Free food saves brands

by Gautam Raja

Some people take up far more room in queues than they actually occupy. The woman in front of me at Qdoba, the Subway-styled Mexican food chain, used the bandwidth of three customers. She moved back and forth between stations, adding to her order, taking away from her order, making a new order, changing her mind, changing her mind about changing her mind. And as the server started on my order the woman broke the cardinal unwritten rule of assembly-line restaurants: she moved backwards.

“Can I have a sample of that?” she asked my server, barely noticing the social machine around her grinding to a halt. When she was finally gone, and I was ready to pay, the cashier put an empty soft drink cup by my asada bowl. “Sorry for the delay. Help yourself to any of our drinks from the fountain,” she said cheerily.

Now, the delay wasn’t Qdoba’s fault. The cashier needn’t have acknowledged it at all, and though I didn’t take her up on it, I really appreciated the gesture. Qdoba is an underrated brand, at least here in California where Mexican chains are viewed (mostly rightly) with suspicion. For a cost to company of mere cents, the brand went even higher in my estimation.

Let’s contrast that with my recent experience at a branch of Church’s Chicken, a franchise restaurant much like KFC, though food-wise it’s closer to Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen. You might know it as Texas Chicken. I placed my order, and went to quickly use the restroom. As I tried open the door to get back out, the handle turned round and round without engaging the lock. I jiggled it, tugged at it, tried different angles, but it just wouldn’t open. I knocked, and someone from the other side tried again and again to open it, with no luck. They went away—to get help, I hoped. I tried the handle again, very carefully. It worked, and I was free.

Outside, I discovered that the manager, the person who had tried the door, had taken no chances, and called the police to come let me out. “They have the tools, and some people panic,” she said, and I thought that was good thinking. I waited a few more minutes for my food, during which the policeman arrived, and seemed totally unfazed that he was no longer needed. My order was called, and the manager who was also my cashier, rang me up. I paid in full, and left, with no further reference to the incident.

My bill was under $5. I couldn’t help thinking that the least they could have done was not charge me. It wasn’t about saving $5, any more than having my delay acknowledged at Qdoba was about a free $2 drink. It was about acknowledging that restaurant restrooms should not trap patrons. Today, every time I pass any Church’s I feel an involuntary shudder, and you can be sure I’ll irrationally work hard to never eat there again.

Empathy was quite the corporate buzzword a while ago, and here’s empathy nicely at work in the first instance, and a total failure of it in the second. Even in personal life, empathy is at once an easy, and fiendishly nuanced concept, especially when it comes to understanding the people who wrong us. Corporate empathy needs empowered employees, and this requires maturity from the top down. If a manager is questioned suspiciously about every comped meal, for example, she’s less likely to hand out freebies even in situations where cost to brand is hundreds of times higher than $5.

First published in Gulf News, November 8, 2016