Sunday, December 29, 2013

Wal-Mart only Volunteers on Scanning Code of Practice if you Ask

After the fiasco at McDonald's at Wal-Mart, my wife and I ventured into the Wal-Mart store to do our grocery shopping.  Following grocery shopping, I thought we would investigate to see if there were Rubbermaid Roughneck Bins on sale for our basement storage area.

We checked the housewares home storage department and came up empty. No Wal-Mart standard issued bright coloured shiny tickets showing the old price and the new price for this week in the aisle.  Just regular priced tickets and an oversupply of bins in the aisle.  Dejectedly we wheeled our cart down the front aisle towards the cash.

But, passing one of the two large front entrances, a funny thing appeared.

Rubbermaid 64 Liter Bins for $5.00 at Wal-Mart Trainyards

I guess the Wal-Mart manager of housewares missed having his area reticketed to advertise the 64 Litre Rubbermaid bin being on sale.   Just to be sure this was the correct price, I checked the opposite side of the sign.

Rubbermaid 64 Liter Bins for $5.00 at Wal-Mart Trainyards

Sure enough, $5 on that side as well.  The Wal-Mart associate putting up the sign at least was consistent.

I grabbed two each of the Rubbermaid bins and tops and headed for the cash along with our groceries.  We sped through the cash register and checked our receipt.  Sure enough, the price scanned incorrectly at $5.88 plus tax.  I walked back and took the two above photos and headed to customer service.

We approached the counter as two Wal-Mart associates were working the counter with no one in line.  One was "Joyce" and the other didn't have a the standard issue name tag on but did have the blue Wal-Mart vest.
We explained to Joyce the $5 and $5.88 price discrepancy and showed her the pictures on my phone of both sides.  Joyce asked if the price applied to different colours and perhaps the grey bins were on for $5?  I  replied that there was no indication the blue or the grey were different prices and both were at the front entrance.  I also explained I took the two photos as previously when there was a similar price discrepancy on an item and we attended customer service it took repeated paging to double check the shelf price before moving forward.

Fortunately, the coworker looked over and said we were right.  The bins were listed as $5.  We had a feeling the coworker would know as she has worked in the front either on the cash area, next section over from the front entrance or scheduled cashiers for shifts.

Joyce scanned one of the bins and brought up the price paid and refunded the amount on the register. She then put through a $5.20 amount for the bins.  She realized her error but had to call a Customer Service Manager (CSM) for an override to correct it.

Next Joyce put through the refund on both bins again and rang in $5.00 price two times to charge us $10 plus tax for the bins.  She brought up the $1.99 refund.

I looked at her incredulously and inquired if this was not a "Scanning Code of Practice" issue as the price was clearly marked at least two times on the display at $5.00 and the store wanted to charge us $5.88 for the product.

Joyce replied that the store only offers the "Scanning Code of Practice" when the customer requests it.  If the customer does not request it the store charges the lower corrected price.  She said she would allows us to put this transaction under the Scanning Code of Practice this time.  Further, She said she had to contact the Customer Service Manager again to override the price.

When the Customer Service Manager came by to override the price for Joyce, I inquired about what Joyce said. The Customer Service Manager confirmed that Joyce was correct that the customer has to ask about the "Scanning Code of Conduct" otherwise the price posted would be given instead of the price scanned.

We gathered our refund and returned home.

I dug around later that day on the Internet and came up with full regulations as per the Government of Canada's Competition Bureau. 

The regulation states that if an item is priced on the shelf for less than $10 and scans in at a higher price at the cash register, the customer should get the first item for free and any others at the shelf price.

After digging around and more shopping to do in the same Train Yards plaza as the Wal-mart, my wife and I revisited the Wal-Mart store.

First and second stops were the two entrances from the main parking lot customers use to access the store.  I was looking for adherence to this stipulation in the Scanning Code of Practice in the section "Retailer Responsibilities":

Retailers will display the sign... at all store entrances or in a conspicuous location near the store entrances. 

No sign of these signs at either entrance even though I was blatantly looking for them.

I investigated the cash registers and found these that adhere to the code under "Retailer Responsibilities":

Scanning Code of Practice notice at Wal-Mart Trainyards Cash Register

I did a quick scan of all the cash registers to find everyone I checked had it under a piece of plexi glass just to right of the debit machines, where customers normally use to sign receipts for purchases or rest their purses in search of money to hand to the cashier.

Further, on in the Scanning Code of Practice are some interesting clauses that need to be reviewed by both Joyce, the Customer Service Manager and the Wal-mart Trainyards Team:

Under Section 2 of the Scanning Code of Practice it reads:

Once a scanner pricing error is brought to the attention of the retailer, appropriate steps should be taken as quickly as possible to correct the source of the error.

In our case, Joyce, the Customer Service Manager and the store manager didn't want to work as "quickly as possible to correct the source of the error" which was the posted price on the large red and yellow signs above the product at one of the main entrances.  In fact, 24 hours later I stopped by the same Wal-Mart store to find the bins still posted at the same price, $5.00

Under Seciton 3 of the Scanning Code of Practice it reads:

 Retailers will apply the Code, both in letter and in spirit.

If this is the case, why did Joyce and the Customer Service Manager believe that giving the ticketed price instead of the scanned price be satisfactory? The Scanning Code of Practice in section 1 clearly states that if an item, like the $5 posted price for the Rubbermaid bin, scans at a price higher the customer is to get it for free. Thus, Joyce and the Customer Service Manager acting on behalf of the retailer (i.e. Wal-Mart) failed to apply the Code in both letter and in spirit.

Also Under Section 3 it reads: 

Retailers will establish appropriate internal policies and procedures for maintaining a high level of scanner price accuracy.

In this past year, my wife and I have scanned our receipts repeatedly to find issues with pricing accuracy where the scanned price is not the same as the shelf price.  We have been given items correctly for free under the Scanning Code of Practice at the same customer service counter where Joyce was.  Everything from potato chips, bread to grapes.  This store obviously needs to either establish or rework the appropriate internal policies and procedures to maintenance of a high level of scanner price accuracy.

With the above noted, the following is laughable at the Wal-Mart at the Trainyards plaza:

When a scanner price error occurs, the cashier will be authorized to implement the Item Free Scanner Policy.

A customer dissatisfied with the cashier's decision will be directed to the store manager or supervisor.

We have tried to point out issues to cashiers previously at this Wal-Mart location only to be asked to speak to customer service.  Apparently, in contravention to the Scanning Code of Practice clause above, Cashiers do not have the authority to implement the "Item Free Scanner Policy" despite it being clearly posted at all the stores cash registers.  

The second clause above is even more hilarious considering the Customer Service Manager would not agree that the customer should be given the provisions under the "Scanning Code of Practice" when their cashier or customer service associate has been notified thus violating the idea of  applying "the Code, both in letter and in spirit."

With the above noted, I attempted to contact Wal-Mart Head Office Customer Service while leaving the store's customer service counter at the posted phone number of 1-800-328-0402. Disturbingly after working through all the prompts of the automated phone system I was dumped into a voicemail box that didn't have any room on it.  At least I can not say I didn't try to alert head office that something illegal was going on in one of their stores.

In the end, the Wal-Mart at the Ottawa Train Yards needs to review the Scanning Code of Practice with all store staff and management from top down.  They need to better review after stocking the shelves or setting up new displays that items are scanning correctly in the system.  As well, the store needs to implement a price auditing system where departments are scanning to ensure products within their purview are scanning correctly.  This is my only request right now on this issue and, sadly, hopefully Wal-Mart will only do this voluntarily after I ask. 

False Advertising Ripoff at McDonald's

McDonald's on UrbanspoonUpon returning home after a Christmas trip to Aurora, we found some McDonald's coupons for discounts on breakfast and burger options.  With grocery shopping to be done and nothing for breakfast at our house this was a perfect opportunity to retry the McDonalds in Wal-mart (450 Terminal Avenue, Ottawa) after not being impressed with this location on previous visits.

We arrived to the McDonald's location at 10:20ish to be second in line to order.  This McDonald's had been renovated and upgraded to the new corporate McCafe look after a six week shutdown during this past summer of 2013.  Hopefully service and cleanliness would improve as well with the newly revamped restaurant.

