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or, "I'm an actor! (Not a waiter!)"

Anyone from Los Angeles or New York and maybe even Chicago has heard this cliché — hopefully not from their restaurant server but certainly in conversations about abysmal service at various (usually chic or exclusive) eateries.

"Good evening and welcome to Nancy Fancy's Original Kansas City Barbecue, Pizza and Pub. My name is Joleen-Marie and I'll be your server tonight; can I get anybody something from the bar?"

What a mouthful. I guess the perfect answer to the question that ends that paragraph is, "My name is Paul and I'll be your customer tonight. By the way, make mine a double Tanqueray martini, very dry, on the rocks — with olives."

There are bad servers, good servers, and the rare but occasional server who epitomizes everything a restaurant employee should be. Dining out often is something that my friends and I enjoy. Now, our bunch is easy-going, never in a hurry, and overall quite easy to please. Servers seem to sense this, so it seems to me, (unscientifically) that we receive good service far more often than we have bad experiences. And we chalk up the bad experiences to the fact that nobody's perfect; much less perfect all the time, and besides, shit happens.

WORK? MORE THAN FIVE HOURS A DAY? OHMYGOD!

Now, the restaurant business demands a lot from an individual. Long hours (usually), hard physical labor, a modicum of patience, and a rate of compensation that fluctuates and is risky at best. So I understand when waitresses and waiters occasionally gripe to each other. But I find it quite unpleasant to endure overhearing their griping — in their own place of employment. My favorite anecdote about this:

Waitress is standing behind the bar chatting with bartender. I'm right in front of them, dining alone at the bar. It's 3:00 in the afternoon and I'm the only one there.

Waitress: "I just can't believe that she quit! Do you know what that means?! (She holds the back of her hand to her forehead for dramatic effect) I'm going to have to pull two doubles (double shifts — a shift being 5 hours) in a row; Thursday and Friday!

Bartender: "When was the last time you had to pull two doubles in a row?"

Waitress: "When (name) called in sick so she could go to that wedding last month."

Bartender: "Well, think of all the money you'll make."

For clarification's sake, I happen to know that the young woman in question is single and is not a single parent; so the hassle and expense of babysitting was not an issue. Perhaps the two glasses of Chardonnay I'd consumed with lunch enhanced my sense of righteous indignation and loosened my tongue a bit; but I took the young lady aside and explained that I have been working, on average, eleven hours a day, five or six days a week for many years (in the restaurant business) and that the hard work hasn't killed me yet.

She sneered at me and said "but you're an owner; you make your money off the backs of people like me who make less than minimum wage and run our butts off serving bitchy customers and making lousy tips."

With that I walked away, not wanting to waste my breath asking her why, for the love of all things Holy, doesn't she find a job that better suits her, or at the very least a job that gives her less stress. And the bit about making money "off the backs" of people downright infuriated me. In this life, some people save money (I wasn't born with a silver spoon in my mouth) and become employers. Naturally, employers, by definition, cannot operate their businesses without hiring employees. Good employers provide a workplace where a competent person can hold a job and perhaps even make a significant amount of money; if they work hard. Bad employers reap what they sow and suffer the stressors of high turnover and even litigation.

The bartender asked me, in a nutshell, why I do what I do. My answer was immediate and is what I tell everyone who suggests that the restaurant business is tough:

"I have fun. My life is like giving a dinner party for 250 or more (mostly) very nice people every day I work. I like to make people happy."

Throughout my career I've been aware that restaurant and bar workers aren't necessarily the most happy bunch when it comes to their work. It's hard, when faced with a customer who's a total buffoon, to act cheerful, or at the very least like nothing's happening. Finally, memorizing the needs of up to 25 diners at a time is a skill that is extremely difficult to master.

Within E2 there are plenty of writings on the subject of restaurant workers and their customers: so you want to be a waitress, ten things I hate about restaurant customers and tipping for service are among the better writeups. Kindly /msg me if I've left something out.

