We Can’t Yelp You If You Can’t Yelp Yourself

I try not to read Yelp reviews. When you work in a restaurant, though, it’s hard to fight the sadistic urge to read ones about you. It tickles when someone praises you, but, unfortunately, a majority of them have nothing nice to say. No matter how many reviews I read that involve me, their version of the events never quite match up with mine. Call it fake news.

I recently received a negative review by a table of two quiet men who dined in my restaurant on the early side. They ordered modestly and were cheerful but not particularly interactive. If anything they seemed a little standoffish—more into themselves than their drinks or food. They ordered a handful of small plates and nursed the cocktails I’d recommended. I checked back on every course to make sure they enjoyed it. They said they might order more. They didn’t. I noticed they left abruptly after paying the check and was a little surprised at their ten percent tip. I hadn’t gotten a vibe that they were unhappy. They did a masterful job concealing it. I went on with my evening blissfully assuming they may not have been versed on the local customs.

This was until I read one of the man’s scathing commentary on Yelp a few days later. “I never post reviews but I feel obligated on this one,” he began dramatically to draw the reader in. You could immediately feel the gravitas of the situation—he owed it to the general public to comment on his bad experience. Everything was fine, he said—the room, the bartender, the food—except the only thing he could not abide was the cold waiter (me). He mentions the restaurant’s Michelin star twice in three paragraphs, as though he and his partner had journeyed to asses our star-worthiness.

He laments about having difficulty getting my attention—apparently I kept walking away when my services were needed. I don’t recall avoiding them. He insists I thwarted his repeated attempts to build a rapport between us. I didn’t think our rapport was lacking. Instead, according to his account, I was more interested in “the pretty girls in the corner having drinks.” One of those pretty girls happened to be a member of my family, my aunt, who came by to say hello with a friend. Of course, a visit from a friend doesn’t excuse negligent service but why make the petty assumption that I’m being flirty? Anyone who would so blatantly misconstrue my body language with my aunt as flirtatious might just as easily misread my attitude toward his table as being dispassionate.

He proceeds to characterize my service as “beneath the quality necessary to maintain a Michelin star” and certainly not worthy of having spent $500 on a meal (even though their bill was more like $200). He finishes with a flair: “I will not come back purely due to the waiter and will not recommend to anyone.”

Really? Could my service really have been that bad? I promise you it wasn’t. It’s possible that my service didn’t live up to his unrealistic expectations. It’s possible I may have lingered too long visiting with my aunt but it’s not unusual for waiters to have extended conversations with other guests in Michelin-starred restaurants. We always have a roomful of people who want attention not just your table. If something was so dramatically amiss, why did they chose to keep it to themselves? If I knew they felt neglected (instead of assuming they preferred to be left alone), it would’ve given me the opportunity to make amends.

I will never see this guy again and he will definitely never see me. But he could have cost me my job or at least my reputation—both of which I deserve to keep. I’m good at my job and I’m amazed at how easy it is for people to say with certainty that I’m not based on one disappointing experience. I presume this is part of the sick pleasure some people get in Yelping. Sadly, the shadowy world of online reviewing can be very influential to a restaurant’s success or failure. Star ratings matter and the two star shitburger this guy left on our front door isn’t helping ours any. It comes down to this—his account of what happened that night is inaccurate and, unimpeded, it should not be admitted as evidence that might deter other people from patronizing my restaurant.

Crowdsourcing can be a useful discovery tool. I find new restaurants all the time in unfamiliar neighborhoods by searching Yelp or other online and app-based resources. But if you drill down, the vitriol you find under the surface obscures the accuracy of the ratings. What I’ve learned doing restaurant work is that often bad restaurant experiences happen because of a table’s own issues. The root of their malcontentedness has nothing to do with me—they’re difficult to please, went in with unrealistic expectations, didn’t feel comfortable spending so much money or simply didn’t enjoy their company. None of these issues have anything to do with food or service but, also, none of them will ever appear in a Yelp review.

