Some customers resort to placing fake bugs in their food for a refund. Photo: Getty Images
Nichole McCready a manager at an Outback Steakhouse in Mansfield, Ohio, can handle the many grumblers who complain about bad service and substandard food quality. But what gets her really angry are those patrons who scheme to get free food in ways that may not be illegal, but are certainly manipulative and underhanded.
We feel her pain. Who wouldn't want to kick out the obnoxious customers who try to use expired coupons and then scream and yell when told those coupons are no longer valid?
"I'm happy to do whatever it takes to make the customers happy, but sometimes it just gets so frustrating when we feel like we're getting taking advantage of," the McCready tells Slashfood. "Our company is so worried about losing customers in this economy that no one will put them in their place and tell them no."
On a recent weekend, a customer pulled what we refer to as the free lunch scam. After mostly devouring the gargantuan 20-ounce porterhouse steak ("there was the bone and literally four or five bites left on this plate," McCready says), the guest complained to the server that the meat was too tough and demanded a new one. McCready told the kitchen to fire up another porterhouse. "When I walked up to the table she and the other three customers were sharing two desserts," McCready recalls. "She admitted to me that she wasn't hungry anymore but would be taking this new porterhouse home with her to eat the next day."
The free lunch gambit is apparently a popular one at fast food and casual service restaurants everywhere. Many complainers are extremely persistent. At an Arby's in Northwestern Pennsylvania, a customer snookered management into refunding about $50 worth of chicken filet sandwiches for almost a month.
This particular customer would order a chicken filet sandwich, and then call to complain that part of the bird was still frozen. He demanded his money back each time and the restaurant complied, according to an Arby's server who asked not to be identified, because she doesn't want to jeopardize her job.
She says the small-time crook cycled through all of the daytime and nighttime managers before they finally caught on. When the scammer came in to collect his anticipated refund, the assistant manager told him she was preparing him a chicken sandwich and would allow it to cook an additional two minutes to ensure it was well done. While he waited, she called the cops. They arrived quickly and escorted him out of the restaurant. The Arby's ignominious walk of shame.
These scams and many others aren't new to Sandy Smith, a former 15-year veteran of the fast food and quick service industry whose experience includes managerial and server jobs with Pizza Hut and Ponderosa Steakhouse in Tennessee, Virginia and Florida. She has seen it all -- from a guy who planted a bug in his own food, to customers who stole tips off tables.
One of Smith's regular customers in Abingdon, V.A., would always complain that his sausage was raw, even though he would eat the entire meal. The restaurant gave him free food and always apologized for the inconvenience. After about two months of freebies, one manager called his bluff and put an end to the mooching.
"Food service is a crazy, crazy business," says Smith, 64, and now living in Bristol, Tenn. "You get to see the best in people and the absolute worst."