McDonald's 2 Can Dine for $6.48 Breakfast Coupon
We reached the front of the line and I pointed out the promotional coupon to the supervisor that was serving us for the promotion of 2 can dine for $6.48.  My wife ordered her part as I seperated out the coupon along the perforated lines from it's brethren and handed it to the supervisor.

The Order: 1 Egg & Sausage McMuffin with Hashbrown and Large Green Tea plus 1 Sausage McMuffin with a hashbrown and small coffee.

The only difference between the coupon and what was ordered was a Large Medium Green Tea for my wife.  This doesn't change the price of the items ordered as any tea, whether small, medium or large is the same price and actually is cheaper than a small coffee.

The supervisor printed our receipt and placed it on the counter to the left of the cash register.  The kitchen employee took a little while to prepare the McMuffin sandwiches, hashbrowns and drinks.  He came out, put out a tray and placed everything on the counter on the right side of the cash register.  The only problem? He had forgot the coffee.  He doubled back to get it after pointing this out.  While he was fulfilling the order with the missing coffee, I retrieved the receipt from the opposite side of the cash register and put it on the tray.  The coffee followed and I was off to find a table.

The cleanliness had not improved.  My wife and I searched a couple of spots that were still greasy and/or salty from the previous days french fries or that mornings breakfast.  There appeared to be only two employees working that morning at the McDonald's, the supervisor and the kitchen guy who served us.  Nobody was apparently available with a cloth to wipe the tables.

Add to that Wal-mart customers with full grocery carts littering the aisles.  A fire hazard if there was one as some of the carts blocked the entire space between the tables.

We did fine a table that required a moderate use of a napkin to expunge the detritus.  Upon sitting down and distributing the food to my wife and myself spots at the table I reviewed the receipt.  I saw that each meal was separated out into sandwich, hashbrown and drink.  This is normal for McDonald's receipts so nothing fishy so far.  The first thing that caught my eye was the price of $3.29 repeated twice.  A rough mental calculation alerted me.  I scanned down the receipt to the sub total before taxes $6.58.

Was the coupon not "2 Can Dine for $6.48" plus tax?  Yes, so why was it $6.58 sub totaled?  I thought about going back to the cash to inquire about being overcharged. But there was a line up of three customers deep with the supervisor serving them.  Considering it was the same supervisor who rang it up, I would probably be told it was a cash register issue or a coupon misprint by corporate. In other words I was most likely to get every excuse under the sun instead of a rightfully required refund from this McDonald's.

We ate our meal in peace knowing that at least it was only $0.10.

The two McMuffin sandwhichs were adequate in temperature but a little greasier than normal.

The hashbrowns were unexpectedly hot but tasty.

Overall, this McDonald's may have had a renovation, but it's like putting a lipstick on a pig in the restaurant industry.  The insides may look different but the same old issues of service and cleanliness remain.  On top of that this location has added the dubious issue of not properly honouring coupons correctly as set out by corporate. Beware this location for coupon value, it turns McDonald's coupons into false advertising ripoffs.

Update: McDonald's management responds plus I return, see the full story here.




Saturday, December 28, 2013

Getting Tim Hortons On Route through Trenton

Tim Hortons on UrbanspoonOn the return trip to Ottawa from Aurora after the holidays, my wife and I stopped off just west of Trenton, Ontario at Highway 401 ONroute Service Centre to have lunch at the Tim Hortons (17277 Highway 401 Eastbound, Trenton).

Visiting the "Trenton South" ONroute Service Centre on Boxing Day was a mistake.

The first clue was the parking lot was overflowing with cars circling.  Good thing we lucked out in the first row we selected one care was exiting as we were two spots away.  SWEET!

Second clue was inside.  The A&W had two ques, one in front of the cash registers and the second across an aisle near the seating area to hold the number of customers.  My wife and I ventured towards the Tim Hortons to find three lines also full.  We then went over to the table area to investigate what the chances were of obtaining a table.  Not good but at least passable if we were patient enough to swoop in at the right moment as someone was about to get up.  We missed the first empty table but not the second.

I ventured over to Tim Hortons and left my wife at the table by the window overlooking the awesome view of the Canadian Tire gas bar.

The Tim Hortons line ups were interesting.  Instead of the usual single line for all cash registers at other Tim Hortons locations, there were individual line ups up for each guarded by the ever friendly customer herding favourite, flexi tape pole system.  I advanced slowly as there were five customers in front including the guy at the counter.  I was hoping there was not someone in front of me who either couldn't figure out what they wanted or wanted to order 2 dozen worth of donuts.  There is nothing more maddening to a Canadian waiting in a Tim Hortons line than either of these two situations.

Eventually after what seemed like hours, perhaps 15 minutes, I was next to order.

The Order: 1 Chili Combo with Whole Grain bun, a Raisin Tea Biscuit and Medium Green Tea and 1 Chili Combo with White bun, a Boston Cream Donut and a Medium Black Coffee.

Tim Hortons Medium Black Coffee

The food came fast both at the cash where the donut, raisin tea biscuit, tea and coffee were provided. Over a the bakery area our number was called the chili combos came out.  This area was well staffed with what appeared to be a manager and three employees moving orders along.   The only thing service wise this location could use is one additional cash in order to reduce the line lengths.  But this being a newly refurbished service centre, an expansion is unlikely.

The chili was delicious and the right consistency and temperature.  The buns were the standard issue Tim Hortons buns that come with chili combos.

The coffee was the same black coffee found at almost any Tim Hortons location in Canada that is following corporate policy.

The only fun part was leaving.  We gathered our leftover garbage and winter clothing.  Before leaving the table it was dove upon by a family of three seeking refuge from the masses with their A&W meal.

Overall, sure the ONroute Service Centre was busy with holiday travellers looking forward to either returning home or going to visit someone.  Our Tim Hortons meal was standard fare and the staff seemed to be dealing with the rush well.  The only complaint, it seemed there was not enough seating in the food court style area for customers to sit.  In order to fully see if this is true, a return visit during a more standard day would be in order. Otherwise it is not a bad spot to find a quick lunch and hit the road again to wherever life takes you.

Homecoming to Jonathan's Restaurant

Jonathan's Restaurant on UrbanspoonThis past week saw my wife and I return to my parent's place in Aurora for Christmas. We requested one thing when we returned, could we get some quality Greek food at Jonathan's Restaurant (14845 Yonge Street, Aurora)?  Sure thing!

We arrived at 6 P.M. on Christmas Eve to find the restaurant pretty full and tables rearranged in preparation for the Christmas Day lunch for those who may need it in coordination with the local Salvation Army.

We were seated promptly after arriving by our waitress as the hostess was assisting some other customers check out using the credit card machine.

Jonathan's interior is a nicely decorated Mediterranean themed restaurant with hardwood tables and leather parson's chairs.  The paint work, lighting and decorations seem to change on a yearly basis or to fit the time of season (e.g. Christmas, Easter, etc.)..

The waitress who sat us returned after a short while of giving us our menus to take our order.

The Order: 1 Pork Souvlaki Dinner with Rice and 1 Grilled Chicken club with fries.

Our order was out in less than fifteen minutes.  The usual Jonathan's service experience, food comes quick and still warm.

The Pork Souvlaki dinner was a little different than when were at Jonathan's a little over a year ago. The salad now comes on a side dish served before the dinner as opposed to on the same plate.  This was pretty good as the portion size seemed bigger than before.  But this leaves the Pork Souvlaki skewers and the rice on the same plate as before looking a little less optically even though there was probably the same amount as before.  This is really a toss up situation for the restaurant.  Add more variety of options of when a customer consumes the salad by having a separate dish.

Taste wise the Pork Souvlaki was the same as before, not overcooked yet tender. With a little tzatziki sauce added it is perfect for some Greek eating.  The rice alongside is also slightly lemon flavoured and still moist.  Perfect Greek souvlaki meal my wife was looking for.

The Grilled Chicken club sandwich was a bit of change.  Instead of being served on a kaiser bun, it had been changed to a pita.  I'm not sure if this was a cost thing or if the chef had suggested changing things up to a pita.  Nonetheless the Grilled Chicken club was how I remembered it.  Fresh grilled chicken breast with lettuce and tomato sandwiched together with the pita this time with the side of Jonathan's fries.

