Ponder this:

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Restaurant stories

I loved working with Sue. We were gaited the same way and we operated as one waitress.  The value of a team player is physically measurable in restaurant work.  Sue was funny, too.
A horrendously busy weekday lunch: some local event that no one had foreseen had people lined up at the door, and only the two of us on.
The cooks were prepping as they cooked. Sue and I were both flat out. A madhouse.
She and I muttering to each other:
"Is that your order up or mine?" 
"Oh, who the hell knows. You take it. I need to clear C7."
The very same day that the owner came in to observe.
Sue and I, sweating and cursing without moving our lips, couldn't help erupting into giggles every time we passed each other.
After a half hour of the owner watching us from the back diningroom, he called us both back to speak with him. We were hoping he'd fire us and let us go the hell home. Instead he told us how great a job we were doing, "...and you're still smiling!"
He dismissed us and we ran back to our tables to catch up the five lost minutes, laughing even harder that he had mistaken our near-hysteria for professional cordiality.

One dinner hour Sue, then five months pregnant, joined me in the waitstation, laughing breathlessly, her entire face bright rose pink.  She'd seen a stray napkin on the floor of the diningroom and had squatted down to pick it up. I gather it is the nature of pregnancy that a mother-to-be can do a thing one day and the next day have gained the ounce that makes that thing impossible: she couldn't get up. Squatting with the retrieved napkin in her hand, she slowly, gently tipped against a diner's knee. And stayed there, leaning against his leg, unable to right herself. Without a word passing, the knee chivalrously tipped her away, and she pushed herself upright.

Debbie was so pretty. And such a good worker. Reliably professional, kind, smiley.
Another crazy lunch hour. Filling ice, clearing tables, running dishes to the back, greeting people, waiting with bated breath, feeling the eyes of the waiting line while Loving Mom elicits from her four-year-old darling his preference today of the five different soft drinks available. Finally, finally, Debbie was able to get to a table that had been waiting a little longer than they might have been under other conditions.
"You're slow!" the woman customer exclaimed to Debbie.
"You're fat!" retorted Debbie, aghast at herself even as the words left her lips.
She got the order and hustled back into the waitstation before she started to laugh so hard she could hardly tell me the story.

Friday night busy.  Four or five of us on. An off-duty waitress, Donna, came in with her family, and sat at Chastain's table.  Chastain came to me after a while with a carryout container in her hands. "Here. Take a bite out of this. It's Donna's."
"I'm not doing that!" I said.
"No! It's Donna's. She'll get home and see it and think it's funny."
We went back and forth for as long as we had...probably ten seconds...and finally I bit into the leftover half sandwich in the container and put it back.
During closing, Chastain said to me, "You know that sandwich that you bit into? It wasn't Donna's. It was that  [malicious, spiteful, or overbearing woman] that's always here on Fridays."

We had a pretty limited menu at the place. Most people came in knowing what they wanted, we got it for them and they left.  Every now and then somebody would ask for some small out of the ordinary thing. People who didn't eat pork would ask that the cook use a different knife when he prepared their food, or people from other countries would ask for "Glass vatter pleze, no ize." 
I can't recall what it was, but I remember an upper-crusty type who wanted one of the regular items prepared in a way  that was way out of the league of restaurants to which ours belonged. When I tried to explain to him the limitations of the kitchen, he retorted, disgusted, "Well! I should think they'd be able to do that. This isn't the Ritz, after all."

I own a book entitled Waiting: the true confessions of a waitress, by Debra Ginsburg. I identify with nearly every story she tells.  One of the chapters is entitled, "I am your waitress," in which she writes about customers who don't recognize the waitress as a person when they see her out in the real world.  
Being a waitress is acting. Put on the uniform: become a clothed smiling mirror.

