Rants, reviews, photos and lots of my own snarky asshattery…

Letter to Crabby Joe’s/Obsidian Group Inc.

Re: Concerns

In keeping with the spirit of Crabby Joe’s, I’m going to describe and summarize our first experience with Crabby Joe’s using language and descriptions compatible with your own marketing. You can do with this information internally what you choose, as at this point I am not certain that we will return to Crabby Joe’s again.

We’ll start with the once upon a time part of the story. And as long as this is, it is in fact summarized, it still won’t take the hour and a half it took me to not get what I ordered to eat. But I digress…

Once upon a time, a family of 4 – Mom, Dad and 2 kids aged 1 and 5 went to Crabby Joe’s to try it out. The family had decided that rather than using their iCoke points for getting the movie tickets they all loved, they would instead get a Crabby Joe’s certificate and try out a new eating establishment. They don’t reside in a town with a Crabby Joe’s but there is one located about 40 km away in Belleville and it was decided that the next trip there they’d venture into this new eatery.

We wandered into Crabby Joe’s about 7pm on Tuesday, August 22, 2006. We really didn’t know anything about the place except for what we’d seen going by from the outside several times, but we realised that like many of the usual Bar & Grill type places there was a clear restaurant side and a bar side – the bar with the big screen TVs, high stools and tables and raised booths, and the restaurant with a few small TVs and normal-height seating at tables and booths. The bar side was quite full except for a few seats at the bar itself and a couple of high tables, while the restaurant side was only moderately populated with customers – many tables were empty but hadn’t yet been cleared of the debris from former customers, but some were completely unoccupied. We also bemusedly noticed that the wait staff wore T-shirts with phrases on the back saying things like “Don’t give me attitude, I have enough of my own” and most notably, “Please speak slo’ly and clearly, I am not fluent in IDIOT.”

Now, before I go any further I guess I should say something positive. I was always told over my years in restaurant management that I should try and start and finish all situations containing negativity and criticisms with something positive to keep from completely putting off the subject of the criticism. So, I have to praise Crabby Joe’s for being so brave in hiring a bilingual person as translator for those who speak Idiot and Normal English. The hostess who greeted us was clearly a native Idiot speaker, although she was capable of passing a casual inspection as a speaker of Normal English. Perhaps she was born into a family of Idiot speakers and then went to English immersion school… I’m not sure, but there definitely seemed to be some kind of small communication barrier to begin with. Remember who it was who she had just greeted at the door – no, on second thought I’ll just review in case your company has hired more like her to screen emails – a family of 4. 2 parents and 2 kids, the kids aged 1 and 5; Toddler and Kindergartner.

So the hostess, she looked us right in the eye and said “How many of you?” and we said “The 4 of us.” She glanced around, took note of the configuration of our party, and said – while gesturing to the bar side – “Could you go and sit on this side, because that side (gesturing to the restaurant side) is really full.” We took one look at the height of the seats and knew right away we would not be seating a 5-year-old on one, let alone an 18-month-old toddler in a booster seat where even a “high chair” would end up being level with only about the seats on the stools. We said, “Umm, no, not really, how long for a seat on the other side?” at which point she looked a little flustered and said “Oh, like, maybe 10 or 15 minutes?” to which we replied.. “OK, I guess we can wait.” Do take note that, as I mentioned before, there were many available seats on the restaurant side, some of which needed bussing and a wipe but it wasn’t like there were pools of blood or something requiring a hazardous biowaste or crime scene cleanup team to restore them to useful condition.

When she realised we were going to wait – which actually seemed to take a full minute (maybe two) to process – she seated a small group of early-twenties behind us in the bar and suddenly seemed to come to a decision. She disappeared around the corner (I use disappeared loosely, as she was still in view – much like the same way an ostrich disappears as its head goes into the sand) and began cleaning the table in a booth on the restaurant side. After about 90 seconds, she was done, and came around to say to us “OK, the table is ready.” In the meantime one of the waitstaff scurried off to fetch a sheet of brown paper to be used as a table cloth. I say to be used as a table cloth because, although you provide the brown table paper and the kids colouring page on the children’s menu like Montana’s (among others), there seem to be no crayons or writing utensils to be found in the Belleville Crabby Joe’s.