On the internet, there are individuals who've taken time out of their busy careers to actually create websites dedicated to berating their customers and telling stories so spine-tingly disgusting I refuse to reiterate them here. It was after merely spotting the title of this E2 writeup (no offense intended to the writer; the point made was a good one):

I don't care if you're the customer, I still think you're wrong.

that I decided to re-visit these websites and perhaps (perhaps!) even re-think my golden rule of customer service: the customer is always right. Now, in all of my management and sales experience, sticking to that 'golden rule' has served me well. The operative words in the node title above say it all: "I don't care". This carries over to the business of waiting tables and bartending.

It's kinda like E2; lots of people have attempted to master it, but those who become successful herein adhere to a set of rules and conventions, some of which may ostensibly seem silly, some of which are hard to swallow, some of which are difficult to follow, but they adhere to the rules nonetheless; they care about their work; and succeed.

FINDINGS

The websites listed under "sources" have instilled in me a certain paranoia about what goes on behind the scenes at places I may dine. The interesting thing was that, at first, I was under the impression that the less expensive a restaurant was, the more chances of the staff wreaking revenge on a customer with a complaint would be. My unscientific observation has changed, there is no economic discrimination involved in restaurant customer abuse. If anything, the opposite was noted. A short list of observations after a long perusal of these sites revealed the following:

  • Woe betide the customer who asks for a lemon wedge for their ice-water* from a server who's "having a bad day" or "in the weeds" (restaurant-speak for being very busy).

  • Send something back (anything from a tepid cup of soup to a poorly cooked filet mignon) and when returned it's more than likely to have been tainted with the spittle (or worse) of the chef and/or your server.

  • Tip less than 20% because your server downright sucks and do yourself (and your fellow diners) a favor. Don't retire to the bar for that after-dinner drink, or worse, change your mind and open a new check for dessert and coffee. Only the Good Lord knows what these idiots will "garnish" your beverage or dessert with. (See above).

  • Tip poorly and utilize a credit card, and your name (but not your card number) may appear on the list of "poor tippers" kept at www.bitterwaitress.com/std/. Yeah, they keep a database of extremely poor (U.S.) tippers. However, not one of the "explanations" that I bothered to read outlined the customer concern/complaint that resulted in the poor tip. The only nice thing about it is that there's a button to click on to "submit an apology."

  • Decide not to have a cocktail (or, Heaven forbid) not have the appetite for a "starter" (particularly at a restaurant that puts pressure on the servers to up-sell) and you will experience some sort of discrimination — anything from a long wait for entrees to suffering dehydration before your water glasses are re-filled.

*What's this with the lemon in the water, anyway? I never liked it; I, personally, think it's snobby.

NOW THE GOOD PART

For all the whining and bleating on these sites about messy kids, cheap tips, and customers they deem "demanding" because they happen to want something during a very busy time, there's a silver lining. There are submissions from servers who love their jobs and out-and-out wonder why the whiners don't find another line of work. There are customers who don't realize that restaurant servers can be paid less than minimum wage (because the tips make it up) — and use the sites as a forum for public apology to those they've shorted. And I had to laugh with, not at, the guy who said that working five hours a day is just fine by him because he gets by well on what he makes and spends the rest of his time "living life to its fullest."

MY FAVORITES

Bless the women at the diner where I take my morning meal. They're genuinely interested in how you're doing; remember your orders, and if something comes out that's not quite right; they're advocates for their customers and take a lot of shit from the chef for sending back stuff that they'd be ashamed to serve. And their pleasant, helpful demeanor isn't just aimed at those of us who over-tip; they treat everyone the same way, even the little old ladies who tip 10% - and don't round up to paper money.

There's a waiter I know at an Italian restaurant who remembers our names, what we drink, and asks about our wives. He doesn't even hold it against us when it's Dominic's turn to pay the bill (Dominic believes that 'cause (he's) a nice guy' he can get service like this and tip only about 15%).