Every waitress develops her regulars whose orders she can give the kitchen as she sees them approaching the door.  She and those customers share a little intersecting piece of their days and enjoy what seems to be a friendship. But isn't, really.  Some customers make the mistake of thinking the waitress, as she is in uniform, is as she is in her real life. I let it happen to me only once. A woman with whom I had interesting, if short, conversations during her lunch, invited me to a Celtic festival, to see a particular singer. She had a little crush on him because of his brogue, I think. We had a bit of trouble finding him, and she was disappointed. "He is such a spiritual man!"  When we were about to give up we happened across him and listened for a half hour or so. She kept looking over and smiling in confirmation: "Isn't he wonderful?" He sang the songs you'd expect: Danny Boy, Greensleeves...  He rollicked into The Scotsman's Kilt, and at the punchline, I shouted with laughter and my customer's jaw dropped. She turned away in embarrassed shock. As we hustled to the exit, she harrumphed that she had thought he was "such a good Christian!"
I think I probably swore once or twice while we were on our outing and not only did she not invite me anywhere else again (for which I remain, to this day, grateful) but she stopped coming in for lunch.
She was one of those people who think that performers are their performances. 

Editing to add: There's that tiny font again! Sorry.


Carolynn Anctil said...

Our local newspaper ran a survey recently that listed the top pet peeves of both the diners & the servers. It was interesting & funny.

I get the same thing working with the public, with men, especially. They don't understand that it's my job, as a salesperson, to develop a relationship with them quickly. It's my job to be interested in what they have to say and to laugh at their jokes. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy being personable and it makes my day go by much more pleasantly, however it is my job.

Lord Wellbourne said...

I have very fond memories of waiting tables. I have very unpleasant memories of waiting tables. I have the same sort of remembrances about working retail, too. Someone who's never worked in the service/retail industry can possibly understand how truly insensitive human beings have the capacity for being. The customer is NOT always right--sometimes the customer is a (insert expletive noun here).

Autumn Mist said...

So funny, I laughed out loud at Sue's predicament when pregnant, as I got down myself this evening to feed the cats, and couldn't get up again. At least I was on my own...!

June said...

Carolynn, I would have loved to see that article. I've seen similar things before and I always find that I agree with both sides' complaints.

LW, waiting tables and retail service, if done well, are both so much more intense than they look from the outside, don't you think? I remember one Thanksgiving dinner (I wasn't working, I was cooking at home for extended family) when I ran my kitchen like I ran my station at work. No one was allowed to be in my way. Everything had to be ready and served at its peak of piping hotness.
I drove my guests nuts.

Autumn, I laugh out loud every single time I remember that Sue story.

Lord Wellbourne said...

I agree completely. That kind of service, when done well, looks effortless and streamlined. It's a pity that folks don't realize how much effort it takes to make it appear that way. They wouldn't begrudge the tip if they did.

Barb said...

Hi June,
This brought back memories - I was a waitress all the way through college. My favorite was when a lady was being totally obnoxious to one of the older (and very professional) waitresses. When the waitress went to set her tomato juice down, it "accidentally" tipped onto the lady's lap. All of us nearly choked trying to hold back the giggles. Since she was an old-timer and very good at her job, she didn't even get reprimanded.

Von said...

Nothing like an expert performer!In my little part of the world the lines get well blurred so wait staff are to us real people and customers are real people too.It's lovely!I sometimes get to supply two local restaurants with goose eggs so get to go into the kitchen and chat up the chefs...do I enjoy it? You bet!
Love the stories keep them rolling.It's a tough job, customers can be pigs especially when drunk and a sense of humour must be vital!

Joe Todd said...

I couldn't stop laughing. Have a question for you is it mandatory for a waitress to say "ENJOY" when the meal is brought to the table? Seems like this started a few years back here in Ohio anyway. Doesn't much matter what restaurant your in.

June said...

Oh, Joe, I'm so glad you came by and saw these.
"Enjoy," mandatory? Um. No, not when I was waitressing. I think it's good practice to say something positive before y'leave people with their meals, but that sounds like a kind of shorthand that must have caught on.
I used to just ask if there was anything else I could get for them and ....wait, maybe I did say, "Enjoy!" :-o