If you have a culinary bucket list (like me), then inevitably Commander’s Palace is either already on it or a caring friend will highly recommend that it is added. Commander’s Palace is located in the Garden District of New Orleans surrounded by stunning architecture including the restaurant itself. According to the website, Commander’s Palace “has been a New Orleans landmark since 1893. The history of this famous restaurant offers a glimpse into New Orleans’ storied past and has been the go-to destination for Haute Creole cuisine and whimsical Louisiana charm. The winner of six James Beard Foundations awards, Commander’s Palace has evolved into a culinary legend.” After hearing its story, knowing the famous chefs who have passed through, the decision to finally eat at this iconic restaurant was made and it was just a matter of calling to make reservations in classic old school-style, since Commander’s Palace is not on Open Table. I was gently reminded about the dress code before confirming my reservation for Friday night at 8:30pm.
Let me start by saying that there is little in life that can truly live up to the expectations we create in our minds as excitement builds. We tend to plan our complete experience before it even occurs and often without a realistic frame of reference. This is what I did. My mind became the Commander’s Palace hype man. After a warm greeting by the hostess, we were escorted through the downstairs dining room that was ornately decorated. The tables were full of smiling faces and satisfied guests. In one corner, a table ordered bananas foster and I whispered, “that’s what I will order too.” Regardless of the taste, I always select the menu options that are prepared tableside. We climb up the creaky old stairs and are shown to a four top up against the back cabinets, next to the aisle leading to the kitchen, and diagonally across from the restrooms. There were a few other guests seated in this section, but understanding how busy a Friday night can get, we were happy to sit down and let the ordering begin.
Other important parts about the restaurant industry, in addition to the food, are the atmosphere and service. Together they create the culinary experience that wins James Beard Awards, Michelin Stars, and Zagat Ratings, but also fuels Yelp, Trip Advisor, and Open Table reviews. On this fateful, busy night at Commander’s Palace, the food was on point; however, the atmosphere and service took a hit. That night, the wait staff decided to cut some corners, servers were unprepared, and we had the unfortunate luck of being sandwiched in between a bachelorette and a birthday party which made for a perfect storm of culinary disappointment. After exhibiting an inordinate amount of patience, I hung my head low, excused myself from the table, and walked back downstairs to the hostess stand and requested to speak with a manager.
Commander’s Palace had three managers on duty that night and after fifteen minutes of waiting, one sauntered up with an exasperated look on his face to find out what was wrong. He was not empathetic. He countered with prepared responses to my raised concerns before understanding the issues. He escorted me back to my table and left in silence. He returned fifteen minutes later and removed the second and third courses from our check and offered to move us to another table to enjoy dessert, we declined the offer. He then invited us back for brunch the next day, again, we declined the offer. By this point, and through a series of unfortunate events, our excitement over what should have been an amazing culinary experience was ruined.
While the dinner experience that night turned out to be disappointing, it shed some light on the expectations we have in general with everything from our interactions with a bank teller, check out stand at our neighborhood grocery store, or with an enrollment advisor at the institution of our choice. We set expectations. We believe that in exchange for the money we agree to pay for a product, service, or experience that it will deliver a valuable return. Think about students, regardless of age, they select a higher education institution based on reputation, program offerings, accessibility, affordability, and perceived value. They speak with admissions representatives who provide a list of benefits on why they should enroll in one institution over another. They are encouraged by other people in their life to pursue a degree in hopes that it will provide both personal and professional opportunities.
After careful and thoughtful consideration, students select an institution that best meets their academic needs. In their heads, they have pictured their educational journey informed by their research and information they received. Students establish expectations. Just like a busy night at Commander’s Palace, institutions get busy too and sometimes the support services offered during admissions, the programs delivered, and timelines for support do not measure up. At times like these, it is far easier for institutions to blame external circumstances, but the real response, the only one that can ease the disappointment of expectations, is we messed up. The funny thing about expectations is that they are not just arbitrarily imposed. Sure, they may be set higher than they should be, but the foundation for expectations always begins with a description of what one institution, organization, or even a restaurant says sets them apart.
Given what seems like a difficult situation, there are three steps we all should take when we fail to measure up to set expectations, 1) listen for understanding, 2) take responsibility, and 3) make it right. People want to know that their issues have been heard and as an institution focused on student success, we should want to understand so that we can take steps to improve if not for this student then at least for the ones to follow. Otherwise, we make it too easy for students to abandon their academic goals and drop out. Commander’s Palace attempted to make it right, but they missed the first two steps and maybe I expected too much.