pulled on it. But nearly half an hour before their closing time of 8pm, all the chairs were up on the tables and the kitchen looked totally cleaned down. We asked the counter guy if they were open and he cheerfully replied "yes". We asked if we could eat there, which we were planning on, and, again he gave us a cheerful, welcoming "yes".

"Ok", we said, and Mitch made a quick visit to the bathroom while I started to figure out what we should order. But as I was looking at the menu, I started thinking about the prospect of eating in an empty restaurant with the chairs up on the tables. I knew I'd feel guilty about keeping these guys late when they were obviously ready to go home, and forcing them to dirty equipment that they'd already cleaned for the day.

I also wondered if the quality of the food would be compromised. The barbecue that they'd been serving all day had already been held warm for who knows how long and then put away. If I ordered it now, they'd probably just re-heat it again (perhaps in the microwave) and serve it to me. And what about if we ordered fries? Was their fryer already turned off? Would I get fries that were cooked in oil that wasn't hot enough? They'd be rushing to just get our order out so they could close up--I've worked in restaurants, so I know how things get compromised at the end of the day when the cooks are anxious to to get out of there.

So, we bolted. We talked it over and opted to go elsewhere, despite the good things I'd read about the barbecue at this place.

Let this be a lesson to you, restaurant-owners. If you're open, be OPEN. Not half-open, not open but all cleaned down and ready to take off the moment the door locks. Not "you guys are welcome to take the chairs down off the tables and have a seat".

Running a restaurant is about more than providing food. It's about hospitality. It's about making people feel that they're welcome and their presence is appreciated. The counter guy at Smokin T's did his best to say the right things to us, but he couldn't counter the non-verbal messages that we received. There's more to being open than having the door unlocked and the lights turned on.

We decided to go to another nearby spot and grab a pizza, and as we were leaving, we talked about the choices that this restaurant's staff had made, and how those choices cost them our forty-dollar tab. Now, who knows, maybe they would rather forgo our forty bucks and save the hour or so of payroll that it would cost to keep the place looking open until they're actually closed. Could be. But I doubt it. Not in this economic climate--places like this need every diner and every dollar they can get.

But, even worse, they lost the opportunity to make a positive impression on us, and we're potential repeat customers who live in the area. They also lost any potential for positive word of mouth from us telling friends, family, or readers of this blog about their restaurant. Their ribs and chicken might be the best I'd ever eaten, but I'll probably never know at this point, because they created at atmosphere that made me reluctant to sit down and order, feeling that I'd probably be uncomfortable and be inconveniencing their staff.

We might give Smokin' T's another chance. But I doubt we will, since they close at 8pm on weeknights and it's hard for us to get out there early enough to be sure we won't have another repeat of this performance. Maybe sometime when we're interested in take out.

I wish them the best of luck and harbor no ill will as a result of this experience. Mostly, I'm just disappointed. I love barbecue and had high hopes for this place. Maybe I missed out. But at least I got a good real-world example of how hospitality involves a lot more than just making and serving food. It's something I'll take with me in my professional life, as I move forward in my career running kitchens and restaurants, as a concrete example of what not to do, and why.


Anonymous said...

yeah. i dont get it. BBQ places near me close early too. maybe, maybe its cause they had an early start to the day, smokin meat. but i dont' buy it. to stay competitive in suburbia you have to be open till 10 pm. now, as near as i can tell BBQ "keeps" fairly well. at least brisket and sausage. chicken not so much. my biggest beef with BBQ places (chain places, like red hot and blue) is that the ribs appeared to be boiled and the pulled pork is dry. true BBQ should be smoked.
the true test is that when entering a BBQ restaurant you should smell the smoker going in the back. cause if they don't smoke the meat on site, then where is it coming from?? (TSJ)

Anonymous said...

That's too bad-I live near there, and I've gotten their BBQ to go a few times. It's pretty good, I think, but I'm disappointed that I don't get to hear your thoughts.

I'm with you on the 'closing before closing' thing. I hate it when someplace says they're open until a certain time, but they start cleaning up and packing everything away before that time. If you are open until 8:00, you lock the doors and start cleaning and putting up chairs at 8:00, and not a second before. I understand the employees' desire to get out asap, but that's too bad. Besides, it's a good way to annoy potential customers and prevent their ever returning, which can lead to the employees having too much free time, as the store might close for good.

Oh yeah, one more rant: shut off the lights! That galls me even more: an establishment with all the lights on, but the doors are locked! If I'm driving by, and all the lights, inside and out, are on, I'm going to assume you're open! Arrggh!

Great blog, by the way. I'm going to be using your method of cooking larger batches of bacon in the oven very soon; bad for my heart, but good for my soul!