In my 15 years in the food industry, I have served customers by waiting tables, making coffee, decorating deserts, serving counters, delivering sandwiches and stocking shelves. Whether in a warehouse, kitchen or racing through downtown delivering sandwiches on my bicycle, one universal objective summed up all of my food service jobs: the customers’ needs come first.
The grocery store chains, restaurants and delivery services that value customer retention over the bottom line go out of their way to adhere to this golden rule. They eat the cost when service is unsatisfactory, they work overtime during holidays to give consumers stress-free gatherings, they stop what they’re doing to hunt down products on packed storage shelves.
They put themselves last, so customers’ needs can come first.
But even the best of those businesses can’t keep up with coronavirus consumerism. Panic-buying has created product shortages, stay-at-home orders have put pressure on delivery services and demand for curbside orders have caused unusual waiting periods for food providers otherwise known for their timeliness.
On Easter Sunday, a line stretched from Smoke BBQ Restaurant’s East Commerce St. location all the way to the Alamo as customers waited for curbside takeout. Many turned to social media to vent about their wait. “Poor planning Smoke BBQ,” one wrote. “This line is outrageous,” said another. “Even if we wanted to cancel, there is not even a way out of this line,” yet another complained.
What the customers didn’t know was that 61 of the restaurant’s almost 400 Easter orders were dated for the following Sunday — mistakes made by customers when ordering online, its owner said.
“We tried to service these people, but we were ultimately giving food to people who didn’t have an order for Easter,” Smoke owner Adrian Martinez told the Current. “Things kept going from there. It fell apart.”
Even so, Martinez did what any good food service provider would do, he busted his ass to make things right.
“We started calling everybody to tell them to come an hour later,” he said. “I got on Facebook Live to explain what was going on.”
The restaurant owner even gave out his personal number so those in line could call or text for an honest explanation. Meanwhile, runners rushed ice-cold drinks to those waiting in their cars.
A reprieve came the following day, when loyal customers came to Martinez’s side, thanking him for cooking for everybody during the crush, even though he didn’t have to.
“Less than 20% of the big-name restaurants are still operating,” Martinez said, “We had a chance to say, ‘We’re going to close the doors, put everybody on unemployment and call it a day.’”
Instead, the restaurant opened a pop-up grocery market, altered its menu to meet consumer needs and hosted a free 400-meal giveaway for the community.
H-E-B employee Jacob Alexander Henson has also wrestled with the tension of customer demands and product shortages. Once a bakery worker, Henson temporarily shifted to curbside grocery service when less-essential departments paused operation.
“H-E-B is definitely here for the customers first and foremost, but because of the pandemic and items that are limited and shorted, it has put employees behind regular production schedule,” Henson told the Current
“Panic-buying disrupted supply and demand, especially around products like toilet paper and cleaning items,” he added. “We’re doing everything we can, but sometimes customers don’t understand.”
Curbside customers have become upset when their orders weren’t delivered with 100% accuracy or delivery was not as timely as they expected, Henson said.
Meanwhile, employees are shopping for those orders as early as 5 a.m., three hours before stores open, to meet demand.
It doesn’t take an insider to know San Antonio-based H-E-B has staked its reputation on quality and customer service. But even companies with good reps are in new territory right now. Grocery stores can only work with the supplies made available to them.
And even though food providers are doing heroic work, at the end of the day, they’re still human. They aren’t immune from making mistakes in such a high-pressure environment.
If there is ever been a time to lighten up on service workers and give them our support, it’s now.
Instagram / @lagloriapearl
An employee at La Gloria's location at the Pearl works its grocery counter.
One way we can repay food workers who put themselves on the front line is supporting locally owned restaurants, establishments that are often started by people who worked up the ranks.
Chef Johnny Hernandez’s La Gloria at the Pearl converted its seating space into a temporary market to bring San Antonio citizens necessary resources. Later, it added convenient hours and online ordering to better serve emergency responders.
“There was a hype in the beginning, then it kind of died down,” Juliana Ibarra, brand communicator for Grupo La Gloria told the Current. “Meanwhile, when I pass by McDonald’s and Burger King, they are just packed.”
She continued: “We keep a lot of people working, plus the owner was born and raised here, and he is completely invested in the community,” Ibarra said. “I would love to tell people, if they can continue to do takeout and curbside from local restaurants, man, it would really help.”
Though food service workers will continue to put customers’ needs first, now’s a good time to return the favor.
They are on the frontlines, choosing to work when the cost is high, prioritizing customer health and safety above their own, strategizing about how they can better serve their community.
Give them a smile, give them an air high-five, give them a big tip. Recognize them for doing the work they know best — serving others before themselves, no matter the circumstance.
So many restaurants, so little time. Find out the latest San Antonio dining news with our Flavor Friday Newsletter.