Off Center Cafe: A Lesson in Customer Service

Off Center Cafe is now Iggy's Cafe

I like to think I'm a pretty easy customer.  I'm pretty forgiving when mistakes happen as long as the business is doing what they can to resolve it.  This is as true with any business I patronize as it is when I visit a restaurant.  My recent experience at Off Center Cafe left me thinking that some business owners/managers just simply flunk out of Customer Service 101.  The problem is, a lot of those that flunk, have no idea they did, and don't make improvements easily.

So, for those of you who got a failing grade in CS101, read on, and read well.  This is important.

1)  Acknowledging the Customer is Important.
This is my rule #1 for restaurants.  It tells me what kind of service I'm about to receive.  "Hi! Welcome to [insert restaurant name here]," or, "Have a seat, we'll be with you in just a minute," or, "The wait time is about 15 minutes."  I don't really care how you do it, just acknowledge that I've entered your establishment.  Take a page out of Subway's business practice - "Hi! Welcome to Subway, we'll be with you in just a moment."  I don't care if you sound like you just rolled out of bed after a night of binge-drinking when you say it, it's still a heckuva lot better than ignoring me entirely.  At the very least, inform me of your seating practice with a sign that says, "Please Seat Yourself While We Ignore You."  At Off Center Cafe, we stood near the front-door for 15 minutes before a customer came in behind us, and sat themselves at an open but un-bussed table.  No one even acknowledged we were there so we had no idea whether it was a seat-yourself or wait-to-be-seated kind of place.

2)  Making it Easy for Your Customers to Pay is Important.
I'm a plastics guy.  I don't often carry a lot of cash on me.  Even so, if there was a sign that said, "Cash or Check Only" then it would be entirely my fault if I didn't bring enough cash to pay for the meal.  It's pretty irritating to get through an entire meal before finding out the restaurant doesn't take credit cards.  This is resolved easily with a simple sign on the front door.  It is perfectly fine to be a cash-only business, but it's not usual, so it is up to you to inform your customers of this non-standard rule.  Don't make me walk to the bar next door to get cash after my meal.  By the way, if you were our waitress, you'll need to run next door for your $2.50 tip -- I left it in the ATM.

3)  Bussing is Important.
This is a simple rule.  If the table is dirty, make it clean.  Wiping the crumbs from your last customer onto my lap after I've been seated at an un-bussed table is not how you do this.  Also, watching customers bus their own tables is a no-no.  If you see it happening, put a stop to it by doing it for them.  You would think this would be obvious, but here I am, pointing it out.

4)  If your service sucks, you better have the best food I've ever eaten.
I can forgive mediocre service if the food is great.  I can forgive mediocre food if the service is great, but if the service sucks and the food is mediocre, I'm just simply not coming back.  That's all there is to it.

5)  Toast is Important.
Don't mess with my damn toast.  I ordered it, so bring it.  This is the bur in my underpants.  My meal arrived sans toast, and the waitress stopped by after a few minutes and asked, "what kind of toast are you missing?"  I thought this was an indicator that my MIA toast would be arriving post-haste.  This was not the case.  In fact, I believe I overheard one of the kitchen staff come out to tell the people next to us (who were clearly regulars) that they were out of sourdough and would they like to substitute with another kind.  To this day I still haven't seen my damn toast.

6)  Checking in on Your Customers is Important.
"How is everything over here?"  It's simple really.  You're just checking to see if you have a satisfied customer.  If they are not satisfied, you are giving them an opportunity to say they are not, AND it gives you an opportunity to turn them into a satisfied customer.  I would have liked that opportunity.  I would have told you how much I missed my damn toast.

7)  Don't stick your thumb in your crack and then serve me my meal.
I think most would agree with me that hygiene is important when you're serving food.  Many would say, it's really important.  The health department would say it's critically important.  When my server continually sticks her thumb in her crack every time she walks by in order to pull up the pants that have drifted south, then I'm going to be a bit distracted when my plate arrives, because all I will be able to think about is if that crack-soiled thumb touched it.

Off Center Cafe gets a "D-" because I got a coffee refill.

And this exchange summarizes our experience:
Me [After watching someone bussing their own table]: "Those people must be regulars."
Wife: "How exactly does one become a regular??"

