May 3, 2013

By Ron Aiken
May 3, 2013

Service: Sometimes Chains Get it Right

It started with a bust, and ended with a bang.

While that could refer to all manner of tantalizing topics, I’m talking specifically about my birthday dinner plans earlier this week (which did not involve City Roots’  amazing Bourbon, Bacon and Steak Wine Dinner that I previewed last week, sadly enough, since no one bought me a ticket), the results of which provided some interesting lessons in how to do service correctly and how to do it poorly. 

Fortunately for me I had two birthday celebrations, one with my brother and mom on Saturday, another with just my mom on Monday night. Both took place at Columbia restaurants, but that’s where the similarities ended. One was a disaster of service and execution, the other a triumph of both. One was a locally owned establishment (well, South Carolina-owned), the other a chain, and while one would hope the disaster would naturally be the chain restaurant, the reality was just the opposite, which makes a point seldom made in the world of food writing, one that celebrates locavore-ing over patronizing chain restaurants with a too-ferocious zealotry that often ignores the fact that it’s local people working in these chains, local people whose excellence too often is ignored. 

In years past and in previous incarnations of myself, I’d have led this column off ripping the offensive establishment by name and listing every sordid detail of the malfeasance. I’m not going to do that here, as it would serve little point to embarrass them. 

As to what was bad…the chicken was overcooked, a hamburger was overdone, the greeting was poor and the service was worse. I single out the greeting as poor because, as a person who tries to be a good sort when I can, I noticed a beer bottle stuck in a planter outside the door that I’m sure they didn’t want there. So I grabbed it on the way in, alerted them to the fact it had been there a while (it was lunch on a Saturday, and I’m guessing the bottle had been there since the night before) and gave it to them to throw away. 

Not only wasn’t this appreciated, the effort wasn’t acknowledged by the greeter or manager standing there, only a joke made that I’d probably been drinking it myself. It’s no biggie in the scheme of things – one doesn’t do such small things to be thanked – but one also doesn’t expect a manager to ignore when customers are helping clean the establishment. 

As for the service, one good rule of thumb is it’s not fantastic to disappear for long stretches of time, and to come back in a rush smelling of the smoke break you just took. It’s unappetizing, unprofessional and detrimental to the meal, especially when you’re waiting to have a drink refilled over and over. Also, it is important to notice customers’ plates when they’re finished. Did they eat everything? If not, why not? This is how you give feedback to the kitchen, feedback they need. 

Like a lot of people, I don’t send food back; it’s just not how I was raised. So, if you look down and see when taking my plate that I’ve only taken one bite of a hamburger, have taken the bun off, cut into the burger to check it’s temperature and clearly have eaten no more of it, you should ask if anything was wrong. Maybe it was overdone, maybe I just wasn’t hungry, but it’s important to notice and care about the customer’s experience. If you don’t, why should I? 

That’s all I’m going to say about that, and I wouldn’t have even written about it at all except for the fact that my dinner at Bonefish Grill at Harbison was one of the best experiences I’ve had eating out lately. Our server, Justin O’Rear, was professional,cheerful and prompt. My water never reached empty, and his demeanor was courteous throughout, answering the (many) questions my mom had about the menu, and even when he had to answer things clearly explained in the description on the menu or run through the specials twice. He never once acted as anything other than happy to be of service, and after Saturday, that was a nice change. 

I won’t go into the food too much other than to say I was impressed by the preparation – my filet was perfectly cooked to medium rare, my scallops were perfectly seared and married well with the shrimp cooked in a delicious Chimichurri sauce, and my mom’s pecan-encrusted trout was flaky, light and delicious. The house salads with hearts of palm, sesame seeds, fresh tomatoes, Kalamata olives and blue cheese crumbles with a citrus herb vinaigrette were fantastic, making the Caesar Salad at the previous restaurant, with only Romaine, croutons and Parmesan cheese to recommend itself, look a shabby fraud by comparison. 

And finally, this is where the staff set itself apart – quality control. On Saturday, there was no quality control. Not from the kitchen, not from the management, not from the waiter. We were served overcooked food, abandoned and ignored. At Bonefish, however, it was entirely different. Each round – appetizers and main – saw Justin come by to make sure things were cooked correctly and to our satisfaction, culminating in the dessert. 

 Being my birthday, I wanted dessert. Hearing the ones on offer, I selected the Jamaican Coconut Pie, which is baked in a creamy custard, drizzled with a caramel rum sauce and topped with freshly whipped cream. It was precisely that whipped cream, in fact, that made my decision to write this column. 

(Photo courtesy Bonefish Grill.)

After several minutes of waiting for the dessert longer than one would expect, manager Barton Dumas came by our table to tell us what was causing the delay. First, having no whipped cream at the ready, a batch had to be whipped up. The batch that was made, however, broke down, and when Barton saw it, he refused to allow it to be served, and our wait was while the kitchen was preparing batch No. 2. 