Well heck, it had really only been 5 minutes, not 10 to 15 so we started to think that in spite of the lack of crayons for our 5 year old (which she quietly whispered a complaint to us about), it might turn out to be an OK experience now that we’re past the whole language barrier with the hostess issue. Sadly, this wasn’t the case.

We patiently waited at our table as time ticked by. At about 7:15pm, one of the wait staff passing by said, “Oh, I’ll be with you in just a minute.” Another 5 minutes went by and we started to think perhaps she had been just kidding with us. At about 7:21pm, she returned and asked, “Can I get you some drinks to start?” Obviously, we’d had time to read both our menus and the first few chapters of “War and Peace”, so we placed our whole order right away. My wife ordered a diet coke, the Buffalo Chicken Sandwich, and also asked for the “Unlimited salad and garlic skillet bread for $3.99″ add-on deal. My daughter ordered the kids 3-cheese pizza meal with “orange pop”. I ordered a Coke with no ice and the Philly BBQ Beef sandwich. Now this is important for later, because I was enticed to order this item by the description: Lean roast beef, sauteed with sliced mushrooms and smothered in BBQ sauce. Topped with crispy onions, mozzarella cheese and all piled high on Ciabatta bread. The 18-month-old didn’t order anything, mainly because he doesn’t talk but also because he was going to be more than happy sharing little bits of the rest of our meals rather than a whole meal for himself and then violating your cardinal rules – you know the one, the “So you pay your bill and go home and don’t make a mess!” one. We really were trying to get into the spirit of the thing.

To make a long story shorter, I won’t describe the next 20 minutes because, really, there weren’t filled with much to describe. We sat and waited. Only one thing happened in those 20 minutes and that was that my son needed his diaper changed and my wife needed to go to the bathroom. She went there and discovered that in the Ladies bathroom there was exactly the same amount of toilet paper as there were drinks on our table. That is to say, none at all. In that time not much else happened other than us noticing that on the wall it gave us the sage advice that we might want to order dessert first since the meal portions are so large we need to make sure we have room for dessert by getting it before the main course. Your decorators obviously have quite the sense of humour!

At 7:43pm, we began to think that maybe we were on Candid Camera or something. We’d been in the restaurant almost 3/4 of an hour and didn’t even have a beverage in front of us. While I began to think there was some kind of conspiracy, like this was a technique to prevent you from actually getting the “unlimited refills” on soft drinks by not actually giving you your first one until just before you leave, my wife decided that perhaps this was a good time to actually get some answers and service and went to the bar to try and find out where the manager was. The manager she spoke to was named Sonya, and Sonya told her she would look into what was going on because it really was “Not good”. Sonya is apparently a master of understatement. Is this part of your management training program?

At 7:48pm, while my wife was gone, a bottle of ketchup and cutlery and napkins were delivered to our table. Finally, I thought, progress. We can either eat ketchup, or paper and ketchup, but we do have the utensils to make sure we use proper manners in doing so. About a minute later my wife returned to the table and just after she sat down, we received our beverages. Well, my wife and I received our beverages. OK, well, she did. I had ordered Coke with no ice (sensitive teeth) and I got a glass of ice with a splash of Coke. My daughter didn’t get anything because, as the waitress reported, there were all out of orange pop. I responded, “OK, thank you… but first of all, I actually ordered Coke with no ice, so could you get me one like that please.” I then listed off for my daughter the soft drinks available other than orange pop, and she decided to get Sprite. After only about 2 or 3 more minutes, we were all contentedly sipping (OK, the contentedly part is a little sarcasm) on our very special hand-squeezed glasses of pop.

