retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

The New York Times reported over the weekend that in the Big Apple, the old saw that “the customer is always right,” has been reflected in some quarters with another rule: “when wrong, the customer can take a flying leap.”

According to the story, “New York has spawned a breed of hard-line restaurants and cafes that are saying no. No to pouring takeout espressos, or grinding more than a pound of coffee at a time. No to taming the intensity of a magma-spicy dish. And most of all, no to the 21st-century conviction that everything can be accessorized to the customer’s taste.”

In essence, what this comes down to is that at least some chefs have decided to fly in the face of the axiom that says “the customer is always right,” and instead say that “in certain cases, when the customer is wrong, the customer can take a flying leap.” It is an unusual stance to take in a service-based economy, and an even more unusual stance to take during a time when patrons are displaying recessionary impulses.

The debate actually reminds me of the great movie Big Night, in which two brothers who own an Italian restaurant in New Jersey during the late fifties argue about what to serve the customers. One brother doesn’t want to make them stereotypical food like spaghetti and meatballs; he wants to be more artistic and serve risotto. The other brother argues that if customers want spaghetti and meatballs you should serve them spaghetti and meatballs, because it is spaghetti and meatballs that pay the bills. Big Night is the art vs. commerce debate played out in a wonderful movie, and now we’re seeing it played out for real in the New York City restaurant scene.

But the chefs’ stance actually is more than that. It is a statement that a patrons should expect more than food and ambience when they go out to eat - they should also expect intelligence about the food being served, and should expect to be educated as well as fed. This won't work everywhere, of course, and not all restaurant patrons will accept such conditions. But what these chefs actually are looking to establish is a great sense of trust between them and their customers ... which is what all retailers should aim for - and it will be interesting to see if their resolve pans out or flames out.

Either way, it’ll be an eye-opener.
KC's View: