I don’t read Yelp; the very word puts me off.
Many people including my best sons think I should do that and many of my colleagues do so. But if you have been reading these essays for a while you know that I encourage customers to complain directly to me.
And you do:
“…at opening time…the staff often seems scattered in an irregular tempo and not particularly welcoming. I would suggest they cannot afford to think–Oh–its 7am–we all have to wake up—-They ought to be at their full game and demonstrate through voice and body language that the customer is welcome and appreciated.”
If someone goes to the trouble of writing to me I respond before day’s end.
We live, as we all know, at a time in which everyone’s voice can be heard. (by all of us including the NSA)
The Internet makes it possible for customers to communicate with me as instantly as they choose. A few choose to use more fiendishly public ways of making their voices heard.
On April 23, the chairman of the Forest Hills Advisory Neighborhood Commission sent me a posting by “Ann Jones” on the Tenleytown website. I put her name in parentheses as it turns out this isn’t her real name. She wrote:
The Department of Health wants to know if you have gotten sick from Bread Furst on Connecticut Avenue. Please contact them asap if you did. I did get very sick from food/ drinks at Bread Furst. Please beware and warn your neighbors. Food poisoning is no fun.
I was alarmed – you might suppose I would be and I wrote to “Ms. Jones” right away. She didn’t respond but Adam Tope did – immediately. Tope is the chairman of our ANC .
Readers who don’t live in Washington might be forgiven for not knowing we don’t really have home rule here. Since 1973 Congress has graciously permitted us to elect local officials (like our mayor) and has allow those officials to carry out some of the powers of government that are generally exercised by elected officials in a democratic society.
In 1974 DC voters created the ANC structure and these unpaid citizens elected by their neighborhoods exercise a lot of power on matters affecting their neighborhoods – parking, improvements, liquor licenses, zoning – many of decisions about life in this city.
The ANC in our area has been very supportive of Bread Furst and Tope came to see me; I believe because he was concerned about Ms. Jones’ complaint.
Right away I was invited by Joe MacDonald, a customer, to write a response via the Tenleytown Listserve; and I did:
Ah yes, the age of Internet. One scurrilous comment that goes onto an email that reaches hundreds of people.
I wrote to the woman when this was passed to me yesterday to ask for particulars. How did she get food poisoning at Bread Furst? What did she eat? When was she there?
But she didn’t respond.
We are a new and small local business. We buy the best ingredients we can get — hams from Heritage Foods in the Hudson Valley, daily from Pennsylvania, bacon from Allan Benton in Tennessee, organic flour, fruits, eggs and vegetables from Pennsylvania Amish farms.
We are scrupulous in our hygiene and in food storage. We know a lot about food-bourn illnesses. Knowing about them and taking precautions is a vital part of our job.
People put things we make into their bodies. There is no more personal act than that and we take very seriously the trust required to do that.
This woman has called into question whether people should trust us. I wish she would also come forward to tell us who she is and what her experience was.
She didn’t. A few others wrote to the Tenleytown list questioning her and some wrote nice things about Bread Furst.
I imagine you know that food production places – bakeries, restaurants, sausage-makers – whoever makes food for sale comes under the jurisdiction of a local health department. Some who make food are inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture but most of us are watched by local health departments.
This obviously is a good thing. It is reassuring of course to consumers but even more important it is a good way for us to learn from dispassionate authority how we are doing in our most basic responsibility, to help our customers stay healthy.
The inspector assigned to our neighborhood is a polite, careful lady, Alice Jackson, who announced herself to one of our staff and was putting on her lab coat as I came to greet her. She told me that she was there because of a citizen complaint and I told her I had been expecting her visit.
I did not spend much time with her as she did her job – inspecting our walk-in refrigerator and our kitchens, taking temperature readings of our food both inside and outside our refrigerators and the temperatures of our refrigeration itself, and our hot water. I don’t think she wanted me to spend time with her.
She asked questions about our food particularly about the food “Ms. Jones” said she had bought and eaten. As it turned out she hadn’t bought here what she complained about as we don’t make a sandwich resembling what she thought made her sick.
Ms. Jackson then sat for a long time in Shivani’s corner and with her laptop wrote a report that was available to me immediately on line. She found one “non-critical violation” – barbecue being cooled at room temperature instead of immediately in the walk-in or freezer; and she told me that we really must embark on our development of a plan for HACCP system. (HACCP is hazard analysis and critical control points, a simple system for tracking foods through their preparation and holding.)
Since opening one year ago, we have been inspected three times by the health department. Ms. Jackson by this time knows us well. I want her criticisms and suggestions and having health inspections is sobering and useful to the staff.
Preparing foods that others eat is a big responsibility. Every day many people put their well being in our hands and if you stop to think about the number of people who have their hands in the food you eat outside your home, you might wish to prepare more of your own food than you do these days.
We who prepare it for you are surrounded by a body of regulations and physical organization that makes it easy to follow those regulations – hand-washing stations, red sanitizer buckets, cleaning chemicals, physical separation of chemicals from food, and a lot of available instruction to those who get licensed as “food handlers.” We have the wherewithal to protect your health.
But Bread Furst’s business is growing so fast that it’s hard to keep up. We have a cleaning staff of four and two electric dishwashers and a bakery never clean enough and orderly enough for me. That’s why you often see me at crowded times wiping tables and cleaning windows.
But although we’re often packed with customers and at those crowded times customers to my horror sit down at tables that have just been vacated and aren’t wiped, still we don’t sacrifice sanitation in our food-handling – ever.
But one woman thought we had made her sick and she filed a complaint. She was wrong and should have made herself available so that I could learn about her experience. But thereafter everything worked as it should. The neighborhood responded through the Tenleytown Web site. The health department responded and looked carefully at the complaint. And we were absolved of responsibility for her “illness.”
Ain’t democracy wonderful?