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“Waiter, there’s a watch in my salad.”

AJC Staff

AJC Staff

CNN’s Eatocracy blog recently told the unfortunate tale of a “sender-backer.”

“A what?” you ask.

A sender-backer, as in a cretinous man who makes a habit of cadging free meals from restaurants by sending back mostly eaten entrees. The CNN reporter who wrote the post had the (mis)fortune of sitting next to this man in a New York restaurant. After the guy sent back his steak, he explained the technique to his date. After sending back a small remaining portion of his dish, most waiters will ask if he’d prefer a replacement entree or having the item removed from the bill. He always chooses the latter.

People like this are doubly odious. One, because most restaurants operate on paper-thin profit margins and they can’t afford to entertain jerks. Two, because he makes a bad name for the rest of us who send food back for good reason.

Most people I know never send food back. Even my wife demurs, preferring not to make a fuss because she’d never want to be mistaken for anyone remotely like our friend the sender-backer. She’d rather push around an inedible entree than be seen as a pushy broad.

Me, I’m a firm believer in sending food back — but in the right way.

When and how to send food back depends very much on the situation. Let’s look at a few scenarios:

1. There’s a foreign object in your food. It happens, even in the best restaurants. I have found all the usual items, as well as a sharp piece of metal wire from a twist tie in a salad, and a live worm crawling about the greenery that accompanied a bowl of pho.

I have also personally worked in kitchens where dishes come back — and not only with errant hairs. I’ve had to respond to buckshot in venison and, believe it or not, a men’s wristwatch in a salad. The latter we traced to the produce delivery guy; the cooking student in charge of the salad station got a stern talking-to about being more careful when cleaning lettuce.

If you find something that doesn’t belong in your food, call the waiter and — without question— ask to have your dish replaced. If you’ve already eaten most of it or feel too disgusted to eat anything more, alert the waiter, politely refuse replacement and let them decide how to handle the complaint.

2. Your food is over- or undercooked. Some steakhouses ask you to saw through the center of your steak to make sure it is cooked to your liking. If not, it’s still a good idea to make a cut somewhere deep inside the steak to check.

If the steak is undercooked by a degree of doneness or more, you can ask to have the same piece of meat cooked further.

If it is overcooked, you can ask for a fresh steak.

With other kinds of protein, it’s a good idea to first find out how the chef prepares it. Some like to serve medium-rare salmon or pink pork chops. If that’s not for you, make sure you discuss your preferences with your waiter when you order.

So what about other foods that can be over- or undercooked — burnt pizza crust, say, or cold-centered eggrolls? Return them: You shouldn’t have to pay for, or eat, food that isn’t prepared correctly.

3. Your food is, for reasons particular to you, inedible. If you’ve got an allergy or a condition, such as celiac disease, that prevents you from eating certain foods, then it goes without saying that you should alert the waiter before ordering.

But what if your entree arrives and, without warning, is spicy enough to merit a “three chiles” rating on a Thai menu? Or what if you order a light-sounding pasta that comes swimming in an unannounced cream sauce?

I think, in these situations, you have every reason to send your dish back and expect a replacement. If you’ve made a good-faith effort to find out about a dish and discover it’s extreme in a way you can’t stomach, the restaurant needs to do a better job of describing it.

4. Your food is clumsily or poorly prepared. So the bottom half of the hamburger bun arrives so saturated with juice that it falls apart. The mixed greens, right from the bag, have those squiggly wilted bits that look like algae. The shrimp haven’t been deveined. Here’s where things start to get tricky.

You should definitely draw your server’s attention to the problem if it bothers you enough that you don’t enjoy the food, but let him or her offer to replace it. Or not: This is the litmus test.

If you’re at a well-run restaurant that maintains certain standards, then they should admit they’ve let you, and themselves, down. Mistakes happen, and everyone will be happier when standards are upheld.

