A Restaurant Rant

I just read this excellent article by Amanda Cohen, chef and owner of the NYC restaurant Dirt Candy (get it? It’s a vegetarian restaurant? Dirt Candy? I like it! And after reading her menu, I’m dying to try celeriac ice cream, but I digress…), and I’m with her. She discusses how most restaurant employees honestly do want their patrons to leave happy. It’s true. I did my time in the restaurant biz. For the most part, my objective was to try and make sure customers had a good time. That they liked their food. That the service and overall restaurant experience was positive. That they’d want to come back.

I’d try and hold the perspective that my job in a restaurant wasn’t centered around a battle between Us and Them but rather, it needed to be seen as a healthy and productive working relationship. It didn’t always work, and I wasn’t always perfect at it, but I tried. It’s hard to maintain because you’re basically part dirty grunt/part performance artist, and the surly, tired, my feet hurt, I’m exhausted, I’ve already had to clean vomit, make $2.13 an hour and I’ve still got five hours left on my shift, I’ve got a ton of homework/bills/housework/family concerns that are distracting me, human, non-performer side of a restaurant worker can break through the veneer of pleasantries pretty easily. However. Generally, in response to a customer’s special requests, my answer (and the answers of most of my fellow restaurant peeps, who were often well-intentioned waitstaff and bartenders and hosts and managers who don’t go into that biz because of a relentless desire to stoke the fires of inner rage) was yes. Yes, we can deviate from the menu, yes we can accommodate your allergy, yes we can seat you as soon as possible, yes we can get you that extra whatever on the side.

Image from crayonsglueandtyingshoes.blogspot.com

Image from crayonsglueandtyingshoes.blogspot.com

Because that’s how it works.

Because that’s the nature of the job.

I get insanely offended when restaurants aren’t managed, at the very least, decently.

Recently, I was told something wouldn’t be done by a kitchen, for all the wrong reasons. I’m still shocked.

George and I called a local restaurant (for the moment, staying nameless) to order some take-out food. George did the talking. Hi, he said. We’d like dinner A and dinner B, and we’d also like an order of your extra-spicy sauce on the side. The woman taking the order was new, writing everything down with someone watching her to make sure she got all the information she needed for the order. She conferred with the trainer in the background then got back on the line. “I’m sorry.” she said. “I can’t give you that sauce.”

What? We just want an order of it on the side.

Sorry, she said. The chef says it will make the dish you ordered a different dish. He won’t do it.

Fine. Whatever. We were hungry, we’d already mentally committed to dinner from this place. Don’t sell us the sauce. Be that way. We’ll be by to pick it up in 10 minutes.

Twenty minutes later, George came home, full order and extra sauce in hand.

Here’s what happened: when George gave his name, the new waitress wrote it down, and the owner recognized it. Oh, him!, the owner said. He’s a nice guy! And so, they did make George’s order as he requested, which is bad enough. Because for real, just do it in the first place, no?  But then, when George got there, the owner/manager ACTUALLY SAID, “Yeah, when you first called, I thought you were one of these entitled jerks in town so I didn’t want to make it for you. But you know. It’s you. So that’s different.”

Image from imgflip.com

Image from imgflip.com

He didn’t say, “We misunderstood your initial order and said duh when we realized our mistake, here you go.” He didn’t say, “I was having an aneurysm during your phone call. Of course we’ll make this for you.” He didn’t say, “I was temporarily possessed by Satan. Sorry ’bout that.” Instead, he justified his change of heart by winking and nudging, because we’re special. Awwww. Shouldn’t I feel all warm and fuzzy now?

What? No! Hey, manager dude, let me get this straight: you didn’t want to sell us an item that’s on your menu, because you thought we might be dicks? Not because we were being unreasonable or making insane demands, but because you had a bug up your ass? And when you found out who was doing the ordering, you decided to let us in your petty fiefdom of a club? And you’re training new employees to behave this way? Holy. Moly.

