A trip to San Antonio’s lovely Riverwalk area made me think about customer service in what we like to call “tourist traps”. Admittedly I am not a stranger to this as for a couple of years I was the general manager of a restaurant in Boston’s Faneuil Hall area… the ultimate tourist trap. No one who lives in Boston would go to Faneuil Hall to dine.
The Riverwalk in San Antonio is a meandering path to both sides of the San Antonio river that runs one level under street level through much of the central downtown. The first night in town there we walked what seemed like three miles in search of a nice restaurant to have our first meal in Texas. The walk takes a bit longer than you might expect, and after passing one casual theme chain restaurant after another it became clear finding an independent gem in this area was just not going to happen.
We ended our wandering on the third pass by a place called The Iron Cactus, and stopped mostly because the display menu listed a “blood orange margarita” that sounded interesting. There was outside seating near the river, so we asked for a cafe table and were quoted a wait time of 20 minutes by the hostess. We went into the bar area to wait… and here the fun begins.
The bar had 2-3 open seats near the service station (which is noisy and messy) so we sat at a small bar table about four feet from the bar and in full view of two bartenders on duty. We sat… and sat… and sat. No cocktail wait approached us, the bartenders who saw us take the seats never asked us for a drink order, or told us to come to the bar to order, or assure us someone would come by this week to take the order. After 15 minutes of this we left and resumed what now felt like a forced march back on the Riverwalk.
In a desperate attempt to get food into my cranky spouse we tried Texas Land and Cattle, who at least seated us immediately, but it became painfully clear very quickly the chances for anything resembling good food was very slim. My own hopes were dashed when we asked the waitress for an IPA and she said “what is that?”. After haggling with my famished wife for five minutes (Her: “I am hungry, my feet hurt, you do not like it anywhere”. Me: “I will eat here but there is no chance this place will not suck”) we returned to the Iron Cactus, determined, at the very least, to drown the now certain all out warfare hanging over our heads with a couple of blood orange margaritas.
I asked the hostess for the outside table we had requested some 40 minutes earlier and explained about our less than desirable bar experience that caused us to leave. She told us the wait was now 30 minutes for the cafe table. When it became clear to her I was not happy with that answer she offered to let me speak to the manager. I agreed as my wife seethed.
After a five minute wait (and with a hungry and annoyed significant other reminding me every few seconds how very wrong it was of me to do this) the manager approached and listened quietly to my sad story about the bar service and our not wanting to wait longer for a table. At no point did I mention what I do for living, or that I had any experience in the restaurant industry at all. To our surprise he then seated us at the next open outside table and bought us our first round of margaritas… which floored both of us. The male manager was about 25, 6’2″, 195 pounds and likely does not have any problems getting dates. Since he looked athletic I asked him what was his sport of choice and he explained he was a shortstop with the San Antonio AAA baseball team, was the property of the Seattle Mariners, was currently injured and recovering from Tommy John surgery, gave his name (which I will not use here), and said his uncle owned the place.
The blood orange margarita was better than imagined and the meals were actually respectable. While the manager never returned to the table, I wanted to make sure I let someone know in writing how well I thought he had handled the situation… and maybe to try to follow his baseball career. I composed the letter I would send that evening.
What I learned via the Internet the next day was that San Antonio does indeed have a minor league baseball team, but unlike what he told me , it is AA, it is affiliated with the San Diego Padres, and this kid was not on the roster or the injured reserve list. What is likely is that the kid’s baseball career was over but he was still living the dream and told tourists an embellished story he would never try to tell a local. It was a lie that did not diminish what he did for getting two hungry people seated and fed. Well, maybe it diminished it a little.
The next day four of us returned to the Riverwalk for lunch and deliberately stopped back at The Iron Cactus because of the way the manager had handled the situation the night before. This was a warm Saturday afternoon in a busy tourist area with a special Mardi Gras evening celebration planned for the entire Riverwalk in few hours. At 3:30 we asked the hostess (same one as the night before) for a table for four and she quoted a wait time of 20 minutes. There were perhaps 30 unseated tables that we could see and no more than six seated tables at this time.
On a false wait. On a warm Saturday afternoon. In the biggest tourist area in the city. With an even larger event planned for a few hours later. Was it worth asking to see a manager again, or easier just to figure we got lucky the night before and we should find somewhere else to eat? We ended up a BBQ joint that was not half bad.
I never sent the letter.