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darkstar965

What to do when a wonderful person is wronged?

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I really want to help someone and I'm not sure what advice to offer.

For many years, I've regularly stopped in at a small Chinese restaurant in northern NJ (Bergen County)* when I was in the area; usually several times each year. The Chinese spot is the kind of hole-in-the-wall, non-descript place we all love to discover, support and frequent for decades. The owner, who grew up in Asia, is a wonderful woman who actually wrote "owner of a dumpling house" in response to a childhood school question about professional aspirations.

And own a dumpling house she did. A small one but a great one. In one of Bergen's small affluent communities. The place isn't on the main drag (rent would be too high) but, over the years, she's developed a big following of very loyal and appreciative patrons. This is both because of what she serves and how she runs her business.

Chief among the "what" are some of the best Chinese dumplings I've had in this country anywhere. Particularly the ones she does with pork and shrimp. She calls those "mom's dumplings" and they have very finely diced onion not easily discernable because the flavors meld so well. Her technique is such that only one other person, her mother, can do it properly. Alas, the mother lives in Asia and only visits once or twice each year. Even the owner's daughter only yields about 10% to the owner's standard; that's too inefficient and wasteful. Making thousands of dumplings for so many years has caused the owner to develop carpal tunnel syndrome. She changed her wrapper closure technique to work around the condition in advance of more surgery. Dumplings and the restaurant have cost her in many other ways in her life but her dumpling house and all the customers who love her define her. I'd never, in all the years I've eaten there, heard her complain about anything. And, I always ate very, very well. Beyond the dumplings, she actually makes her own noodles; those crispy things that most Chinese restaurants buy in large packages for people to have with duck sauce or drop into soup. Her's are crunchy, wide, slightly sweet, airy and wonderful; nothing like the norm. Likewise she makes from scratch all of her dishes with fresh eggplant, pork, carefully de-veined jumbo fresh shrimp, different kinds of hot peppers, crab, beef from a certain butcher in Brooklyn, and so on.

The "how" is all about her and her community. If someone doesn't enjoy what they've had at her 5-table spot, she won't take their money. Left over or unclaimed to-go dishes go to the local fire department or police. The tables in the restaurant, covered with glass, display letters written by hand by neighborhood children, high school football players, parents, soldiers back from the middle east, other adults, authors (one who wrote her into a published novel) and notables. The notes on the tables mostly gush effusive praise about the "best" dumplings, food and about her. Because I'm only there a few times each year and have been going for so long, she usually makes several dozen dumplings for me to take home and then refuses to charge me. So I leave double the amount necessary in cash under a plate as I run to my car and her back is turned. You get the idea.

I was in last week and, as soon as I entered, I could see the owner, a grandmother now in her 60s, was upset. And then I saw something I hadn't noticed before behind the register of her cramped and somewhat cluttered (most of her business is takeout and delivery) shop. Taped and tacked to the wall were a couple hundred hand-written checks and other scraps of paper. They had mostly chinese characters on them and numbers. So I asked.

All those checks and scraps were representative of a recent, troubling trend. Each check or scrap represented a customer who'd either no-showed after ordering by phone or, with some other totally rude and unfathomable exchange, not paid. She told me some stories. As example, one went like this in the owner's voice as she pointed to one of the posted paper notes:

"This one...a woman phone me and order six or seven dishes. I make the dishes and just as I package them, she call back. She say we don't need food. Don't come. Don't deliver it. We're going out instead. I ask her what she think I should do with the food. It all ready. It's packaged on counter. Do she think it right to just not pay for the food? Do she know I'm a small business? How this hurts me? She say I should apologize to her! I ask, why should I apologize to you? She answer, "because I called to tell you so your driver doesn't show up at our house and we're not here." Then she say "I don't know how you run your business" and hang up.

The owner went on to tell me the above experience (and so many others like it) brought her to tears in a way that surgeries, a broken marriage and other struggles never did. Hundreds of experiences like that. More in recent months than ever before in all her years of operation. She explained how many other times, people would refuse to show or pay because they ordered a large order during the 4-7pm rush that wasn't ready in 10 minutes. She makes all her food from scratch. She has a very small kitchen. If she pre-made, kept warm and served everything super fast, it not only wouldn't be the great food she offers. It wouldn't be who she is. it wouldn't be the dumpling house she'd dreamed about as a ten year old.

I was at a loss for words but then suggested a few things, none of which really would help that much:

- I'd write a nice (but honest) review for her on a big social media site with some comments about the struggles and gentle urging about common courtesy when ordering food to-go or to-be-delivered from a shop that cares so much about what she sells. I will do this but doubt it'll help much.

- I suggested she start a policy of requiring a credit card with any phoned order and communicating that the card would be charged for any no-show. After all, there are restaurants in most major cities (including ours) who do that. No go. She said a local police officer told her she couldn't do that. That sounded odd to me but I couldn't say otherwise.

- I then suggested she only take delivery or pick up orders when made in person. Dumb idea since that defeats the whole purpose and convenience of ordering food. It would hurt the business.

