Pet Peeves III – Holiday Edition

Merry Christmas, everyone! And while I’m at it, Happy New Year! Hope you’re still having a fun and profitable holiday season.

Like the rest of you (assuming mostly waiters read this blog), I’ve had a very busy Christmas month. Michael’s ramped up earlier than the previous two years – an encouraging sign, no doubt – and stayed busy right up till Christmas eve. I worked long shifts. I made a lot of much-needed money. I got a few ‘handshakes.’ My best day was $475, which included $150 in Christmas gifts, separate from the tips these generous guests gave me. All told, I’d guess I averaged close to $200 a shift for about three weeks. Michael’s is my lunch job.

My dinner job, Carney’s Corner, was hot for about two weeks – though not like two years ago and earlier. Actually, there was hardly any sense of the typical Holiday Crush, where there are a lot of large parties and tons of reservations. Instead, Carney’s had reservations only moderately heavier than non-holiday times. However, the walk-ins were very strong. You could count on them any night of the week. And there were also a lot more, ‘We’re whooping it up tonight’ vibes floating around – more high-digit wines sold, more steak and lobster combos, more appetizers. Non-weekend shifts ramped up to $150-175. Weekends, $220-250 per night.

I worked a lot of doubles. One week I worked four. I felt good this year. Sure, I got tired, but not too run down or sick. As usual, I kept the end in sight and kept counting off the days till Christmas . . .

I’m sure a lot of businesses (retail, especially) are hectic during Christmastime, but restaurant work has to be up near the top. It’s difficult for ordinary people to understand. First of all, there is a heightened level of activity and responsibilities for everyone engaged in the Christmas season: shopping, wrapping, social commitments, etc. So it would be stressful just to add those elements into a normal month. But restaurants compound the crisis by being twice (or more) as busy. Suddenly, your four hour shift is 6 or 8 hours. In my case, three shifts a week became five – at each job. A four-table station gets fudged up to five or more. Traffic getting to and from your job sucks away more hours of your time. You wake up hungover and tired because you were so tired from the double the day before, you treated yourself to a couple of martinis when you finally got home at 11:30 p.m. . . . Well, I did, anyway.

But it’s cool. There’s a perfectly beautiful symmetry to the year for a waiter. Most other professions will see Christmas coming and also see a lot of money they don’t have suddenly flying out the window. No so for waiters. Right when you need a bunch of extra money to pay for all the gifts you’re buying, all the socializing you’re doing – that’s the exact time you happen to be making a bunch of extra money. It works itself out every single year. And even if you happen to overdo the generosity a bit . . . if you file your taxes as early as possible, you’ll get a tax refund to pay the leftover credit card bills.

It’s really not so bad being a waiter.

Wait, did I just write that? In a Pet Peeves post? I take it back. Lots of things suck about being a waiter. Here are a few I’ve been making notes about the last several months.

Waste Sugar Packets In The Caddy

Why do people tear open sugar packets, empty the contents, then put the shredded paper back into the sugar caddy? Are they ashamed of the ‘mess’ they made, like they just soiled their own shorts, and they’re trying to conceal the evidence? Or maybe they think they’re helping, by keeping the rest of the table tidy?

It makes the restaurant look bad, because quite often the waiter does a brief visual check of the caddy and can’t detect that anything is amiss (the used packet blends in with the rest of them). Then the caddy goes out to another table, and the guest finds this trash. It also goes another degree further because the used packet is usually not emptied completely, and the diner unfailingly puts it back upside-down, spilling sugar into the caddy.

Actually this goes for any kind of waste. I’ve seen gum, wadded up ‘straw paper’ (is there a name for this? A straw sheath?), even stray pieces of food. It seems if it will fit in the caddy, it will be hidden there.

I know I already debunked the ‘They wouldn’t do that at home‘ myth, but . . . dammit, they wouldn’t do that at home, so why do guests think it’s good to do in a restaurant?

Wine Tasting Indecision

These days I take pleasure in not automatically assuming the man will be tasting the wine. I know it’s proper to present and pour the taste for the person who ordered the wine. I usually do this. But sometimes fuzzy logic can be employed if it’s apparent that the party isn’t too uptight.

For instance, the guy orders a martini and says he’ll take a look at the wine list for the lady. I bring his martini. He selects his wine. I return with the wine. At this point, his palate is fucked because of the harsh martini. Further, he was selecting the wine for the lady (though he’ll obviously have some later). So here I might ask if maybe we should have the lady taste the wine?