Here’s the thing: I don’t want to learn the secret handshake, I don’t want to know the password, and now? I don’t want your food. We ate the food that night and I felt dirty. I just want to be able to order off a menu, without a hassle. You’re in the restaurant biz, you’re going to deal with people EVERY DAY. Some of them will be total pains, some of them will be awesome, but all of them deserve a fair shake at the start of your interactions.  This manager is someone who’s recently talked about being dedicated to growing his business. He’s sure got a funny way of showing it. It’s too bad, really, because I’d prefer to support local businesses, and the food was pretty good. But we haven’t been back since.

I’m still not going to say which restaurant it was, but feel free to circulate this among local folks and restaurant friends. Maybe the owner/manager will see it and recognize himself. Maybe he’s been wondering why we haven’t been in for the last two months. This is why. View this as a huge learning opportunity, and you’re welcome. Other restaurant folks, if you see your own behavior reflected in my story, then take my advice and get over yourselves. If you don’t, then I recommend a job in an accounting office, or perhaps filing books at a library, where human interaction will be kept to a minimum.

T2 disapproves.  Image from tvtropes.org

T2 disapproves.
Image from tvtropes.org

And please, everybody (that includes you, you difficult customers) stop perpetuating the Us vs. Them mentality. It hurts all my brothers and sisters in the service industry. We’re all in this together, folks. Start acting like it.

Meanwhile, At the Restaurant: How to Get the Bartender’s Attention

Having spent an unreasonable amount of time in food service, in several different states in the US, I generally think that I’ve seen most of what can be seen (though I do realize that claiming I’ve seen it all does a grave disservice to “it all”.  But really, people.  I don’t need to know).  Despite the quasi-iconic public concept of the surly bartender who hides in the corner and has to be coaxed out like they’re a mouse and you’ve got a pocket full of cheese, most bartenders do want to offer their customers timely and friendly service in a welcoming atmosphere.  In a tips-based economy, it’s the smartest way to make money.  And in my time in restaurants and bars, I’ve encountered a vast and often confusing array of ways customers deem acceptable to get a bartender’s attention.  In the interest of public service and to help out my bar brethren across this great land, I give you the do’s and don’ts of:

Ta da!

Ta da!

THE DON’TS

The Tapper

mwatr01

The Tapper thinks the most effective way to get his drink refilled is to tap his empty glass repeatedly on the bar as though he’s tapping out distress signals in Morse code.  Unless you’re warning me about icebergs dead ahead, this is an inappropriate way to communicate.  I can let you tap all day.  Plus, if you’re that anxious that you need to bang your glass on the bar until you get another drink, then you don’t need another drink, and I would recommend trying some yoga, or perhaps taking up meditation.

The Barker

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The Barker thinks that raising his voice above the din of a bar is a surefire way to entice a bartender over.  The Barker doesn’t seem to realize that he is the human equivalent of WRITING IN ALL CAPS and as quickly as I will delete the email written in that manner, so will I dismiss the person who behaves in this manner.  He may express himself in a way that seems callous (Hey, you!) or try to sound charming and/or endearing (Hey, honey, sugarplum, dollface!).  But no matter how you phrase it, he’s still the obnoxious drunk yelling at you from across the bar.  Avoid whenever possible.

The Whistler

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Very closely related to The Barker, The Whistler shares the sentiment that making loud noises to attract the bartender is effective.  The problem is, The Whistler chooses the same manner in which he calls his dog in for dinner.  The Whistler doesn’t always necessarily whistle, per se, but he will clear his throat repeatedly or make “Pssst!” sounds.  One memorable time, the owner of the bar I worked in was on duty when a customer tried to attract his attention by making that repeated “psst psst psst” sound you make while trying to convince a cat to come near you.  The owner turned around and, without missing a beat said, “You’d better have some Friskies in your pocket if you’re calling to me that way.”  At least that once, the errant customer grew momentarily embarrassed enough to stammer out an apology before asking for a refill.

The Grabber

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If I’m ever back behind the bar, do not–and I mean DO NOT–ever reach all the way across the bar and touch me.  I will wreck you.

And so we come to the end of my general guidelines for DON’T bar behavior.  This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it’s a good place to start.  Do note that the “DON’T” behaviors are generally demeaning and/or hostile and/or aggressive.  Use that as your measuring stick for what not to do, and you should be off to a good start.

