‘Have it your way’ is challenging for local restaurateurs

Bringing great food and hospitality to people is my passion and I work hard for it, as do many other people in this community from chefs to servers, farmers to fishermen. Our hope is that we can create something that is truly good, share it with people and have it be appreciated.

But, because we live in a culture that has been trained that the “customer is always right,” it has caused a tug-of-war between a chef’s craftsmanship and a customer’s specific preferences. The Burger King Jingle of “have it your way” sums up this epidemic. Yes, I call it an epidemic because it’s gone too far.

It erodes the very core of artisanal work. People want to have it their way, no matter the cost to the restaurant, the community or the culture of dining in general, without paying for it. They want special care and support without offering it in return. I’d like to offer that the food we make doesn’t belong only to our customers, but to us as the creators, the chefs, too.

You can’t always have it your way. Restaurateurs lose money because of spur-of-the-moment changes to menu items and lost efficacy of execution.

At times we have had customers make requests to have ingredients removed, and then be surprised why the dish is the same price when paying their bill. Customers simply don’t know how much it costs in money, time and energy to develop and provide quality food for them.

With all of the ailments or possible allergic reactions, to the sharp rise of food intolerance, giving people what they want has become an obstacle course through our own menus. While we’d like to be able to appeal to everyone, when I am completely picking apart and reshaping a dish on my menu because a customer likes the idea of it, but is “trying to avoid” half of the things in it, I can’t help but feel defeated. Or when someone says “I am dairy free and cannot have it in your pasta” then orders a latte after the meal, it makes me understandably upset.

People want high quality, locally sourced ingredients, but the minute the price begins to reflect that extra food cost, it becomes “too expensive.” Our kitchens are not your home kitchens and we are not your personal chefs. We provide a more holistic experience within a community of people, sharing our joy of food with many. It is a shared experience, not any one individual’s.

Those of us who stay in this business truly love it and that is not going to change. But, if we are to survive as an industry, we need to strengthen the respect between chef and customer that has been lost somewhere along the way.

It is time for us to find better ways to communicate with our customers about things we consider foundational to businesses – our menus and specific dishes. It is time for us to be better than the dime-a-dozen, fast-food options of low quality, low health and low class that line our freeways.

We are part of what may be the most ancient craft and art form in human history, and it is usually provided as a service based in care and simple joys. All I ask is that we try to move forward on a path of dignity for both the customer and the chef.

To our dear customers, we challenge you to be vigilant in your pursuit of great food, the story of where it is coming from and the love and labor it took to produce it. However, we also challenge you to engage in an exercise of trust and respect for those who produce it and bring to your table. It will add depth to your soul and life and you will be grateful to it in the future.

Richard Balogh is executive chef at Rifugio’s Country Italian Cuisine in Deming with editing by chef-at-large Arlen Coiley.