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Advice from a Friend: Don’t Eat Here

It was a dark and stormy night, and I was trying to figure out a restaurant that was a suitable place  for my family, my nephews, and my parents to eat dinner. It was a school night, so reasonable quickness was an issue. My parents do not at anything  that may possibly have been stored in the same cabinet as a grain of pepper in 1999, so no Chinese, Indian, Thai or Mexican. Rob and I are carbophobic, which makes it hard for us to make good choices at places like “Oodles of Noodles.” The kids needed something fairly simple, which made it unwise to eat anywhere with “creative” soups or plating involving a swirl of cardamom oil. I refuse to eat at The Olive Garden, just because.

As if in a vision, the idea of a quick soup-and-sandwich kind of place came to mind.  My friend Ted recently conducted an informal poll on Facebook concerning whether Panera was “fast foood,” and the consensus with which I agree, is that it is “fast” but also ell prepared, and very healthy if one makes wise choices. Panera was a viable option, as was The Grand Traverse Pie Company, a more regional restaurant offering counter service and a wide assortment of freshly made soups, salads and sandwiches (with pie for dessert if you aren’t me. I remember it fondly). I like both of these places a great deal, but since I had never tried the third option, McAlister’s Deli, I asked my mother if we could eat there. New horizons and all that.

The take-home message here, is that new horizons are to be avoided at all costs. Oh, the humanity! The place was unprepossessing as restaurants go, resembling most closely a sports bar with the “bar” and “sports” removed. This was not a big deal when dining out with assorted children; we had not been expecting Philipe Stark furniture and a chandelier. We were greeted at the counter by one of the two high-school aged women who were the only visible employees, both of whom elevated sullenness to an art form.  We gave our orders to  the blonde (hereinafter “the blonde”) who was clearly not happy to see a party of 7 that included children, drummed her fingers on the counter when orders were not forthcoming quickly enough, and asked questions in a way that indicated that, if you had not memorized the intimate details of their menu, you should probably go home and study. To whit: I requested a turkey sandwich on whole wheat bread with a slice of Havarti, dry. “You mean you want the ‘Be Choosey?!'” she asked in a tone that was the equivalent of “Duh.”  Apparently I did, but I had tragically failed to distinguish between the “Be Choosey” and the flashier options, say, the “Smoked Turkey.” The side choices were kind of a problem for the carb-challenged; I could choose from chips, potato salad, mashed potatoes, “seasonal fruit,” or cole slaw. The menu on the internet includes steamed vegetables, which I did not see at the restaurant (possible my bad, maybe because I felt compelled to order as if giving a recitation at the closing ceremonies of the Evelyn Woodhead Speed Reading Course) and a side salad could be had for an additional $2.50.  I ordered the fruit, figuring that I would give it to the kids. After all, I reasoned, I’d get a big sandwich and it would be a light, filling dinner. I even considered the fact that if, like Panera, the bread was too thick for my carb intake, I’d have to open the sandwich and pull out some of its insides. I needn’t have worried.

As the food was brought to the table, it became apparent that no human was actually cooking anything. My son and nephew received bread bowls, one filled with soup, and one with chili. When Sam, who really isn’t a complainer, told us that the bread was stale, we all took a taste and agreed that it probably was not actually “stale,” but “bad bread;” it was the kind of airy, flavorless bread that is often euphemistically labeled “Italian” at grocery stores. It did not have, if you’ll forgive me, the cojones to stand up to a ladle of hot liquid, and our kids, who have had terrific bread bowls elsewhere (again, Panera comes to mind) were bitterly disappointed that they could not, or rather would not enjoy the ritual eating of chunks of soup-soaked bread as part of their meal. When my mother called one of the employees to the table to let her know that Sam was unhappy with his bread bowl, (we’ll call this one “the brunette”), she looked skeptical, said she was “really sorry,” and walked away. It later occurred to me that she was presented with a customer service conundrum that perhaps exceeded her experience or interest level: when you have made an error in the kitchen, you can offer to replace the food with an improved version. When your food is just not good, there isn’t a lot you can do by way of an upgrade. (Gift card to Panera, perhaps?)

My sandwich was a small portion of turkey and a slice of Havarti on store-bought whole wheat bread. I tried to make it last, but there really just wasn’t much to work with. The “seasonal” fruit tasted as if it had previously been jarred or canned; at the very least it had been mixed together a long, long time ago. Although my young nephew, accustomed to school food, found it acceptable, my suggestion would be that “seasonal fruit” in Michigan in October would best be represented by a fresh, crisp apple. Grapes, pineapple, and whatever the smushy bits were are rarely, if ever, in season in these parts. My mother had a sandwich that was either corned beef or pastrami, from half of which I ate the meat and cheese because I was really, really hungry. It was beyond undistinguished; in fact my inability to tell whether it was pastrami or corned beef should say it all. Her sandwich, like mine, was he size of a particularly grand commemorative postage stamp.