The fries were straight up regular fries Jonathan's has had for years.  No changes there either.  Not great over the top fries, but not terrible soggy either, just reliable standard fries.

Jonathan's during the Holiday Season

Overall, Jonathan's restaurant is a decent place for a dinner out.  Good respectable service with knowledgeable wait staff accompanied by good wholesome food that the kitchen has mastered.  Also, this restaurant loves to give back to the community.  The next day, Christmas Day, they open for lunch to those less fortunate with referral from the Salvation Army.  Locals also come to sing Christmas carols and entertain while the restaurant utilizes volunteers to serve the food and hand out donated items.   A true hometown family run community oriented restaurant Aurora is proud of.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Ministry of Coffee

The Ministry of Coffee on UrbanspoonFound myself downtown today for a few things and decided to venture down Elgin Street to check out The Ministry of Coffee (279 Elgin Street, Ottawa) which I had heard rave reviews about.

Located just south of Somerset Street in the same building as the Fox & Feather pub, the Ministry of Coffee is a small coffee shop with decent amount of seating in the front and a small counter in the back serving all types of coffee.  You want an Americano? they have that, you want a cappuccino? They have that.  Want a boring old black coffee?  They have that too.

I visited shortly after 12 Noon to a couple of tables enjoying their coffee and one person being served at the counter.

I normally do not like anything extravagant coffee wise.  So no Americappucino stirred over flame with hot or cool whip drizzled in some chemical chocolate for me thank you very much.  Just simple coffee will do.

I was next and placed my order.

The Order: 1 Medium black coffee.

The guy behind the counter looked at me quizzically and asked if I wanted an "Americano".

Um...no... I double checked the menu above his head and said I wanted a regular Medium black "drip" coffee.

The guy ventured over, poured a cup and I was off to complete a short walk over the nearby Corktown Bridge to the University of Ottawa. A quick tip, the Corktown Bridge is a great tourist walk to get a great view of the not only the University on the east side, but the Rideau Canal, Parliament Hill, Chateau Laurier and more.  As well this is Ottawa's edition of "Lover's Locks" where people attach padlocks to the bridge with names written or engraved on it of two people supposedly in love.  

The medium coffee? Was a bit smaller than it's Tim Hortons' brethren.  At $2.10, it's also more expensive than a medium from Bridgehead ($2.00), Tim Hortons ($1.60) and Second Cup ($2.05).  Taste wise, the Ministry of Coffee's Medium was superior.  A nice tasting coffee that was slightly stronger than a Tim Hortons, but not too strong like a traditional Starbucks blend.   Not bad for a coffee shop.

Overall, the Ministry of Coffee is a great addition to the Ottawa scene.  There are a plethora of tea shops scattered around Ottawa with every type of tea of imaginable.  The Ministry of Coffee appears to be now trying to do this with coffee.  Thus, a slight premium price may be in order on the average cup of coffee compared to it's competitors.  But, for it to survive, it needs to ensure the price gap does not get to large.  If so, I believe The Ministry will lose the average coffee drinker like myself.  Hopefully, with continued operations of serving a superb cup of coffee, the Ministry will spread and I for one could get used to this type of religion.


Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Wife is Looking for More after Vetta Osteria

Vetta Osteria on Urbanspoon The following is my wife's review of Vetta Osteria (199 Bank Street, Ottawa) for a lunch with her colleagues from work:

We arrived at 1 P.M. for our reservation at Vetta Osteria.  The restaurant was already full for the lunch time crowd.  The restaurant itself was not spacious but not small either.  The front entrance would have trouble handling any more than two people to be seated.  If there were several tables waiting to be seated due to a backlog, the line up of customers would be getting acquainted with the snow outside on the sidewalk.

Luckily we were shown to table promptly probably because of our reservation.  The tables and chairs are basic wooden table and chairs with modern globe lights hanging from ceiling.

A chalk board for specials made an appearance.  But the only specials were for the dinner crowd later that day.  The specials should be reviewed as there was a sizable lunch crowd that probably would have taken advantage of something whipped up by the resident chef.

The group of eight was sat and given menus.  We were shortly welcomed later by our server and placed our order.

The Order:
Appetizer:  CALAMARI FRITTI (Marinated in buttermilk, lightly dusted with flour and quick fried. Served with our house cocktail sauce and roasted garlic ranch dressing.)

Main Dish: PENNE OSTERIA (Short-tubed pasta with sausage, pepperoncini, bell peppers, onions and mushrooms).

The Calamari Fritti arrived  a respectable seven minutes after ordering. For an appetizer, it had a decent quantity.  Visually it was well laid out.  Taste wise it was satisfactorily crispy enough but nothing over the top.  The calamari was accompanied by two different kind of dipping sauces: a cocktail sauce and a roasted garlic ranch dressing which was nice depending on each person taste who might be sharing this dish.

Between food dishes I noticed it took a while for the wait staff to refill the complimentary water glasses at our table.  Not sure if this was because the restaurant was busy for lunch or whether they wanted to encourage us to order other drinks from the menu.

The Penne Osteria was nicely prepared and looked good presentation wise.  Sadly, the quantity was not there. A main dish is supposed to be the "main" eating component.  The Penne dish was lacklustre in this department as the bowl it was served in made the pasta look like it was cowering in the bottom.  With a $16.00 plus taxes price tag, it is a let down.

Overall, Vetta Osteria uses quality ingredients to make a great tasting meal.  But if you are looking for quantity this place is not for you.  Others at my table were enjoying a thing crust pizza that also looked high on the quality ingredients, but the crust was so thin, a lined piece paper could compete for thiness. This restaurant is a decent place to celebrate or treat yourself but not for everyday lunch as the prices are high for not that much food.  In the end you will probably end up walking away looking for more food than what was provided.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Not a Fan of Bread & Sons Cold Pizza

Bread and Sons on Urbanspoon
Today I ventured downtown to check out Bread & Sons Bakery (195 Bank Street, Ottawa).  It was hard to find the store as the front sign, for whatever reason, was not there.  I walked past the store first, then realized I passed by the address number, 195, and walked back.  But peering through the window I could see a bakery inside and decided this must be the place.

Upon entering, along the left wall are shelving for delicious breads, cookies, sandwiches and pizza.  Straight ahead was the counter where the employees of Bread & Sons would ring up your purchase.  On the right hand side was a little counter seating area.  The seating area also was contained to two sets of tables and chairs in the front window overlooking the Bank Street sidewalk.  So if you come in looking to sit down during a busy time, you will definitely be disappointed.

I had visited Bread & Sons looking for a slice of pizza to try.  The claim to fame of this store is it is freshly made each day with fresh ingredients and tastes outstanding. It was time to put this to the test.

On the shelves on the left hand side of the store were several choices of pizza to choose from self serve style.  I spied six different types of pizza with five labelled.  The only one not labelled still had all it's slices and looked the freshest.  The slices, pre cut to about a quarter of the pizza in size, were a little difficult around the crust as the cut wasn't all the way through.  I finagled my way through this issue using the pizza lifter and extracted the slice onto the cardboard slice holder.

The Order: 1 unknown Pizza slice that had cheese, tomato sauce and some kind of vegetable.

I approached the counter and paid for the slice, $4.25 including tax.

I had avoided buying a drink as all that seemed to be on offer was coffee and tea.  These type of drinks might be fine for their other foods like cookies and breads but with pizza it seemed off.  I stood at the side counter looking at the Ottawa Magazine review from 2012 about the place and other thank you notes from customers.

The pizza slice was.....COLD.... really? How could the pizza slice be cold?  I reviewed where it was sitting on the shelf.  When I was extracting it from the pan I thought they might have been under heat lamps.  I was wrong.

The tomato sauce tasted satisfactory like it had been hand made.  The cheese tasted fresh as well.  But the fact that pizza slice was cold and no offer to warm it up by the person behind the counter seemed a little off. Sure she inquired if I would like a bag for it to go and I politely declined and said I would eat it there.  There was plenty of opportunity to ask if I wanted my slice warmed in the oven a little bit.

