You know how much we love transparency. Since day one, with our blog “Behind Le Bar” documenting every step of the creation of Holybelly till now, sharing cover numbers and such, we just put it all out there. It might shock some but we think it’s the way to go. Good or bad, we feel there’s something to learn every step of the way.

Well it’s now 7:25pm after a busy Saturday. We just finished closing up. Everything is spotless and restocked, ready to go to battle all over again tomorrow. I received an email from Jennifer which object was the title of this post “Great food, but a strong point of critique”. Right there, you know it’s not gonna be good.

First of all, and regardless to what I’m going to develop further down, I want to thank Jennifer for emailing us directly instead of posting a gnarly comment on Yelp, Urban Spoon and the like. Not that I care much about our online rating, but I think it’s a much smarter way to help a business improve and tell them how you think they failed you. For that, I thank her.

Before going any further, here’s Jennifer email :

Dear Holybelly,

My friend and I came for the second time to your restaurant this morning. During our first visit, we had a good experience, but felt rushed through our food and rushed to leave. This time, recognising that Holybelly is extremely popular, we arrived at 10:00am in order to ensure a seat at your delicious table. We both ordered full breakfasts and truly enjoyed our meals. My sincere compliments to your chefs. The food is fresh and delicious.

While I do compliment the excellent food, a restaurant (at least for myself and I believe for you too from reading your website) is not only about great food—it’s about creating an environment where people can experience great food and experience friends/others. Your website reads, “Holybelly’s concept is simple….good service in a consistent fashion….we take pride in …the way we welcome you and look after you.” Unfortunately, today our treatment could not have been further from the hospitable attitude expressed on your website. At 11h my friend and I finished our meal. The (truly very pleasant) server took our plates and handed us the bill. We had not asked for the bill. We explained that we wanted to have a cup of tea before leaving. The server asked if we would like the tea to go and we explained that no, we would prefer to have the tea at the restaurant. At that point, the server went to get the team but came back and (very apologetically) asked us to leave and to order our tea to go because there were people outside waiting for a table.

I’m not sure if I can adequately emphasise in this email how rude this treatment was. May I also emphasise that I realise that this was not the server’s fault. The server was very polite and kind, but such politeness is completely meaningless if upper-management asks a customer to leave. While I recognise that each city has its own culture, in Paris, it is completely unacceptable to ask a customer to leave at all, let alone when the guest continues to place orders and has only been seated for one hour. Brunch in Paris generally lasts 2-hours. As an example, we left your restaurant and went around the block to an equally popular establishment where we continued to eat and drink and rack up a big bill for two hours—as did every other customer at the restaurant. We did not feel pressed. We did not feel like a commodity. We felt welcomed and enjoyed our food all the more. We will also continue to frequent that establishment and will sing its praise to our friends. I have worked in restaurants in the US and in Europe. I understand the monetary value of turning a table. I also understand the value of “regular” customers who recommend the restaurant to friends and friends of friends. I decided to write to you (rather than to simply post a poor review on yelp) because my sense was that your intentions were more naive to French culture than intentionally rude. I hope that you take this email as constructive feedback. Have a look at the best restaurants in Paris—the ones who have stayed popular for years upon years. There are always lines out the door, but people learn to wait or to arrive early. You will not win any regular customers (stable customers who actually live in Paris and continue to frequent Holybelly when the hype is over) by kicking people out.

Regards,

Jennifer

After an initial read, first feeling was sadness. Seriously, it always bugs me when I feel like we messed up someones experience at the Belly. We care so much about what we’re doing here and we put so much effort into it that when someone leaves unhappy I get this tight knot in my stomach, it sucks. Then I started thinking about this email and the points made by Jennifer, over and over again, as I was sweeping the bar and counting the till, I started thinking about why this happened and what we could do about it. To structure my answer, I’m gonna break down the email points by points and try to shine some light on the issue.