At about 5 minutes to eight, off in the distance I saw our wait person heading our way with three plates – one with the Garlic Skillet Bread and one with Salad, for my wife, and one with pizza for my daughter. Amazingly, it didn’t quite take 10 minutes to get something to use our shiny new cutlery on. Things are looking up, we said – just because we came in and thought we’d be out of here before 8:15 pm – at the latest we might still make it if we really eat fast. Then we just might make it to the grocery store which was the rest of our plan for the evening that we drove 40 km for. I decided that I better check my daughter’s pizza because, being 5, she tends to eat first and get blisters later from scarfing down portions too hot for human consumption. Although the cheese was melted on her pizza, there was absolutely no danger of her burning her mouth, since on the bottom side it was white. By white, I don’t mean lightly golden-yellow toasted, I mean “This was raw and we took it out of the oven just after the surface of the crust hardened enough to lift it but just before any actual cooking went on.” But hey, she’s a hungry, hungry kid and its pizza. You know the old adage about pizza, right? The one that goes “Pizza is just like sex. When it’s good, its really really good, but when its bad, well, it’s still pretty good.”

A short time later, more food began appearing. Now this is where the very special note I made of the description of what I ordered starts to get important. My wife got her Buffalo Chicken Sandwich and fries, but it was a bit hot so she kept eating her salad and garlic bread for a little while. I received by Philly BBQ Beef Sandwich, but it didn’t seem to be what I ordered. Oh, you could take the description “Lean roast beef, sautéed with sliced mushrooms and smothered in BBQ sauce; topped with crispy onions, mozzarella cheese and all piled high on Ciabatta bread” and apply it, but you had to leave out a bunch of words to actually make an accurate description. I guess there would be two ways to do it to make it fit what the menu said – don’t use all the words by saying, “(A) Lean (amount of) roast beef in (a little bit of) BBQ sauce. Topped with (a tablespoon of unidentifiable) cheese on Ciabatta bread.” Or you could alternatively use “NOT” and other adverbial-type words to make the description accurate to some degree: “Lean roast beef, NOT sautéed with sliced mushrooms and NOT smothered in BBQ sauce. NOT Topped with crispy onions, mozzarella cheese and DEFINITELY NOT all piled high on Ciabatta bread.”

Have you ever purchased a package of Buddig beef, in the 85g size? It comes in a plastic bag type package from the grocery store. It costs, oh, around a dollar. If you have ever opened these packages you would know that inside there are about 8-10 thin slices of beef. What I got appeared to be about the equivalent of two of those slices, one on each of the two pieces of Ciabatta bread, with about a thimble of BBQ sauce on each. On top of these was cheese amounting to about the equivalent of one half of a Kraft single processed cheese slice distributed over the two halves of the sandwich.

AWESOME, I thinks… this will really fill that hole I have been waiting an hour to fill. If I were 9 years old.

I absolutely readily admit I was completely aghast. I was so disgusted I was ready to drop $5 on the table for my daughter’s meal and a couple of bucks for our pop and then leave without a word. My wife and I discussed it back and forth. She was actually enjoying her salad and the bread, although it appeared that the whole “Unlimited” thing was going to be somewhat of a misnomer since we were going to have to rush out without so much as another bowl before anyone came back with more. I said to her, while she studied my somewhat questionable dinner with the Boy-am-I-glad-I-didn’t-order-that-look, “OK, now what do I do? We asked what was taking so long and they bring me this? What’s next, spit on the french fries?” OK that last part about the french fries I didn’t say out loud, I only thought it. Luckily by some (select one of:quirk of gravity/glitch in the space time continuum/fear for her future tip) our wait person came back during the discussion and actually asked if everything was good. The obvious answer was… “No” and neither my wife nor I was in any way reluctant to say it. I looked at my watch, resigned to the fact that our whole evening was now pretty much down the tubes, and said, “This is not really what the menu said I was getting. Can someone please fix this?” and she took it away.

Within a few seconds of my plate disappearing back into the bowels of the kitchen, a brown-haired woman in a dark shirt was moving in a rather determined way toward our table. I wasn’t sure of it at the time, but I surmised (or maybe it was hoped) that this was in fact the manager, Sonya. She got to our table with a stricken look on her face and said, “I’m really sorry, I was trying to fix the problems you already had and things are just getting worse!” I pulled out my menu, asked her if she had seen what I had been given and said, “Disregarding the lack of the sautéed mushrooms and crispy onions, the world piled couldn’t in any way be applied to what I got – but I guess you could use lean in a descriptive sentence several times.” She agreed, and she apologized. We explained that we weren’t even sure what to do, because waiting for another sandwich was going to be a problem for us time-wise. She said to us that she was really sorry and that this was not in any way typical of how things usually go there. She told us our meal was completely on the house, and she really hoped we would try again sometime in the future and to please not hold this experience against them. She then went back in the back to presumably try and hurry along my new sandwich and maybe to fire everyone involved, but I can’t be sure. At roughly a quarter past eight she returned followed by my newly remade dinner. I knew I was never going to be able to take the time to eat it because it was much too hot to touch this time, so I just patiently waited for a chance to ask for a take-out box. Sonya once again apologised, reassured us that this was not typical and said she hoped we would give them another try someday. She had brought my daughter an extra-large serving of ice cream as the final bit of her kids meal and was trying very hard to make things right.

