If considered only on the basis of the quality of food and service, Patina Catering deserves a recommendation. At a recent event that Ravenous Rob and the lovely Lady Ravenous Rob had the honour of hosting, Patina Catering did a fine job. Although there was some fall off in quality from the items presented at the tasting, that difference was minor and to be expected given the inherent difficulties of catering for a large group of people, and the taste and presentation were quite good. The service was excellent throughout the event, and the staff was thoughtful and eager to accomodate when changes needed to be made. However, a word of warning should be given to those considering Patina Catering for their own events: doing business with them can be quite difficult. The following letter (private information removed) that Ravenous Rob was forced to send to Patina’s Chief Operating Officer should make some of the problems clear.
Dear Tim O’Shea:
I am writing with regard to an event my wife and I are planning, to be held in the evening of X, at the Boddy House in Descanso Gardens. You were referred to me by Bonnie Glassco, with whom we had been discussing the catering arrangements for this event.
As our planning began, I was quite pleased when I learned that Descanso Gardens used Patina as the caterer for events held there. I had a very positive experience dining at Patina’s eponymous Downtown L.A. location, and I was pleased that our guests would likely be receiving a similar quality dining experience.
We held our initial meeting about the catering for this event with Selena Ramirez at Descanso gardens. Although she seemed poorly prepared for the meeting, it nevertheless appeared to be a productive discussion. My wife and I had some concerns about the cost of the catering, but Selena emphasized that Patina was willing to be flexible in its pricing and arrangements, and we were able to identify a number of concrete areas in which we might be able to reduce costs. These included limiting the beverage selection to wine only, reducing the scale of the hors d’oevres served to our guests before the meal, and fixing the menu choices of guests in advance of the event. In addition, Selena indicated to us at that time that the usual Boddy House surchaged could be waived in our case. We agreed to fine tune the catering arrangements via email in the coming week once my wife and I had a chance to look over the materials she had given us.
Once we started discussing specifics of pricing and catering arrangements, however, our experience began to deteriorate drastically. The plans offered by Selena in fact offered no savings over the standard packages offered by Patina, in spite of providing less for our guests. Specific questions posed to Selena went unanswered, and the explanations provided made no logical sense, in one case being literaly a cut-and-paste copy of the original policy about which we were asking. Furthermore, these limited, sloppy, and largely useless reponses were slow in coming, dragging out the entire process. Frustrated by this experience, I asked to speak with Selena’s superior, and was referred to Bonnie Glassco.
My initial conversation with Bonnie also appeared to be productive. She agreed that carrying out the cost reducing measures outlined above should, in fact, actually reduce our costs. Her answers to certain questions I had about the calculation of labor fees, service charges, and sales taxes were not particularly satisfying, but at least we seemed to be heading in the right direction. What then followed was a series of exchanges in which the cost of our event would be reduced in one area only to be raised in another by an equivalent amount. (As with our discussion with Selena, email response times from Patina continued to be slow). It was claimed that some of these changes were the result of errors in the contract being corrected (including reinstatement of the Boddy House fee, which had remained absent from our discussions up to that point ever since Selena had said it could be waived), but they created the appearance of a game in which the goal was to cause the overall price to remain the same. In the course of all this, we were constantly asked if we were ready to sign the contract and complete the deal, even when it was clear that issues remained, and we had already made it plain that any contract signing would have to be preceded by a satisfactory price negotiation and successful tasting experience.
Dismayed and disappointed by my experiences dealing with Patina to this point, I asked to speak to with Bonnie’s superior, and was referred to you.
This entire experience has been frustrating and disheartening for my wife and myself. Its drawn-out nature has disrupted our plans by making the event date uncertain and considerably inconvenienced our guests, some of whom are coming from overseas or have difficult work situations, and need plenty of advance notice in order to attend. It has wasted a great deal of our time that could be spent on far more productive or enjoyable pursuits. And our enthusiasm for Patina’s food has waned into nothingness, overshadowed by irritation with Patina’s approach to customer service.
Bonnie indicated that you wished to repair this situation and make us happy as customers with Patina once again. To that end, we have the following requests. First, we would like a swift and equitable resolution to our contract negotiations that avoids the problems we have been having to date. Second, we would like Patina to take responsibility for contacting Descanso Gardens and making sure that the X date remains held for our use until contract negotiations can be resolved. Third, we would like an acknowledgement of understanding from Patina about the problems we have faced and the inconveniences imposed on ourselves and our guests.
In addition, in order to provide useful feedback to you in your position as COO, I have the following suggestions to make about the way that Patina carries out customer service:
1. Train your lead points of contact with customers so that they are well prepared in advance of meetings, have materials organized, and can answer questions confidently without having to consult with superiors on a constant basis.
2. Patina representatives should avoid a “close the deal” mentality in favor of an approach that emphasises customer happiness and satisfaction. Happy customers will naturally want to close the deal. Pressured customers, even if they they do sign a contract, will not have as high an opinion of Patina, and are less likely to contribute positively to Patina’s marketing and branding via word-of-mouth advertising.
3. If a Patina employee makes an offer in error that is in the customer’s favor, do not go back on that offer later. Doing so can create the impression of a deliberate attempt to mislead the customer by using “bait-and-switch” tactics. Instead, rectify the problem through employee training or quality control measures after the fact.
4. Make sure that all relevant pricing schemes, fees, service charges, and taxes are made clear to the customer on the first meeting. Few things create a worse impression on a customer than the sudden imposition of hidden fees.
5. Make sure that Patina representatives understand that customers are often busy people who value their time, and that event plans often operate on external deadlines. Responses by Patina representatives should therefor be timely, succinct, and informative.
6. Make sure that written materials provided to customers agree with both verbal explanations and company policies. Giving conflicting information to customers can be confusing at the least and create the appearance of duplicity at the worst.
7. Employees should avoid providing customers with uncomplete, unclear, and unconvincing explanations for charges, fees, and policies. Even when nominally correct, weak explanations can lead to the appearance of fabrication, and contribute the breakdown of trust between Patina and the customer.
8. As a specific corellary to (7), Employees should avoid citing the authority of Patina’s legal staff when providing explanations to customers. As numerous successful lawsuits against corporations show, corporate legal staff are clearly fallable and their opinions should not be used as a substitute for logic and fact.
9. Train your employees on the basics of laws governing catering businesses and contracts. This will help them not only to draw up better contracts, but also enable them to answer customer questions and eliminate concerns. For example, catering service charges are a specific legal exception to the general rule that sales taxes are only to be applied to the exchange of tangible goods. Most customers are likely only familiar with the non-taxable status of restaurant gratuities, and good explanations should be provided to them so they understand the differences.
Thank you for your time and attention. I look forward to a productive discussion of these matters and a quick resolution to our event planning needs. Please let me know if you have any further questions.
The problems mysteriously disappeared soon after this letter was sent, but it never should have been necessary in the first place.