Second Thought: Wednesday, January 02, 2008
Five Measly Pieces

Chain eatery bosses might want to unbutton their rules a tad.


When I go out to eat, I’m not a difficult customer. Having worked in so many restaurants — in front dealing with demanding customers and in back dealing with nasty owners — I’m usually OK with whatever gets put in front of me. If the food is bad and the service worse, I just don’t come back.
But in this era of chain dining, where the help follows directives from corporate headquarters, some of the basic rules of service — and marketing — have been lost. The old “give the customers what they want” mantra doesn’t travel well from the invisible boss to the young kid working with real customers.
I went into this chain sub shop last week with my mouth set for a turkey, salami, and cheese sandwich with lettuce, tomato, mustard, and mayo. Seemed fairly simple for a place that says it has the “world’s greatest gourmet sandwiches.”
The menu board behind the cash register offered some sandwiches with turkey and some with salami, but none with both. Surely combining them would be easy — just slap some turkey on the salami or vice versa, and I’d be on my way.
“We don’t have that kind of sandwich,” the woman behind the cash register told me, staring at the buttons on her keypad.
I looked over at the food bin next to her. “Well,” I said, “there is some turkey right there, and some salami over there, and provolone cheese. Just put them together.”
She seemed confused, more concerned with pushing the right buttons than with my sandwich plans. “Maybe you want a No. 9 or a No. 11,” she said.
I looked at the menu again. The No. 11 Country Club was made with salami, capicola, and cheese. “OK, give me the No. 11 and substitute turkey for the capicola,” I said.
“We don’t do substitutes,” she said with a glare.
Hmm. I offered her a deal. The No. 9 Italian Night Club included salami, capicola, smoked ham, and provolone. I figured that trading two meats for one turkey slice might entice them. But — no dice.
I wasn’t angry; I didn’t raise my voice. I just felt as though I had ventured into a weird parallel universe where common sense didn’t function.
“All I want is a sandwich with turkey, salami, and cheese,” I intoned one more time. She shook her head and called the manager over. They conferred, then told me I could order a Plain Slims No. 5 — salami, capicola, and cheese. Turkey, for some reason, could be substituted on this sandwich. The price was $3.50.
I agreed, just wanting to move on. But when it was rung up, the cost was $5. Why the extra $1.50, I asked. For adding the turkey, she said. “But the capicola was taken off,” I pleaded. Didn’t matter, she said. What I think is, she had a button for the Plain Slims No. 5, and a button for a turkey add-on, so that was the only way she could figure out to ring it up.
Tired and defeated, I paid the bill and took my sandwich. I peeked at it, stopped, and went back to the counter. It was turkey and salami and cheese all right, but nothing else — no lettuce or tomato, no mustard and mayo. I handed it back and asked for the toppings.
What was I thinking? “You said all you wanted was turkey and salami and cheese, and there are no toppings on the Plain Slims,” the robot/woman at the cash register said. But she and the manager agreed grudgingly to hand over the mayo and mustard — one packet each, and one only.
As I walked out, still tomato-shorn and lettuce-less, I thought of the 1970 film Five Easy Pieces. Jack Nicholson is in a diner trying to order an omelet with toast. No toast, the waitress tells him, only rolls. But you serve sandwiches on bread, so just make some toast, he pleads. No substitutions, she shoots back.
So Nicholson orders the omelet and a chicken salad sandwich on toast, and then tells the waitress to hold the chicken salad. “You want me to hold the chicken, huh?” waitress says. Yes, Nicholson replies — “I want you to hold it between your knees.”
Well, as my friends will tell you, I’m no Jack Nicholson. I didn’t make any suggestions about where she could hold the capicola. But what kind of a sandwich shop can’t slip a little turkey between the bread slices because there’s no button for it? The reality is that for me and customers like me, these chains are pushing the wrong buttons. And the result may be that their profits won’t stretch far enough to butter a foot-long bun.

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