And finally, there's Willy. Willy's been shadowing me for two months now, and although he had restaurant experience before, he's sopped up my little tricks of the trade like a sponge. He's my Customer Service Coordinator; the eyes behind the back of my head. He's not only made me a lot of money (and himself in the process), but has instilled in the rest of the help a sense of caring about the customers' experience at our place. Now, of course he likes money, but, as an ex-convict, has some self-esteem issues. He's managed to flee the nasty part of the city where he lives (where the life of drugs and crime and the seemingly easy money they bring sings it's siren song) and is beginning to feel good about himself. When a customer gives him an extra-special "thank you" or tells him that he made them feel "like the only customers in the whole place" - that's worth a million dollars to him.


UPDATE 11/07/06: I received constructive criticism from more than one reader of the above writeup. Indeed, there are some customers who're all wrong. Another comment was that typically better service is given where the happiness of the staff is genuine; not dictated by some "blanket" policy. I'm not going to get into the business science nor market research that points to the success of businesses that tout a "customer is always right" policy. But in the long run, it's worth the short-term troubles and minimal expense.

With regard to the karma in our workplace; my employees are a very happy bunch. They make a much higher than normal wage, are fed two to three meals a day (from the menu, but within reason). We have a banquet/party for all of the Chinese holidays that invariably involves very costly food, lots of premium liquor and wine; and (ugh) Karaoke. Finally, and most importantly, our menus notify customers that an 18% gratuity will be applied to the bills for parties of six or more (whether or not they request separate checks).

In the writeup above, I failed to address the case of the rare customer who could endanger themselves or others, or is physically abusive with my staff (whom should be dealt with by the authorities, period. Liability attaches if one even attempts to touch a customer). All other ridiculous behavior becomes, in my experience, more and more obvious to whomever is committing that behavior the longer I or one of my staff patiently and calmly "active listens" to their problem and tries to think of a win-win solution to their problem. These unhappy souls finally end up becoming impatient that they're not receiving the reaction that they expect to their rants.

On a precious few occasions, I have refunded a customer's money but told them that they will no longer be welcome at my establishment. I typically do this to repeat-complainers whom I know will never be happy, but for some reason want to come back over and over (typically patrons who come for our live music presentations). By restricting entry, it's a way of demonstrating to them that their actions indeed have consequences despite my liberal customer service policy.

With regard to those who throw temper tantrums, abuse servers verbally, etc. They're normally considered "part of the entertainment" by the other customers because their behavior is so far off the scale of what is acceptable. Either I or the manager on duty (a very tall black-belt in Kung Fu) immediately intervene when one of our employees is over his/her head in abuse from a customer.

THE LAST LAUGH

My favorite story about obnoxious customers was related to me by Bobby Walsh, a former doorman at Studio 54. The club's phone system had a feature that would, at the press of a button, broadcast whatever one said into the handset out of every speaker in every phone in the place. In the course of his tenure at the famous night spot, he often encountered red-faced nobodies with money jumping up and down in front of him demanding to be let in, shouting, "Do you know who I am?!" Bobby would immediately press the speaker button on his phone and announce throughout the club "Attention, attention, I have a gentleman at the front door who doesn't know who he is, could someone please come out and inform him?" I still use that trick to this day when some wise-ass pulls that power trip on me.

SOURCES:

  • www.stainedapron.com: Edited by Kim Stahler - Accessed 11/8/06
  • www.bitterwaitress.com: No author/editor credited - Accessed 11/7-8/06
  • www.geocities.com/NapaValley/2201/: A/K/A "May I Take Your Order?" - "Not!" The website of Tina Tinker - Accessed 11/7-8/06
  • www.donttipthewaiter.com: Dennis Rymarz, Publisher. Web version of print-also tabloid newsletter for restaurant workers - Accessed 11/7-8/06
  • The writer's extensive experience in the restaurant business.