If you’re at a restaurant, however, where the bar is set low and no replacement is offered, then you should suck it up and strike the restaurant from your list.

5. You just don’t like the food. The sauce is a little salty. The chicken lacks flavor. There’s a spice in there you don’t appreciate. Should you return any dishes for these reasons?

No, but if the waiter asks how you like the food, be honest.

I recently ate at the restaurant John Dory Oyster Bar in New York. I started with two small plates and ended with a soup called “lobster panade” for my entree.

The waiter had warned me the soup was thin and didn’t have any lobster meat, and the dish proved him a man of his word.

It was a russet broth made from the deeply roasted shells, with a caramelized — almost burnt — flavor lurking inside. I didn’t find it appealing.

When the waiter came to ask how it was, I responded, “Fine.” I wasn’t going to lie and praise it, but I wasn’t going to make a fuss and complain. Fine was an honest response.

“Just fine?” he asked, astutely picking up the clues. “We can always get you something else.”

I insisted I was copacetic. Then he said something really smart. “Just flag me down if you change your mind.”

After five minutes of pushing the soup around, I called the waiter over and ordered chorizo-stuffed squid. I loved this dish. “Are you going to finish the soup?” he asked. When I said “no,” he quietly cleared it away.

The bill came, and the waiter told me he didn’t charge me for the soup. “You didn’t like it, so you shouldn’t have to pay for it,” he insisted.

This, people, is the definition of good service.

That said, I was ready to pay for the soup.

All you can expect a restaurant to do is replace a dish you return. Do not expect them to take it off the bill, or offer free dessert or drinks. If that happens, then appreciate the hospitality and reward the restaurant with your continued business.

But once you start expecting freebies, then you’re no different from Mr. Sender-Backer.

28 comments Add your comment

Thanks for your article on 'sender-backers'...

February 21st, 2011
8:48 am

……I once had a meal at The Palm here in Atlanta – my kids (college age) were with me and the steak I was served was way not to “Palm” standards – even my kids commented that I ought to send it back. However, it was one of those nights/days where nothing had gone right for me, so I just said no, it is OK. I think I was using some sort of a “free entree” deal anyway, so I really was not out anything and thus,k did not want to make a big deal out of it.

However, near the end of the meal the wait person came over and acknowledged that my meal was not well prepared – I told them that was OK, I could handle it. The person repsonded, ” Sir, this is The Palm – you will not be charged and we will provide a free dessert, too”. I tried to protest since it was going to be free anyway, but they persisted and said that they would just comp another entree, too, not just the one they had misprepared.

Needless to say, I have returned to The Palm many times – Bone’s could learn a thing or two from Willie and his crew….

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Katie Smith and acookandherbook, John Kessler. John Kessler said: “Waiter, there’s a watch in my salad.” http://bit.ly/eITGkj [...]

Rodney

February 21st, 2011
9:18 am

Typically, I’m like the first poster – I really don’t send back meals that often. But, my reasoning is quite different.

There’s been far too much discussion on blogs and forums by servers/kitchen staff about the “send back” that’s really opened my eyes. If something is wrong, or not quite to my liking, I RARELY send something back. I will either pretend to eat it and make up some excuse as to why I didn’t finish it (if asked by the server) or, I’ll send it back and not ask for anything else to replace it.

It’s shameful, yes, but I can’t trust that my “send back” will return to me without any additional component added that I may not have been expected, if you know what I mean. I would prefer to just do without (and yes, sometimes still pay for it) than to worry that I’ve run up on a server who’s had a bad day or thinks I’m being too picky or complaining and decided to augment my dish somehow.

It doesn’t happen that often – rarely, in point of fact. And I’m certainly not saying that ALL servers/kitchen staff are prone to the additional augment of send-backs. I’m sure that’s not the case. It’s probably a very small percentage that would even consider it and even fewer that would carry through.