Overall, I was not too impressed with the cold pizza slice for $4.25.  Add to this, there was no obvious drink like pop or juice to go with the pizza slice and it was let down.  Perhaps this was an off day for Bread & Sons Bakery in the pizza department.  With all the other rave reviews in both Ottawa Magazine and on Urbanspoon.com about the pizza, I certainly hope so.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

A Free Coffee at the Cupcake Lounge

Cupcake Lounge on UrbanspoonThis afternoon, while downtown, I thought I would use a coupon for a free cup of coffee with the purchase of a cupcake at The Cupcake Lounge (6 Byward Market Square, Ottawa).

I walked down to the small store next to Zak's Diner but just short of Clarence Street on Byward Market Square and entered.

Inside is a small storefront with two tables in the window for consuming your favourite beverage and your cupcake of choice.  Behind the counter is where the magic happens where two employees make the cupcakes by hand and sell them there.  From their website they sell both individually to walk in customers like myself to big corporate functions and weddings.

I waited for a lady in front of me to finish ordering.  Sure there were two employees, but one was putting the finishing touches on the icing of another chocolate cupcake while the first was cashing out the customer in front.  No problem there as there was not that many customers in line.  Less than a minute and I was next.

I walked up and handed the coupon to the lady behind the counter and ordered.

The Order: 1 Chocolate Chocolate Cupcake and 1 Small Swiss Brewed Coffee.

Waited two minutes while the employee first got the coffee brewing in the espresso type machine.  She then grabbed a pair of tongs, took a cupcake from the front display, deposited into a paper bag and labelled it.

The Cupcake Lounge Cupcake bag

The coffee was brought forward from the espresso like machine and handed to me along with the cupcake.

I sipped the coffee as I made my way through the Byward Market on my way.  The Coffee  kind of plain really and nothing special.   Not sure why it was "Swiss brewed" as it tasted like any other coffee I could obtain at an independent coffee shop.  Size wise, it was the same as a Tim Hortons small.

Cupcake Lounge Small Swiss Brewed Coffee

The Chocolate Chocolate Cupcake was interesting.  After unwrapping it and taking a bite it was interesting.  Sure the icing was delicious but not as good as the one I had at the Nutty Greek Bake Shop.  The chocolate was not rich creamy tasting like I expected, but a little sugary tasting.  Interesting gourmet take on the frosting but not the best I have ever had.  The chocolate cake bottom was not any better than a home made one. In fact the chocolate bottom was a little drier and tasted like it had been in store for a little bit.

Cupcake Lounge Chocolate Chocolate Cupcake

 Overall, the Cupcake Lounge needs some assistance.  Using the word "lounge" in the name is a misnomer.  The words "Cupcake" and "Lounge" together makes me think of a dessert place with comfy chairs accompanied by delicious cupcakes with gourmet tea or coffee. Instead at the real Cupcake Lounge is a small storefront with two cafe style chaired tables in the front of the window with Cupcakes priced at $3.45 (including taxes) and mediocre coffee claimed to be "Swiss Brewed".  For probably $5.00 for the coffee and Cupcake I could easily go elsewhere.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Steak a Spot at The Keg

The Keg Steakhouse & Bar on UrbanspoonWith a gift card obtaining a remaining balance and a beautiful wife on a fabulous Friday evening, we headed off downtown to the Byward Market to enjoy some steak at The Keg Steakhouse & Bar (75 York Street, Ottawa).

We arrived at 5 P.M. and opened the first set of double doors to enter.  The second was held open by one of the female employees with black dress and smile on her face.  She welcomed us to The Keg and we moved to the Maitre D' stand where we were welcomed again and asked to follow yet another lady in a black dress.  Upstairs to the second floor we went and were showed a table.  Hmmm....my wife, for whatever reason wished to sit in a booth further back. No problem with the lady in the little black dress, we were sat and politely handed menus.

We perused the menus and two minutes later Emily, our waitress, showed up dressed in white collared shirt, black tie and a smile on her face.

Emily inquired if we had been to The Keg before?  Apparently, Emily is not a reader of my blog because I've been to The Keg before, just  not recently.  She asked if we wanted a quick tour of the menu.  With Emily barely containing her excitement, "No" was not an option.  Thus, before I could say the "s" in "yes", Emily was on her way explaining every little detail.

After Emily was done, we placed our order:

The Order: 1 Medium Rare Top Sirloin Dinner with Caesar Salad, vegetables, sauteed mushrooms and 1 Baked potato with sour cream and bacon bits. 1 Medium Rare Teriyaki Classic Top Sirloin dinner with Wedge Salad, vegetables, sauteed mushrooms and rice.

Two minutes later, freshly baked bread and butter were there.  A little more on this later.

Five minutes later our salads were in front of us and Emily was inquiring if we would like some ground pepper on them.  She ground a little pepper onto my wife's wedge salad and disappeared.

The Caesar salad was excellent.  Not too much creamy dressing, but not skimping on it either.  The cheese bits along with the bacon bits added more flavour to present a solid Caesar salad offering.

The Wedge salad was also delicious.  My wife worked he way through the lettuce wedge and added toppings.

Fifteen minutes after ordering the main dishes arrived.

The Top Sirloin was grilled to perfection.  Nice colour on the outside yet a little pink and juicy on the inside. Bite after bite.

The baked potato came out nice looking as well split in half doused in sour cream and chives.  Under the sour cream a little melted butter.  The potato itself was not overcooked and slightly moist from the melted butter.  Mix in a little of the sour cream and you have a baked potato almost as good as what Mom would make at home.

The vegetables appear to be boiled and average.  Nothing special but nothing terrible about this either.  The sauteed mushrooms, yes, nothing special and nothing terrible either.

The Teriyaki Sirloin, also excellent.  My wife let me have a few bites to test out the difference between the regular grilled Top Sirloin and the Teriyaki Sirloin.  The only different, gratefully, is the teriyaki taste.  Same grilling perfection but just a Teriyaki rub added and allowed to infiltrate while grilling.

During our meal, both before, during and after, there was baked bread and butter.  The first loaf brought out two minutes after ordering was excellent.  The outside crust slightly crispy but the inside still slightly moist and warm like it was right out of the oven.  The second loaf, brought just before the steak dishes hit the table, a little troublesome.  The outside crust was rock hard but the inside was only satisfactory.  So the bread loafs seem a little hit and miss.

Emily cleared our plates after we were finished, disappeared and then did a sneak attack with the dessert menu.  She flies by, quietly slides the dessert menu onto the table and keeps going.  Three minutes later she returns to inquire if we would like dessert, coffee or tea.  We politely decline and ask for the bill.

Emily returns with a smile and the bill. We drop the gift card and have her deduct it from the total and pay the rest in cash.  She offers change but we decline.  Emily responds with a big thank you like she won the lottery as we leave.

An observation while leaving through the front door.  There were four ladies at the front looking to seat customers plus two additional ladies in black dresses more than willing to open the door for customers to come ago. Not sure why this is required, is it because customers will not attend if they have to open the doors themselves?

Overall, The Keg lives up to the steakhouse expectations in terms of food and quality service.  Quick seating after arriving, warm welcome and service by our waitress along with quality steaks.  Sure the prices are higher than other restaurants but with food well prepared and excellent service it is worth it.


Saturday, December 07, 2013

St. Laurent the Husky at Tim Hortons

Tim Hortons on UrbanspoonFollowing my not very filling meal at Burger King, I decided to walk my way across the parking lot to the Tim Hortons (1802 St. Laurent Boulevard, Ottawa).  I entered to join the line behind some workers dressed in neon orange jump suits covered in saw dust, yes, tree removal workers. Waited in line for three minutes and was served by the manager.

The Order: 1 Boston Cream donut and 1 Medium Black Coffee.

The manager quickly got the Boston Cream and two seconds later was followed by a cup of coffee.  So good so far.

I scanned the small location for a seat.  There were dishes here and there on some tables with the usual accompanying crumbs.  A little extra attention to detail on removing the dishes and cleaning the crumbs could be called upon.  But nothing overly dirty that an extra pair of hands could not resolve.

 A little further, I found a table to sit down, enjoy my snack and read the paper.

