Challenging Conventional Wisdom – Round Two

I enjoyed writing the last column about Challenging Conventional Wisdom so much, I realized I have a couple more arrows in my quiver. Please, keep in mind, I’m having fun here.

Without further delay, here a couple more etched-in-stone restaurant industry standards that I think are pretty much BS.

‘Never Scoop Ice With The Glass!’

I’d like to apologize: To my first trainer at Red Robin. To all subsequent trainers at every new job along the way. To my managers. To my restaurant’s owners. To my mom. And to anyone who’s generally just a tight-ass about safety.

I’m sorry.

I always scoop with the glass. I only use the ice scoop when it’s faster and more convenient (say it’s a big scoop and I’m filling multiple glasses), or else when the glass I’m using is something unusually delicate, like a wine glass.

For the non-waiters reading this (are there any?), you are never supposed to fill glasses with ice by digging the glass itself into the ice well – an act which is, of course instinctual. Instead, you’re supposed to used an ice scooper, and transfer the ice from the scooper into the glass. So that’s one reason for the rule, correcting what’s otherwise natural behavior.

Others reasons/justifications are:

  • Sanitation, supposedly. Your hand goes into the ice, possibly transferring waiter germs.
  • Eliminating time-consuming accidents. ‘Oh, shit! A glass just broke in the well! Now we have to burn the well (melt the ice with volumes of hot water till the well is clean and the glass is picked out).‘ If it’s your only well, you’ve got some serious hoops to jump through to keep serving – never mind the labor and time involved with burning the well and refilling it. Even if it’s not your only well, it’s a big pain in the ass.
  • Finally, probably the biggest reason (or at least the most politically correct) is safety. It’s virtually impossible to spot broken glass in a sea of ice cubes. You think you found all the pieces . . . well if you’re wrong, you might end up serving a piece of glass in someone’s drink. I believe swallowing a shard of glass would be very harsh on the digestive system.

But I still do it. You know why? Because modern glasses do not break in ice anymore. Today’s water glass is approximately as durable as stone. Have you ever examined a well-used water glass? It is a serious piece of engineering. The lip is beaten and scuffed and worn down, but not chipped or cracked. It is probably made with some silicone or plastic mixed in, much like shatter-proof windshields. Yes, it can be broken – for instance if you dropped one from 10 feet onto a cement floor (I say 10 feet, because I’ve dropped many from 5 feet – shoulder height – or less and had the damn things simply bounce). I’ve actually had dropped water glasses break plates.

Over the years, in my career as an irresponsible, selfish, public-endangering waiter, I’ve broken maybe five or six glasses ‘in the ice.’ I’ve been waiting tables since 1986, and I’ve certainly been a glass-scooper since at least ’88. That is not a lot of broken glass. In the interval, I’ve saved tons of accumulated time and movement . . .

‘. . . and made my guests happier with my prompt service and in the process . . . made more tips!’ – This message brought to you by every script-reciting, ‘motivational,’ monthly-Saturday-afternoon-Staff-Meeting corporate manager I ever had.

[Incidentally, I just mimed both actions: 1) grabbing a glass and scooping. 2) grabbing a glass, grabbing the ice scoop, scooping, dumping scooped ice into glass. Using the scooper (#2) takes twice as long. It took about 2 seconds to complete #1. How many iced teas, sodas, and waters do you think I’ve served over the years?]

How To Be A ‘Safe’ Glass-Scooper

There is a technique to glass-scooping, but I hesitate to espouse that if everyone learned proper technique we could, as a nation – as a planet – eliminate all dedicated ice scoopers. Instead, I say simply that this works for me:

  1. With a supple and not-firm wrist, slide the glass into the ice. Take care to dip into the center of the well, not at the metal edges of the bin, where you might encounter . . . the metal edges, or else refrozen and hardened blocks of ice. The center is where the loose – safe – ice resides.
  2. Do not scoop boldly. Think ‘dip,’ not ‘plunge.’ Consider it more like gathering ice, almost as if it were liquid you were collecting.
  3. Do not scoop two glasses at once as they might bang into each other.
  4. When you’re done, glance at the rim of the glass. If something has broken or chipped, you should be able to notice it.
  5. If there is a crack or a chip on the glass, step away from the well and be very quiet. Wait till the area clears of personnel, then tell the next busser you see that someone has broken a glass in the ice, and ‘we’ need to burn the well.