I just don’t take the chance.

bobbyd

February 21st, 2011
9:25 am

I frequently get my Chinese take out fix from a little hole in the wall in Cumming, owned by a very nice couple. However, they’ve been overwhelmed by the demand for the food, and sometimes things get a little hectic.

I was in there not long ago at about 6:30. Placed my order, she said it would be about an hour. You can see right into the kitchen, and there were a lot of tickets ahead of mine. When I came back at 7:30, she was having to apologize to call in’s that they could not fill their order tonight. They already had enough tickets that they would be cooking until at least 9:30, and they close at 9.

Got home, found an order of crab rangoon in the bag, marked “free”. I went back a few days later for lunch, and thanked her for it. She said, “I know your daughter likes it, and you’ve been great about waiting for your food, so we wanted to do something nice.

Guess where I’m getting my Chinese food tonight? Yep, same place. And I would go there even if it wasn’t the best Chinese food anywhere near here, just for the service.

bobbyd

February 21st, 2011
9:31 am

Worst send-back I ever had to do was at Wendy’s. Did the drive through, ordered several sandwiches. Got home, got them out of the bag, and the third one down was a chicken sandwich that we did not order…that had several bites already taken out of it.

Yes, they’d stuck a half eaten chicken sandwich in the bag. Went back, and one of the line guys sees me walking up, walks over, picks up his sandwich, says, “oh, that’s where that went”. Then he picks it up, walks back to his station, opens it, takes a bite, lays it on the counter, and goes back to work.

He’d been eating on the line, and had apparently forgotten what he was doing, wrapped his own sandwich, and stuck it in my bag.

Managers only response was to say, “we didn’t charge you for that, did we?” He never said a word to the guy who’d gone right back to eating while he was working on the line.

No apology, no nothing. I emailed corporate, and got back a generic thank you for your input note…not exactly a good response to a screw up like that.

Fortunately, the health department was a bit more receptive.

[...] “Waiter, there’s a watch in my salad.” [...]

Kirk

February 21st, 2011
10:00 am

I have never asked for a freebie. I have asked for a do over multiple times. I always tell my server what I think including too salty or under and overcooked. As a customer I think I have a responsibility to let the kitchen/chef know how they are coming across. I have found foreign objects in my food before, plastic and worms (sushi), stuff happens! From my 50 years of cooking, I realize all my dishes aren’t going to be perfect. Without exception, everything I have ever complained about in a restaurant was taken care of. I also research the places I eat before I go on this thing called the internet. It seems to cut to the chase so I know what to expect before I go. While the employees and owners make some of the reviews, they can’t do them all and I go to eat by consensus. Works for me.

Lisa

February 21st, 2011
10:20 am

The worst “sender backers” I witnessed was a couple sitting at the table next to me at Ruth Chris’s. They sent their steak back not once, not twice, but THREE times – each time eating about half of the steak before sending it back. On the third round, they had the server wrap up the steak to take home with them. I heard them ask for free drinks while they waited on their 3rd steak to be cooked. At the end of the meal they asked that the meal be comped because they had such a problem with the steaks. You could tell that the manager and server were onto the scam they were running but didn’t want to make a scene in front of the entire restaurant by escorting them out. The only unfortunate thing was that we shared the same server and had pretty bad service becuase he was so preoccupied with helping the scammers sitting next to us.

[...] here to see the original: How and When to Send Food Back | Food and More with John Kessler Uncategorized delivery-guy, foreign-object, salad, sharp-piece, the-greenery, twist-tie, [...]

goodegirl

February 21st, 2011
10:29 am

John, it seems to me that if a dish is sent back mostly eaten, (over half gone), it must have been enjoyed to some extent. Do restaurants really take items off the bill if they’ve been mostly eaten? Say it ain’t so, Joe!