The Boston Cream Donut was the average run of the mill nothing special Tim Horton's now provides it's customers.  Nothing special.

The coffee was the usual good tasting coffee made to corporate specifications without any unusual added sweetness I've had at other locations.

So far nothing special about this Tim Hortons visit until I looked up across the aisle towards the windows.

Across the aisle was a man enjoying his lunch.  Nothing special, until you see what was sitting on the floor next to him.  An average size large husky.   I did a double take, could there be a large long haired husky inside a food establishment?  Yes, there was.  Was the gentleman needing a dog to assist him?  No, he appeared ready and able to take care of himself and the dog seem to be working as it had a regular leash on it instead of the full body training harness.

Was management of this location able to see said dog?  Obviously as there was a manager working the front counter who had served me my coffee and donut.  So why was the dog welcome to sit inside the restaurant? Does Tim Hortons allow the average person to bring a dog into their establishment that does not assist it's human in a recognized fashion?   This location, apparently so.  

Was the Husky allowed to in the restaurant as it was too cold outside?  Actually this question is a little ironic on two points.  The first: Ottawa was having a mini December heat wave as the temperature was about 5 degrees Celsius.  The Second: the dog in question was a Husky who are normally found and revel in cold climates like Alaska.  So even if it were minus five, the Husky would probably be more than happy to be outside enjoying the fresh air and a little snow.  It makes me wonder why the dog was allowed inside the Tim Hortons location.

Overall, this Tim Hortons serves average corporate quality food with nothing special.  Service is average in terms of waiting in line and up to receiving your food.  A little more attention to detail in removing the dirty dishes and wiping the tables could be undertaken.  Where this location really goes downhill is overseeing customer behavior.  Sure I could excuse the odd small dog being toted in and going unnoticed, but a large dog the size of the average Husky or Labrador Retriever is inexcusable to overlook.  In an establishment serving food, there should not be pets welcome unless they are absolutely needed for assistance.   Otherwise, they should be left outside or at home.  It is not Tim Hortons' responsibility to look after your pet, it is the customers, so leave St. Laurent the Husky and his buddies at home!

Friday, December 06, 2013

Tomfoolery at Burger King

Burger King on UrbanspoonRecently received some new coupons in the mail.  Thought I would try them out with a visit to Burger King (1804 St. Laurent Boulevard, Ottawa) for lunch today.

I arrived at noon to an interesting location to get into.  The restaurant sits on a small hill with a weird "U" shaped parking lot that is somewhat shared by a Tim Horton's location directly opposite the Canadian Science & Technology Museum. The parking lot entrance off of St. Laurent Boulevard forces you to drive first past the LaserQuest, then the Tim Horton's and finally to the parking for the Burger King.  Yes, each store seems to have it's own mini reserved parking section in a small weird looping parking lot.  It's like the three buildings could not get it together on a mutually shared parking lot with easy access in and out from St. Laurent even with the fully signalized access.

The Burger King has a small raised concrete patio that sits overlooking the parking lot.  But where is the front door?  Does it face St. Laurent Boulevard? Do you go up the concrete steps to the patio and inside?  Which is it?  The latter option.

If you can figure out how to get in through the confusing parking lot orientation and figure out the entrance, you'r in!  I arrived to a sparsely attended restaurant location which is quite surprising as I approached the counter and placed my order, according to the receipt, at three seconds before 12 noon.  This is a little surprising considering it was lunch time on a Friday in a restaurant on bustling St. Laurent Boulevard across from a major museum within one of Ottawa's largest industrial areas. Yes, it is in a prime location for Friday afternoon lunches with industrial workers, museum attendees and others right at their doorstep.  Yet there was perhaps at most ten customers at a time in this Burger King location during my meal there.

I walked up to the counter, handed over my coupon for a free upgrade to "Gratifries" when I order any combo meal that I received in the mail last week.  I was willing to try the new "Gratifries" as Burger King's regular fries quite frankly than the original cardboard fries or even their slightly newer fries they had on my previous visit at another location. I was looking forward to Burger King's version of krinkle cut fries that were crispy on the outside yet soft on the inside.  Would these fries be able to even hold a flame to my beloved and often missed Nathan's Famous crinkle cut fries found at Coney Island? I would soon find out, but back to ordering.

The Burger King employee behind the cash stared at the coupon and looked back at me and said: "We've actually changed our fries to the Gratifries so there is no need to upgrade."

So why would Burger King then send out the new coupons and include this free upgrade when, really, it is not an upgrade but an improvement of the Burger King french fry experience?  That question was not meant for the guy wearing the fast food robes behind the counter, so I didn't press the issue.

The Order: 1 Whopper Combo with Medium Gratifries and 1 Medium coke

The food was prepared and on my tray within three minutes.  Not bad for Burger King or any other fast food restaurant.  On to the condiment stand.  The bulk ketchup dispenser did the usual fast food condiment station, empty, not even a squirt into the little paper cup.  You would think with the slowness of the customers coming through the door one employee could have at least ambled over about an hour before to ensure the ketchup dispenser was sufficiently fueled for the main serving time of lunch.  But, strangely, Burger King can't do that.   I returned to the front counter and requested some "to go" ketchup packets and indicated the dispenser was empty.  No problem, the ketchup packets were placed on my tray.  But, during my meal at this location, I don't think the bulk ketchup dispenser was ever refilled even despite

Now to find a clean table....

"Clean table" being the two operative words.  I walked towards the windows overlooking the passing cars on St. Laurent Boulevard.  There is about eight tables on that end all in booth seating formation.  I passed by seven of the eight of them.  Why? The seven were either completely dirty with ketchup or other mystery stains or, at the very least, had crumbs on them.

I do realize that fast food outlets do have issues with clean tables due to customers using them then leaving trash, food remnants and whatever.  But this Burger King was an average size location with few customers working their way through.  So apparently the tables had not been cleared and wiped for some time.  But at least the eighth table was a charm and I sat down.

The Whopper was encased in a large traditional cardboard clamshell package.  Optically it looks like the marketers at Burger King are trying to make the Whopper seam large by placing it in a large cardboard clamshell package.  Opening up the cardboard package revealed the burger half wrapped in traditional fast food style burger wrap wax paper. I guess this is to protect the finely manicured fingers of Burger King's upscale clientele from the toppings oozing out or, heaven forbid, the precious little fingers from touching the hamburger bun. But I'm still wondering why they continue to screw around with the packaging.  Hasn't the Whopper been the same for over 10 years?  You would think they would have this down by now and not mess with it.

Tastewise the Whopper was like you would find at any Burger King in the past decade, perfection in temperature, composition in toppings and the patty being a decent size.

The french fries? Sure the taste was an improvement over the past Burger King rendition of fries. The fries were crinkle cut with a nice golden shade.  Inside they were softer potato as promised.  As good as Nathan's Famous Crinkle Cut fries? No, but not still pretty good.  A little ketchup and they an excellent accompaniment to the Whopper burger.  Quantity it was disappointing, the size was supposed to be "medium" but it felt like a McDonald's small.  I commented on the quantity issue of Burger King's fries in my previous post as well.  Burger King can simply not afford to skimp on the size of the fries as McDonald's is easily beating them hands down in the current burger wars and the skimpiness on the fries is merely one reason. At least Burger King is moving forward with better quality fries and, hopefully, these crinkle cut fries will last beyond a "limited time".

Overall, this Burger King location is full of tomfoolery.  The weird layout of a parking lot on the way in, the confusion of where the front door is, the useless coupon of a free upgrade in fries when the fries are now standard and much more are all issues that need addressing.  Sure the parking lot may not be the location's ability to change but surely the useless coupon for an upgrade, lack of ketchup at the dispenser and cleanliness of the tables can be remedied.  With tomfoolery like this in terms of attention to detail, it is no wonder Burger King is slowly loosing the fast food burger wars to the likes of Harvey's, McDonald's and Wendy's.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Costco's Hot Dogs & Pizza are So Cheap they Forgot a Place to Sit

Costco Food Court on UrbanspoonOn a couple recent trips to Costco (1900 Cyrville Road, Ottawa) my wife and I have visited shortly after opening at 10 A.M. on Sundays.  We have toured around, checked out and then proceeded to the food court area directly after the cash registers before exiting the store.