Some people have said that service at Off Center Cafe is hit and miss -- but quite honestly, I don't think I'm interested in going back to find out.  I'm sorry, you can't miss the target by that much and expect a second chance.


Anonymous said...

I agree. The service is always terrible, but the food (& the toast!) lure me in once or twice a year. I hate watching the staff smoking out front. And we always end up getting cash at the bar next door. Ridiculous way to run a business. But I guess it's working for them?

Salem Man said...

That's just how that place is and how it will always be. The regulars expect that low level of service and don't mind it. They(the regulars) probably got a kick out of seeing you fuming over the missing toast. You should have known this. Why did you go there in the first place?

Vegan's Nightmare said...

I went because I heard they had good bread. Sadly, it's still just a rumor to me.

Anonymous said...

I shall learn from my own mistakes, as well as the mistakes of others.....

Chuck Bradley said...

Well done VN! I too have pretty much given up on this place. On my last visit, I noticed they had cleaned up the place a bit, although my feet still stuck to the floor. And, mercifully, gone were the geriatric flower children throw-backs from the sixties. The food was not bad, but at almost $8 for Breakfast, should allow sufficient profit margin to afford the use of credit cards. I guess if I hadn't had a little cash, a Luddite like me, who doesn't do ATM machines, would have been washing dishes.

Anonymous said...

Foundational requirements for payment and service seem chronically lacking by the comments and article - In fact seems encouraged or at least acknowledged by locals/regulars/push-overs.

If you feel comfortable spending your money on this experience and food, more power to you - My hard earned dough needs more..

Nate Rafn said...

I think the folks running Off Center Cafe don't quite get it. Shabby, hole-in-the-wall restaurants have a certain charm about them; but if the food and service is uninspired and sloppy, I'd rather not eat there at all. Both times I ate there, it seemed like the staff was really grumpy, as if the customers were just a pesky inconvenience. Weird stuff!

Anonymous said...

My wife and I were regular weekend visitors for ten years. I really used to love this place despite the shabby interior.

The food used to be stellar. The homemade toast is/was the best in town. The egg dishes such as annie's eggs were as good as anything that you'd find in Salem.

The coffee was always very good and strong.


The service has mostly been beyond horrible. The owner sold it to his daughter a year or so ago and it has gotten worse, which I didn't think was possible.

The last 4 times I have went I have sat there for 10-15 minutes without coffee while the waitress leans against the counter and talks to people sitting at the counter who look like they've been there for six hours. It's almost like they are annoyed I am there. I've been lucky occasionally to get a coffee refill. They eventually bring your food and then go back to leaning against the counter. You have to go to the counter to get your check.

The worst service you get is from the owner. Shouldn't she be happy that we are here spending our money?

The food quality has suffered. It can still be good, but it has lost it's magic. The long time cooks (prior owner and another guy) are gone.

Seeing the cooks smoking out front is just gross.

I keep going back thinking it will get better because I liked it so much in the past, but the last time I was there I was so irritated at the service I got from the owner that I have no intention of going back and I get the feeling that they are happy about that.

MnLs said...

As a vegetarian liberal who lives five blocks from the joint, I feel I represent a good chunk of their target market. For me, a place must have at least two of the following three attributes: outstanding food and/or stellar service and/or engaging atmosphere. Zero out of three is not enough. (Last visit = extremely inattentive service, undercooked omelette, lumpy bench and sticky floor.)

Quirky nostalgia appreciated only by die-hard regulars is not a long-term success strategy. Hopefully this honest and direct post will serve as a "wake-up call."

Anonymous said...

The last time the service wasn't just bad - it was a pervasive feeling that I was an annoyance for being there.

I am an easy customer, not high needs. I just want some coffee and a little attention.

I actually felt bad for being there, like an unwanted house guest. I am pretty certain she was the owner. That wasn't the first time I felt like that.

I hope they can right the ship because this used to be a hidden gem. Not now it's not.

Anonymous said...

The only reason to come here is if you aren't willing to wait in line at word of mouth.

Anonymous said...

In years past the food was superior to WOM. Not anymore, but the food was very good before. I know this is probably against conventional wisdom, but thats my opinion.