But, as I say, a beaker has been known to break in the dark practice of glass-scooping. What happens? Well, I catch it. I examine the glass, see that it has broken, and, damn! . . . where’s that busser?

And then I wait another four or five years for it to happen to me again.

**I would also add that I’ve seen many a glass broken by the heavy lead (or aluminum) ice scooper itself. Are we actually saving, net, any broken-glass-over-ice incidents here?

Now, were I a bartender, and that was all I was did – make drink after drink after drink – I would use the scoop. A busy bartender doesn’t have time to be doing visual checks on all her work. It’s like a touch-typist copying a letter – you don’t keep looking at the screen to check your work, you just trust your fingers and go.

Regarding the sanitation aspect of the rule, I have no patience for the idea that putting your skin in contact with ice is much of a health risk . . .

. . .

. . . hmm . . .

(I’m just debating whether to go on a rant about the suspension of disbelief the general public, and perhaps corporate restaurant honchos, engage in concerning the pristine path of hygiene that restaurant food travels before it ends up in front of the guest . . .)

Okay, I’m gonna do it. And I might as well make it my next item challenging conventional wisdom:

‘They Wouldn’t Do That At Home!’ – Round Two

Wherein the general public rails at exposés of poor restaurant kitchen hygiene. We’ve all seen the local news Hidden Camera reports showing Bill’s Bistro dropping food on the ground, picking it up, dusting it off, and starting all over again. And all the other stuff.

Some of us have seen the movie Waiting…, which is actually pretty funny and quite honest in most ways. It is, however, overly-weighted towards the disgusting and filthy apocryphal (kind of) tales of restaurant worker revenge (spitting in food, etc.).

Indeed, egregious and dangerous habits are practiced; there’s no limit the depths of human carelessness and disregard. This is not about those dregs. Instead I refer to the average or better Bill’s Bistros who are just going about business as usual, where mistakes are made.

I’m not here to say all restaurants are cesspools and people aren’t willing to acknowledge it. I’m saying that, yes, We Would Do That At Home!

  • We’re at home, breading a chicken breast and it slips – oops! – and hits the floor. Yes. We’re picking it up, rinsing it off and getting back to the business of making dinner.
  • We’re at home, and notice some lamb chops have been in the freezer quite awhile, probably too long, but we can’t be totally sure . . . Well, better hurry up and cook ’em. And make sure to slather on a lot of sauce. Even mint jelly!
  • We’re at home, ready to toss a salad (this is before dinner, remember), and the salad tongs are in the dishwasher. Hey, no kidding, we actually grab it with our hands and toss it up!
When You Were A Kid (or Even Now) You Pick This Up, Don't You?

The short-hand justification I’ve heard most recently (from waiters inside the restaurant) is, ‘They want me to make their martini extra dirty with the same olive juice every waiter in the restaurant is dipping his fingers into?’

Even if your restaurant uses ‘virgin’ juice (kept in the well by the bartender, as Carney’s does), you can still get the general sensation of disgust by considering any bar garnish dropped into the cocktail you’re drinking. Fingers, fingers, fingers!

Well, I’d like to give the finger to anyone who has a problem with mine or any of my co-workers fingers. Please, people, release the clutch on your sphincter and instead grip reality:

People are handling your food. Why does it not bother you watching Iron Chef? You know it happens.

Even if in some hermetic dream you are in a place where the chefs all use tongs and spatulas, change rubber gloves after handling each new item, and use hand sanitizer after they snap their fingers (after all, the Thumb might have infected the Middle Finger!) . . . even if . . .

What do you think has been going on further up the ‘Food Service Chain?’ How ’bout the guys at Sysco? Or the meat purveyor? Or the truck drivers who might or might not have cleaned their semi-trailer properly between shipments? Or the boys and girls in the slaughterhouses in Kansas City and Chicago? Or even the damn cow or chicken or pig or head of lettuce itself?

Food is prepared by humans. (And if it’s not, then it’s a plant that’s probably been pissed on by animals.) It’s been that way since the dawn of man. Somehow, civilization has advanced lo-these-many-years with human beings touching the food all the time.

How have people survived?

I have no idea. Must be some sort of built-in defense system in the human body . . .


