Every Day Ethics: The Case Of The Missing Pancakes

These are the ethics conundrums that drive me nuts.

After a very hard week, a large, late-arriving check from a client relieved our intermittent cash flow anxiety (“This is the life we have chosen!”—Hyman Roth), so we decided to indulge ourselves with a carry-out feast from the best Chinese restaurant in the area, the  Peking Gourmet Inn, famous for its Peking Duck and President George H.W. Bush’s frequent visits during his White House residency. I’d say it’s one of the three best Chinese restaurants I’ve ever had the pleasure to dine at, though it would be hard to top a little place we discovered in London, with this caveat: the Peking Gourmet egg rolls with garlic sauce are the best egg rolls I can imagine, and no, even that miraculous place in Kensington couldn’t match them.

But I digress. It’s a longish drive to the restaurant, and the food isn’t cheap: our order of a whole duck, Salt and Pepper Shrimp ( another specialty), and two orders each of egg rolls and (for my son, who loves them) steamed pork dumplings came to $115. The pungent smell of the shrimp nearly drove me mad on the way home; no wonder those DoorDash drivers eat the food so often. When I arrived home, drooling, everything was perfect, as usual, except for some pangs because we missed the ritual of tossing fortune cookies to Rugby, our recently departed and still deeply mourned Jack Russell Terrier. Rugby would circle excitedly awaiting his treat, which I would toss high in the air. He would pounce on the cookies, rip open the wrappers, and eat delicate things with gusto, pausing only to spit out the fortunes.

Well, everything was almost perfect: the restaurant had inexplicably left the Peking Duck pancakes out of the bag. Without pancakes, Peking Duck isn’t Peking Duck, it’s just incredibly delicious duck meat, crunchy, yummy skin, with green onions and sauce.

So the question loomed: what was the correct response? I sure wasn’t going to drive back and pick up the pancakes. Should I call and complain, just to complain? I didn’t feel like ruining dinner by including an adversarial phone conversation. (This would also be complicated by the fact that the staff is very Chinese—I can seldom understand them, and typically have to repeat orders many times.) Should I call the next day? And demand what? Even without the pancakes, the duck was fantastic, perfect, and gave both my wife and I two great meals each.

On the other hand, there is the principle of the thing: if one pays 48 bucks for Peking Duck, one should get the whole dish, including pancakes.

On the OTHER hand (that’s three hands, if you lost count), we’ve been patrons of that restaurant for over 30 years. We’ve had birthday parties, celebrations, holiday gatherings there. The experience, service and food have always been perfect in every respect—until the missing pancakes. Is the ethical response just to let it go? Or is there an obligation to alert the perfectionist eatery that there’s a sub-par pancake loader lurking among the staff?

I would apply the Golden Rule, but I’m not sure how I would think if I were a Chinese restaurant.

Tell me what is right, here. And great, just writing that has made me lust for more Peking Duck:

26 thoughts on “Every Day Ethics: The Case Of The Missing Pancakes

  1. Call them and let them know what happened so they can address it for other customers. If they choose to do something for you that’s their choice but I wouldn’t ask for anything and most of the time I wouldn’t accept anything outside of them fixing whatever problem they had that caused the pancakes not to be included.

    I’ve done this sort of thing many times, sometimes they offer something but I usually don’t accept it because I just want them to fix their problem not whitewash it with something free. I’ve had to contact absolutely every restaurant in our small town for one thing or another over the years, I continue to go back to most of them. If you want to keep your dollars local sometimes you have to help them improve.

    • Agreed. I also discovered that if you wanted to build a good relationship with the restaurant (or grocery, or any small business I might have to or want to frequent over the years) it helped to start the next visit by thanking the person in charge for something we had bought before and were likely to order again – and then mention that we were sorry not to have the “usual” something or other, or ask if they’d changed their menu or chef? It’s a face-saver all round. That’s also how we wound up with a regular off-the-menu treat for our takeout from one place: the eye-tearing mustard (actually “English” style freshly reconstituted powdered mustardseed instead of those tasteless packets) to kick up some of the blander dishes like roast pork or spring rolls . . . mixed judiciously for the person wishing to remain dry-eyed with sweet-and-sour sauce, say 1:10.