There is a common line up queue to move through with two cash registers for customers to move up to.  This is usually quite quick process as the order takers are pretty speedy in taking your order and obtaining your cash.

We normally order two hot dogs, a fries and two soft drinks which usually rings up between six and seven dollars including tax.  Not bad for a quick lunch for a pair of adults.

The next step of obtaining your food is hit and miss.  The first time there, my wife and I easily received everything we ordered in a timely fashion.  The second time, I had to repeat to two different workers that all I needed were fries.  Seems that if, like at McDonald's, if the supply of cooked fries cannot keep up with demand and a wait ensues, things fall apart.  The order taking to fulfilling the order is lackluster as there is no computer guidance provided.  Costco order takers call out the orders and the fulfillers put together the orders and bring them forward to the awaiting customer.  If the food preparation, like the french fries, is behind and orders continue to come in, the fulfillers get confused.  If a computer order system like at McDonald's or A&W were implemented, the orders would be easier to keep track of instead of by the current haphazard method.

Once you have obtained your food the next stop is the condiment station.  Pretty well stocked area with the usual serve yourself fountain pop, napkins and straws.  The only additional items are the several hot dog toppings to choose from.  This condiment station reminds me of a slightly longer version of a hot dog stand.

The next Costco challenge comes next.  You have topped your hot dog, gathered your napkins and straws, which means it is time to manouvre your way, without spilling your pop from your overflowing tray, to find a seat.  At Costco Food Court file this under good luck!   No matter what time you are there whether it be 11 A.M. or the ever popular 12 Noon to 1 P.M. lunch our, you are pretty well out of luck.  The lack of seating even at the non busy times is appalling.  There just is not enough tables to fulfill customer demand.

We have tried a couple of times to do this shortly after 11 A.M. to find a spot.  The first time we were offered by an older married couple the opportunity to share their table of four.   The second time we were smarter.  We reviewed the seating options before ordering our food. We found two empty tables and I left my wife at one while I ordered our hot dogs, fries and soft drinks.   We ate our food in peace watching the family of four with their overstuffed shopping carts circle around the tables like vultures waiting to pounce.

A Costco Food Court Tip: Have someone find a table before you order. This will prevent you from circling the small seating area while balancing your overflowing tray looking for a table.

The food quality is pretty good for the price paid.  The hot dogs remind me of the Italian sausage style hot dogs you find at a downtown hot dog stand.  Pretty tasty along with all the toppings you could choose from.
The fries though are a little questionable.  Sure the quantity is there, but the quality needs improvement.  The main point of contention is the fries are breaded instead of fresh cut style.  The breaded quality is different than normal and may be the "Costco take" on the traditional hot dog and fries concept.  The fries though seem lower quality than what is found at a traditional food court establishment.  Perhaps a rethink of the fries is in order with an attempt to see if Nathan's style crinkle cut as an option.  Breaded just doesn't seem to work.  Otherwise the fries and accompanying ketchup quantities available are excellent.

Costco Gloucester

Overall, the Costco food court experience is pretty average greasy fast food.  The service, if everything goes right, is good.  The food quality is average with nothing special.  Seating needs to be relooked at in terms of matching space to customer demand.  This particular Costco needs more spaces for customers to sit.  There is nothing worse for a fast food place than having customers salivating over their meal with no place to sit.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

VIA Rail Gift Card Hell

I've tried dutifully to book a trip to Toronto through VIA Rail. Why VIA Rail and not Porter Airlines or WestJet that would get me to Toronto from Ottawa faster for almost the same price?   Simple really, I was given a VIA Rail gift card last year that I wish to use.

It really should not take over an hour to book a trip either, especially with a VIA Rail gift card in hand. But nonetheless, it did.  How? Well lets return to the start of the story.

My wife and I logged in to our VIA Preference account that we had surprisingly accumulated points in and entered our promotional code to receive 10% on our ticket purchase. Next we visited VIA Rail's website to search through departure dates and times.  We chose a date, worked through the process of confirming our trip and got to the payment form.

At this point we were stymied, the only two options was to pay by credit card and via Interac.  Where is the spot to pay by gift card?  I looked again, nothing.

I opened a new browser window so I wouldn't lose my payment screen and have to go through the trip selection process again.  I searched the VIA Rail website for "Gift Card" and found several search results.  The first result VIA Rail was promoting the gift to business owners of travel on VIA Rail to employees or business contacts by giving a gift card.   Further down the search terms was where Gift Cards could be used.  I scrolled through that page and it was indicated Gift Cards could be only used at VIA Rail stations in person.  There was no mention of how to use the gift cards online

Really? Gift cards can be used online on a variety of websites.  Usually it is to enter the gift card number and, on the other side, scratch off a portion of the card to reveal the PIN number to use as a password.  Pretty simple really.  Too bad VIA Rail has not caught up with this concept.

No problem, I don't live too far from the Ottawa Train Station.  The only hitch, you must access the Ottawa Train station from the north side of the station.  There is no access to the south of the station either via a bridge overall or a tunnel underneath the rail tracks to the main building. Hopefully this anachronism, especially with the growth of the Trainyards Shopping Centre and the Alta Vista community to the south will be restructured with the coming OC Transpo LRT construction.  This is a little troubling as the only access really is a long walk via the recreational paths, take the OC Transpo Transitway or drive.  So I took the circuitous route on OC Transpo to get to the Ottawa Train Station.

After arriving at the train station, I waited in line at the ticket counter.  Only 1 agent was available who was already helping another customer.  Since I was the only other person in line, this wasn't too bad.  After three minutes, another agent showed up and welcomed me.

I ventured over to the counter and explained what I was trying to do.  His response, you are better to order the tickets online as they would be cheaper.  I said that is great in all but how do I use the gift card?  The online instructions had indicated the only way to use the gift card was to order train tickets at the station.  

At this point I'm shaking my head.  This optically from the customer's point of view was nothing but a cash grab by VIA Rail. Tickets online are cheaper and thus the gift of cash towards a trip is way better than a VIA Rail gift card. Why? Because the only way to use the hunk of plastic issued by VIA Rail is to purchase tickets at the railway station which cost more than via the website. But, I digress.

The agent ran through the booking on his computer and showed me the exact same trip from Ottawa to Toronto on his reservation system, including taxes, would cost $162.75.  That same trip I had pulled up online was going to cost us $148.48.  A difference of $14.27 between the two options.  So basically, for two tickets we were being charged $14.27 to use our gift card as indicated by the VIA Rail website on using the gift card.  Apparently with VIA Rail, cash is King or pay an additional fee to use a VIA Rail issued gift card.

The VIA Rail agent explained that I could use the gift card if I wished using the following method:

1. Purchase the train tickets online using a credit card.

2. Visit the train station counter with the reservation codes and the VIA Rail gift card for a refund.

I couldn't believe the agent.  I asked him to provide this method in writing.  He handed me a paper pad and I started writing it so he could sign off on it.  He stopped me after writing about three letters and gave me his business card and said have whomever is doing the transaction call him if there was an issue in refunding the gift card if I had my reservation code in hand.

I took the business card, rolled my eyes and headed home after a wasted trip. On the OC Transpo trip back home I reviewed the business card.  The agent's name and title of "IN-CHARGE" and, bolded, "CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE CORRIDOR EAST".  Interesting job title "IN-CHARGE", in charge of what? Customer Experience on the East Corridor?  Perhaps this is why I would have paid $14.27 difference between ordering online and in person with him, his expert service of typing things into his computer and getting a ticket issued. Seems he doesn't have the tools to be "IN-CHARGE" of "Customer Experience" if he is unable to waive the price difference.  His only solution was for me to contact "VIA Rail Customer Service".  Great, the typical "It's not my problem, call head office" type deal.  Perhaps in the future VIA Rail head office could empower the employee with the "IN-CHARGE" management sounding type title of Customer Experience with the ability to actually improve the Customer Experience by resolving such obvious glaring issues as the inability for a company to take payment through their own e-commerce website via a payment type that the company has so obviously approved, a gift card.

Upon arriving home my Spidey senses were tingling.  So I called VIA Rail customer service and navigated through the traditional phone hell large companies put you through in order to get to someone who may know half of what you are talking about and can read from the corporate issued script.  