A few minutes later we got the pie, which was beyond heavenly, with the fresh whipped cream being so light as to almost lift the pie in the air by itself. The quality was worth the wait, and the explanation was more than appreciated. What’s more, Dumas comped the dessert because of how long it had taken. On exiting he personally thanked us for choosing Bonefish and held the door for us, and we left happier than we arrived and will be fans for life – not because it’s a chain, but because the local people who work there care about the job they do, which is a lesson any restaurant can take to heart. 


Arts + Draughts = Maybe you? 

Well, if you’re cool enough to go, you could factor into that equation. Chances are, if you’re reading this, then you are cool enough to go, which is what I was banking on anyway when I decided to tell you about it. You and I are good like that. 

The Columbia Museum of Art, which is, as always, superb in all its ways, is hosting the Arts & Draughts event this Friday, May 3 from 7 p.m. until. Tickets are $5 for members, $8 for non-members, meaning this is some serious wallet friendliness. Oh, and if you decide to step-up and join the CMA that very night ($45 for a general membership for one year), well, the evening is free! (Well, kind of. You know.) 

For your drinking needs, The Whig will bring Widmer Brothers Brewing’s Alchemy Ale. For your visual needs, you have DIY art projects to engage in led by the Richland County Library (also magnificent) and can watch the imaginative artistic work of the fantastic Dr. Sketchy’s Columbia, which will host a live figure drawing. For your oral needs, Bone-In Artisan Barbecue and Earth Fare have you covered. I truly hope to see you there, and I don’t always mean that! (You know how you can get sometimes.)


Above Photo: The Columbia Museum of Art! Not for nothing, but I absolutely adore at least three people in this particular picture. I’m looking at you, Shigeharu Kobayashi! (CMA photo)


Table for Six! 

Sometimes just thinking about all the organizations in Columbia dedicated to networking opportunities and their endless functions makes my head hurt. I’m blinded by images of people wearing cheap nametags and uncomfortable clothes and breakfasts at hotels and after hours in conference rooms making small talk so painful your nose bleeds and the whole affair making you feel like one giant scream without a mouth. 

Well, maybe I’m being too hard on them. Maybe I’ve just been to too many, or maybe I haven’t been to the right ones. Still, I’d wager you’ve had at least one experience where you regretted walking in the door before the name tag was pinned to your shirt (and why do they use safety pins that poke a hole in your nice shirt anyway?), praying to find a friendly face or an open bar to make the next 45 minutes of your life survivable. 

All of which is not remotely like the kind of introduction that, given the opporunity, the good people at the Columbia Opportunity Resource (COR) would envision to promote their genuinely sensational Table for Six event. But, you get what you get, and that’s how I roll. Why? Because of course, the point is that the COR’s event is anything but like the tiring, tedious affairs you’ve been to. 

Instead of shuffling around cavernous hotel banquet halls looking like extras from The Walking Dead, the COR has designed something actually innovative and fun – an intimate dinner-with-friends setting that allows you to meet and talk all things professional with Columbia business and thought leaders for a chance to connect, learn and grow. More precisely, here’s their exact language: A unique dinner connecting aspiring leaders with seasoned executives. Yeah, that. (Except I might not use ‘seasoned’ to describe executives in a write-up that’s about a dinner, but whatevs!) 

Called Table for Six, the next event is coming up Thursday, May 9 from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. at Hay Hill Garden Market at 1625 Bluff Rd. (about half a mile or so down Bluff Road past Williams-Brice Stadium toward I-77 on your right). Tickets are $29 per person and the event is catered by Southern Way Catering. 

Who will you get to see and rub shoulders with for your measly $29? Only David Campbell, President and CEO of Chernoff Newman; Kelly Davis, Founder and CEO of Davis Public Relations & Marketing (who I imagine would not have approved of my opening, I’m guessing); Dana Bruce Fulmer, Executive Director of the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation; Will Johnson, Partner with Haynesworth Sinkler Boyd; and Wes Lyles, President of Studio 2LR Architecture & Interiors. 

Now I know what you’re thinking. Hey Ron, that’s only five people! What’s the ‘six’ all about? Well, Ms. Thing, the truth is I don’t know. You’ll have to ask them that. If I were writing for them, however, I’d tell you without hesitation that the sixth person is you! (feel free to use that, COR, free of charge!) 

To buy your tickets, go here: and follow the instructions. So do it already! What are you waiting for? Go!


Ron Aiken is an award-winning journalist who has covered the Columbia food scene professionally for more than a decade, writing weekly columns, reviews and features as food&drink editor of Columbia’s Free Times from 2006-2010 and prior to that writing restaurant reviews for The State newspaper from 2001-2002 under the pseudonym Eaton Wright. 

Follow him on Twitter! @RonAiken

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