The best meal award goes to my older nephew, who was smart enough to order a potato microwaved with bacon and cheese on top. It’s hard to mess that up, and the blonde and the brunette had, in some combination, assembled and nuked it with great culinary flourish. The worst meal was Rob’s. He ordered the aptly named “Nasty” sandwich (actually “The Nasty;” I just report this stuff) which, according to the menu, was tender pieces of roast beef, gravy and cheese on an open-faced sandwich. Not my thing, but, done right, his dream come true. It was a horrific mess of what appeared to be a can of “Beefy Gravy” Alpo flung on a flaccid hoagie roll, with shredded cheese melted on top in the microwave. It most closely resembled school food at its most punitive, and although Rob ate it because we were all really quite hungry, he was not happy. His parting words to me on leaving the alleged restaurant was that he was “going to get some dinner.” This is not the parting thought dreamed of by most restauranteurs.

In summary: the service was unpleasant, and there was no visible adult management. A legitimate complaint (from a very cute kid, I might add) was met with thinly veiled contempt. The food was not fresh, not good, and not sufficient.  If yopu have had a better experience, I’m all ears.

My mother called this morning to complain about the meal (since she and my father had also stopped for dinner on the way home from dinner) and an apologetic manager offered to send her some gift cards as an apology. In her most polite and Wellesley way, she thanked him, but told him that he needn’t send the gift cards, because she would never eat an McAlister’s again.

You’ve been warned.

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About imagineannie

I feel like I'm fifteen - does that count? I'm lots of things, I get paid to be the Managing Editor for a local news publication, and I love my job. I am also inordinately fond of reading, animals (I have four), elephants, owls, hedgehogs writing, tramping in the woods, cooking India, Ireland, England, avocado toast, Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter, Little Women, Fun Home, Lumber Janes, Fangirl, magic, Neil Gaiman, Jane Austen, YA books, not YA books, classical music, Salinger (OMG SALINGER), Brahms, key lime pie, indie music, podcasts, sleeping in, road trips, marmalade, museums, bookstores, the Oxford comma, BBC, The Miss Fisher Mysteries, birdwatching, seashells, kombucha, and stickers. Not a huge fan of chewing gum, jazz, trucker hats or dystopian and/or post-apolcalyptic fiction (but I'll try anything).

21 responses »

  1. I want to know where the pineapples grow around here!

    I used to love the McAlister’s in Gainesville, FL, but I’ve been sorely disappointed by the ones in Michigan. I don’t know if the entire chain has gone downhill, or if they’re different from store to store. The final straw for me was a salad that was virtually inedible (how do you mess up a salad??).

    Reply
    • They grow in groves near the avocado trees, silly.

      You are one of two people to mention that McAlisters does better in the South. That really would explain produce issues, but you can bake bread and buy meat here……

      Reply
  2. Blech! Did you go to Eastwood or Okemos? We eat at Okemos from time to time and usually find it OK (the staff is certainly friendly and helpful, at least when I’ve been there). I do agree, though, that Panera is much better.

    Reply
    • It was Okemos – middle point from Pete & Mary’s and my house. I am willing to believe that their staff was just having a bad night; I always hope when I see bad service that it’s out of character for a place.

      Reply
  3. We’ve gone to the Eastwood location in the past (well over 9 months) and enjoyed solid service and hearty food. The Okemos location is utterly wretched. As my father always commented, go the route of McDonald’s or go 4 star, there’s danger in the mediocre middle.

    Reply
    • It is the mediocre middle, and I especially resent having someone buy me a meal that I could have made myself at home with better results. Alas, we don’t exactly have a surfeit of 4 star options around here, but I’m willing to give Eastwood a chance. I think.

      Reply
  4. Tommy and I went there once. It was nasty, and I didn’t even have The Nasty. Tommy thought it was nasty too, and he didn’t have The Nasty either. We have not returned. I had a couple of good experiences at Amici’s (oh I have no idea if I spelled that right), but then they changed their pickles and I realized that I had been going mostly, really, only for the pickles. I have not been back.

    Reply
    • I have a hard time imagining either of you choosing The Nasty. 🙂 I think Amici’s is okay, although I have not had either kind of pickle there, ever, because Sam always eats my pickle.

      Reply
  5. Oh gack. I would have gladly sent you to Amici’s deli near Frandor for minimally pleasant service and sandwiches large enough to appeal to even Rob’s voracious appetite.