I pressed "1" for "English" and then listened to at least seven different options.  I chose "5" for website help and then was put on hold for "the next available agent".  The usual apologies for the hold and implorations for the customer to stay with them to maintain priority status.  After 5 minutes on hold I was starting my usual wondering of any corporate phone hell by asking "Does VIA Rail actually give me as a customer any 'priority' on the phone?"  and saying "If VIA Rail actually cared and gave customers 'priority' they would have enough people to answer the phone.  

Marie picked up just short of the 6 minute mark.  I explained my problem to her about the gift card.  She said the exact same process as the "IN-CHARGE" agent from the Ottawa Train Station.  I asked about the price difference between ordering at the station and at home for the exact same trip using the exact same VIA Preference accounts and discount codes.  Marie put me on hold and the call dropped.

I dialed back in to the VIA Rail phone hell system again.  This time a different phone message came on before I could press "1" and then "5".  The message explained in both English and French that there was "a higher than normal call volume which may lead to extended waits." Great, their own phone system dumped me off before the message.

Funny though, this time after pressing the "5", I waited only 3 minutes for "Robert" to pick up.  I explained to Robert my trials of using the Gift Card and what I'd been told.  Robert at the beginning said that I was told wrong that I would not be able to use my Gift Card in that method.  I asked him to double check because now 2 out of 3 VIA Rail employees, including one "IN-CHARGE" had indicated I could purchase my ticket online, go to the VIA Rail station with my reservation code and refund the amount of the gift card.

 I also asked about the difference in payment.   Robert was a little evasive at this point asking when I checked the prices on the web.  Apparently, VIA Rail lets prices float like the stock market up and down depending on demand.  I know the airlines do this as well letting popular times to travel increase in price as days go by and lower demand trips go down in price in hopes of putting buts in seats.  Standard industry practice.  But I was ready for this with the response of checking the price online at 6:50 P.M., 7:30 P.M. at the Ottawa Train Station and 7:50 P.M. again online at home with the same price.  Robert's response: "That can't be right" and promised to look into it.

Before hanging up, I asked again to walk me through ordering online using a gift card.  His response was exactly the same as the Ottawa VIA Rail station "IN-CHARGE" agent and Marie at VIA Rail Customer service.  Pay for your trip online using a credit card and then come to the station to have the Gift Card amount refunded.  I asked him again by using the analogy that I would purchase my ticket now and then, the day of travel, I would arrive and receive a refund of the gift card.  Robert's response of course was I was correct.

Before hanging up, I promised Roger that if the Gift Card refund did not occur, I would be working my way up the system of VIA Rail until I received my money back from the gift card purchase. Roger said he understood and we hung up.

I'm not sure what is up at VIA Rail.  They promote the ability to purchase gift cards on their website to business owners and others.  But on the same website indicate the only way to use a gift card towards a trip on VIA Rail is to purchase tickets at a VIA Rail station.  Not only can this be inconvenient for those across the country who do not live near the ever dwindling number of VIA Rail stations to get to, but VIA Rail charges customers a higher train fare at the station than provided online.  This results in customers being charged more to dutifully attend the train station as instructed by VIA's website and use their VIA issued gift card than if they bought the same ticket online with the same amount as a cash gift.  No where on the website that I could find was the method of purchasing the ticket online and then attending the station to get the gift card refunded.  But of course that was not ludicrous enough, let's remember VIA Rail's website doesn't accept VIA Rail issued gift cards in the first place.  This lack of ability to accept gift cards online is the whole reason many a VIA Rail passenger will be put through VIA Rail Gift Card Hell to get what they have duly paid for without a VIA Rail approved at station service fee.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Harvey's Makes your Hamburger a Beautiful Bronson Thing...

Harvey's on UrbanspoonOn Friday, I was looking for a hamburger with fries and a drink.  Just a simple "Yahoo it is Friday!" type of lunch to celebrate the end of a work week. I found a Harvey's (564 Bronson Avenue, Ottawa) to visit and headed over.

The Harvey's parking lot is tight two row parking lot fenced in with only access off of Arlington Avenue.  Sometimes this tightness can be problematic if there are two many vehicles trying to enter or exit the lot.  Not sure which expert designed this parking lot, but it does not work on a frequent basis with two fast food restaurants (the other a Burrito Gringo) sharing the same constrained lot.  Weekday lunch times are the worst as landscape trucks with trailers attempt to navigate the narrow one entrance and exit only at the same end of the lot.

Upon entering the Harvey's, the restaurant layout appears smaller than a more traditional suburban Harvey's space, yet there is more space than the downtown Harvey's found on Elgin Street.  A happy medium of space between the two.

I worked my way through the short line up to get to the counter and place my order

The Order: 1 Original Hamburger combo (medium fries and Pepsi)

I was gradually moved down to the topping and prep area of Harvey's to be served by an older lady.  She topped my burger from the standard issue Harvey's stainless steel topped counter along with the semi circle of bowls of toppings and bottles of whatever liquid goulash they have.

After topping my burger, she grabbed my fries and drink.  Next she inquired if I would like ketchup with my fries.  An odd question considering I was having my meal at the Harvey's.   I didn't think about it and said, yes please.  A couple of ketchup packets were added to my tray and I was off to the condiment station.

"Condiment station" is really a misnomer.  Are condiments at a burger place involve vinegar, ketchup and other "nice to haves" for the average person who have individual tastes?  Thus, I would call this Harvey's station the napkin and straw station.  Apparently fast food customers now cannot be trusted with dispensing their own ketchup anymore as more restaurants are moving to handing out prerationed ketchup packets.  It is like ketchup is becoming harder and harder to find.

I sat down at a decently clean table and dug into my burger.

The burger tasted just like any other Harvey's Original burger.  Along with the usual issue of the toppings slowly oozing out the end opposite to your mouth.    Why is it, no matter what Harvey's I visit, the toppings always seem to ooze out the other end and splat on the outstreched paper wrapper?  No matter if the Harvey's is in Ottawa, Aurora, Toronto or Timbucktoo, this happens.  It must be Harvey's corporate policy to ensure this happens.

The fries were the average Harvey's fries in standard proportions.  At least Harvey's seems to be keeping the size of their fries along with their combos the same size as opposed to shrinking them.  Temperature wise the fries were nothing special, but they were not frozen cold either.

Overall, this Harvey's is a standard run of the mill place.  Nothing special in terms of service or added value.  Just average corporate approved levels of service.  If there was something they could do about the parking lot by adding another entrance/exit and perhaps loosing the wrot iron fence, this Harvey's would be "... Beautiful Thing" to get into and out of.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

A Surprise at the Pump

Lieutenants Pump Pub on UrbanspoonWhile my family was visiting from Toronto a couple of weeks ago, we decided the last meal before they returned, a brunch, would be at Lieutenant's Pump Pub (361 Elgin Street, Ottawa).

We tried calling ahead to make a reservation as our group would be eight people including a small child.  The response was "we do not take reservations after 10 A.M.".

I could understand the no reservations after 10, as I know "The Pump" can be a busy brunch place on weekends.  Nothing disturbs people more than a large empty table with the little "reserved" sign on it while the place is lined up out the door.

I hung up the phone dejectedly and explained the situation to my family.  We decided to try for Lieutenant's Pump anyway in hopes the line up wouldn't be too long.

We arrived at 11 A.M. as per the original reservation attempt.  The entrance is a set of stairs about six steps down before reaching the hostess' podium.

We told the hostess how many there were, 8 including the toddler.   We were promised a fifteen minute wait.  Pretty good timing so far considering we still had two stragglers who were circling the block trying to find parking.   So fifteen minutes later we were all there with the toddler surrounded by 3 ladies who he had no clue who they were.  My nephew is already such a ladies man.

I didn't watch the clock at all while watching either the people walk by on Elgin Street or my nephew waiving at anyone who would look his way.  Good thing this entertainment was going on, cause it was apparently 45 minutes before we were sat down.  I did not have a clue how long until later.  The hostess, to her credit, had kept us updated with the usual bait of "it won't be long now as we are just waiting on one table to pay their bill" and "we are just cleaning the table for you".  Normally, these lines are used to keep up the hope of the prospective customers instead of letting them think they should turn around and head elsewhere.