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It’s Ready When We Say It’s Ready

“Just send everything out whenever it’s ready.” You hear this phrase uttered a lot waiting tables. It’s maddening. Well-intentioned guests say it as though they’re doing everyone a favor but, in reality, it’s an inconvenience to have everything served piecemeal. It’s not their fault—most people have no clue how restaurant kitchens operate. Spoiler: there isn’t a ready fairy that sprinkles ready dust on your food as soon as it’s done. Professional kitchens require disciplined organization to deliver a food experience both flavorful and punctual. Most of the time, this does not allow for the luxury of sporadically sending food out to random tables throughout the night. In the chaos of service, readiness is constantly in flux.

When your food comes out is determined by a confluence of factors: where other tables are in their meal, how busy the restaurant is and what menu items you’ve selected. But the path toward readiness doesn’t always begin the moment you place your order. In fact, most times it starts much later. The kitchen might’ve been just about to begin grilling your steak when a striped bass from someone else’s table is sent back undercooked. Now your steak will have to wait a few extra minutes while the grill cook “re-fires” the fish. Proverbial shit happens, but shit splatters all over the proverbial walls in restaurants. Nothing that relates to restaurant timing—including the availability of your table at the time of your reservation—occurs in a vacuum.

Ever wait gratuitously long for a main course when you didn’t order an appetizer? Your waiter implored you to start with something first, but you didn’t listen. You were certain he was just being solicitous. The truth is he warned you because long waits don’t only occur when dishes take longer to cook. Your food is often delayed because a busy kitchen has to finish the main course orders for the other tables who ordered before you. Even though you wish it would, time doesn’t stop for the kitchen to start cooking just for your table. If they start cooking your food right away, it will be at the expense of everyone sitting in the dining room who has already had appetizers and are expecting their next course. Preparation will begin on your dishes only when the kitchen has pushed out the rest of the tickets that came in ahead of yours. We’ve discussed this concept—what restaurants call “order fire”—in an earlier article.

To help the kitchen stay organized, most restaurants require the server to “course-out” dishes—to design a road map for your meal. When these schematics are poorly drawn, the guest experience usually suffers. Chefs will terrorize servers who make a habit of sending order fire tickets to the kitchen; firing food is cyclical and single-course “as ready” orders disrupt the flow. If you don’t want your food coursed, it will go in as an order fire. The server might go back and ask the kitchen to send the food ASAP but the Chef will tell him—usually profanely—that the food will come out whenever the fuck the kitchen says. Servers have little control over timing; it’s ultimately the Chef’s prerogative. If a salad takes five minutes, a pasta seven and a lamb chop fifteen—the kitchen will begin cooking the lamb chops first, fire the pasta eight minutes later and then begin making the salad two minutes after that. At the fifteen minute mark, all three dishes are sent out simultaneously and the order ticket is spiked. Fifteen minutes doesn’t sound like a very long time but it feels like an eternity when you expected at least the appetizers to be ready right away.

So why are chefs so averse to sending food out whenever it’s ready? There are a few important factors that help to understand why. Chefs don’t like loose ends. Staying organized is critical when the kitchen gets busy and sending out the salad, the pasta and the lamb at different times can lead to confusion. Did Table Fifteen’s salad go out yet? Do you still have a lamb working? Streamlining how food is fired minimizes mistakes. More importantly, in the heat of the dinner rush, different orders need to bundled together for efficiency. If the Chef has a total of three lamb chops ordered all day (“kitchenspeak” for in total), he may hold your table’s order an extra five minutes so he can instruct the grill cook to prepare all three lamb chops together. To be put more plainly, your food is ready when we say it’s ready.

Sending food at random creates havoc in the dining room, too. Servers need time to clear dirty plates, to reset and change silverware. Food runners will arrive to the table confused about where they’re supposed to put the plates down. Restaurants function like well-oiled machines and anything that violates protocol grinds the gears. It also leads to sloppy service. Do you really want to cut your lamb chops with an appetizer knife or eat your pasta on a plate with leftover salad dressing on it? Once you refuse to play by our rules, you have to sleep in the bed you’ve made for yourself.

As with many things that relate to restaurant service, it’s always best to defer to the expertise of the staff. A wiser approach would be to tell your server to send the order however he thinks is best. Remember, smooth service is in everyone’s best interest. Don’t sabotage yourself by thinking your way is better.

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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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