Our Inaugural Q and A!

We have a special event today here at Waiternotes blog: Our first question to answer! Ivy asked:

. . . what would you do when you saw a lot of food left on the plates , and your guest gave you an ugly face and ask for check, and as a wait staff ,you ask if they want a to go box, they commented the food is too spicy. At this point, you will just bring them the check , or see their comment as a complaint and make a deduction of the bill or anything to compensate your guests ???

Waiters – and I am one – love this kind of question. There are variables here; this guest has presented a bit of a challenge; it’s definitely a judgment call; and we get to show off some of our narrow expertise.

Since all my readers are good, professional waiters (if they are waiters at all), we must assume he/she has done the ‘Check Back.’ This is one of the universal steps of service. No matter what level of dining, if a guest sits at a table and a waiter takes his order and delivers his food, the Check Back is part of the program. Check Back is, once the food is delivered, returning in a few minutes/bites to check that the meal has been prepared to the guest’s satisfaction. If not, steps are taken to remedy the situation before the meal is completely over. For the ‘problem’ to get to this stage Ivy describes, the Check Back checkpoint was passed successfully.

Now. I’d give 50-50 this guest is bucking for a free dinner. The alternative is that he is resigned he’s going to have to pay, and wants to take home the food anyway – maybe someone else will eat it. The server, first (and maybe later the manager), must make a judgment call. Is the guest a lowlife, a sleazy operator? Has he demonstrated other shifty behavior, like complaining about prices or the strength of his cocktail? Was he apparently eating and enjoying his meal up until the end? Is it likely he just got too full (from eating two loaves of bread), and that’s the real reason he didn’t finish? If so, he’s trying to scam you.

What you do with a scammer depends on your restaurant and how it’s run. If you work at TGIFridays or Outback Steakhouse or some big corporate chain, then you will most assuredly notify the manager. The manager, feet up on his desk, will look up at you through a haze of cigarette smoke and tell you, ‘Comp it.’ Chains don’t f-around with possible complaints. A complaint that gets into the corporate hierarchy is like a virus that incubates and multiplies at each stop. When the local manager hears about it again, it’s been blown so out of proportion he’s lucky if he has a job when things get settled. And the guest gets a bunch of free food anyway, when all is said and done. So they just buy the food and move on, living another day in the rat race.

If you work at a Mom ‘n Pop restaurant, as I do at Carney’s Corner, there’s a good chance that guest is going to eat that food – with his wallet if not his mouth. Carney would go to the table and say, saccharin-sweet, ‘I wish you had told us when we came back and asked how you liked it. We could have made you a new one.’ And she would walk away. Maybe she would try to buy them some after dinner drinks . . . but maybe not.

The waiter is going to get a crummy tip, but in this case it doesn’t feel that bad, because A) you feel satisfied that this jackass didn’t get over on you guys, and B) the tip would probably have been bad in any event. Mom ‘n Pop places don’t have to worry as much about BS complaints. As the saying goes, ‘If this is the way you behave, we don’t want your business.’ End of story. Guest never returns; Mom ‘n Pop get no more fake complaints from this a-hole.

On the other hand, sometimes spicy food builds up on you. By your fifth bite, your mouth is burning, and you can’t taste anymore. This guest might be being honest. If the guest passes the bullshit test, and has otherwise behaved well, the first step is to apologize. Pack it up to go.

At this point, I personally probably wouldn’t comp the entrée. After all, you did proper diligence to make sure things were okay, with the Check Back. Plus, he ate some, and is taking the food to go. I would be inclined to either discount it (if the system allows) or give away a free appetizer voucher or free drink chips (if your restaurant has such things) for their next visit.

After all, chain restaurants aren’t misguided in everything they do. Repeat business is what sustains restaurants. Making a guest happy now with a free $10 appetizer might well mean $500 or $1000 more business from him in the next 12 months.

And, also, let’s not overlook the human aspect. We all know what it’s like to be disappointed in a restaurant. If this guest is a good guy, he deserves some real sympathy. It sucks to go out expecting a great meal and a great time and have some aspect of it go sour (or spicy). Hell, I’ve never worked a place where there weren’t ‘Nice Guy’ perks given out just because people were cool – and they had no complaints at all. Hey, we’re in the business of fun and good times. Let’s do that.

Thanks for the question, Ivy.


Customer Types: The Decision Muddler

Your first clue is when you take them to the table.

Wife: ‘Is this okay with you?’

Husband: ‘Yeah. Sure. It’s fine.’

Wife: ‘All right then. But it is near the aisle. Wouldn’t you be more comfortable up over there?’

You offer appetizers, suggest a prawn cocktail. He says, yes, that’d be great. She agrees. Then she asks, ‘Are you sure though? The dinners are big here and you might want a salad.’

‘So I’ll order a salad,’ he says huffily.

As irritating as the Decision Muddler is, I do get some satisfaction that quite often her mates find her just as tiresome.

It gets worse, naturally, if there are more than two diners. Then the Decision Muddler gets involved with everyone’s order. ‘Ooh, that’s good,’ she comments. ‘But don’t you usually like the lamb?’

It takes a hard-headed individual to resist her, because people out to dinner with ‘friends’ are always so courteous of each other. So her fellows humor her suggestions that they reconsider what they really want. What should take two minutes balloons out to ten or more as you try to convince everyone that their first instinct is absolutely correct.

So you can repeat the scenario through every possible action. As a waiter, I quickly adopt the strategy of avoiding eye contact with DM; I behave as if she has said nothing when she questions another’s choice; when a friend does waffle, I strongly reinforce how incorrect she is and how correct the friend was from the beginning; and I draw attention to what DM is doing.

Me to other diner: ‘See? You thought you wanted sea bass, and it turns out you were wrong. Ha.’

Me to DM: ‘You’re obviously having a hard time deciding, so we’ll do you last.’

Me to DM when it’s her turn to order and she still can’t decide: ‘Tell you what. There’s no rush. I know it’s not helping, me standing over you like this while you decide. I’ll just leave for a bit and give you a chance to figure it out.’

I generally place my hopes for containment on peer pressure I can manipulate. Sometimes just a cross word from the spouse can improve things for everyone.

On occasion the DM will be relatively unhappy with her choice when I do the check-back (part of the Steps Of Service where the waiter returns a few minutes after serving the entrees, to check how everyone likes their dinners). I’ve been known to say, ‘It’s too bad you didn’t go with your first instinct.’

* * * * *

As this is the first post since Wednesday, I’ve really let things slide. At Michael’s (lunch), $114 and $130 Thu. & Fri. At Carney’s, $155, $200+, and $250 Thu.-Sat. Pretty good business.

Friday at dinner saw myself getting zero tables before 8 p.m. Looked grim. But there was a big-spending 14-top at 8:15 p.m. Some company supplies the military with NASA-type stuff, all European guys with a taste for serious eating, drinking, and after-dinner drinking (Courvoisier VSOP). I garnered a $418 tip there, and pulled down $465 for the night before pooling and tip-out.

Michael’s on Friday was busy with banquets, just ordinary with regular business (considering it’s ‘the Season’). I was on a banquet for a big VIP who brought in more than two cases of wine for 65 people. Despite corporate rules that corkage is waived for no one, we don’t charge corkage to VIPs. This hurt the bottom line, obviously, but then, we did get the rest of the business in a rough climate. I’d guess the final tab including gratuity was in the $8000 range. As always with Michael’s, even with volume down, the people with money still have money and still spend it.