It's kinda sad to lose a place like this that was good for so long.

Anonymous said...

I don't think we've lost it, I think we just have to know it's a gamble going in.

Anonymous said...

I would suggest going to broadway cafe, joseys, word of mouth or any other place than this. A great cook is key to any resturant. They are lacking that and all the other things make a good resturant. There are plenty of other good breakfast joints in salem.

Anonymous said...

I'm still picturing the thumb from the original review above. Yikes. Get that server some draw string sweatpants asap!

Has anyone ever complained or talked with management?

Nick said...

Ha! Food at OCC has NEVER been superior to WOM. I can agree the service can be poor to atrocious at OCC but the fact that the reviewer is a non tipper invalidates any beef with the establishment for me. Remember, 10-20%. 10 for poor service, 15 or average, 20 for stellar. Foodies know this. Not tipping is classless.

Anonymous said...

A small tip suggests you're a bad tipper. No tip tells the waitress she is a bad server. Bad service = no tip!

Anonymous said...

That is completely wrong. I routinely tip 25-30% for good service but for really bad service all bets are off. off center service is so offensively bad that the last time I ate there a month ago I only left a buck on a 20 ticket. I can't believe I even left a tip at all.

Tips are not required. They are earned. My wife always hassles me for over tipping, but that's for good service.

I've spent my whole life in restaurants, and the fundamental underpinnings of service is that the harder you work the more you can make.

Anonymous said...

The food at WOM is good. The service is very good. The restaurant is very nice.

The food at OCC was at one time superior. The coffee was superior.

Times have changed but at one point OCC was better.

jeff said...

I've left a $.01 tip a couple of times in my life - just to tell the waiter/waitress that, no, I didn't forget the tip -- they forgot the service. Last time was at a "cafe" type restaurant in the Paris-Las Vegas casino, and since I was using my plastic to pay at the register (he never even brought the bill), I explained to the hostess at the register exactly why I was doing it. He wasn't there a year or so later when I was there again (the French Onion soup really was quite good...).

Anonymous said...

I've been there twice, I was lured the second time by the supposed major cleaning they did. After receiving only the initial cup of coffee and seeing our server only when she dropped off the food and through the window as she smoked 3 cigarettes while we still didn't have coffee. I will not be back. When we finally took our empty cups to the front counter to get refills we were told they needed to make coffee.

Worst service in town.

Anonymous said...

We went there today and it's really not THAT bad...the owner woman and another woman were waiting on all the tables. We sat down, knew exactly what we wanted and ordered right away when we got our drink orders. Find the menu online, know what you want, and order right away. The food is soo yummy and the bread is fresh from the oven. A TON of Vegetarian items, compared to like, two at WOM. We really like the food better than WOM as a whole. And no wait.

Anonymous said...

Yes it is that bad. I say that as a long time regular customer.

Be relatively prompt, fill my coffee, stop leaning against the counter for long periods while I haven't ordered and don't have coffee, bus tables, check back to make sure things are ok, if I ever get coffee - refill it at least once, don't smoke outside the window while I wait for coffee and to order, I don't need over the top friendly, just don't act like your annoyed at me for being there.

It's bad. I really really wish it wasn't. I've always loved the place and sent a lot of people over.

lavachickie said...

I admit I've written it off as well. I had high hopes when it was sold to the daughter for she did a major cleaning and I thought, okay, this is looking up! At that point I LOVED the food but the place was getting so gross I couldn't stomach it.

After the change, I went once and it was okay, then took a friend who had heard me rave and... major disappointment. Bad service, dirty place, food sucked.

So... not gonna do that anymore.

Too many other places that are working hard for my money to go to one that isn't.

Cyndy said...

Off Center has deteriorated, I agree. Unless you sit at their counter, you are ignored.

Try Chad's! Great breakfast, has that same diner vibe, but clean and the staff are Friendly. I like to sit at the counter, service is prompt and food is hot.
990 12th St Se
Salem, OR 97302-2807

Chuck Bradley said...


Chad's is now Don's. Everything else you said about it is still true though.


zctdvm said...

