Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Squeaky Wheel Gets The Gift Certificate (Or, "In Praise of Spanky's BBQ and The Onion.")

Well, it's official- I am my grandmother's grandson (Irene Zenker (1908-2004)). I learned from her that when a company screws up, you should tell them. Over the years, I've done just that, but as I never got the results Grandmom did, I became increasingly convinced of the decline in customer service in this country. It's so rare to actually get results, I feel compelled to praise the businesses that actually take the time to care. Thus, thank you, The Onion, and especially, thank you, Spanky's BBQ.

You see, a couple of weeks ago, the satirical newspaper The Onion co-sponsored and heavily promoted an event with Spanky's BBQ, a restaurant in New York that serves, well, barbecue. In an event cleverly called the "Pig Fest," Spanky's would, for two hours only (7:00-9:00 PM), serve half-priced beers. No big deal, that- a lot of restaurants and bars routinely have specials like that. But the hook was that, in addition to the cheap beer, there would be a whole roast suckling pig, and free pork and sides to anyone who RSVP'd. With all due respect to my Kosher, Muslim, and vegetarian/vegan friends (not to mention my fellow lovers of "Babe" and "Charlotte's Web"), the prospect of free pork was too good to pass up. A couple of bucks for a beer would get me and a friend a free dinner for the night. Based on my impression of New York restaurant prices, that's a savings of, I think, $134,000 (give or take a buck.)

So, of course, I RSVP'd, and, of course, easily convinced one of my more carnivorous friends to join me. We arrived at about 8:10- not early, but not late, either. We checked in with the smiling (and cute) girl who had been employed by the Onion for the event, and were directed to the bar to buy our drinks. The harried (but presumably happily compensated) bartenders got our drinks, and we sidled over to the pork table... which was empty. Well, not entirely empty. One sad dinner roll remained. Though my friend and I were, at this point, ravenous, neither of us wanted to look like shnorrers (a fine old Yiddish word- look it up), so we left the roll and walked back to the bartenders. "When will you be bringing out more pork?" we asked. "Oh," he replied, "they've wrapped up for the night."

This was annoying on several levels- for one thing, the event was advertised as going until 9, and the clear teaser for the event was the food. The food had "wrapped up," I learned, at least an hour early. More importantly, when we signed in, we were not informed that there was to be no more food- we were just sent to the bar to spend money, which the bartenders took without any warning that there would be no pork to accompany our Coronas.

So, that night, I did what my grandmother taught me- I wrote a letter (though Grandmom would have written it by hand and paid for a stamp- I just used the miraculous modern convenience of e-mail.) Fully expecting never to hear from anyone, I sent this note, which I feel was "light" enough that it wouldn't seem the work of a crank, but serious enough to get the point across- you be the judge (note, the letter has been edited for brevity, but no significant content has changed):

"To Whom It May Concern:
Having left the Spanky's event a half-hour ago, I thought I'd pass along three tips in the spirit of bonhomie and neighborliness:

Tip One: When you've heavily advertised an event as taking place between 7:00 PM and 9:00 PM, and the main draw of the event is free food, it's preferable that the food actually be available until nearly 9:00, rather than being "wrapped up" (bartender's words) sometime before 8:15.

Tip Two: On those unfortunate occasions when an event has effectively ended early it's preferable that the check-in person let attendees know that it's ended, instead of sending them to buy drinks.

Tip Three: It's preferable that the sponsors pass Tip Two along to the bartenders- in other words, it's nice when the bartenders tell patrons that the food is gone BEFORE taking their money.

I don't mean to sound cheap (though I am) or unreasonable. If I'd arrived at, say, 8:55 rather than 8:15, I'd accept that the fault was mine. But, as you know, there are numerous events going on in New York on any given night. I had a choice between your event and going to Penang to see a friend's band perform, for example. If the value-added-incentive meant to pull people to your event and away from others doesn't actually exist as advertised, goodwill can be lost. Certainly, if the idea was to bring new customers to Spanky's, the restaurant's done nothing to make me want to take my friends there.

Next time I attend an Onion event, I hope for better.

Christopher Stansfield"

Not bad, right? Pretty eloquent, and reasonably self-deprecating (I do, after all, admit that I'm cheap.) I didn't threaten or cajole, just stated a few facts. I emailed the letter to the Onion and CC'd it to Spanky's, and there I thought it would die.

Until the very next day, when I received the following response from the Onion (again edited so as not to reveal details of the newspaper/sponsor relationship that were divulged):

"Hi Chris,
Thanks for your note and I apologize for your frustration last night. Your points are valid.... (DETAILS WITHHELD)
In any case, we really should have said, "While supplies last" in the e-mail and we certainly should have cut things off more quickly once we realized the food had run out. Neither The Onion nor the restaurant realized the type of turnout we would have....
Thanks again for coming out and we'll do our best to ensure a better party next time around.

Wow. That was pretty impressive, especially since it arrived early in the day. That implied to me that the letter was given some priority, and that the Onion, well, cares. So I wrote back:

I appreciate your quick, polite response to my email, as well as the apology...(DETAILS WITHHELD) it's to your credit (and the Onion's) that you responded at all- that's much more than many other businesses would do under the circumstances. Better luck next time!
Chris Stansfield"

Note, by the way, that I'm downright chummy with the Onion staffer at this point- I'm no longer "Christopher Stansfield," but rather, "Chris." Again, I thought this would be the end of things, and I was actually pretty satisfied. But then, a few days later, I received another email- this time from Spanky's (presumably an employee, and not "Spanky," himself):

"Dear Christopher,first of all please let me apologize for your unfortunate experience at the pig fest. On behalf of Spankys bbq I would like to invite you and a guest in for lunch or for dinner. I am mailing a fifty dollar gift certificate to (MY ADDRESS WITHHELD, EVEN THOUGH I'M LISTED).Please call me if you would like to get in touch. Robert Protter (PHONE NUMBER WITHHELD)."

Holy Toledo! That's a hell of a response! After all, I wasn't really "entitled" to anything more than an apology, but now I have fifty bucks to spend on meat, alcohol, or whatever- and I checked out the menu- I can actually use the gift certificate for two full meals and not have to dig into my own wallet. I haven't redeemed the coupons yet (if anyone wants to join me, send me a note and I'll choose the wittiest and most eloquent friend to be my date.)

So, what have I learned from this experience?

One: Grandmom was right- sometimes it pays to be a cranky consumer.
Two: The Onion is awesome.
Three: Spanky's BBQ is also awesome.

Perhaps you, the reader, have learned something as well- next time you feel screwed by a business, take the five minutes to (humorously (or if you can't do humorous, politely)) let the business know. It works better than bitching to me about it over the phone. Or over coffee. Or in a bar. Or anywhere, for that matter. In other words, stop bitching to me, I have my own problems.

And, more importantly- go eat at Spanky's!

© 2007, Christopher Stansfield. Some rights reserved. This work is licensed to the public under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License, and may only be distributed according to the terms of said license. To view a copy of this license, please click here.

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