Taking No For An Answer

All restaurant workers have at some point been innocent victims of irate guests who can’t get what they want. Dealing with the fallout from having to say no may be the most consistent and nerve-wracking part of working in the service industry. It’s the root of the majority of customer complaints. You wanted something, and we wouldn’t do it. These misguided feelings arise from the idealism of the American consumer—who has always been taught that paying “hard-earned” money for goods and services entitles you to have everything your way. If a restaurant refuses to meet your demands then you can simply take your appetite elsewhere.

While it’s true that all guests deserve to be treated hospitably, people’s demands are often unreasonable and they have a tendency to communicate them with an improper tone. So many restaurant experiences become hostage situations when people can’t accept no for an answer. I’ve witnessed people walk out because of it. Being told no turns grown adults into sulky little children. Go ahead, throw a tantrum. Ask to speak with the manager. They may kowtow to pacify you but is it worth being branded a troublemaker? Most of the time, there are legitimate reasons why your server wouldn’t deliver what you’ve asked for and showing deference pays dividends.

What is often overlooked is the currency you earn for being compliant. Good service requires sacrifices on both ends, and restaurant staffs prefer to take care of people who respect the rules. Not only that, many restaurants work hard to cultivate an obedient clientele, pruning out insurgents. The friction you create by pulling the “customer is always right” card may be a threat to your good standing.

A guest recently asked me: “Do you have a problem with that?” when I gave her negative feedback on her unorthodox order. I was gently questioning her demand that each shared appetizer be served one at a time. There were four people seated at the table and it was impractical to serve it this way. My intentions were good—what I thought to be in the best interests of the table. She perceived me as being inflexible. In the end, she got what she wanted but not without compromising our relationship. I was following protocol. She was just rude. Rude people should not expect their server’s affections.

Most controversial restaurant rules are aimed at the overall health of the dining room, not just your table’s. Placing an order incrementally, for example, wreaks havoc on the kitchen and the timing of other tables may suffer on your account. We owe it to those other tables to prevent you from doing it. Asking you to stow your laptop is a courtesy you obviously don’t realize you should extend your neighbors. The light emitting from it disrupts the ambience we work hard to create for everyone. Oh, you don’t like the music choice too? Well, that’s unfortunate but do you honestly think that we can find one genre of music that will appeal to everyone? Even Pandora’s algorithms aren’t that advanced yet.

When you oppose these rules, you send a message that you put your needs above everyone else’s. Being agreeable, on the other hand, reinforces a positive relationship with the people serving you and builds the foundation for a more fruitful experience. You have to choose your battles wisely. Nitpicking about restaurant policies isn’t worth becoming an enemy of the state. Restaurant people don’t forget faces, and it’s up to you whether we remember yours fondly. If you end up in the doghouse, it isn’t very easy to get out.

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Let The Phone Eat First

A table recently called me over to ask for guidance on the menu. It was their first visit to the restaurant and they wondered which dishes on the menu were most photogenic. “Are you here to eat or take pictures?” I asked jokingly. We shared a laugh about it but you could tell they didn’t want to answer honestly for fear of being ridiculed even more. The food arrived and, right on cue, they discharged their iPhones like paparazzi—cropping, filtering and geo-tagging the plates in front of them for several minutes before they finally got around to the business of digesting it.

I’m not above taking pictures of my food. Food is beautiful. The care and craftsmanship that great chefs put into each plate deserves to be archived. I caught myself recently photographing a handsome dish from several luscious angles. To find the most flattering angle I spun the plate, repositioned the camera and even stood up to get a bird’s eye view. Then I tasted it. The dish was shockingly disappointing. But the photograph was gorgeous. A quandary. Should I abstain from posting the photo to social media because the flavor didn’t live up to the image? Should I attach a caption saying that it looks better than it tastes? None of the above, I thought. I should just eat the damn thing!

selfieSmartphone cameras empower diners to capture more than just food they dine out. One night, while artfully reciting the desserts to a table, a woman stopped me mid-sentence, shoved her phone in my face and asked me to repeat my entire presentation for the camera. When I demurred, she treated me like I was being rude. Having a phone in your pocket that can capture video means your waiter owes you a private performance you can broadcast on Snapchat? Is that what constitutes attentive service in the Age of Social Media?

Our need to document food experiences is disruptive to the flow of service and more intrusive to others than we think. A romantic dimly lit dining room transforms into a distracting strobe-lit club with the constant flickering of camera flashes. Waiters struggle to predict the timing of their tables when precious minutes are spent ogling the appetizers. Theaters prohibit photography to protect the audience, why shouldn’t restaurant patrons be given the same courtesy? As with other kinds of live performance, the problem with mobile technology in restaurants is that digital documentation has become a way of validating the experience. It’s hard to imagine that dynamic disappearing anytime soon.