  2. As a recovering Paris-trained professional chef (last cooked in a commercial kitchen in the mid-80s), I can tell you: mistakes happen even in the very best of houses (just like in all businesses).

    I can also tell you that the very best of houses want to know about them. As with any other responsible business, it’s hard to correct and manage mistakes if you don’t know about them.

    From my perspective, this one isn’t worth going to the mattresses over. But it’s definitely worth mentioning. If you’re sitting down in the restaurant, they might even comp you a round of cocktails if you mention this to the manager before being seated. Or, if it’s takeout, they might comp something else.

    Repeat customers are very valuable to restaurants. At minimum, they’d want to know so that the error isn’t repeated.

  3. The Golden Rule for you is different than for the restaurant. You have to put yourself in the restaurant’s position and ask “What do I want my customer’s to do?” When I put myself into that position, I answer with 1) Get accurate customer feedback so we can excel in our business 2) Hope my customers treat me fairly and don’t shake me down.

    If I were a restaurant, that’s what I would hope for.

    From the restaurant perspective, they have to put themselves into your shoes to determine the Golden Rule. Hopefully they accurately determine that their customers 1) want to be heard and have their concerns addressed. 2) Where appropriate, their customers want to made to feel “special” and “appreciated”.

    In all, you can only apply the golden rule to yourself, not demand that they apply it on their end.

  4. Perhaps it may have been phrased: “Mention it just so the management knows what happened.”

    I’m of the maxim: ”If you like what we’re doing, tell others; if you don’t like what we’ve done, tell us.”

  5. I have very little to add to the above comments, so I will quibble semantics. The second choice should not be “complain.” Complain implies an emotional component that is not present. I would say “inform,” because, if the food was good an you were inclined to let it go (those would be my two choices), you probably still owe them the information so that they can maintain the level of service their customers should expect.

    I would not mention it next time, because there is little to do at that point. The source of the problem might be impossible to identify at that point, and it might look like a simple way to get something free. And, for that matter, it might have already been remedied (if there was a problem employee, for example, who forgot everyone’s pancakes), making your input superfluous at that point.

    And, I rarely (probably never) complain and demand compensation. Unlike Steve Witherspoon, though, I will not decline it either. I had a recent incident at one of my regular lunch spots where a foreign object was in my french fries. I drew it to the server’s attention simply because it was an irregularity; it was not harmful or anything the way deep-fried green beans might be. He apologized, explained what might have happened, and came back with a gift certificate, It was a completely unnecessary gesture, as I go there every week or so; it was not as if I would never return because of this. However, at the same time, he felt the need to show gratitude, appreciation and the desire to make amends (or to right a wrong). I am not going to refuse to let him do that, even if it was truly unnecessary for him to do so.

    Hmmm…I guess I did have something to add.


  6. 1. I think you should start a side blog doing restaurant reviews.
    2. Take out is just generally more fraught with perils. I think it more reasonable to split some of the risk/burden in this situation. I think we all have had occasion to get home or have a delivery arrive with less than what we ordered or something different. From experience we know that mistakes are made as Arthur reminded us. I don’t think more mistakes are made with take away but when sitting at a table it is easier to fix and we forget about them. But a screwed up take away can burn for days.

    Now, when doing my own pick up, I think it is on me to do a little bag digging, hungry as I might be and tempted to start sampling, to confirm my order. It only takes a moment and makes me much happier when I do find a mistake.

    So possibly the survey could have had another option?

  7. I’d say let it go, partly defined by the nature of the mistake. If they’d made an error in preparation of a dish (underseasoning, diminutive dumplings, etc.) then even if I found the dish good overall I would still call it to the attention of the restaurant so they could know that a preparation error had been made.