Smyrna Cook

February 21st, 2011
10:40 am

Being a former server, I too, have had this happen numerous times only to know that this was a scam. Once I had a group of ladies come in and order salads…when I dropped the check off at the table (as were accustomed to do so when they were 3/4 of the way finished b/c it was lunch) one of the ladies said “This salad didn’t taste right, can you please take it off of the bill”. I went and got my manager, he obliged but made note of said woman…needless to say, a few weeks later she was back (with a different server), my manager remembered her when she tried the same thing…he said “I’m on to you, either you pay for it or I will call the APD for theft of services…and you aren’t welcome here anymore”.

At this same restaurant (which is now defunct), I had a couple come in for lunch and order our lunch fajita combo. They also ordered several rounds of margaritas, complaining all the while that there “wasn’t enough tequila”. I tried my best to cater to their whims to no avail, when I asked if they would care for anything else…the one lady said…”These fajitas taste like alpo”. I knew this too was a scam and I went onto explain to her that if her fajitas did in fact taste like “alpo” why would she consume the whole plate only to complain about it and the end of her meal? Furthermore, our doors were closing for good in a few weeks so her continued patronage was of no ccncern to us. I went and told the manager on duty and he came and explained the same thing…if it tasted like “alpo” why not send it back to begin with? He told her he would comp the fajitas. Luckily, my manager was kind enough to comp the whole meal for me so that I can receive a very healthy tip since I had to deal with all of the crazy.

But seriously, how does she know what “alpo” tastes like? Does she eat dog food regularly?

Lisa

February 21st, 2011
11:38 am

Serial sender-backers belong in the same club as the picture-takers hoping to get extra attention, free stuff…..

Ramona Clef

February 21st, 2011
11:40 am

I don’t think I’ve ever sent anything back. Maybe I’m lucky or maybe my standards are low.
But, many years ago I was at a steakhouse in Miami with BF, BF’s brother, and brother’s girlfriend. Brother and girlfriend sent back the steaks that were at least 2/3 eaten and demanded they be removed from the bill. The server complied without a fuss. I was mortified. It was so obviously a scam. And they did it so smoothly, without any prior discussion, it was clear they were well-practiced in this stunt. I never showed my face in that restaurant again and luckily I didn’t marry into that family.
So, sender-backers, do what you will but don’t drag your innocent table-mates into your scam. It’s akin to sticking up a convenience store while we wait in the car thinking you’ve run in for a pack of cigarettes.

ATLDiner

February 21st, 2011
1:06 pm

Had to send a steak back at Ruth’s Chris once… they gave me a ribeye instead of a filet… and it was still bleeding when I ordered medium – clear difference on both accounts. Our overall experience there that night was close to disastrous but I STILL hate to be a sender-backer, even when it is justified!
And no… I was not the person mentioned above who tried to get free stuff =) We paid for everything haha.

HOWEVER… true story… when my sister was in nursing school, her vegetarian friend sent a salad back when they accidentally put meat on it. A few days later she was ill with aches and a very sore throat, and doctor diagnosed her with some STD (I don’t remember which one – chlamydia?) in her throat! She happened to have the leftovers in her fridge, and took them to the lab at school. Well, a person at the restaurant had “you-know-whatted” in her salad when she sent it back! AHHH!

So… that is why I about NEVER send anything back, especially at a lower-end or chain restaurant.

BDJ

February 21st, 2011
1:31 pm

Looks like installment number one of educating the Atlanta diner. First you called out atl chefs, which I agreed with, now you have begun a long process of educating an incredibly diverse dining public. I look forward to more.

Don’t forget guests that send food back because they don’t know what they’re ordering! FYI, boys and girls, carpaccio is served raw!

Ramona Clef

February 21st, 2011
1:34 pm

YUCK.
But let me ask wait staff readers: does it make a difference if the person asks nicely vs insultingly? (e.g., “This tastes like Alpo.”)