THE DO’S

The Cash Presenter

mwatr05

Most bartenders, you see, are fairly bright, and understand that being attentive to the people standing or sitting at the bar impacts their tips.  If someone stands at the bar with money in their hands, bartenders will generally investigate such an event because people don’t randomly walk around holding money.  In a bar, it’s a specific signal that means, “I want something and I’m ready to pay.”  Yes, it’s true.  Money talks.

The Discreet Signaler

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You can gesture to your bartender, so long as you’re chill about it.  If your bartender looks like he’s in the middle of a conversation and isn’t likely to end it any time soon, you can gesture.  If you want to get drinks ASAP for yourself and that fine individual you’re successfully chatting up, you can gesture.  Or if you realize you need to leave, you can do the universal “I’m pretending to sign my name” gesture.  Gesturing does, for the most part, imply necessity so don’t go overboard pointing and waving at will!  Then you become the barfly who cried wolf, and your gesturing just becomes a silent extension of The Tapper and nobody needs to cross into hybrid signals because then everyone is unhappy.

The Empty Glass Bearer

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The Empty Glass Bearer is the mellowest of all patrons and has an inherent understanding that a bartender intends to do his job to the best of his abilities.  A bartender who’s even half-paying attention knows that an empty glass requires some sort of attention.  Empty Glass Bearers tend to be easy customers for bartenders to deal with–they’re not overly demanding, they don’t need babysitting, and their lack of aggressive behavior towards the bartender generally means the bartender will like them.  Bars are a great place to have a high-fivin’, belly-bumpin’ good time, but not necessarily with the bartender, who has five or fifteen or sixty other people to manage simultaneously.  Have faith that the bartender will get to you.  While people may think the squeaky wheel gets the grease, when you’re in a bar it’s the quiet glass bearer who gets the best consistent service.

It’s true.

I’d love to hear about other bartender-approach behaviors that I might have forgotten or have blocked from my memory.  Feel free to comment!

Modern Etiquette: No Problem (Restaurant Edition)

I’m going to tell you a little story.  One day, not all that long ago, a girlfriend and I went out for lunch at a local eat-and-drinkery.  I don’t want to name names; I’ll call it…the Shmown Shmavern.  Jo (name changed to protect…nobody, really, I just feel like being all mysterioso) and I met when we started working together at a restaurant; she and I are both long-standing veterans of the food service wars.  We know our way around a table that needs some waiting, or two.  I’ve done it all–bartending, waiting, management, bussing.  Chances are good that between the both of us, we’ve seen nearly everything there is to see in the restaurant biz, and in this particular instance I swear on all that is holy that I am NOT exaggerating.

We sat down at a lovely window seat at the Shmavern and…well, OK, there was a little bit of awkwardness, because our first waitress (who passed us off ASAP) is the current girlfriend of my friend’s ex-boyfriend.  Even though Jo is very happily married and has some adorable kiddos and hasn’t been involved with this ex for years, Waitress One decided the best way to handle Jo’s presence was to embrace her insecurities, call in a pinch-hitter and avoid our table at all costs.

Yay, professionalism.  Though I suppose it’s better than Waitress One running the risk of not being able to control herself.

When the second waitress came over, she dropped off our drinks and took our food orders.  The menu at the Shmavern isn’t terribly complicated, and we are entirely capable of delivering a food order with little-to-no hassle.  The conversation went something like this:

Erm…

Ahhhh…

No problem?  Really?

Herein lies my issue: we weren’t creating a problem.

In a restaurant, there are a million ways for customers to cause problems (or not), both big and small.  Here are some examples:

“Excuse me, this table is noisy and we have some fairly important business to discuss.  Can we sit over at that other table that’s tucked into a corner, instead?”

No problem.  Ding ding ding!  Proper use!  The customer had a problem, and the server addressed said problem in kind, resolved it and brushed it off as though it was trivial, because after all it’s a job structured around customer service.  Everyone’s happy.

“Hey, I was wondering…I’m allergic to shrimp, would I be able to get this salad with grilled chicken?”

No problem.  Once again, the server displays an enviable mastery of the English language.  On the grand scheme of things this is a minor problem, really, but nevertheless it requires a little extra legwork on the behalf of the server and can be legitimately considered a “problem”.  Especially since not managing it correctly could lead to a customer going into anaphylactic shock.  Which, I’m sure you will all agree, is a problem.