    And while I’m quite sure that Panera adds crack to their food given the number of devotees on this blog and elsewhere, I just can’t do it. I’d rather support Jersey Giant (locally owned, freshly baked breads) or even my personal shame – Buddies.

    Reply
    • You are dead on here, except about Panera – I don’t think it’s haute anything, but it is fresh and they have a lot of things we can eat that taste good to us. Do you really dislike it, or just think its over-hyped? We LOVE Jersey Giant, although giant sandwiches are not in our lives these days, and Buddies is the Family Standard – I have always had wonderful service, good food, and a good time. They’ll even give me 7 Layer Dip with veggies to dip instead of chips without glaring at me.

      Reply
  6. There is nothing more infuriating than sullen service. I’m sorry, but we had to let long-time, cheerful, good employees go for lack of business. You got a job? You better appreciate it, cuz, Darwin will weed you out. If I’m going to spend scarce and hard-earned money on a night out, “hard-earned” money is the very best kind to earn.

    Vote with your feet and your wallet/pocketbook.

    Don’t settle for less and as your mother showed when she called the next day– let them know what really happened. A lot of the experience can be repaired if the service is sincere.

    If in doubt, post on Yelp

    Reply
    • You are right, and in the business to know. I really hadn’t thought about the relationship between bad service and the economy in the context of this experience, but now that I do, I remember that I know some very pleasant professional people in this town who are out of work and would work hard at whatever they took on.

      Yelp is a wonderful thing, isn’t it? Well, it is if you’re doing a good job….

      Reply
  7. Indeed. Industrial food is always gross. Shows how bad things have gotten in the US that food suppliers now tend to do things as GM does– outsource all bits and bobs, assemble, present.

    For sandwiches of that sort, I favor Lou and Harry’s– they have a lovely grilled veggie to which one can add chicken. Beware the fries. Oh the fries!

    Reply
    • We love Lou & Harry’s, although the fries (which I fondly remember) are now out of the question. I have eaten that very nice veggie assemblage, and both salads and other sandwiches that I liked quite a lot. Plus they are local humans!

      Reply
  8. Lots of good ideas for local, inexpensive, good food here. We do like Jersey Giant, and Lou and Harry’s, and Buddy’s? We were just down the strip from there when we decided on this place. Dang! But one thing is for sure, if we hadn’t went to sullenville that night, there would be no post!

    Reply
    • Right on, Mr. Annie. It’s true that, if nothing interesting ever happened (including the bad stuff) I wouldn’t have much material…..

      Reply
  9. Ah! The mystery revealed! You’re right–I wouldn’t have guessed, but not because I don’t or won’t eat there. I have. In fact, I used to eat at the McAlisters in Mississippi (a lot) when we lived there; we were always amazed at the freshness of the ingredients they used (especially the fruit and lettuce), especially because the quality of the produce can be kind of a…thing in the South. But you’re exactly right–the Northern incarnation is a very different story indeed. Too bad!

    Reply
    • You are the second person to commend The McAlisters of the South, and that says a lot. For one thing, it says that they do choose good produce when it’s fresh and cheap, but that they will not or cannot pay to have produce of that quality brought to them. I just kept looking at that horrid bowl of mushy, acidic fruit and thinking about fresh, Honeycrisp apples grown in this very state.

      Reply
  10. I had to laugh when your bad restaurant experience hinted at on Facebook turned out to be McAlisters in Okemos. We had just eaten there ourselves. We only went there because I thought Noodles & Co. was open, but that’s another week at least, and since we had to get food quick before soccer practice, we opted for McAlisters. Also my kids like it because it’s the only place they’ve had a baked potato with topping (we now realize we can add this to our repertoire at home). But I haven’t liked anything we’ve had there, and after two visits we won’t be going back. I agree on the service there as well and LOVE the comment above about being grateful to have a job in this economy. In fact, I’m gonna be less grumpy (internally) about my far-from-ideal job. I’m always nice on the outside but I should be honestly grateful inside and out to have a job these days…

    Reply
    • The good news is: Noodles & Co. (which we like) is open now, and that you can microwave potatoes with toppings for your kids at home for pennies on the dollar, and they’ll be happy. The bad news is that you fell into the pit with us.

      The person who made the comment about the economy is right, but having known him since we were 11, i can also tell you that he is FAR more personally cheerful than either of us. I think we can aspire to be less grumpy, but Eric’s level of good cheer is kind of an Olympic thing.

      Reply
  11. Awww shucks…stop it, you’re embarrassing me. 😉

    Reply

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