My friend and I came for the second time to your restaurant this morning. During our first visit, we had a good experience, but felt rushed through our food and rushed to leave. This time, recognising that Holybelly is extremely popular, we arrived at 10:00am in order to ensure a seat at your delicious table. We both ordered full breakfasts and truly enjoyed our meals. My sincere compliments to your chefs. The food is fresh and delicious.
So far so good, thanks for the nice words, I’ll make sure to pass it on to Sarah and Lise.

At 11h my friend and I finished our meal. The (truly very pleasant) server took our plates and handed us the bill. We had not asked for the bill. We explained that we wanted to have a cup of tea before leaving. The server asked if we would like the tea to go and we explained that no, we would prefer to have the tea at the restaurant. At that point, the server went to get the team but came back and (very apologetically) asked us to leave and to order our tea to go because there were people outside waiting for a table. I’m not sure if I can adequately emphasise in this email how rude this treatment was. May I also emphasise that I realise that this was not the server’s fault. The server was very polite and kind, but such politeness is completely meaningless if upper-management asks a customer to leave.
You’re absolutely right, it’s totally not the server’s fault. Actually, I was probably the one who told her that you guys needed to get your teas to go and there is a reason for that. We care about tea as much as we care about everything else we do, so we steep it just the right amount of time, at the right temperature so that it gets to your table the best tasting it can be. On average, a tea will steep for 3 to 5 minutes (3 for the green teas, 5 for the black and red teas) in hot water ranging from 70 to 95 degrees. It’s 11am on a Saturday a.k.a “the eye of the cyclone” at Holybelly. I’m buried under dockets, so is the kitchen, I’ve got 35 seats packed to the max, I probably have some people eating off the pinball machine too. As I’m making all of the drinks I’m also handling the door and giving approximate seating times to the 25+ people waiting outside in the cold, sometimes the rain. They’re pushing to get in, some of them have been waiting for 45 minutes already. At that precise moment your tea order comes in. Two teas. First I gotta do all the drinks before yours, that’s probably about 4/5 minutes. Then your tea will steep for 3 to 5 minutes, then it will get to your table, super hot, so you won’t drink it straight away. It’ll probably take 10 to 15 minutes to cool down to a drinkable temperature and then you’ll probably take another 20 minutes, at least, to drink it, one tiny sip after the other. So give or take, those two teas, between initial orders to you fixing up the bill and putting on your coat, represent about 40 to 45 minutes. During those 40 to 45 minutes I will be adding 10 other names to my list and announce 1h30 wait, which is ridiculous. So yeah, take away seems like a good solution, I meet you half way, you get your teas, I get my table, I can sit the next two, keep the line moving and everybody wins. And watch this, it’s not about the money. I swear it, I’m not rotating tables to make more cash. We do plenty already, much more than I ever thought we would. I’m not making your teas to go to rack up another 40 euros, I do it because I want to share the fun. My kitchen is open for 6 hours, I can seat 35 to 40 hungry peeps at a time and I want as many of them as possible to taste the goods. I’ll say it again, it’s not about the money. Don’t think it’s easy for me to send a waitress to your table asking you to get your drinks to go. It cost me, it bothers me, but I gotta do it because it bothers me just as much to tell James for the third time that his table will be ready soon, to hang in there, as he’s been waiting for 30 minutes already. The way I look at it I can’t win. The frustration I’ll save on one hand I’ll lose on the other. If you don’t get mad at me about the teas, James will about the waiting time. All we can do is try to find balance, we have to all work at it together so that we all get frustrated as little as possible.

