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When Is It OK to Send Your Food Back?

BY: Alison Hamm | Oct 10, 2014

When Is It OK to Send Your Food Back?

For some, the question of when to send your food back at a restaurant is pretty cut and dry. Arec Simeri, owner and general manager of Simeri’s Italian Restaurant near Indianapolis, has two basic rules.

“One, when you didn't get what you ordered (and you're sure),” he said. “Two, when it is severely undercooked. That’s it, that’s the list.”

Of course, it’s not always that simple. What if you’re a vegetarian and accidentally ordered a dish that has meat? What if your guacamole doesn’t appear to actually be green (and you’re pretty sure you aren’t colorblind)?


Keeping in mind Arec’s two rules, we wanted to delve a little deeper. So with the help of Ian Penrose (GM at Chicago’s Rocking Horse) and Acie Boyd (a veteran server on Navy Pier), we compiled this checklist for acceptable answers to this question: “When is it OK to send your food back?”

1. Your food is undercooked or cold or ...

Even Simeri agreed undercooking is a perfectly valid reason to send your food back. But Penrose added a few more dealbreakers: “If it comes out cold, of course, send it back. If you order something well-done and it comes out bloody, by all means. If you find any kind of foreign object in your food, unleash your wrath on the manager.” And yes,“if your guacamole comes out anything less than a vibrant green, send it back.”

These problems are severe enough that it’s OK to bring them up well after the start of the meal. “In theory, you would think that within a bite or two, someone eating would know if the dinner was OK or OK not, but not necessarily so,” said Boyd, who’s worked as a server at Chicago’s Riva for more than 16 years. “Maybe the first bite was perfect, but later the guest found an undercooked area.”

2. You’re sure the problem is with the cooking, not with the dish itself.

Assuming it’s not cold, bloody, or with a surprise in it, a good rule of thumb is to keep in mind why, exactly, your food isn’t meeting your expectations. Penrose provided an example: “If you're sending back a lamb burger because you've never had one and it turns out you don't like the texture of the meat, that's not my problem. I'm sorry your attempt at branching out backfired, but if what we prepared for you is our best and you're simply not a fan, that's on you.”

3. You asked the right questions when ordering.

Never be afraid to ask your server for more information. It’s the easiest way to make sure you won’t even have to consider sending food back, Penrose said. “If you know what’s coming to you, it’s much easier to send something back if it turns out to not be what was promised." Case in point: he recently dealt with a scenario where a woman sent back an order of tacos during a busy dinner service. The reason? “She was a vegetarian and didn’t know that mahi-mahi was a fish.”

4. Your server didn’t need telepathy to know what you wanted.

Ultimately, customers should “examine where the fault on the plate lies,” Penrose said. He offered some advice that brings us back to Simeri’s two simple rules: “If you don’t like onions and you forgot to tell your server that before your salad comes out, suck it up and eat it like an adult.”

5. You understand how much the cooks (and servers) want you to love your food.

“In my experience, there is a huge amount of pride that goes into making patrons’ food,” Penrose said. “Part of the big thrill of this business is putting your product in front of someone, they try it, and can't get enough.”

A server never wants to return food to the kitchen for any reason— if it’s the restaurant’s fault, it’s embarrassing; if it’s due to a patron’s fickleness, it’s maddening. Even so, that doesn’t mean your server is going to say no to the request—it’s probably the opposite. Like Boyd said: “The guiding principle is this: we are in the hospitality business.”

Photo by Andrew Nawrocki, Groupon

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