Smartphones have become participants in the meal, there to weigh in on its success or failure. With a touch of a button, we can instantly arouse jealousy in all our friends that we scored a reservation at a trendy place. Of course, there’s something to be said for allowing other people to remotely share in our culinary experiences. But as our attention deficit widens and our manners at the table erode, one wonders if in our efforts to embalm our restaurant visits if we have lost the ability to actively participate in them. It may be unrealistic to ban cellphones from dining rooms altogether. At the very least, though, we need to learn to feed ourselves first. Let the phones have seconds.

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Five Reasons Dining In a Restaurant On New Year’s Eve Sucks

New Year’s Eve is one of the most painful nights of the year to work in restaurants. Behind the scenes, everyone’s normal routine is turned upside down. In addition to our normal chores like folding napkins and polishing silverware, we have to blow up balloons, lay out party favors and hang streamers. New Year’s Eve is always one of the latest nights of the year for cooks and waitstaff, customers have paid a lot of money and just don’t want to leave. And when they finally do, guess who gets to clean up the frat-house-like mess the partygoers leave behind? At more clubby establishments, it’s almost guaranteed that someone will throw up in the sink. Sure you can make a lot of money, but you’re also expected to manufacture fun for people who were too lazy to plan it themselves and whose expectations are often unrealistic. Restaurants have made a cottage industry hosting people’s NYE celebrations and they’ve learned a lot of tricks on how to take your money. The people serving you will try not to make it too obvious that they really don’t give a shit while they’re picking your pockets.

Most restaurants offer two seatings. The early seating is discounted slightly since you’ll be expected to vacate your table before the countdown. Even though you were warned in advance, this can often result in your feeling rushed. Guests pay a premium for the second seating which may include a ”complimentary” champagne toast at midnight. Some will feature a band, DJ or dancing. Prix fixes are usually well over $100 a head and guests will be expected to guarantee the reservation with a credit card. Restaurants feel increasing pressure to squeeze every drop of revenue out of New Year’s Eve because January and February can be painfully quiet months. Ever notice how many places close their doors the first week of January? They always wait until the holidays are over before they call it quits.

So, why does spending New Year’s Eve in a restaurant suck so badly? Here are five good reasons you should just STAY HOME:

Undue Stress – Going out to a restaurant on New Year’s Eve is a whole production for some people—dressing up, worrying about your outfit, getting stuck in horrible traffic, running late, meeting up with that other couple that you really don’t like who always cheats you when you split the bill. The pressure of making the experience memorable weighs everything down. For all the money you spent, it never really lives up to the hype. Speaking of which…

Surge Pricing – Restaurant real estate is already valuable in popular establishments and New Year’s Eve is a golden opportunity to gouge you. Most places don’t charge what they should, they charge what they can. They’ll advertise a “champagne toast” then pour you some crappy Prosecco. Menus are usually filled with all kinds of upsells and supplements. Add foie gras, a raw seafood tower or white truffles? C’mon, it’s New Year’s Eve! The sommelier will provide a wine pairing from the reserve selection for an additional $100 per person. The goal is to extract as much money as possible from people who are in a festive mood. A few more glasses of that cheap Prosecco and you won’t know the difference.

champagne

Apathetic Staff – The people serving you may look like they care but they’d much rather be celebrating with loved ones. The truth is: most of the staff is also probably drunk by 9pm. New Year’s Eve can be a lucrative money night for tipped employees but the staff is usually depressed that they don’t get to participate in the party. Occasionally, you’ll look over and see the bartender making out with his/her girlfriend/boyfriend at the other side of the bar while you’ve been waiting twenty minutes for your drink. Happy New Year, sucker!

Mediocre Food – New Year’s Eve Menus are usually very basic, stripped-down versions of the actual day-to-day menu. They’ll usually include a few token luxury items like caviar, lobster or Filet Mignon to bait interest and make you feel like you’re getting something special. Otherwise, it’s usually a pretty basic package of cookie-cutter dishes designed for speed, efficiency and scale. Restaurant kitchens function like factories when the menu is fixed, cranking out product with less attention to detail.

Too Many Drunks – Restaurant visits can always be compromised by loud, obnoxious people encroaching into your space. On New Year’s Eve, it’s almost inevitable. If you get drunk enough, you’ll fit right in. But if you’re looking for a more quiet intimate experience with someone special, the environment can become toxic at any moment. It’s a risk you always take when you choose to celebrate something in public. Only this time, it’s costing you a lot more.

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