Just got home from my once yearly (it seems) visit to the Off Center. The food and service were both great, exceptional for Salem, I'd even say. The reviewer must have been there on an off day, is all I can fathom. I brought to their attention this review, and the staff were all reading it (with shocked and astounded looks) on their smartphones while I ate my very satisfying and tasty breakfast, which was served by attentive staff. I've lived in Salem for 7 years and this restaurant is still one of my favorite things about the place. Yes, the very first time I visited--several years ago--I had to go next door to Noble's to get cash from the ATM, but I figured it a small inconvenience for my wonderful breakfast, every visit since then I knew the drill and brought my checkbook, it's not a big deal!

Rob said...

It's good to hear because the last 5 or 6 times I've been there the service was awful. The service has been bad forever, but they had stepped up their game to the next level where it actually felt like they really didn't want me and my wife there. That plus the cooks smoked right in front of my window (next to my bone dry coffee cup).
Used to love the place but No more.

Anonymous said...

I think you all have valid opinions. I am not trying to make excuses but will say they are definitely struggling with the unexpected recent death of their long time cook and trying to find someone to fill those shoes. To date I believe the waite staff is improving. I know they will appreciate this wake up call and harsh but constructive criticism. Don't give up on a 30 yr icon, be a part of making it better. The coffee is still great..the iced tea and fresh squeezed OJ is still perfect. The food is great and the owner is a sweetheart who by the way is NOT the previous owners daughter.

Anonymous said...

New cook..ahh much better..kudos for hanging in there to find a replacement cook - it had to be a struggle and then with negative comments..better service. I think you can look forward to a new day and satisfied customers.

Anonymous said...

Long live Off Center! Two new good cooks have taken over after the sad demise of long time cook, Ron Johnson.
I just left the Off after a meal I didn't want to end. The Shrimp and Avocado omelette was fluffy and perfectly cooked, the spuds crispy just as I like them, the service was the best I've had in a long time, and the toast arrived with the meal!

I'm so very glad for the undying support people have shown (those blasted geriatric throw back flower children perhaps?)for this last (only) refuge in Salem for the masses: a place where everyone is welcome, from street people to legislators,where the unexpected could happen, where people outside the mainstream can be comfortable...

And...where you still have to pay cash for what you want (corporate weasels charge a lot of money to use their cards and you know nothing about a small business if you think this place could be making enough money to pay those fees) Plan ahead...bring cash. Why should a small business have to take care of your lack of planning?

Although there are other good places to eat in town, I plan to frequent the Off more often as it's the only interesting and comfortable place in town PLUS the food and service have improved.

Give me a place with character where things aren't always perfect, anyday. Long live Off Center!!

PS The Off's owner is the previous owner's step daughter.

Anonymous said...

Let's hope the service has improved.

As for the person who posted the last comment saying "why should a small business have to take care of your lack of planning?". Clearly you aren't in the service industry (hopefully!). Nobody has to eat out. I for one eat out for good food and to have someone wait on me. That means they serve me, feed me, they do the dishes...etc. The product a restaurant is selling is both food and experience, which is right up to paying the bill.

It does cost .50 or so to take a debit/credit card, but it provides a valuable service to customers. I never carry cash so if someone wants my "dining out dollars" it is pretty important.

So if I come to a restaurant with two people and we spend $30 for breakfast, it them $1 to take my card. Let's say their food cost is 35%. They just made ($30 x 65% = $19.50) gross margin less $1 = $18.

If I don't come at all, they make $0 gross margin.

Convenience for customers brings benefits to the restaurant.

Anyone is welcome to disagree with me. I am just sharing what I want as a customer (and a very excessive tipper for good service) as part of the dialog.

ps - I will give the Off Center Cafe another shot.

Anonymous said...

Clearly I did not proof read my comment at 1:33 pm 10/31...

Typical card fees are .25 per transaction and 3% of the total. So on a $30 ticket the credit card company takes $1.15.

That's a lot of money, but still the restaurant nets a lot more than if someone doesn't come because they don't have cash.

I at times choose places to eat based on their acceptance of cards, though there are very few places anymore that do not accept cards.

Stephanie Matlock Allen said...

We gave it another shot this weekend, and it was the same depressing thing: good food, miserable service. At least it was clean. But this time, it was dead in there - one guy at the bar and us. Off Center really needs to put in a bit more effort if they want to survive!