- Finally I encouraged her to look at all the letters under glass on her tables; to think about all the customers, like me, who love her food and her. I explained that there are always jerks and they're actually valuable to us because they contrast with the majority of courteous, good-hearted people we so appreciate. She was too hurt to really feel consoled by this however true it may be.

There are hundreds of unpaid checks on that wall, just for 2011. This woman is a wonderful person and a wonderful, authentic, Chinese cook who serves delicious food at ridiculously low prices. No doubt the difficult economy is somewhat to blame for the recent surge of bad manners among her clientele. No doubt the fact that some of the locals feel entitled.

What can she do? There must be something beyond what I suggested. She's exactly the kind of person we'd all wish would be behind every small food business. Then we'd have much better, more affordable and widely available food of all types. This isn't just tearing her up emotionally. It's also threatening the survival of the business. What's happening to her is just wrong.

I figured some of the restaurant owners and restaurant goers on this board might be able to help with some better ideas than mine above.

* If anyone would like the specific location and name of this place in northern Jersey, please PM me. If you're ever in that area, it'd be great for her to meet some of you and you'd have a wonderful meal.

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I'm not a restaurant professional, but I can't think of a good way other than pre-charging credit card for orders. A lot of restaurants would charge my credit card for not showing up for a reservation, and that's totally legit. All my online orders charge my credit card when they ship my orders. No way that there's anything illegal about having a credit card policy - the important thing is getting a good verification system in place. There are vendors that will help restaurants take online credit card orders - she should look into that to help manage her business and provide additional convenience to her customers.

With all due respect (which, given the recent news reports of police behavior, ain't much), cops are not lawyers or businessmen and they should not be giving this lady legal advice or business advice. If she has concerns about legality, she should talk to a LAWyer and get the system set up properly.

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It sounds like she is being perceived as a pushover. The fact that she won't charge people if they say that don't enjoy the food may be the opening to that, but it's hard to say. How many people does she have working there? Does she have a son or other employee who could begin handling these issues? (It doesn't have to be a male but someone who will be perceived as much tougher.)

Getting a credit card system in place might be prohibitively expensive for her, as would be getting hiring a lawyer. Some of this must be the economy, but it really sounds as though she's being taken advantage of because people know they can take advantage of her.

Look to how pizza places handle this because they must get it a lot.

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Firstly, she can keep track of the offenders and refuse them service unless they order in the store and pay in cash. Secondly, she can emphasize (put on the menu? website? sign in the shop?) that during peak times, orders will take at least X amount of time. Just because the customer says it wasn't ready in 10 minutes doesn't mean she has to accept their time frame. That's an easy and free fix. And thirdly, she can raise prices (and offer favored customers a discount, or a punchcard buy-9-entrees-get-one-free sort of arrangement).

As for the other freeloaders, I'll leave it to others to come up with suggestions.

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Is English her first language? Part of me wonders if people feel they can take extra advantage of her because English might not be her first language. Not sure if she has the funding to hire someone or have a family member who can man the phone for whom English is a first language.

As the kid of parents' for whom English is not a first language, and having grown up around a number of people for whom it isn't, I've seen so many people pretend they can't understand what is being said or take advantage by saying that the "rules" in America are just different. It's really sad, and many of them rely on their kids to help run the business to stop stuff like this from happening.

I was fortunate that both of my parents speak English very well, and I vividly remember my mom calling people out on it.

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Is English her first language? Part of me wonders if people feel they can take extra advantage of her because English might not be her first language. Not sure if she has the funding to hire someone or have a family member who can man the phone for whom English is a first language.

This is kind of what I was wondering (or part of it anyway). It's interesting that it's starting to be a big problem now, since it sounds like she's been in business a while, but that may be where the economy comes into play.

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Great ideas all. Thanks to all of you who've weighed in so far. A few thoughts in response:

- English isn't her first language. Neither is Spanish, which she also speaks to a 'kitchen-conversational' level.

- She has been in the country and in this business for a long time though. So, while her English isn't great, it's always been good enough for her to raise a family on the income of this small business.

- Only 2-3 others work there. It's a very small operation without big margins or revenue. Accordingly, I'd think hiring an attorney isn't feasible though I agree it makes more sense that a credit card could be required and that a local cop shouldn't be the authority for that.

- Turning over the administration and phone/servicing aspects of the business to an American raised child or friend isn't a viable option. I won't get into the reasons why. Just isn't unfortunately else that would be a big help.

- Just as reminder (my original post was too long), the magnitude of this rudeness and lost business is a newer trend for her. It has always happened to a smll degree--just nothing like this year. The business did well enough for many years for her to build a life her for herself and for her immediate family. And, she does have a large number of very loyal, longstanding customers. I haven't thought of her as a "pushover" so much as someone who wasn't raised here and has been a bit overwhelmed by the fact that she's much more a talented and committed cook than a business leader (common phenomenon I know--comes up on DR all the time wrt other spots).

