As most people are probably aware, Carbondale is spread out into several different areas. Downtown consists almost entirely of smaller locally owned businesses, while the east side of town near University Mall is dominated by chain restaurants and retail. Chili’s is the most recent chain to open in Carbondale, located in front of the Dick’s/ Best Buy shopping center.
I should disclose here that I am a vegetarian, but my usual dining companion is a full-fledged carnivore. Because if this we eat at all kinds of places, some I prefer, some he prefers. We’ve eaten at this new Carbondale Chili’s a few times now and we’ve had generally good experiences. The margarita’s are tasty, the service is fast and the food, while nothing to write home about, is consistent and satisfactory. I know going into a chain restaurant that I most likely will only have one, maybe two choices on the menu for a meat-free meal. I accept that this comes with the territory of having a restrictive diet and I don’t expect most restaurants to have a large selection of vegetarian options.
All of that being said, Chili’s offers a black bean burger, that is not even featured as a menu item. It is essentially an asterisk under the burger section, as in: “you may substitute a black bean burger for any of our hamburger options.” Every time I open the menu at Chili’s I scan through it for a few minutes hoping something will jump out that I’ve never noticed before, or that there will be some new fabulous sounding salad that isn’t covered in chicken. (Side note: yes, I know I can get them to HOLD the chicken on any of these salads, but would you really want to pay $9 for a salad only consisting of lettuce and salsa? Besides, that’s usually what I end up having to get at Applebee’s.) Chili’s briefly offered veggie tacos as a promotional item last fall, but sadly they were short lived.
After a few minutes of futility, I go with my usual, the Avocado Burger with the black bean patty substitution. It’s $8.69 for the sandwich and a side of french fries with no discount for the frozen patty that I can buy at the store for around $4 for a box of four. (That’s $1 per patty RETAIL, do you think Chili’s pays full retail?). No I pay the same as the person who gets a large beef patty cooked fresh on the grill. My hunch is that my frozen black bean patty is zapped in the microwave for about two to three minutes.
This weekend, my date and I decided to stop by Chili’s for a quick lunch. Because of his work obligation later in the day, we were on a fixed schedule, but allowed plenty of time for a meal. Since it was a bit past 1:30 by the time we entered the restaurant we had missed the worst of the lunch crowd and were immediately seated. I once again went through the motions of opening the menu and staring at it for a few minutes before inevitably requesting the Avocado Burger with the black bean patty. My date also ordered a burger, although his was a beef version covered in bacon and cheese among other things. After placing our order we immediately wished we had ordered an appetizer to munch on for our wait since we were both starving. But we only had burgers coming so it can’t take too long, right?
Within about 12 minutes of ordering our server brings out our food and we both quickly dive in. OUCH. That bite hurt my teeth a lot more than it should have. I chew and chew and chew. I pull the sandwich apart to inspect what I’m eating. Nothing foreign in here, it all looks as it always does, but the patty appears to be a bit on the dry side. I flick it with my finger to hear a sad thud. For those of you not familiar with veggie patties, they should yield to a flicking, not ring out with sound. They should not be painful to bite into either. Dejected, I toss my barely eaten sandwich back into its basket and begin to eat my fries. I wait for signs of our server while my date continues to eat his perfectly normal burger.
After a few minutes our server breezes by to ask how everything is. I quickly tell her my sandwich is not good, and it appears to be severely overcooked. She quickly grabs it away and says she’ll take care of it. I sit with nothing in front of me but my mug of Dr. Pepper as my date makes sad eyes at me while chewing. Now we both feel bad. Our server returns to tell me they are making another sandwich, but it will be 10 to 15 minutes. I grimace. What choice do I have? Do I make my date hurry up and choke down the last of his meal and we leave with me still starving? No, we have to wait of course, but that honestly seems a little long for a veggie burger that is likely cooked in a microwave.
A minute or two later a man approaches the table to assure me another sandwich is coming. I can only assume this person was the on-duty manager since he was wearing a button-down shirt and a headset, but he didn’t bother to introduce himself by name or title. He only said, “Craig could tell right away by looking at it that it was overcooked. He is personally making you another one. It will be about ten to fifteen minutes.”
“Who is Craig?“, I wonder to myself, is he supposed to be well known among Chili’s customers? Maybe he’s the kitchen manager? Or is he the on-call super-fixer that comes to the rescue when plates are sent back? I have no idea because this wasn’t explained to me. I glance at the clock on the wall and realize it has now been almost 45 minutes since we were seated, and we will have to leave within 15 to 20 minutes for my date to get to work on time. I’ve still yet to get an edible plate of food put in front of me.
After letting me know “Craig” is making my sandwich with fifteen minutes or less I make a forlorn frowny face at the presumed manager. He responds by asking if I still want the replacement sandwich or would I simply like a refund. I reply by stating that I am starving and leaving without a meal is not an option at this point. As I continue to sit without a thing to eat, my date puts his mostly eaten burger down in a gesture of solidarity. I insist he keep eating because there is no point in letting his sandwich get cold just to wait on mine.
As I sip on my lonely Dr. Pepper I start really wishing we had ordered some of their tortilla chips and guacamole for an appetizer as we sometimes do. Then it occurred to me, shouldn’t they have offered me something to nibble on for my wait? A small basket of tortilla chips or even the fries that went back with my sandwich wouldn’t have broken their bank. The server and manager both walked by our table several times while I sulked with my Dr. Pepper and my date chowed down. Couldn’t they clearly see that I was not having an enjoyable experience? Isn’t their job to make sure that I do?
I finally received my plate of food and the sandwich was cooked as it should have been. After taking a couple of bites both the manager and server stopped by to make sure it was an acceptable replacement. I replied that it was much better and that was the last acknowledgement of the incident. I think the server might have mumbled a quick “sorry about that,” as she handed me my replacement. The manager didn’t even really apologize for anything, only agreeing with me that it was overcooked. Nobody acknowledged the inconvenience of the wait or did anything to make it more tolerable.
My date was already done with his sandwich by the time I started on mine, so he then had to sit and watch me eat. At this point we had less than ten minutes before needing to leave. As a result, I ate my meal as quickly as possible, not really taking any time to enjoy it. The check was slid on our table without any further apologies for our inconvenience or mentioning of any sort of discount. After examining the bill it appears that our two sodas were entered with zero charge, resulting in a discount of about four dollars, less than half of the total of my meal. I accepted this discount offering as fair enough and we left in a hurry.
The obvious difference between chain and locally owned restaurants is the personal nature of the service. At locally owned establishments you might actually see the owner there, sometimes cooking or serving alongside other employees. If there is a problem you can be sure the owner or manager is quick to acknowledge it, quick to apologize for the mistake and quick to offer some sort of remedy to put a smile back onto the customers face. They usually appreciate that loyal customers and good word of mouth are absolutely necessary for a successful business I often get the feeling that the staff at chain restaurants don’t really care as much. So what if they lose a few customers? There are always more still waiting for a table.
These characterizations don’t always apply of course, and there are exceptions on either side. I won’t stop eating at chain restaurants anytime soon and I’m sure I won’t always have ideal experiences at locally owned places either. Regardless, I can say that I won’t be interested in an Avocado Burger or anything else from Chili’s anytime soon.