If you’ve never worked in a restaurant, you may not consider your own role in the service process while dining in, and you may not think about the tremendous stress that the staff might be under. If you have worked in a restaurant, you may have gotten trauma flashbacks to running back into the cooler in order to let out a few lightly-salted tears in a safe, cold space where the customers can’t prey off your vulnerability, and for that I’m sorry.
Now that there’s light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, I find myself reminiscing on my seven years spent working at a certain antiquated restaurant chain that shall remain nameless, as well as looking forward to a future where we can once again enjoy the ambiance of the dine-in experience free of the viral paranoia that has dominated the past year. So if you’ve never had the pleasure of working in food service, here are some things you may not have considered about dining out. If you’re a seasoned foodservice veteran, walk with me down this path of syrup and shame, of ranch dressing and regret.
If you’ve worked for a sufficiently long time in food service – so about a week – chances are you have your own horror story. It’s inevitable. I could focus on the time I was called an idiot by a table I wasn’t even serving because a plate of pancakes that I did not set up was missing a scoop of butter. I may lament the time when I was still a plucky, bright-eyed host and a man screamed at me for minutes, not seconds, about something I had nothing to do with while his family looked on in terror and shame at the meltdown unfolding before their very eyes.
Instead, I’ll focus on something a bit more titillating. Back in my hosting days, I was supposed to check the men’s restroom every thirty minutes, a practice that nobody adhered to but me. One fateful Sunday, as the Sun was at its apex, so too was the horniness of the patrons, apparently.
It was as busy as the restaurant ever gets. You couldn’t walk three feet without bumping into someone. I went to perform my janitorial duties and was greeted by a handful of noisy young boys, faffing about with such youthful innocence. They didn’t know what they were interrupting. Once they left, the clamor ceased and all that remained was a fleeting moment of silent respite. I was alone. Or so I thought.
Suddenly, the solitude gave way to an intermittent banging sound coming from the handicapped stall. I peered into the large mirror that loomed across from the stall to find the very top of the back of a man’s head, and the lustful eyes of the woman he was making sweet toilet love to. In the unkempt bathroom of a restaurant. At noon. On a Sunday. It was as if they had just got out of church and proclaimed “It’s time to start sinning!”
While my bosses surely would have wanted me to interrupt their lascivious lavatory lovemaking, they did not pay me nearly enough for that. Instead, I got out of there as soon as possible. I must’ve looked like I had just seen a sexy, sexy ghost. By the time word got to a manager, the couple had either left the building or was simply hiding better. So while I know what I saw, I have no witnesses, no evidence. I was the boy who cried booty.
Why did I begin with this story, you ask? I wanted to set the tone. The hardships of working in a restaurant feel so very real in the moment, but they’re not that serious in the grand scheme of things. You need to learn to roll with the punches and try to have a laugh any chance you get. Some of the biggest belly laughs I’ve ever had occurred in the most dire situations at work. You either laugh or you cry.
The Role Of The Patron
As a customer, you might not consider that you are also responsible for the quality of service you receive. There are certain small things you can do every time you visit a restaurant to ensure that your visit is a pleasant one.
First of all, when your server approaches your table, don’t ignore them. It seems obvious, but I can’t even begin to count all the times I sheepishly stood at a table waiting to be acknowledged, only to retreat with my tail between my legs. Your server has a job to do. Let them do it.
The next thing you can do is keep your substitutions and special requests to a minimum. Especially at a chain location, there isn’t a chef, but grill cooks who are supposed to cook the food the same way every time as quickly as possible. The more you adjust your order, the more likely it is that a mistake will be made. Plus, items are designed to be eaten as is. I’ll never forget the time that someone ordered apple-cinnamon oatmeal without the apple-cinnamon and then complained that it was too bland.
Waiting tables is hard enough as it is, so don’t make it harder on your server. If you are finished with a plate, stack it neatly near the end of the table from which they are serving, that way they can easily clear it. It makes life easier for them and makes your table less cluttered. Don’t ditch your empty plates on the side of the table against the wall where your server can’t get to it. Don’t be an idiot.
While waiting tables is a simple job, it’s not an easy one. You take an order, enter it into the system, bring out the food when it’s ready, keep up with drink refills, take dirty dishes away and that’s about it. Simple. What makes the job hard at times is the immediacy. People are so impatient. If they have to wait a second longer than they expect, heads will roll and it’s your fault, even when it’s not.
Nothing that happens in a restaurant is cosmically significant. Employees aren’t taking care of sick patients or writing the next algorithm that will change the tech industry, they’re serving mediocre food to unhappy food. So why is it normal to look around the kitchen and see co-workers crying? It’s not a Sunday if no one has a breakdown.
Do restaurant employees spit in the food of rude customers? In my experience, not only does this never happen, no one ever even considers it. You would be fired on the spot for tampering with food like that. Rude customers are such an inevitability that you’d never get away with it.
Instead, the entire staff may just roast you into oblivion instead. Oh yes, if you’ve ever wondered whether or not your server is talking all kinds of shit about you behind your back, the answer is almost certainly yes. If you leave a bad tip, yell at your server from across the room or answer the question “How are you today?” with “Water with lemon,” you can be sure that things are being said about you that you won’t like.
The Gratuity Dilemma
The oxymoronic, optional yet mandatory nature of tips in America is what allows employers to exploit servers for as little as $2.13 an hour, yet is the only reason anyone actually waits tables. Thanks to tips, a server’s daily take can oscillate wildly. Earnings are dependent on the volume of business and a lot of luck, but in the aggregate, waiting tables is one of the most lucrative unskilled part-time jobs out there.
The dynamic of tipping is really insane when you think about it. These major restaurant chains are allowed to let the customers dictate their employees’ earnings. Imagine if law enforcement operated this way. If cops had to work for tips, perhaps they’d be a smidge less murderous.
It’s a cliché that pops up anytime someone on Twitter wants to put it all out there to defend leaving garbage tips, but people like to say that the word “tips” is actually an acronym that stands for “To Insure Prompt Service,” but does that actually work? On a macro level, perhaps, but individually, that doesn’t even make sense. The tip comes at the end of the interaction, so the server never has any clue what tip they’re going to get from a table while they’re actually serving them.
I never noticed any correlation between the quality of service I provided for a whole shift and my tips at the end of the day. I could’ve busted my own ass while kissing so much customer ass that my face stayed permanently puckered, yet wind up with less than 15% at the end of the night. Conversely I could spend most of my shift putting stickers that some child left behind up around the kitchen (which is a real thing that I’ve done) and wind up drowning in cash. It’s out of our control.
The Dynamic Of Performance Evaluation
I’m willing to bet that every single time you’ve ever dined in, you thought at least once about the quality of service you received. When it comes time to leave the tip, you’re left to quantify your server’s worth. It creates such a painfully awkward dynamic between server and customer. It’s all so phony and performative. Every shift spent waiting tables is a shift full of mini-performances.
It’s exhausting to have your value to society be left behind on a table.