Thanks to those who've PMed me about this so far who may visit her or suggest it to friends/family in the area. it'll be great for her to meet and serve a few new customers who are in the northern NJ/NY area. New customers are great for the business of course but this is more about the reassurance that there are more good people in the world than idiots and jerks than the revenue per se.

I will pass on all the above ideas and any further ones that folks here post to her.

Thanks again to all. The DR community is much like the bulk of this stressed woman's community: truly good people.

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Here is an option that is much less expensive than POS: Square. The upfront investment is a smartphone or ipad with a way of connecting to the Internet. I know tons of vendors who love the service.

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This reminds me of a restaurant I read about many years ago in a guidebook to a small Caribbean island (maybe Saba, I can't remember). Some poor lady running a one-person restaurant had a bunch of bounced checks taped up by the cash register from locals who came in to eat but couldn't afford to pay for the food.

"I have heart like marshmallow," she said.

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This reminds me of a restaurant I read about many years ago in a guidebook to a small Caribbean island (maybe Saba, I can't remember). Some poor lady running a one-person restaurant had a bunch of bounced checks taped up by the cash register from locals who came in to eat but couldn't afford to pay for the food.

"I have heart like marshmallow," she said.

Ha--of course the key difference here is that most of this woman's delinquents can likely afford to eat at Per Se or Daniel and probably do so regularly. it's the nastiness, rudeness and totally lack of empathy of all the folks represented by her no-pay wall that prompted me to post here. This woman has a marshmallow heart too--but she's no idiot (not to say the Saba one was either).

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I seem to recall that Bergen County, NJ, has a somewhat famous local paper. The Record , maybe. This seems like a perfect "Local Interest" story. So, any of the PR folks among our membership (and I know you're out there) might want to weigh in on this. It just seems to me that this is exactly the kind situation that needs to see the light of day. If nothing else, it will get the lady a lot of sympathy and, more importantly, business. Never hurts to remind people of the human consequences of their bad manners.

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Here is an option that is much less expensive than POS: Square. The upfront investment is a smartphone or ipad with a way of connecting to the Internet. I know tons of vendors who love the service.

Square is a great product/service. And will likely be another huge IPO btw with its VC backers. This place already takes credit cards though. That hasn't been a problem. It's the folks who call, order and then no-show before a card is processed that are killing her. Requiring the card number at the time of order would be one great fix if she can/will do it. And Square might be better than her current setup too--thanks for the idea!

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I seem to recall that Bergen County, NJ, has a somewhat famous local paper. The Record , maybe. This seems like a perfect "Local Interest" story. So, any of the PR folks among our membership (and I know you're out there) might want to weigh in on this. It just seems to me that this is exactly the kind situation that needs to see the light of day. If nothing else, it will get the lady a lot of sympathy and, more importantly, business. Never hurts to remind people of the human consequences of their bad manners.

Super idea! If anyone with PR experience/skils out there would be willing to make a call or two pro bono for this woman to the Record (that is indeed the paper in Bergen), please PM me. Thanks Barbara!

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This reminds me of a restaurant I read about many years ago in a guidebook to a small Caribbean island (maybe Saba, I can't remember). Some poor lady running a one-person restaurant had a bunch of bounced checks taped up by the cash register from locals who came in to eat but couldn't afford to pay for the food.

"I have heart like marshmallow," she said.

I'll admit the first time I read the original post I thought of the Seinfeld episode where Jerry had a bad check taped up at a bodega. Actually that is my favorite episode. But yea, I doubt this lady has the fortitude to post a list publicly of these derelicts...but she should.

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Having grown up in a Chinese restaurants and having parents who are still in the business (though, thankfully, no longer owners), the only two things that I think might be effective are 1.) making nice with the local police department so she can call them for support whenever a customer refuses to pay for food that he/she has eaten/is taking/basically stealing food or money, and 2.) maybe the "story in a local paper" option, though that might just bring more idiots into the fold once they find out about this small restaurant where they can get "free" food and rip off the owner somehow.

Quite frankly, the best thing you can do is to just continue being a loyal patron and telling everyone else NOT to be an asshole. Especially in tough economic times, there are always going to be jerk-offs who see a small restaurant as ripe for the picking. And if I'm being completely honest, Asian restaurants are probably targeted more because of the ridiculous stereotype that we're all pushovers who are too weak and cowardly to do anything about it and probably don't know enough English to do anything about it, much less understand what's happening. Oh, and that we're all rich anyway. ::rolls eyes::

You can't stop this from happening, really. Assholes are going to be assholes because they feel like they deserve to act like them and get everything they want. Just continue to NOT be one and encourage others to NOT be assholes, as well. You can't control other people, and quite frankly, the restaurant owner will just eventually realize that it's not worth the stress and ridiculousless and just sell/close the restaurant soon, anyway. I don't think people realize just how hard it is, not just to be a small restaurant owner, but to be a minority, immigrant restaurant owner in this country. It wears you down, and one can't just brush it off by thinking of all the good customers, because even the good customers leave once they perceive your food isn't quite worth it anymore.

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