Tales from the Restaurant

Tales from the Restaurant
Where you'll find all the restaurant dirt you'll ever need.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Yuppies and High Maintenance--An Issue Forever Unresolved

A waitress friend of mine passed a story along to me recently that I couldn’t pass up an editorial on. When you have been blessed by the bizarre circumstance of having to wait on a weird family whose minds have been poisoned by paranoid America, then God help you.

As servers, we all fear those who have way too much to fear.

She brought her family into the restaurant and instantly summoned her waitress.

Instead of listening, she immediately made a few demands. She asked specifically for bizarre vegetables for her children that most restaurants don’t have. She wanted things like cauliflower, asparagus, green beans, and (wait for it) “Steamed kale.”

She was the kind of hippie that made regular hippie’s highs come down. Imagine a 40-year-old artsy old bag who wished she had a hand in planning Woodstock. Now imagine the kind of dominance she had over her husband. Note - He was wearing a toupee that looked like a cross between Nick Nolte and a barrel of illegal fireworks. Within five minutes of entering the restaurant, he left suddenly to accept a phone call. Presumably from his wig sponsor.

As my waitress friend approaches, the mother is inconspicuously throwing her family’s belongings into a trash bag.

So besides being extremely needy right off the bat and having a husband with weird fake hair immediately accepting phone calls, there weren’t too many warning signs. But the fact that she immediately started putting her family’s coats and gloves into a trash bag underneath the table that she brought into the restaurant with her was a bit odd. That’s something homeless people do.

We have to assume she wasn’t homeless however. How do I presume to know? I am fairly sure homeless people and their families don’t have three distinct sets of allergies. And judging by the trash bag? She was probably a paranoid germaphobe.

My waitress friend found out about all of the allergies when the health-conscious mother of the family asked that there be no salt, pepper, seasonings, garlic, oil, butter, gluten, or anything that results in there being a flavor of any kind. At this restaurant, if anyone gives any indication that there may be hazards with any of the food, the servers are required to ask if anyone has any food allergies.

Now the children (who were around 12, 8, and 6) then started shouting out of turn what their allergies were.

The mother’s response to the question was that “there were too many to name.” In my opinion, if you are a halfway responsible parent with children that have life-or-death food allergies, you wouldn’t leave something like that to chance. Unless you’re just an overbearing hypochondriac health nut.

Before my waitress friend could even ask about a basic beverage order, the hippie woman interrupts to introduce herself and her children to the waitress. According to my friend, she had “some yuppie name like Bridget, and her kids were like ‘Flower‘, ‘Zodiac‘, and ‘Starship’ or some shit like that.”

By this point, my waitress friend had given up on the idea of suggestive selling, and resigned to bringing them iced tea or lemonade. In typical hypochondriac fashion, the woman grilled her for all of the ingredients in both of those things (I’m betting there isn’t another person on the planet who doesn’t already know what two ingredients compose ‘iced tea’). After shooting those down, the woman decided she wanted water instead. Simple enough?


After resolving it with a round of bottled water and a couple reassuring lies, they finally get around to ordering dinner. They didn’t hold back--appetizers, enormous lobsters, filet mignon, very nearly the entire menu. Prepared with careful regard to all of their individual allergies, of course.

By the time the food arrives, the husband with the indescribable hair is still on the phone somewhere in the restaurant. The woman asked my waitress friend to “go retrieve him,” and that it didn’t matter if she interrupted his conversation.

Sure enough, the woman started complaining about her food and sending things back. After eating half of a lobster, it was “too tough.” The salad dressing which she was enthusiastic about ordering was suddenly “terrible” and didn’t “go with the lettuce.”

In keeping with her bizarre demeanor, the woman pulled my friend aside and said "look at those ladies over there. they look so wise and refined, do you think we'll look like that one day when we're old?"

(My response would have been; “If you live that long. You’re depriving your body of countless essential nutrients you claim to be allergic to. They‘re ‘wise and refined‘ enough to know better.)

Besides being flabbergasted (and probably nervous), my waitress friend was getting uncomfortable. The woman wanted the names of the people sitting at the next table, because she “thought she might know them.” My waitress friend actually decided to go bother them and ask who they were, but the real surprise was that she didn’t actually know who they were. I could have called that one too.

When dessert rolled around, she ordered desserts for her family that contained many of the things she claimed to be allergic to. She ordered a piece of cake for her daughter’s birthday, and as we may publicly acknowledge, cake often contains gluten, dairy, sugar, eggs, and all sorts of other things. Because as a birthday present, I would want my parents to give me death through anaphylactic shock.

It turns out that she wasn’t actually allergic to most of those things; she was just “a little sensitive.”

The whole ordeal took about three hours. To those who think that restaurant work is easy or undignified, imagine a day where you’re taking care of party after party just like this one.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Secret Shop - Another reason to act awkwardly

In many restaurant chains, there is a well-known tool that is used to guarantee uniformity throughout all of the branches. Since every member of the faceless corporate entity can’t be in every restaurant location at once, they hire everyday people to come into each restaurant on a regular basis and act like a regular customer.

As a method of keeping servers from acting too creatively, there are long lists of things each server has to say or do to guarantee the same monotonous experience for each person at every restaurant that bears the name of the parent company.

If you get a waiter who asks a question like this, there’s an equal chance that it could be one of two things; Either he has Asperger Syndrome, or he’s terrified of secret shoppers.

Restaurant owners and CEOs want their restaurants to look, feel, and function a specific way. If it means your server has to sacrifice his personality or make painfully awkward requests, so be it.

At my restaurant, there is a list of approximately twenty things that each waiter must do in order to score perfectly and not be punished (should a secret shopper come in and sit at his table). Although I will not list exactly what they are, I will give a brief list of examples that are strikingly similar.

