Charlie and the Chicken Salad

                          Charlie and the Chicken Salad

            I recall a customer (and now friend) telling me about an experience he had at a very nice restaurant in New York City.  It must have been in the early 90’s based on our friendship timeline.  Charlie is in his 60’s and quite an entertaining guy.  He has a comedic personality that is streaked with “Woody Allen” wit.  Quite a coincidence as well, as his appearance mirrors the great Actor/Writer, or maybe it's not.  He (Charlie, not Woody) was having lunch at o’Bagelo’s when I spotted an emerging grin come across his face. Charlie was not only a smart man, but he had a good deal of social intelligence and a sense of timing that elevated his personal stock. He knew the right audience and the right time to regale a group with a topical story. It was obvious that he was about spin a tale as he felt a opening in the conversation and the appropriate grouping of people.

The New York City restaurant served him a pasta dish laced with some kind of seafood and he asked the waiter for some “grating cheese”.  The waiter’s demeanor changed quickly and Charlie sensed something was coming. For foodies, this has so many wrongs in it, that even the hypothetical “right” that it doesn't produce was shaking it’s head. Charlie didn’t tell this tale with any semblance of anger or even embarrassment.  Nope, in true “Woody” style in was dripping with humorous self deprecation.  

His first “wrong” was not indicating the type of cheese. Not only do the most common grated cheeses vary in degree of sharpness, but they also come from different animals. Although “grating cheese” may be a universal in certain types of restaurants, this was not one of them. 
Second, sir, (I a m sure the waiter was saying this all with his eyes), you have not yet tasted the chef’s creation, for which you are paying an exorbitant amount, and you wish to alter the finished product?  Certainly you are no chef, or you would never have insulted us in this manner.  
And thirdly, the old adage of never combining cheese with seafood was currently fashionable in many food arenas and being upheld in restaurants with a snarky distaste for the customer.  The waiter curtly informed him that he would not, and the chef doesn’t allow for  “grating cheese” on his seafood dishes (assume eye roll and derisive look).  

Charlie was a bit shocked but continued the story with a smile on his face.  He was in no way condoning the behavior, but was happy to have it in his repertoire of tales.  I don’t remember how it ended, but if you see a guy walking about town who looks like the Italian version of Woody Allen, you can ask him yourself.

The trigger for Charlie’s story was an all too common event we called the “Chicken Salad” argument.  It was a recurring interaction (often ending in an argument) with varying results.  A customer would order a chicken salad sandwich, and then ask for cheese.  If I was serving, the answer was a disinterested “No” and I would just move on to other questions concerning the order.  If it was one of the staff serving, they response included a sorry looking, apologetic pause, followed by “We can’t do that here. The owner doesn't allow us to put cheese on chicken salad.”
Depending on the type of customer and specific server, there were a variety of reactions.  The docile customer went along and accepted the answer, albeit somewhat confused.  Some of these people just avoided confrontation. Others were unsure of their surroundings and didn’t want to look stupid (Questioning possible religious implications or quirky notifications they may have missed).  
The inquisitive customer wanted to know why, and would boldly ask.  If they did so politely and without a condescending attitude, I would give them a polite answer.  The others were served a different demeanor.  Even when busy, I would take the time to tell a polite newbie that we hand make our products, and this particular item had special ingredients and a little something secret that does not mix well with cheese recipe here(This is my interpretation of how those interactions transpired, but I’m sure if you asked some of the customers, they might recall it differently). This presented a crossroads for some.  Either accept my answer or challenge the response.  Which could transform the inquisitive into the angry customer rather quickly, since that was the end of my politeness (if it ever really existed). The customer was unaware of our “order it my way, or order something else” model for this menu option.  If they decided to hop on their high horse, the interaction wasn’t going to end well. 
The angry customer was offended at anyone saying no to them about anything.  The “Too Nice Suit” guy (or girl) wasn’t going to have a dirty deli guy tell them what they can and can’t do.  The “Walmart” girl (or guy) was destined to act any way they please where ever they were.  Either way the angry ones didn’t last long.  No extended argument with polite undertones.  No personal attacks (from our side of the counter, at least).  It was short, curt and to they point.  Not going to happen. Are you in or out? We have things to do here. 

The interactions were always a source of amusement or befuddlement for the customers not involved in the discussion.  Keep in mind that what started out as a very serious line in the sand, quickly turned into yet another marketing goldmine (see OTHER)  that only deepened the line. Not only did customers tell their coworkers about what had happened, but some went so far as to set their friends up for a practical joke.  These were just some of the responses that could be heard in the store:  

“You can put anything on your own chicken salad that you wish.  But not on mine.”

“I did not hand cut and trim every ingredient so you could ruin it with your McDonald’s      
  taste buds.”

“If you are adamant about getting things your way, I suggest you go home and make it yourself.”