But here we sometimes run into trouble. The man will say, sure. I pour the lady a taste. She picks up the glass and sets it in front of her date. He puts it back in front of her, ‘No, you go ahead.’

‘No, it’s okay.’

‘No, really, go on and taste it . . .’

So she’ll finally taste the wine . . . and then shove the glass back to her date. ‘What do you think?’

I’ve also seen this play out in perfectly straightforward wine tasting scenarios – no cocktails or other mitigating factors involved.

People, do not pass around the tasting glass to everyone at the table so they can sign off on the wine. Either it is acceptable or it is not. This is not a question like, ‘Do you think this sweater matches my pants?’ If the wine is bad it will smack you in the face with its badness. If your sample of taste and bouquet seems inconclusive to you, then, the wine is fine.

‘Do You Mind Taking Our Picture?’

This isn’t actually a pet peeve of mine. It’s more of a curiosity. Why do people say this? Because, I do not mind at all taking someone’s picture. I can’t imagine a reason why anyone would mind. Are there waiters in France or Manhattan who consider this the foulest of insults? Are these waiters pitching a fit when guests ask them to take their picture? Do they passive aggressively shoot out of focus, or time the flash wrong, or leave people out of frame?

Or maybe it’s the guests themselves. For some reason, they think it’s terribly demeaning for a waiter to take a picture. Perhaps they feel it rubs the waiter’s nose in the fact that this is as close as he is ever going to get to ‘working’ in the film industry?

Wait. You know what? Maybe it is offensive. ‘This is a restaurant, you idiot, not a portrait studio. I am a Waiter. I didn’t spend two weeks training for this job just have you come in and treat me like a common photographer. I doubt, Dr. Wyrick, your patients ask you take a snapshot of them and their family when you finish the colonoscopy.’

Red Sweater Day

Like the inexorable calendar-creep forward of the baseball playoffs, or the backwards creep of the ‘first Christmas shopping day of the year,’ what I call Red Sweater Day happens earlier every year. Red Sweater Day marks the first appearance of the hideous Christmas sweaters donned by (mostly) women. And (mostly) older women. And (mostly) overly precious women. And (mostly) women who order cheap(est) wine and pretend they don’t normally drink more than one glass.

I saw a doozy the other night. A knitted cardigan affair in lime green with candy canes and snowmen (also knitted) affixed like ornaments to the front of the sweater. Read that again. Affixed. These were not designs in the sweater. They were separate knitted entities hanging from the sweater. Sheesh.

I think I’m pretty old (48 now), and I’ve been waiting tables for 23 years, but this makes me think I must have missed something. Because these women appear to be part of an earlier era or generation. But if so, where were they with their sweater in decades past? If it was a tradition that’s been going on all along, I would have noticed in 1987, when they were in their hey-day, sporting their Holiday Reds-And-Greens.

And if not, how did this entire generation get sold, so late in their lives, on the idea of garish holiday wear? Isn’t it a whole lot classier and impressive to simply wear your best outfits? As it is, it’s like an entire month of Halloween night – but Christmas-style. I don’t see people showing up October 12th in a Mummy costume. But these women don Santa hats, and scarlet sweaters, and snowflake pins for a solid month.

Maybe it’s just something old people do nowadays. Sheesh, old people nowadays! (You know, like, ‘Kids these days . . .’? Not funny? I thought it was, but if not, let me know, because I can’t hear you laughing.)

But with all the ‘mostly’s’ accounted for, the worst is the emasculated man in the Red Sweater-Vest in the company of ‘his women’ (I put ‘his women’ in quotes because there is no chance in hell or heaven or this limbo called earth that this man would ever ‘have’ women). He’s typically the white-haired fairy (not to mean gay – just the ‘fun’ guy) of the office henhouse, or the badgered accountant/teacher/no-level salesman husband. This is the same guy who makes bad jokes (usually puns) at every opportunity, and ‘his women’ laugh dutifully, because he’s supposed to be funny. Of course he’s not. What he is, is a disgrace to masculinity. A toy for the office women. Just like a girl’s Chihuahua dressed up in, well frankly, in the same damned sweater he’s wearing.

Don’t get the idea I’m against a red shirt or sweater around the holidays. I have a couple I will break out when the family gathers, or just for general wear on a Christmas vacation. It’s just a color, after all. My problem is with the guy who is decorated. And yes, you can always tell the difference if a guy is clothed by his garments or decorated by them.