The problem with a specific list of things that you are required to do for each restaurant guest is that not every person who comes in to eat at a restaurant is the same. Each person is not waiting with bated breath to hear what you have to say, nor are they even remotely interested in you running through an entire checklist of things some corporate jack-offs drew up with the bottom line in mind.

If your server is required to refill your beverage, he will do so whether or not you actually want one. That’s a sure sign that it’s a talking point on a shopper report agenda.

Let’s say you come into a restaurant and sit down at the bar. It’s one of your favorite restaurants and you already have an idea of what you want. The bartender approaches you and says hello. You, without looking at the menu, reply with;

Let’s assume this is what you hear back;

If you were a shopper, the bartender would be doing exactly what the company demands of him. If you’re not a shopper, there is a good chance that you’d be annoyed at your bartender for completely ignoring you.

Personally, I try to achieve each one of the objectives on the shopper report for each guest I serve as non-awkwardly as possible. I was shopped recently, and would have received a perfect score. Instead, I was marked off on one of the questions which I was certain I had passed.

After clearing away the two corporate witches’ meals, I asked if I could get some dessert menus for them to look at. They seemed keen on the idea, so I brought the menus over and offered them some coffee and a peanut butter cookie sundae, which was an off-menu item. I found out later on that I had failed that part of the shopper report. The question I failed;

“Did your server offer you a specific dessert and after-dinner beverage?”
The reason I failed;

“Our server offered us menus, and then only after bringing us menus did he begin to talk about a specific dessert or beverage.”

Sure enough, I was furious about having been spoon-fed a heaping mouthful of bullshit. If you are that painfully specific about an objective which WAS carried out within seconds of when it was supposed to, you are overlooking the fact that two or three seconds worth of time will not upset a guest so much that it will lose the company a paying customer.

If I do everything I am supposed to and excel as a waiter, don't correct me for something I didn't do wrong. That's how you force good employees to quit and find other employment.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A Few Points of Poor Etiquette

Recently I took a poll of restaurant servers and bartenders, looking for some kind of inspiration for my next installment. The question of the hour?

“What is your least favorite thing to hear from someone you’re serving?

I took the best five answers and put them here for you to enjoy. Brief disclaimer--I am aware that some of these have been discussed in previous posts. Deal with it.

#1 - Ignoring the greeting.

As a server, when you talk to somebody that just sat down you tend to open with a standard greeting like “Hello.” The response you give that instantly pisses a server off is any that carelessly dispenses with formalities, including but not limited to:
“I’m waiting for other people to arrive.”
“I’m doing good.”
“I’ll have a Coke.”

It suggests that the first thing you want your server to know is that you aren’t willing to pay attention. In a job where success is measured in alacrity and efficiency, little else could be more frustrating.

#2 - Complaining about the current quality of the appetizers (versus historically).
One of my bartender friends volunteered to explain this one;
“In our establishment the owner is named, let's say, "Dodger"... People will come in and say, "I'll have the fish chowder, but you know you should tell "Dodger" that the fish chowder used to be so good, but NOT anymore, it had lots of fish in it and was creamier, it was speckled with gold flakes and served with diamond silverware and he should change it back to that!"
Okay, let us dissect that. First off, if it is so horrible, don't order it. Furthermore, it tasted better in 1970 because you were 40 years younger and had more taste buds, maybe it looked a larger portion because you weren't as gluttonous as you now are. When you were a kid did everything seem bigger then too? Probably.. Second, I should tell who what? I get paid what per hour? My vested interest in the stocks of said establishment is what exactly? I'm on what board that speaks directly to the owner? My comments are then expedited immediately based on your suggestions how? Yes, dear guest, I am a high ranking official in said corporate restaurant chain, but am playing undercover boss, minus the cameras, you got me.”

-A Bartender

Come to think of it, it also irks me when people complain about the free appetizers. Rolls are bad enough to complain about, because they’re free. If you wish something was whole wheat or at least 57% millet or comprised primarily of organic soygrain, then shut up and don’t eat it. If we’re not making a tip off of it, we don’t care what it’s made of.

#3 - ”Are you in school?”
Many waiters I know hate hearing this question. The reason? It becomes a source of condescension because of the fact that people are wondering what you would be doing if you weren’t waiting tables. For some, it actually IS a career. If you put in the time, the money is decent. It’s just that not every waiter is a college dropout or struggling actor.

What about me? I’m a journalist. You’re reading what I’m doing. I’m probably also complaining about you on this blog, so I’m certainly not going to tell you about it.

#4 - ”We thought you deserted us!”
Many restaurant guests say things like this because they haven’t seen their waiter or waitress in a while. As a server, you make money only by attending steadfastly to every request that you can from each one of your tables. If one table is especially needy and takes up a lot of your time, that equates to less time you can spend at the other tables. If you need your server for whatever reason, you can’t always rub a magical lamp and summon them at an instant. Many guests don’t quite understand this and choose to interpret the situation as “My server abandoned me and is completely disregarding my needs.”

#5 -

”I need my food to have {X, Y, and Z…as well as the previous 23 letters).”
If you have one or two simple things you’d prefer about your meal, it’s perfectly understandable. If you are burdening your server with ten or fifteen particular things that you need to have in order to have a normal meal, then go into the kitchen and cook it your own damned self, or see a psychiatrist to address your ‘Type A’ personality disorder.

The last thing we really want is to have way more work than we need to while pissing off the kitchen staff. Reason it through. If you are allergic to 10+ things, I like to say that’s God’s way of saying “I’d like to speak with you face to face.”

What are your least favorite things to hear from customers? How about your least favorite things to hear from your servers?