    Here I think you can reasonably assume that everyone involved knew there were SUPPOSED to be pancakes included, and it was an error in oversight. Telling the cook to not forget pancakes doesn’t change anything, as he KNOWS he needs to put in pancakes already. If it happens a second time you’d be on solid ground to say “this happened once and I let it go, now it’s a pattern” because then they may need to take action. Just once? Assume it’s a one-off error by a competent cook and let it go.

  8. I prefer to report the issue, but rarely accept any comp. I prefer speaking to a manager by phone or letter when they are not in the middle of a meal rush. I don’t do comps unless the missing error makes the item worthless (like no meat in my surf and turf) or the people I speak about the issue with are obnoxious about the problem or rude in person on top. One of the closest places near my home kept messing up over several months, both in house and take out orders over a small but important thing (like no tomatoes due to allergy) Wish they were better as they had some rarer dishes that now live only in memory…

  9. Having lived in China a number of years, I feel like I could help you out a little bit here. This assumes they are native Chinese.

    The biggest thing you have to understand is the concept of ‘saving face. (mianzi)’ Chinese culture revolves around this concept. This can be frustrating, because a lot of Chinese will rather lie to you, than cause you to be embarrassed (not really ethical I know). Ideally, what you want to do is build “guanxi” or relationships. With out this, it is really difficult to even offer constructive criticism without coming across as an attack.

    Since it is unlikely you have Guanxi the best thing you can do (at least in there culture) is allow them to save face by letting it go. Mistakes happen and given it is a business, we know it was unintentional. If you feel you must suggest a problem occurred, I suggest doing it in a way that allows them to save the most amount of face. Chinese are not confrontational. Wrap it up in a huge amount of praise. “I really enjoyed your duck. It is by far the best duck I have had in America. I’m only sorry I got to miss out on it’s true experience.” To truly get your point across, bring a small gift.

    This in turn allows you to build guanxi, because they will now feel obligated to save you face.

    As far as checking food, I’m not really sure. Take away wasn’t something I did in China. Proper food etiquette in China is different than what most of us are used to doing. It isn’t rude or slurp or burp. Bones, shells, and other discarded items often gets left on the table. Tipping and clearing your plate are considered insulting.

    There is some precedent to checking items. Banks always asked you to count even though they used machines and themselves to count it. When given a business card, you always examine it right away (both sides).

    If you want to know more look here: https://www.internations.org/china-expats/guide/29464-culture-shopping-recreation/understanding-the-chinese-culture-17526

  10. I am chalking this up to Hanlon’s Razor, though I am going to modify it a bit: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by mistake.

    Comments by Steve, Arthur, and Tim above are correct. Assuming the restaurant cares about its patrons, they probably want to know about the problem/mistake to make it right.


  11. Sometimes, mistakes are best left unacknowledged and ignored.

    Judging by your comments, you’d never had this happen before. If it were to happen again, I would definitely say something, but in the scenario above, I’d just enjoy my food and forget about it. Life is too short to be spent in constant correction of minor errors.

  12. Write them a letter, more or less laying out things as you presented them here, including the the praise. This should overcome any language confusion and give them a chance to retain, comprehend, and consider all you intend to convey. True, it was one small thing, but you have no way of knowing whether or not it’s indicative of them becoming increasingly careless, which could affect other customers and their business as a whole. They should want to know.

  13. The small Chinese restaurant in my town expanded a few years back and they changed their menu eliminating my favorite dish Moo Shu (my choice was pork), which just happens to come with those coveted pancakes too. I’ve talked with them over the years asking them to add it back to the menu. I’m a very regular customer all over town including the Chinese restaurant and I routinely strike up friendly conversations with the owners and staff, I like to have some kind of personal relationship with local business owners. Well a couple of months ago I asked the Chinese restaurant owner, really nice lady, if making the pancakes was the reason they took Moo Shu off the menu, she said yes.