Christmas Overtime Panic

A corporate thing. It was refreshing this year: I heard from a manager, himself, that the company wasn’t going to freak out about doubles this year.

Which was in stark contrast to every other year I’ve worked in every other corporate restaurant:

‘Dennis has to get off the clock! He’s working a double tonight! I’m sorry, but you guys’ll have to handle his sidework. He’s got to get off the clock!’

‘No. Even though Megan is willing to cover your shift on the 22nd so you can have Christmas with your 5-year-old twins, that would put her on a double that day and we can’t pay the overtime.’

‘Justin, Fred, and Eunice are here to help out today with the big parties at lunch. I’m having them come in late and leave early so they can still cover their dinner shifts.’

These are all scenarios I’ve experienced . . .

Personally, they all irritate me. But rarely do I even try to get a shift off during ‘The Season.’ So the middle one plays out infrequently. The other two, however, are the worst.

Look, it’s not my fault I have second job therefore making my 18 hour day not your problem. I don’t mind. That’s one reason I have the 2nd job. But when I’m getting stuck with extra sidework from someone making all the same tip money here as I’m making . . . just so the company can save $4? I have to get to my other freakin’ job!

Likewise, I haven’t worked these stupid lunch shifts 11 months this year just to have someone from the dinner shift come in late, wait on the big lucrative parties, then leave early without doing sidework . . . so they can fit into the labor budget.

For Christ’s sake (and I guess I mean it, as this is all for the Christmas season), can’t restaurants just reconcile that it’s going to be super-busy and they’re going to need all hands on deck? Just accept it as the cost of doing business. It’s the cost you’ve saved all year by having fewer employees, by avoiding over-scheduling just to give everyone ‘enough shifts.’ I mean, really, we’re talking about $8 an hour (or far less in many states) employees here. You (managers and corporate bean counters) are paying $4 more per hour for a person who’s generating up to 100 times that amount in sales each hour. Live with it.

And last of all, isn’t corporate mantra (at least as professed), ‘. . . anything that makes the customer happy . . .’? It might make the customer happy if you kept your restaurant fully staffed during the busiest month of the year, and paid whatever overtime was necessary to make that happen.

Happy New Year!


Proper Waiter Language

No, I don’t mean to be final arbiter on semantics and diction in the restaurant. We all have our pet peeves, our preferences.

In fact, someone has done this column already. There’s a fantastic blog called Sorry Not My Table, the post I refer to is I’m Still Enjoying Working On This. The author manages a fine dining restaurant in Napa, CA. He appears to be a great manager/ex-waiter. I can say for sure, however, that he’s a very talented writer; his writing is about as good and humorous as anything you’ll read in a ‘real’ magazine or book. Actually, it’s a lot better than most waiter featurettes that appear in the local newspaper or in-flight magazines. Please check him out. You’ll like it.

So it happened I read Sorry Not My Table’s post and it inspired me. This is not a rebuttal. I just want to add a few things of my own. First, the reason for even caring about how we express ourselves in the restaurant.

‘The Customer Is King’

The goal of word choice in the restaurant should be to make the guest feel comfortable. A large part of this process is establishing a pecking order, where the guest, frankly, gets to peck on your head if he feels like it. Sure, we keep our self-respect; we don’t put up with bullies; we demand some decorum in return. All of that. But we are ‘serving.’

This is why all these ‘waiter rant’-type blogs are so ridiculous in their righteousness that the ‘guest is no better than we are.’ That’s just not the point. The guest is dining out to enjoy the experience of having servants. What, not to eat? Of course, but (we’re assuming finer-ish establishments here) the desire to eat can be satisfied quite easily any number of ways. Why spend double, triple, or ten times the money to eat? Because you can be served like the wealthy person you are, or wish you were. This is the service we provide. If you don’t believe that, then you must believe there’s no difference between your restaurant/job vs. the hot dog counter at Target.

Because people are basically decent, most guests don’t abuse the fact that you place yourself below them. The nicest ones resist this hierarchy, instead working with us as equals as much as possible.

If all this is causing your skin to prickle maybe you should stop reading. You obviously have control and self-esteem issues. We’re just doing our jobs. It so happens this is the arrangement between worker and customer in our industry. But it’s like that in every job everywhere. Bob Dylan has a great song that says it all, Gotta Serve Somebody. Have a listen while you read (10 second commercial at beginning).

What I’m working up to is shaped like a doughnut. A lot of calories and flavor, with nothing in the middle.