At 8:32 pm, almost exactly one and a half hours from the time we first spoke to the hostess/I-to-E translator, we made it back to our car with my order which had become “To go”. We felt miserable and relieved to be out of there, although somewhat satisfied that at least we hadn’t paid $40 for the whole experience. When I asked my wife if we would try and go to Crabby Joe’s again so we could use our iCoke certificate, she said “Maybe the one in Kingston?”

I almost didn’t have the heart to tell her that we were at the location the furthest east in Ontario, and that if we wanted to go again the second-closest was Port Perry – merely 195 km from our home.

A Crabby PolarBear
Ontario, Canada

P.S. I do need to address the issue of what I ordered compared to what I got a final time. You’ve seen the description enough by now to have committed it to memory. The Philly BBQ Beef Sandwich I received the second time, after it was “corrected”, was still not what was on the menu. There were mushrooms on it the second time, but they were barely warm or cooked, virtually raw – no sauté-ing of mushrooms happened involving my food. However, my “crispy onions” were actually a very reasonable facsimile of sautéed, although they were actually supposed to be “crispy” which is way past sautéed. The final description of the sandwich I took home would be “Lean roast beef, with sliced slightly-cooked mushrooms and smothered in BBQ sauce. Topped with sautéed onions, a little mozzarella cheese and all piled haphazardly on Ciabatta bread”. I just wasn’t in a position to be too fussy any more by then.

P.P.S. This is usually the place that one puts all the legal disclaimers and such if corresponding with a corporate entity but I’ll refrain from that. What I really do want to say is that the manager on duty, Sonya, really was trying to make things right for us and the problems seemed to be more systemic with the whole operation rather than her efforts that evening. If it was not for her, we would never consider going to that, or any other, Crabby Joe’s location again – there would be a zero percent chance. I have worked as a manager and an assistant manager in several different restaurants in the past, before having to leave the industry due to chronic illness. My wife worked as wait staff for many years in her early 20s. We both have a deep understanding of what goes on “out back” in a restaurant, and the whole experience we just went through seems to both of us to be completely beyond the highest level of outrageous. Either there were an astonishing number of coincidences that occurred or there is a very serious training and upper level management problem in that store. If you have not received complaints, there may be dozens of very unsatisfied people out there after going to the Belleville Crabby Joe’s – after all, a maximum of 1 in 10 customers who have a bad experience will take the time to complain about it, although the other 9 will make sure to tell around 10 of their friends/acquaintances each. I can’t address Sonya’s competence in managing staff because I didn’t see all of the goings-on, but her customer relations skills were very good and she did pretty much everything I could have expected her to be able to do.

A final point needs to be made. I am a poker player. I actually am good enough to be able to consistently make money playing Texas Hold’Em. As a poker player I think of things in terms of odds. Not only do you need to “Know when to hold’em, know when to fold’em”, but there is the deeper issue of really knowing when something is a good bet or an unwarranted risk due to the odds and the players involved. At this point, I really am not sure whether eating at Crabby Joe’s again – even using our $20 iCoke certificate – is a justifiable risk or an unwarranted waste of money. If and how you handle this further will have a big influence on the odds of our return.


Unhappy Diners

UPDATE: As of February of 2007, we have not heard back from Crabby Joes at all. We were in Belleville a few days after I wrote this letter, and the store was closed down for “renovations”. When I worked in the restaurant business, that was well known code for “everyone got sacked” or “major health code violation” or both. It was closed for quite some time, at least into October. The store has now re-opened but evidently they were not worried about us as customers. I will let you know if we ever go back.

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