There is the more tricky, compound request between diner and waitperson:

“Hi.  Can I get the mandarin chicken salad?”

“You bet.”

“Oh, but…would I be able to get the dressing on the side?”

No problem.  See how that works?  Had the server replied “No problem” to the first question, then one would have to ask, what could have been the problem, anyway?  Were they recently out of chicken?  Was the dressing not made yet?  Did the chef have an innate fear of mandarin slices and wouldn’t make it, but thankfully today there was a mandarin specialist in the back room to help him through the tough part?  Instead, she stayed focused on each question as they presented themselves.  May I have this?  Yes.  Can you deviate from the norm at my request?  No problem.

“Miss, you don’t really mind if my children run around unsupervised and climb up the backs of your booths, do you?  Mommy needs some downtime with a pomegranate martini.”

Actually…that’s kind of a problem.

“Hi….ummmm…I hate to bother you, and I’m not sure how to say this because it’s so weird, but I think someone is having sex in the ladies’ room.”*

o.0

PROBLEM!  Big, huge, not-gonna-end-well-for-anyone, someone-needs-to-work-on-their-decision-making-skills type of problem.

*Note: That really happened.

“Hi, I’d like to order my food, straight off the menu, with no special requests.  I know exactly what I would like, how I would like it, and I’m ready to answer any question you might have, decisively and cheerfully, in anticipation of a pleasant dining experience.”

No problem.  BZZZT!  Wrong!  Thank you for playing.  Please try again.

Oh, I’m sorry.  Was I interrupting something?  I didn’t mean to intrude on your busy texting and flirting-with-the-co-workers schedule, but as I have walked into a restaurant for lunch and it is customary that a representative employed by said restaurant should take my order and bring me food in exchange for money and a service tip, I’d really like to get this transaction underway.  *sigh*  There was nothing special to accommodate when we spoke with our waitress.  There were no unusual requests, no climbing children, no allergies, no restroom sexytime.  We stated, in a straightforward manner, what we wanted.  (See the difference between the request and the statement?)  There was just…the expectation that she would do her job as defined by management, in a satisfactory manner.

I can already hear some of you saying, “Oh, come on.  That’s just a figure of speech, and she was just being nice.”  I say to you, WRONG!  Here is why: because words?  Have meanings.  “No problem” indicates that by our presence, we’ve created an issue that the server needs to resolve.  Nice way to beat a path to your clientele’s heart. The smartasses in the room will in all likelihood point out that I did have a problem; I was hungry and wanted lunch.  You say “problem”.  Restaurants call that “business”.

In this sort of instance, the traditional response is quite usually the best one.  In response to the table thanking you for taking their (very easy, straightforward, uncomplicated) order, you the waitstaff should say…are you ready for this?…

You’re welcome.”

See?  Not that difficult.  Same amount of syllables as “No problem” so long as you preserve the contraction.  And it passes no judgment on the efficacy or moral weight of the table-waiting transaction.  I could go on about how I think this is symptomatic of the rise of the entitlement culture (which I do) or about how management needs to be more fastidious in their coaching (breaking bad habits and all; management, you need to get in there) but here’s the thing: that’s all lumped under the umbrella of “what I would fix if I were queen of the universe”.  And as much as anyone, I get that working in a restaurant is a transitional job for a lot of people.  I get that you’re tired of waiting on people, you’re tired, you’re hung over, you have a paper to write, your feet hurt, you’re fighting with your boyfriend, you’re worried because your kid is sick, you’re biding your time until you graduate from college, your last table was bitchy through no fault of your own (customers who do this, you know who you are and shame on you), your rent is due, there’s a great party going on that you’re missing, or you’d simply rather be laying under a palm tree on a white sand beach.  I get it.  And it’s hard, when one of these or a million other things are crowding inside your head and pulling your attention away from the task at hand.  But people, please.  Manners matter.  Think about what you’re saying to someone.  Think about how you would like to be treated, out to lunch with a girlfriend on a Sunday afternoon.  Would you like to feel like you’ve participated successfully in a business transaction that’s been positive for everyone involved?  Or would you like to feel that you’re, at best, not being viewed as a problem?

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