There is no hard-and-fast rule for how to make a guest feel comfortable. One waiter’s stiff formality works on certain guests in certain circumstances; another waiter’s ‘How y’all doin’ tonight?’ is effective for her. I worked one restaurant where the owners forbade waiters to ‘talk to tables’ (in other words, converse outside of taking orders and asking necessary questions), while another restaurant made it a requirement to engage the guest in conversation. Both were in the fine dining realm, more or less.

I guess, with my pet peeves, I take issue not so much with the manner as much as the precision of the words.

If you’ve been reading even one post here (let alone the whole year+ I’ve been writing), you’ll know that for better or worse I let few details go unexamined. And in the brouhaha about restaurant language, this tendency is evident: We spend so much time on repetitious tasks (greeting a table, asking if we can clear their plates, etc.), we over-analyze.

But then, that’s the fun of the whole thing.

‘You Better Not Have A Problem With It . . .’

This is the one that galls me the most.

Me (as diner): ‘Say, do you think I could please get a side of ketchup to go with my lobster?’

Waiter: ‘Not a problem.’

Even writing it now I want to scream, ‘Aarrrgggggghh!

This one kills me because it takes an innocuous if irritating colloquialism, ‘No problem,’ and turns it needlessly into an offensive response. ‘No problem,’ I can understand because it’s deeply-embedded shorthand used across the country. Like, ‘Hey, dude’ for hello. Like ‘Take it easy,’ for goodbye. ‘No problem’ is practically a reflex that really means, ‘Yes, I will.’ No, I don’t like the practice, but I understand it, and don’t really take offense.

On the other hand, ‘Not a problem’ (and it’s on-the-rise slacker cousin, ‘No worries’) is about 10% colloquialism and 90% bald statement. When I hear it, my mind goes, ‘And if it was a problem . . .? I don’t care if it is or is not a problem for you. It’s your job and why you’re getting paid and why I’m tipping you 20%. I don’t need to hear a running commentary on how difficult I’m making your life. You could always just say, ‘Yes,’ and go do it. I do have the number of a good therapist you can call on your day off if you need someone to talk to. Meantime, I’ll just tell you what I need, and you can get it for me if physically possible. Is that going to be a problem?’

No, it doesn’t bug me that much.

‘You Guys . . .’

I’ve had a plan for about a year now, but the wife won’t let me do it:

A young female waiter says to us, ‘I’ll be right back with your guys’ drinks.’ When she returns and gives me my root beer, I say, ‘Thanks, guy.’ And then I proceed to call her ‘guy’ for the entire rest of the meal, as often as possible, or until she starts to cry.

Here I concur with SorryNotMyTable. It sounds low-class, coffee shop. But most of all, it’s usually not accurate. We are not all guys. Unless the waiter means to say hello only to the guys, and ignore the girls. Maybe he’s saving kisses for them?

‘Yes, Thank You, You’re Welcome’

Really, we’re just so damned bored and/or sick of the repetition in our job, we’ve invented these alternative ways of saying the same thing. Won’t just Yes and Thank You do?

If you’re having trouble, I’ve designed a chart to help out.

Directions: Use words in column headings. Shun using the substitutes in body of table.


Thank You

You’re Welcome

Will do! I appreciate it My pleasure
Not a problem Have a good one No problem
No worries Take it easy Think nothing of it
Right away! Take care Sure thing
My pleasure Come again No, thank you!
Absolutamente, Señor! Is that all? Yo! Holla!

Order vs. Selection

A long time ago, a trainer told me it was low-class coffee shop to say, ‘Are you ready to order now?’ She said it was much more refined to say, ‘Have you made your selections?’

I tended to agree, so that became my standard. When I train people I don’t make too big a deal out of it (like my trainer did), but I often mention it.

The thing is, though, is ‘order’ really that bad? It’s actually pretty accurate, in a number of ways. The guest is ordering me around; he is placing an order just like he would for a book from; he’s even putting order into his dining experience by telling me what he will eat and drink for the next hour or two.

Still, I’m not going to switch back. But the contrast between the two words is illuminating:

Familiarity and Contempt

I’m sure ‘order’ did not have poor connotations even in most fine restaurants 40 years ago. It probably replaced, ‘So whatcha want?’

A word becomes wrong when we finally get sick of hearing it and using it. Somewhere along the line, fine restaurants lost all their ‘customers.’ They were replaced by ‘guests.’ Customers are fine for hardware stores, gas stations, beauty salons, and even Tiffany’s Jewelers. But not for restaurants. Maybe we’re thinking too hard about this stuff.

