Spilled ketchup, a $100 shirt, and how to create loyal fans for your restaurant

Today I ate lunch with Shawn Wilfong, owner of two extremely popular, well-respected restaurants here in Charlotte (Mortimer’s and Leroy Fox). Shawn is going to be a part of our Restaurant Owners Uncorked video series, and having spent two hours with him today, I absolutely can’t wait to film him. He is one helluva sharp guy and it’s not surprising that his restaurants do so well.

He told me a story I will never forget. Recently a customer opened a glass ketchup bottle, and the bottle somehow shattered – a freak accident – and ketchup not only covered his shirt, but a little spat out onto each of the three other people sitting with him. Shawn was told about it, and hustled over to the table. He immediately told the table their meal was free. Then he looked at the people at the two tables nearby, all of whom were staring wide-eyed at the scene, and told them their meals would be free too because even though they had no ketchup on them, it was a big disruption to their meals and he wanted them to have a positive experience out of it. Then he gave his card to each of the people at the ketchup table and asked them to please email him their dry cleaning bills. And, finally, he asked the man who had been holding the bottle what size shirt dress shirt he wore (the man was wearing business attire and had by far gotten the most ketchup on him). Shawn got the size and ran across the street to a men’s clothing store, and promptly bought a $100 dress shirt and brought it to his customer, saying, “Sir, we can wipe that ketchup off, but you’ll be wet and I just can’t send you back to work like that. Here’s a new shirt for you.”

I LOVE that story because Shawn wasn’t satisfied with simply handling the situation with a free meal and an apology. No, you see, he knew that would still result in a neutral, if not slightly negative experience for those customers. Rather, he went out of his way to turn the episode into a very positive experience. I can just imagine how many times the customers involved have told people, glowingly, that story. I mean, heck, I bet that guy thinks about it every time he wears that shirt and has probably told that story countless times.

There’s customers, and then there’s fans. On that day, Shawn Wilfong turned potentially ex-customers into fans by simply putting himself into his customers shoes. It’s a great way to run a restaurant, and a great way to run any business. And as you’ll learn in the upcoming videos, he empowers his staff to make the same kinds of decisions he made that day.


Shawn and I both loved the book “Delivering Happiness” by Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh. It’s an awesome read and offers excellent advice on how to build a culture focused on creating “wow” experiences for your customers. Also, Shawn is a big fan of the book “Setting the Table” by Danny Meyer, and was kind enough to give me a copy. A lot of restaurant people rave about this book, but from the portion I’ve already read I can tell it’s very useful for anybody who cares about creating memorable customer experiences, no matter what type of business you are in.