Kristen

February 21st, 2011
2:06 pm

ATLDiner, your last paragraph is exactly why I didn’t send back the pizza with the burned crust last Sunday at a local chain. The kids running the ovens looked stoned and stupid, and I just sucked it up. However, I did place an anonymous call to the owner the next day.
;-)

Edgewood Adam

February 21st, 2011
2:25 pm

I call BS on the spooge salad. That would have been national news. As far as sending something back I have to disagree with John. I do not think its right to send anything back because you do not like the taste. If it is prepared up to the proper standard and you still do not like it then that is on you. Too salty, too spicy? Thats all relative and they should not have to eat the cost because of it. I have also seen people complain about having to cut open a steak to show it is not cooked right. How else can they see? Most people seem to not understand what exactly a medium-rare steak is.

StylinGirl

February 22nd, 2011
9:03 am

We went to the local “Short”Horn chain which usually serves a decent meal. We were seated in Mr. Jackass Server’s section. He LOVES to be “The Man in Charge” and is frankly way tooo much for my husband and I. I ordered the ribeye, my usual cut of choice, and so did my husband. When the steaks arrived it looked a bit different than my husband’s steak but being hungry I started in on it only to notice that it was not a ribeye but a New York cut., I flagged Mr. Server down and explained to him. He sat himself right down in the booth next to me and proceeded to explain that it was indeed a ribeye, just cut from the New York end of the ribeye. What a crock. He walked away quite confident that he “educated” another dumbass custumer. Thankfully the manager came by later to ask how our dinner was and when I told him the yarn about the “ribeye cut from the New York side” he comped my dinner. We do go back but will wait for a seat in someone else’s section.

rebelliousrose

February 22nd, 2011
9:51 am

I have been a professional waiter for 20-some years. I can’t speak for the Applebees/Chili’s/chain restaurants, but I work in (mostly) very high-end restaurants and while we might WANT desperately to spit in your food or simply smack you upside the head for being a pain in the ass- there’s a little thing called professional pride, and that’s why we don’t. If a reputable restaurant with a decent chef screws up your food, we want to know about it. I’ve had diners tell me “fine” when it’s clearly not fine- I can see your rare tuna is pale pink, or your medium steak is brown. Mistakes and accidents happen. TELL US. We want to fix it, especially if it’s our fault. Don’t make me send in a manager to beat it out of you because you are being polite, just tell me; “This is over/undercooked.” I’ll fall all over myself to make it right. And please don’t take wrongly cooked food out on me, either. There’s a reason that I asked you five questions about your steak temperature….so I could get you exactly what you want. I used to carry paint chips at one steakhouse so I could show the customers exactly what colors to expect in the center of their food. I didn’t cook it, I’ll try to fix it, and I’ll do fifteen times more work getting you what you want, so the 12% tip is kind of mean.

A good restaurant ALWAYS wants to know what they did wrong. Always.

And to the “oh, I am allergic to green peppers, I can’t eat this” people- no, you aren’t. You just don’t want to a. appear picky to your table companions, or b. want to pick out the peppers yourself. With a real food allergy, it’s literally the first thing out of your mouth to the waiter. “Hi, Greg, I am your customer and I am allergic to shellfish.” You don’t “forget” a food allergy.

rebelliousrose

February 22nd, 2011
9:52 am

I also call BS on the Chlamydia salad- that would have been a HUGE lawsuit and made the news.

rebelliousrose

February 22nd, 2011
9:55 am

I don’t know why the blog thinks I have already posted the comment that’s not appearing.