    Many years ago my life surrounded commercial restaurant appliance repairs and I was regularly in a couple of area Chinese restaurants, one of which I was instrumental in getting shut down but that’s another story. One Chinese restaurant in particular that I frequented both fixing appliances and eating out (cleanest Chinese restaurant kitchen I’ve ever seen), the owner was a friendly gentleman trying to marry his daughter off to me probably so he could get free appliance repairs to his multiple restaurants; really nice guy we had a lot a laughs. Well I go to see them making the pancakes and it’s a painstaking skill that I’m sure very few people have and if not enough people purchase the menu items that use the pancakes I’m sure they go to waste pretty quickly. Making the pancakes isn’t something you just make on the fly, you have to make a rice dough of the correct consistency, hold a ball of it in your hand and spread a very thin layer onto a very hot hot plate, then almost immediately peel it off before it burns and finally stack it. One of those small balls of dough makes a rather large stack of pancakes. After they’re made they have to be wrapped, usually in groups, to keep them fresh longer and then refrigerated, I see them in groups of 3-5 and usually rolled up in cellophane. To warm them up for use, they’ll literally take the roll of pancakes, still wrapped in cellophane, and shove it down in a pot of cooked white rice or toss it in a steamer if it happens to be empty).

    So continuing on where I left off above; knowing all the details about the preparation of the pancakes, I told the owner of our Chinese restaurant that I completely understood the problem and hoped that someday they could find a way to bring Moo Shu back even if it took longer to make it.

    Why did I go through all this; it was to explain how something like pancakes could very easily be forgotten while they’re sitting in a place getting warmed up. Having the pancakes left out of the order has happened to me in the past with Moo Shu but I’m close enough in my small town that I just swing back over and get them. this is one of those things that if you’re ordering something that includes pancakes double check the order for that particular thing because it’s not so rare that it gets forgotten.

    I bet some of you are thinking; TMI. 😉

  14. My take may surprise many here, given my sometimes strong commentary: I have changed my approach over time.

    My wife and I used to get bent out of shape with take out order errors; especially ones that just ignored the instructions we meticulously spelled out while ordering. It really got to the point of ruining our rare opportunity to have someone cook for us: we did not even eat out once a week due to location (we were really rural) and finances.

    A regional chain, which rhymes with ‘Schlotzsky’s,’ (okay, nothing rhymes with that, and they can take the hit) has enormous sourdough bread and a large that makes two meals. They have a variety of options, both on the menu and within each sandwich.

    With kids, it was way easier to go to the drive through. We quickly got tired of the screw ups we might only discover after we drove over 45 minutes home: adding mustard or onions when the person hates it, or adding something one cannot eat due to digestion issues would cause us to lose our peace.

    We would get upset, vow to not return, but over time would return… and be disappointed. Then an outlet was opened much closer to our house, springing hope and a renewed hankering for a deluxe Original with extra black olives. The accuracy was about the same, and mentioning it to managers (while getting a new sandwich) did not improve quality. About the same time we both had an epiphany: Check the sandwich before leaving the premises, even if we were in the drive through (moving away from the window, of course.) A secondary discovery was to NOT drive through again (they would attempt to simply scrape the mustard off, for instance, to cover the mistake) but take the time to go into the building. (You could then watch them make a new sandwich… and they knew you were watching.) If we did not have time to make the situation right, we did not stop there.

    This also made our experience much better in other ‘non’ gustatory ways. We were calm about errors, were pleasant with the staff when we found problems,* and we could build relationships with managers and workers we met regularly.

    A side benefit: accuracy improved. Amazing how being corrected for careless work changes someone who needs that job: they knew we would be back to embarrass them if the order was wrong (although that was never our purpose nor our demeanor: we simply politely asked for the situation to be corrected.) I routinely do the same with other take out now, perhaps moving away form the employees (or doing it in the car) to not be perceived as rude.

    Therefore I voted to ‘let it go’ in Jack’s situation. If I did not take the time to inspect my order on the spot, I will take what I get without rancor or ill will: I am responsible for my reactions in a situation.

    Practice peace, in other words.

    *We knew it was a snake when we picked it up, after all!

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