9 thoughts on “Challenging Conventional Wisdom – Round Two

  1. PurpleGirl Fri, November 20, 2009 / 4:13 am

    The ice scooping thing drives me crazy, especially since we have freaking PLASTIC CUPS. And the managers still get all fucking up in arms about it.

  2. nativenapkin Mon, November 23, 2009 / 6:08 pm

    I like it. I always take joy in doing the glass in the ice thing when the tight sphinctered manager is right there just so I can see the look of horror on their face.

    One thing I don’t do at home that I have to throw the management penalty flag on at work is “Speed bussing”: five glasses lifted off a table, one finger in each. Yuck.

  3. waiternotes Mon, November 23, 2009 / 6:46 pm

    Thanks for the comments, all.

    Nativenapkin, we all have our pet peeves. I’m generally in favor of expedience over form when no harm is done … so I would *conceptually* not have much of a problem with 5-glasses/5-fingers. However, this one is gross, and it breaks the main rule that guests should never see the seamy underbelly of the your restaurant. Like in my examples, if the guest saw you drop the chicken breast, you would throw it away and not think twice. They do not need to see some sweating 19-year-old’s greasy fingers on the insides of the glasses they’ll be drinking from later on. And, yes, perhaps your bigger point is that not every sordid restaurant habit is justifiable. Just some of them. 🙂

  4. Ex-Restaurant Manager Sun, November 29, 2009 / 12:40 am

    Any and all excuses, practices, and strategies for scooping ice with a glass in an ice bin is bull-shit. Obviously 5 seconds of your time is worth more than your customers health. I’ve experienced a customer with a cut mouth from slivers of glass in an ice bin. Not fun. Get over yourself and do what’s right. Take the time.

    • waiternotes Sun, November 29, 2009 / 12:54 am

      SmartGuy – Thanks for your comments. Perhaps this blog isn’t for you. Maybe you’ll find my other blog less offensive:

      • Ex-Restaurant Manager Sun, November 29, 2009 / 11:53 am

        So, if someone disagrees with something you write, they are not welcome to comment? No offense was meant, so I’m sorry if it was taken that way. My words “Get over yourself” were probably over the line and just a gut reaction to one of my pet peaves. I’ve had to ‘burn’ an ice bin too many times in the past, usually in the middle of a rush.

      • waiternotes Wed, December 2, 2009 / 11:59 am

        Of course you’re welcome to comment. In case anyone doesn’t know, I approved (and was free to edit – but didn’t) your comment before it appeared on the site. I was just trying to answer in the same spirit as your initial comment. As I stated at the beginning of the column in question, ‘…just having fun here.’

  5. Marjorie Mon, December 7, 2009 / 9:11 am

    I have to say, I would be on the ‘don’t scoop with the glass’ side – the outside of the glass may easily have picked up bactiria etc from being handled, which will be transferred into the (melting) ice and into the drinks, even if the server scooping manages not to get his or her fingers into contact with the ice.

    I’m not wholly convinced by the ‘would you do it at home’ argument – if I am at home, yes, I might – but then, if I decide to (say) rinse off and use the bit of chicken I’m doing it with full knowledge of the risks (including knowing, for instance, how recently the floor has been washed, how much traffic there has been through since it was washed) I can choose to take tha risk for myself, but I shouldn’t have somone else (especially a professional) deciding for me, without my knowledge or consent, whether that is an acceptable risk.

    I understand that my food will be handled, but if it is, I expect it to be handled (as it is in my home) by someone who has washed their hands thoroughly first.
    Also, as a waiter you are contantly handling stuff which has been touched by a lot of other people. I may feel confident that *your* personal hygiene is great, but if the customer before me went to the bathroom, didn’t wash his hands, handled his glass and crockery which you then cleared away…. you see where this is going.

    • waiternotes Thu, February 11, 2010 / 4:19 am

      Sorry, Marjorie, if at this late date you are long gone. But I missed your very coherent comment the first time. I appreciate your care taken. And I don’t really want to disagree with anything you say.

      At the same time, the whole of what you say is *exactly* what I’m talking about.

      There is a long chain of food handling. There is a long chain of things/people each food handler has touched (and maybe not washed his/her hands after).

      And most importantly to my point, this specific situation has been going on for centuries. While there is no reason not to exercise caution, the ordinary level of caution that has served our country for many years seems to have been effective. Population continues to grow. And any scandals of mass deaths continue not to be associated with food service.

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