I have been a professional waiter for 20-some years. I can’t speak for the Applebees/Chili’s/chain restaurants, but I work in (mostly) very high-end restaurants and while we might WANT desperately to spit in your food or simply smack you upside the head for being a pain in the posterior- there’s a little thing called professional pride, and that’s why we don’t. If a reputable restaurant with a decent chef screws up your food, we want to know about it. I’ve had diners tell me “fine” when it’s clearly not fine- I can see your rare tuna is pale pink, or your medium steak is brown. Mistakes and accidents happen. TELL US. We want to fix it, especially if it’s our fault. Don’t make me send in a manager to beat it out of you because you are being polite, just tell me; “This is over/undercooked.” I’ll fall all over myself to make it right. And please don’t take wrongly cooked food out on me, either. There’s a reason that I asked you five questions about your steak temperature….so I could get you exactly what you want. I used to carry paint chips at one steakhouse so I could show the customers exactly what colors to expect in the center of their food. I didn’t cook it, I’ll try to fix it, and I’ll do fifteen times more work getting you what you want, so the 12% tip is kind of mean.

A good restaurant ALWAYS wants to know what they did wrong. Always.

And to the “oh, I am allergic to green peppers, I can’t eat this” people- no, you aren’t. You just don’t want to a. appear picky to your table companions, or b. want to pick out the peppers yourself. With a real food allergy, it’s literally the first thing out of your mouth to the waiter. “Hi, Greg, I am your customer and I am allergic to shellfish.” You don’t “forget” a food allergy.

Michigander

February 22nd, 2011
2:36 pm

To Rebellious, it isn’t that we “forget” food allergies, we sometimes don’t expect our food to come with an allergen that isn’t specified on the menu. I’m allergic to bananas, not something I think much about because I am never going to order banana pudding. However, I have received them as garnish on French toast and ice cream and have had to do a send back.

Foodgeek

February 22nd, 2011
3:30 pm

Michigander: I’m with Rebellious Rose. You should always mention your allergies up front. You never know whether there might be bananas or some other ingredient included in the marinade, or in the bread basket or as a garnish for a dessert. The server takes a lot of time learning all of the potential allergens in each dish in order to protect you, so just let him/her know what you can’t eat and it won’t come anywhere near your plate.

I also call BS on the spooge salad. No way that happened without it being all over the news. Typical urban legend.

Cooljoetex

February 23rd, 2011
2:25 pm

I agree with John. I don’t send anything back just because it fails some minor quality test. However, if the preparation is such that it makes the dish totally inedible, then back it will go. I also am in perfect agreement with John that it is totally up to the establishment to determine how to make a wrong, right. If the determination is up to my standards, then off the list that place goes. As for one of the posters that did the send back at Wendy’s – Really?!? Lol! Foodchecks at fast food establishments should be done BEFORE leaving the drive through or exiting the place. The manager could have denied the return and suggested that you ate the sandwich PRIOR to returning it to the restaurant. Great post John, keep up the good work and bravo to the server who noted professional integrity, let me add plain ole human dignity!

Claressa

February 23rd, 2011
10:19 pm

I’m with Michigander. I’m also allergic to bananas and mention it to my server when it seems reasonable. But I once received a burrito described as a “flour tortilla filled with ground beef in a piquant sauce” whose special ingredient was bananas. Really? It might have occurred to me in LA or HI but this was a storefront Mexican joint next to the WalMart in Jasper, AL. The manager comped the meal but there’s really no excuse for being that vague about allergens on a menu.

English Speaking White Guy

February 24th, 2011
10:45 pm

My friend and I had dinner at an Outback last week. She found a piece of a plastic tong in her salad. We told the waitresss and a manager came over and had the salad replaced and said that her meal would be free. when I got the check, another manager came over and said that both of our meals would be free.

Don't Eat Freezer Bags

February 25th, 2011
10:30 am

When my son was in college in Charlotte, he took a job at a newly opened Olive Garden as a go-fer. He was not waiting my table. I ordered a chicken-something pasta dish and when I began to eat it I noticed the chicken wouldn’t slice with the butter knife I was given. I asked for a sharper knife and when I sliced the breast open I realized it had been cooked in its plastic freezer bag! I summoned my server and she immediately swooped up my plate without a word and took it to the kitchen. My entree was replaced, but for some reason I was no longer hungry. I have never eaten at Olive Garden anywhere since!