I had started to think about heading across the street to the Elgin Street Diner which I had previously been to before that was across the street and up a block. The service there is usually fast and the food was good.  But would they be able to take a party of 8?   I knew Zak's in the market had booths large enough for 8 people but the volume of people on a Sunday is usually similar to "The Pump" so a similar wait would be undertaken.  Hmmm...

Before I could think anymore we were called and led to our table and handed menus.  Before we could order, the owner stopped by and apologized for the wait time.  I'm not sure if he knew we had attempted to make a reservation that morning.  He seemed to feel his staff had let us down by making us wait so long.  He apologized again and said the meal would be on the house and left.

This was a first for me, no manager had ever given out free meals to the entire table.  Sure we I have seen meals comped at other restaurants when something went wrong.  Usually it was because a dish was cold or a side was wrong and the replacement meal seem to take twice as long as it should to get there.

Reading through the menu I discovered my old favourite at "The Pump", the Turkey sandwich on a croissant with home fries.  Mmm..... good.   Add to this my wife's big breakfast that she can't possibly finish so she needs help and I'm good to go with additional toast, fruit and even more delicious home fries! CHACHING!  
The food was as good as ever at The Pump and the waitress provided timely service with a well run kitchen backing her up.  Food was brought out within ten minutes of ordering, drinks were refilled on a timely manner and we all had a good time including the toddler for the most part.

The toddler was a little grumpy at times and I felt a little guilty at his noise and squirming.  A quick look over at the next table over from us and smile was returned from the parents of another toddler slightly older reminiscing about what is was like for their own son at that age.  The two university age ladies on the other side didn't even bat an eyelash and continued their conversation.

We finished our meals and the plates were gradually being ushered back to the kitchen by the friendly wait staff.  We conferred with the waitress about the owner's gesture on the bill.  Yes the entire meal was at the compliments of The Lieutenant's Pump Pub.  

This left us in somewhat consternation about the tip.  Do we tip for the service on a free meal?  The answer was unanimously yes. But without a bill or receipt, what do you base your calculation of a tip on?  Hmmmm....we settled on a generous tip of $60.00 and pulled everything together.  We called the waitress over and presented the money to her.

The waitress had a big smile on her face and again apologized for the wait.  We responded that despite the wait, we had a good time at the restaurant, the service was good and the food was excellent.  Please share the money with everyone involved.

Sometimes there are mistakes at restaurants.  Sure every business, no matter what industry they are in, makes a mistake or something doesn't go right that should have in the first place.  The sign of good restaurant is how it bounces back from these situations in an attempt to keep the customer on side.   The Lieutenant's Pump could have given us empty platitudes of apologies and understanding without backing these up with action.  It could have also given us a 10% discount or something similar on our overall bill.  But free meals for the entire table of eight was very generous.  I could not help but leaving The Lieutenant's Pump Pub that day without feeling happy.  Happy that my family had visited, happy I was full of good food, but most of all, impressed that a possibly bad situation was handled so well and turned into a positive.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Gabriel Delivers!

Gabriel Pizza on UrbanspoonSaturday evening, with family arrived from a celebration near Brockville, there was only thing to turn to get a lot of food in a timely manner.  On the trip back to Ottawa from Brockville, I was asked what my favourite pizza was?  Pizzaville came up, Pizza Pizza, and Pizza Hut also were mentioned. I replied Gabriel Pizza was one of my favourites in the Ottawa area as I had it previously and enjoyed it.

The talk of pizza on the way back resulted from the need to get delivery as we had just had a road trip back with a just less than a year old who was probably going to be grumpy.  This meant at least his parents would not be able to join us at, lets say, a restaurant meal out at a pub downtown.  So pizza it was.

We called Gabriel's Pizza (2660 Alta Vista Drive, Ottawa)  to order. The call was picked up in a timely manner.  We first mentioned we had coupons for medium pizza that were received in the mail.  We were told to have them ready for the driver.  Next we placed our order.

The Order: 1 Medium Regular Crust pizza with Bacon, Pepperoni and Mushroom, 1 Medium thin crust pizza with spinach, Feta cheese, Red Peppers and Extra Sauce and 1 Medium regular crust pizza with Pineapple and Ham.

The downfall, was we had to wait 45 minutes for the pizza's to be made and delivered.  We reluctantly said that was fine realizing it was a Saturday night and most pizza places would have a significant wait.

The driver arrived at 35 minutes with the three medium pizzas.  He was prepared with the Visa credit card machine and was off to his next run.  We didn't feel rushed at all and he never made it seem like it was on the clock.

We opened the pizzas to find three hot and obviously cheesy pizzas. The remarks were pretty forthcoming that all the pizzas ordered had a lot cheese on them.  Good thing the cheese was of excellent quality, otherwise the meal would have gone south pretty quickly.

The bacon, pepperoni and mushroom pizza was delicious.  The mushrooms pizza and sauce were fresh.  I'm not sure about how freshly prepared the bacon was before it was put on the pizza, but it was not terrible.

The same with the other two pizzas.  Lots of cheese with fresh toppings added. A knife was definitely required to extricate each of the slices due to the cheesyness of the pizzas.

Overall, Gabriel Pizza provides a high quality pizza at a slightly more expensive price than the average neighbourhood pizza parlour.  But  the added quality ingredients and the quality customer service experience is worth it.  Gabriel's delivers quality pizza on time and, if needed, right to your door.

O'er the Bridge to Tim Hortons We Go

Tim Hortons on UrbanspoonNeeding a place to wait for someone convenint to Highway 401 after spending half a day perusing historic Downtown Brockville can be a bit of a challenge.  Sure, I had lunch, but I was still in the need of an afternoon snack.  I worked my way up William Street past the historic Leeds and Grenville County Courthouse towards the bridge over the main Toronto to Montreal CN Rail Tracks.  I stopped short of the rail bridge at William and Brock Streets where a shiny new Tim Hortons (77 William Street, Brockville).

This Tim Hortons is a perfect spot to meet someone coming from out of town along Highway 401.  Just south of the railway tracks close to downtown Brockville yet, just north of the railway tracks after William Street turns into the Stewart Boulevard, is the exit from Highway 401.

I entered at 1 P.M. to wait for my father who was working his way east from Toronto to pick me up.  The Tim Hortons is part of the chain's new modern look with comfy seating and modern look.

The line up was decent length but moved forward frequently. The cashier welcomed me with a smile and inquired of what I wished to order.

The Order: 1 Boston Cream donut and 1 Medium Black Coffee

While the cashier was about to get my Boston Cream, a supervisor walked by and warned her the Boston Creams had just come out of the back, thus, the chocolate might still be soft and stickier than normal.  The cashier looked back at me quizzically as she hadn't asked if I wanted my order "for here" or "to go".  If  it was the latter, she was in trouble, the to go packaging would be stuck to chocolate and I would later have to carefully extract the donut while losing half of the chocolate.  This is typical of Tim Hortons' takeout packaging even when the Boston Cream isn't fresh.  Not sure how this issue can be overcome.

Fortunately, I was going to be at this Tim Hortons for at least fifteen to thirty minutes.  So I said "For Here!" on the donut.  This meant a small plate could used to serve up the donut and preserve the life of the chocolate.

My coffee was poured in "To Go" cup just as requested.  I like to sip my coffee, and without knowing if I was going to be at the Tim Hortons fifteen minutes or longer it was tough to tell.

The coffee was the same great Tim Hortons' quality.  The donut was indeed Tim Hortons' fresh as well.  This latter part is not really "fresh" per say as Tim Hortons years ago moved to a central bakery where the donuts are made and not in the stores.  So "fresh" at Tim Hortons comes down to "how long ago were the donuts defrosted" as opposed to the old days of "when was the batter made?" But I digress.

Overall, this Tim Hortons location is convenient to Highway 401 with decent service and cleanliness. Located just to the north of the old Highway 2, Brockville's King Street, it is a centrally located franchise location with a modern feel and look.  Best part is on summer days you could probably watch the trains go by from the north side of this Tim Hortons or do so while walking o'er the bridge as you sip your double double.

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