Failing Admirably

We were visiting my daughter and son-in-law in Palo Alto and wanted to celebrate life by going to their favorite restaurant, the Flea St. Café, in Menlo Park. We had a wonderful meal and wanted to top it off with dessert.

Everything at this establishment is made with in-season local ingredients. We ordered blackberry pie, blueberry panna cotta, and angel food cake with fresh strawberries to share. The menu said that the angel food cake had the herb thyme in it, which seemed absurd, but my wife wanted angel food cake so we ordered it. The waiter had actually tried to steer us away from that selection but we thought it was because it seemed like a boring choice for such a topnotch eatery.

The cake was terrible with the bitter herb killing the normally benign flavor of the fluffy white dessert. But after finishing every last crumb of a wonderful meal, except the angel food cake, it struck me that this restaurant was good enough and confident enough to do something ridiculous like put thyme in their angel food cake. I can gladly forgive them for the miss because they tried for a home run where anybody else would settle for a single. The restaurant excelled because the proprietor would not settle for nice.

I remember a restaurant owner telling me the worst answer from a patron to the question, “how was your meal?” was, “it was fine.” “Fine” to a good manager means the meal was “forgettable” and “I’m looking for someplace better.”

What I will remember from the Flea St. Café is that I had a great meal. I can heartily recommend it partly because they took a chance on the thyme and struck out.

There is a lesson for us even in the land of machinery and perfect parts. If your product is outstanding and you occasionally overreach or goof up, the customer will tolerate it, maybe even laugh about the fact that you spilled the soup. But if you are just okay and screw up on the hamburger, he will start looking for an alternative. Creativity is a virtue even if it fails, when the core product is outstanding.

Question: Please share a story about a failure of yours or someone else’s that for good reasons or bad, is unforgettable to you.

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