Dressing debacle: Spill at Northern drenches diners

When I asked Ron Reeve how his lunch with a job candidate had gone, his answer startled me. "I had a pink shirt on, right?" He was now sporting a yellow shirt.

This was not a good sign.

Reeve and two colleagues from UVA's Curry School of Education had taken their guest to Northern Exposure on West Main Street, where everything was fine– until the waitress stumbled and spilled salad dressing all over them.

The good news is that the applicant, who was due to give a presentation after lunch, was spared. The bad news is that Reeve and his colleagues, Sandra Lopez-Baez and Xitao Fan, ended up with salad dressing on their clothes and in their hair. Fan, according to Reeve, even got it in the face.

While the honored guest dabbed at Lopez-Baez's hair and the others dabbed at their shirts, the waitress, according to Reeve, fetched towels and soda water and assured them that their cleaning bills would be taken care of. Reeve also claims she stated that she'd see what she could do about getting them free lunches, and left saying she'd check with the manager.

When she returned, however, Reeve claims she said, "I'm only authorized to offer you a free dessert," (which no one wanted).

Reeve took this statement to mean that the manager had not only nixed the idea of the free lunch, but wouldn't even cover the cleaning bills– and says he didn't push the issue because he felt sorry for the waitress and didn't want her to get into trouble.

But he wasn't happy. To avoid wearing a shirt covered with large, oily splatters, he went home and changed before returning to work. Fan had a jacket he could close over his spotted shirt, but he was self-conscious about smelling like salad dressing. Lopez-Baez, who couldn't easily make a trip home to change, comforted herself with the fact that because she was wearing navy blue, at least the stains didn't show.

I spoke with Northern Exposure manager Zachary Groseclose, who blamed miscommunication for the group's impression that the restaurant didn't intend to cover cleaning costs. I asked how that could be since all three agree that the waitress began by saying their cleaning bills would be covered, said she'd check with the manager, and returned to say that she was able to offer them only a free dessert.

His explanation was that waitresses "think for themselves." I asked whether he was suggesting that the waitress could have decided, on her own, not to pay for cleaning and to instead simply offer dessert on the house? Yes, he replied.

The longer we talked, however, the more he came to doubt that scenario. In fact, he stated, she had come back to the kitchen and said, "I spilled salad dressing on a table," and because he hadn't understood that she meant she had spilled it on the customers, not just the table, he had said to just offer them dessert. He "may have been busy" at the time, he explained, because in addition to his usual duties, he was also waiting on tables.

Groseclose says that if he'd realized the extent of the problem, he would have handled it differently, and declared that Northern Exposure will cover any and all cleaning bills. Furthermore, if the stains don't come out, the restaurant will pay replacement costs. Groseclose also called each of the three unlucky diners to apologize for the mishap.

Reeve had to wash his shirt twice, but the stains did come out. Lopez-Baez– whose clothes will definitely require dry cleaning– was pleased to know that the bill will be covered. As for dining again at Northern Exposure, however, she says she "has no desire" to return.

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