“The arrogance of success is to think that what we did yesterday is good enough for tomorrow.” — Rev. William Pollard
Greater Charleston’s hospitality industry is riding high and mighty just now with its “best of this” and “best of that” distinctions and achievements.
And that’s a very good thing for the public. The folks who own and operate this world- class travel services industry are not just burnishing the bucket-list reputation of the Holy City and its portfolio of “hospitality,” they’re running an economic engine.
Make that a strategically important “economic engine.”
And we the public should stop and think and appreciate this industry more than we do. It’s a structured ragout of large and small businesses, all risk-taking and profit-seeking and employing thousands of mostly well-trained and thoughtful folks.
More importantly, it’s Greater Charleston’s face to the traveling world. And now at the top of its game, it faces its biggest challenge — performing to the very zenith of standards it has set for itself, the standards of being proclaimed “best in the world.”
Growing from the top is surely a risky proposition in the hospitality business. So it is sitting statistically on the tipping point of its laurels.
Charleston’s streets are flooded with visitors and this “world’s best” reputation is a constant test. The best simply must be the best, right? A slip-up here or there can blemish the experience of a traveler with fair expectations for an exceptional world class visit.
So, our soaring hospitality industry must be in a constant gut-check mode, measuring its performance, confecting new ways to stay at the top. Or put another way, there’s a fine and slippery line between zenith and nadir in the demanding businesses of hotels and restaurants.
Charleston Restaurant Week now under way encourages us locals to experience many of these “world class” restaurants. It should be a time when the restaurateurs embrace us locals as “family” critics.
And most do.
The broad brush summary: It’s hard to find anything really wrong with the quality of food and service in Charleston’s upscale restaurants. But judging the very best can bring attention to small details, particularly among Charlestonians, native and otherwise, who have traveled the world and have completed their own bucket list of the world’s best restaurants.
One small detail one evening last week was the crust on a bread pudding dessert at one of Charleston’s very best restaurants. The customers were my neighbors, both retired and intrepid world travelers. He’s a retired New York fire chief who considered this upscale Charleston restaurant one of his favorites.
It was about to be a perfect Restaurant Week dining experience. Food was great; service was attentive, helpful, empathetic, never hovering. With the checks paid and three happy couples about to leave the table, the co-owner, a young man of uninterrupted unctuosity, asked for comments. Clearly he expected a perfect grade, and I gave him just that.
My friend, the retired fire chief, gave high grades, too, but he suggested that the crust on his favorite desert was just a bit thicker than it usually is. It was constructive commentary on slight — very slight — deviations on “perfect.”
And then the conversation became hard to watch.
The smarmy co-owner suddenly became defensive and confrontational. No other customer had complained about the bread pudding crust, the co-owner challenged as the chief and his wife, with alarm on their faces, tried to retreat. His point — intended or not — was that any problem was not the restaurant’s failures to perfect the pudding crust, but the chief’s inability to appreciate the perfection of the restaurant.
It was a double bowl of arrogance served on a plate of hubris.
The young co-owner should have heard what I heard riding home. He might have lost two loyal patrons; he surely ignited two detractors who will now proclaim that this upscale restaurant has an arrogance problem. Losing customers because of bad food or poor service is one thing, losing them because of prideful arrogance is simply sad.
We could rationalize that a bit of arrogance is a good thing for world-class establishments. Maybe so, but it should never extend to a loss of respect for customers.
That is simply unbecoming of the “world’s best,” right?
Surely, there are scores of constructive local critiques of the Greater Charleston hospitality industry, especially during “Restaurant Week.” The world’s best destination industry — with some humility — should consider every one of them.
My friend, the chief has promised he will consider my invitation to give his former favorite restaurant another try. I want to sample that crusty bread pudding — and win my bet that young co-owner will be having a better and less-arrogant day.
Ron Brinson is a former associate editor of this newspaper. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.