The Trap Of Political Correctness

The whole thing ends up like a game of tag. Once one word or phrase is saddled with a negative connotation, like ‘enjoy,’ suddenly you’re a jackass for using it. Follow the progression of words/labels for various ethnicities or minorities: 1) Mexican to Mexican-American to Hispanic to Latino. 2) Crippled to lame to handicapped to disabled to physically challenged. To name a couple.

I don’t know who decides when a term starts to stink of negative stereotype. All I try to do is switch to the new term as soon as I find out I was an asshole for using the old one.

Of course it’s not nearly as critical in the restaurant whether we ever use the word ‘order’ instead of ‘selection.’ But that’s what happens. When I read NativeNapkin’s (Sorry Not My Table blog) post on this subject, he hated the overuse of ‘enjoy.’ I was mortified. I use the word constantly. And I can’t seem to stop using it. Even when I’m standing at the table, having just delivered entrees and checked that there’s nothing else anyone needs at the moment, and I’m telling myself not to say it, a kind of narrow, specialized Tourette Syndrome kicks in and I back away and say emphatically, ‘Enjoy!’

NativeNapkin has ruined a perfectly good word for me.

But that’s just how it goes. ‘Enjoy’ has been tagged, and it’s only a matter of time before the only place you’ll be able to hear it is at Denny’s.

Money – The Ultimate Hammer

Do the rich really get richer? I think they do. And I think the current economic troubles will ultimately result in just that: richer rich people.

I have an illustrative example; and though it’s a tiny detail, it’s something I’ve neither seen nor heard of in my 2+ decades of food serving.

A guest was looking through the wine list at Michael’s, and he asked, ‘Do you have any specials?’ I hesitated, then he jumped in with this story: ‘I was at this other place, looking at the list and there was this older vintage Cab priced at $230. It was a good wine, so I asked the manager, “Would you take $150?” He took a second, and then just said, “Okay.”‘

At that point I recalled the recent addition of a Manager’s Specials page to our wine list. That page has mostly orphan bottles we’re trying to eliminate, but there are also some expensive wines offered at a discount. I told this guest that as a corporate restaurant, we couldn’t make deals like he was describing, but maybe he’d find something on this Specials page. Which he did – a nice Napa Cab for $120 that we used to sell for $150.

I wonder, has this haggling been going on elsewhere and I’ve just been sheltered, or is it just starting up? As I said, I’ve never seen it before. The dynamic I see is that the people who still have money are using it as a hammer. They are kicking a restaurant when it’s down.

Don’t get me wrong. This is obviously nothing more than simple capitalism, and the law of supply and demand. That’s America. Even during boom times there are desperate, failing businesses where wise consumers can get serious bargains. No, I don’t blame the rich.

I’m just observing that as the rest of us scrape and squirm to stay current or avoid slipping too far behind, the rich are further solidifying their strength. In my wine example, I have no doubt that this guest was perfectly accustomed to paying the regular list prices for these wines. However, he can smell the fear in the air – or the blood in the water, whatever you want to call it – and he senses he can get over.

I serve a lot of well-to-do guests at both my jobs. White-haired men with pink faces and expensive watches. They will sit down, order a Ketel One on the rocks, and make friendly conversation with their waiter. Lately, the topic is often the economy. I might offer that it’s been awhile since the downturn started, and we’ve been holding our own, but have seen an uptick lately, and maybe this thing has bottomed out . . .

He will shake his head gravely, slowly. He will sip his vodka. ‘I don’t think so. This is a long way from over. It’s going to get worse before it gets better. I just hope you can hang on.’

Then he will order a $50 steak and $175 bottle of wine, and eventually tip 20% on the whole check.

He says he’s worried, but he doesn’t act that way.

I’ve had that conversation twice, and several others that cover similar territory. It always kind of reminds me of the clichéd movie scene where the avuncular-yet-somehow-menacing loan shark puts his arm on the shoulder of the downtrodden anti-hero. The loan shark offers a sympathetic smile, and the words, ‘You know you’re making a mistake, right? But you’re a good guy, so I’m gonna cover you this one last time. I can’t help it, kid. I like you.’

I feel a little bit like that poor sap is me and my restaurant. We’re going down slow; we can’t do anything to stop it. There are but two conclusions to the saga: 1) We hang on long enough until we are rescued by a rallying economy, or 2) We watch our restaurant bled dry of profits (and viability) as we cut prices until everything is a loss leader, with no positive margins to keep us alive.