There were times that heated discussions ensued with attempts to force my hand.  On occasion, a customer would turn around and leave.  Sometimes they would be defiant in their own way and refuse to order the chicken salad.  Either way, they were certain to tell as many people that would listen to their tale of mistreatment and humiliation. Most people thought this was a ridiculous behavior from both parties involved but enjoyed hearing about this experience. Once again, the marketing paid off, and listeners wanted to see this place for the themselves. A business can’t buy the type of advertising that this office gossip was producing.
This wasn’t the only rule we enforced, but it certainly got the most attention. Perhaps  my favorite was the ketchup, or catsup rule.  Simply put, we do not serve it. When asked why, I would casually respond, “Ketchup is a poor use for a tomato.” This one surprised people just as much, but it was less frequently an issue. We didn’t have many menu items that might invite a request for catsup, but that wasn't always the opinion of the customer. Those that insisted were going to be confused and disappointed. 

My aversion to this “antithesis of food” condiment, as I called it, stems back to my childhood.  I grew up in an italian household and with a large extended Italian family.  Though our neighbors represented a multicultural America, our home was still pretty ethnic.  I’m not sure if we even had any catsup in the house, but there was always “sauce”, “gravy”, “ragu”, or whatever your Italian neighbors called it a seemingly small difference. 

This is not to say that I wasn’t exposed to catsup, on the contrary, my exposure is most likely what secured my position with such vigor.  The neighborhood was a new development across from a elementary school which brought many new families to the small street.  Plenty of kids of all ages moving in around the same time, so we were all new to the area.  Quite a wonderful place to grow up and I am still in touch with all of those friends.  One of my friends was all Anglo and mostly irish.  When we played at his house and his mother gave us snacks, it always included a side of catsup.  Potato chips, sandwiches, it didn’t matter, always catsup.  This was very foreign to me, but I tried everything, as I was a guest.  My friend, even as a young child, was positive about any subject matter he chose to speak about.(something he holds onto even to this day).  He tried to convince me this was more the norm than the exception, despite my confusion.

When I started serving my own food with a bit of confidence, I found no qualitative value with the addition of that particular condiment, and therefore it wasn’t available.  But what usually came out of my mouth was something like “I cannot bare to witness you bastardize my food with catsup.” Yeah, I know, I’m an ass, but I will survive or fail by my positions.  

And that really is the whole point of this discussion. Businesses are too quick to accommodate any request from a customer. Whatever they might want, it is done. It doesn’t matter how much training, how successful, or how creative the output of the entrepreneur.  Somehow, somewhere, restaurants, and frankly all retail, lost their backbone.  Continued reinforcement of this behavior has the customer empowered with the wrong tools.  When they should use their shoes (by walking out) to build a better experience, they are using their mouths (creating scenes to force their way) to do so.  What used to be an adventure of different cultures and regions of the country through food is now merely an excuse to force one’s experiences, often limited, on others.  

I have a belief that this all started in the back room of some major corporation. In an attempt to motivate a sales staff. The phrase was coined that has moved this country a few clicks in the wrong direction. Those few clicks are all it took to change many things we experience on a daily basis. That phrase “The Customer is always right” should have never been leaked out to the public.  What was an effort to get salespeople to listen to the customer’s needs and report back for evaluation has turned into a demon from Pandora’s box that has no inkling of going back home.

This may seem like a “Goose and Gander” argument, but I think otherwise.  The only loser in this scenario is me.  I either lose your business, or I lose my soul.  The customer can choose my offerings, or move on to find something more to their liking.  Their choice.  
This is not to say that I never made adjustments to my products based on customer input.  I absolutely did.  Anyone in business does this.  But there is a limit, and in some situations there is no budging.  The customer shouldn’t be condemned for asking, but neither should the business owner for denying.  You ask, I say no, you get to decide if you are in or out.  Seems fair to me. 
The economy of the soul has a bell curve too and I’m afraid the bell rings too loud and deep in today’s world.  Not enough acceptance of diversity. “Make me your ethnic wonders or individual creations, and then let me smother in ketchup, ‘cause I like ketchup.” Gag. Puke. Soul sucking behavior. 
    I like to project this belief onto to other issues but I get just as much push back. I'm not following the customer around and ripping cheese of other chicken salad sandwiches they may order, but I'm comfortable telling them it's not happening on the one's you order here. I have chosen to take a risk and produce a product I want to be proud to serve.  If the market for my product is not sufficient, I will suffer the loss. If you force me to change in order to meet your desires, my soul suffers and yours stagnates.  Exposure and experience reduce fear and increase understanding. And I think we all need a little more of both in this world today. 

I still think both parties lose when someone takes the position that a reasonable understanding can’t be tolerated of anyone who doesn’t use the same spices to cook with, or the same condiments afterward. 

So “Sorry Charlie. No . No cheese for you!” 


  1. Love it l think Ali learned a few from you!

  2. I will not take any credit (or blame) if that is the case. Glad you liked the story, did878.


What did you think of this recipe or story?