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Standing Room Only

. . . but McDonald's is right down the street.

It's a situation you won't hear about in business school-and one most restaurateurs will never face-but in January, it happened at Music City Roadhouse, Michael Sternberg and Larry Work's 300-seat Washington, DC, eatery. The phone rang. It was the White House, calling to find out if President Clinton and Vice President Gore could bring a party of 20 in to dine that night. With a packed house in his line of vision and reservations booked solid all night, General Manager Stephen Mayer had no choice but to turn the president down.

Refuse to feed the president of the United States? To hear Sternberg tell it, it's not as newsworthy as it sounds. "It's kind of like movie stars in Hollywood restaurants-nobody cares," says Sternberg. "In Washington, it's not that big a deal-it's just another politician out eating dinner." The restaurateurs weren't too worried about being blackballed because only two weeks earlier, President Clinton had dined at their nearby fine-dining restaurant, Sam & Harry's.

Did Sternberg and Work do the right thing? Yes, says public relations guru Larry Meltzer, co-owner of Meltzer & Martin Public Relations in Dallas. "If you're in the hospitality industry, you really have to take care of your regular customers first," Meltzer says. "It's not right to turn them away unless you can make accommodations for them that are either equal to or better than what they would have gotten while they were [at your place of business]." Besides, Meltzer notes, "The restaurant probably got more publicity for turning [the president and vice president] down than they would have if they'd invited them to come in."

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This article was originally published in the July 1996 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Standing Room Only.

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