While I recognise that each city has its own culture, in Paris, it is completely unacceptable to ask a customer to leave at all, let alone when the guest continues to place orders and has only been seated for one hour. Brunch in Paris generally lasts 2-hours.
I’m going to have to disagree with you on that one. The way I look at it, on the weekends at least, we’re here to do one thing and one thing only : feed you delicious food and coffee while giving you the best service possible and, based on your email it seems like we did just that. You said the food was good and the service pleasant. We’ve covered our part of the deal. What we cannot be and will never be for you, on weekends at least, is a place to hang out for two hours, sipping on tea as there is a line of hungry people waiting out there. Now, that just sounds plain selfish. You said you came in at 10 and finished eating at 11, yet you say brunch should be two hours long based on some rule you decided was right. What are you planning on doing with that extra hour? What am I supposed to tell the guy who’s been out there since 10 with his girlfriend? They’re here from Toronto, they’re excited about getting some breakfast and willing to wait, but I cannot possibly pancakes-block them for a whole hour while you’re sipping on an Earl Grey just so that you meet your two hours brunch quota. I can’t. I won’t. That’s not what we do, that’s not who we are and again, it’s not about money.

I understand the monetary value of turning a table. I also understand the value of “regular” customers who recommend the restaurant to friends and friends of friends. I decided to write to you (rather than to simply post a poor review on yelp) because my sense was that your intentions were more naive to French culture than intentionally rude. I hope that you take this email as constructive feedback. Have a look at the best restaurants in Paris—the ones who have stayed popular for years upon years. There are always lines out the door, but people learn to wait or to arrive early. You will not win any regular customers (stable customers who actually live in Paris and continue to frequent Holybelly when the hype is over) by kicking people out.
Holybelly is Sarah and I. We’re not some big corporation, we’re not a chain, we don’t even have external investors telling us what to do, it’s just us, 50/50. We’ve never advertised, we’ve never asked to be written about by any blogs, we’ve simply grown the business organically, doing what we thought was right, every step of the way and the result of that was that we got busy precisely because people liked it, told their friends, brought their parents and grand parents over for breakfasts, week after week, and that for almost a year. Some of our customers have been coming to the Belly every week, some nearly everyday since we first opened last year. We’re exactly what you think we aren’t. We’re a neighbourhood café where the staff knows most customer by their first name, where people bring their kids and to whom people send postcards while on holidays. We have nothing to do with hype. We put good food and good coffee on the table, 5 days a week and we treat you like you’re family. That’s true. I’d tell my mum to get her tea to go if I was flat out busy on a saturday and needed her table, and she’d probably understand, as do most of our customers. That’s what got us busy, good food, good coffee and good service, consistently. The place does not fill up from 10am because of my tattoos or Marie’s yellow fixie locked out the front, it fills up because it’s good and that’s not going anywhere.

In the end, Jennifer, I think we were just not meant for each other. I think we’re only guilty of not being the place you thought we were. We’re a place where sharing is caring and where people are happy to leave their table to the couple who’s going to seat after them because they know what they are about to experience as they just experienced it themselves, even if it means they’re gonna have to get their teas to go. We’re the anti-thesis of a tea salon. One doesn’t come here to linger for hours (or two, to be precise) one comes here to fill ones belly to the top with some delicious food, wash it down with a tasty brew, surrounded by loud music and rushing friendly staff and be on ones way. That’s us and I’m afraid that’s a “take it or leave it” kind of deal.

We might be wrong, maybe we should take bookings, become boring, turn the music down and make sure not to hurt anyones feeling by politely asking them to have their drinks to go so that other people can have breakfast. Maybe it will bite us in the ass, the line will get thiner, the cash-flow will run low and we’ll have to call it a day. Maybe. But during that time we would have had one hell of a time, working our asses off and running the show just the way we wanted. We are extremely thankful to our customers who are willing to wait longer for a table than I ever will, and squeeze between a couple of strangers to eat our food. We said it many times on this blog or on our Instragram. This isn’t cockiness, we care, we respect and appreciate you and the love you’re showing for our business, but we aren’t desperate. We will not bastardise our philosophy to please, as eventually, you can’t please everyone. If one day you guys are tired of us, we’ll pack up and go travel, have a couple of kids with lazy eyes, start over again, because in the end, we’re just here to live our life the way we intend to, do what we love and do it the way we like.