The Secret Conspiracy to Turn Your Table

turning-tables

Every time you set foot in a busy restaurant there is a secret conspiracy going on behind closed doors, a synchronized and covert operation, designed to encourage you to finish your meal as soon as possible. There’s a good chance you didn’t notice because hospitality professionals are masters of deception. Fine dining has become a culinary shell game, distracting you with flamboyant presentations and table-side theatrics, while your next course is being fired against your will.

It’s a delicate balance, but we’re trained to hug you so tightly you won’t notice you’re suffocating. Pay closer attention next time you dine out and you might notice a more aggressive push to take the order, ever-shortening intervals between courses, and your bill arriving to the table before you ask for it. These developments violate time-honored tenets of hospitality but, in many cases, they have become necessary evils.

The fact is many restaurants can’t afford to wait for you to order at your own pace, to pause in between courses or even to ask for the check at your leisure. There is a new economic reality in the restaurant business where growth is impeded by skyrocketing rents, ballooning labor costs and cutthroat competition. Making guests feel welcome cannot be unconditional anymore. 

A recent article by a San Francisco restaurateur, whose restaurant Tawla prematurely closed, outlines some of the new challenges the industry faces and warns of danger ahead. Many of these external pressures—higher minimum wages, health care costs, talent drain—are uncontrollable so owners focus on internal elements to protect profitability. Raising prices is always a last resort and can alienate clientele. More aggressively turning tables, on the other hand, is a stealth way to increase revenue without charging more. Since we can’t just add tables, we need to seat more people at the tables we have. The goal becomes offering guests a great experience but delivering it in a shorter window of time. 

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Chefs have redesigned their menus for speed, prioritizing alacrity over precision. The trend toward small plates, not coincidentally, has contributed to shortening turn times and increasing cover counts. Instead of grouping dishes into courses, they trickle out out of the kitchen as they’re ready. Dining experiences have become more anxious. Waiters hover over your table as you consider the menu. Busboys bully-clear your plates. Dessert is on the verge of extinction with fewer options to expedite the decision-making process and clear the path for payment and departure.

This existential threat has forced the industry to question its traditional ways of defining hospitality. The new rules of engagement require guests to make bigger sacrifices. Many restaurants refuse to seat your party incomplete because doing may increase the aggregate time you monopolize the table. They also may not allow you to place your order piecemeal because they can’t afford to forfeit control of the pacing of your meal. If someone joins you in the middle of your main course, management may deny them the menu in the event that adding a new dish would delay your returning the table. Attempts to order more cocktails after dessert may be rebuffed or you will be asked to drink them at the bar.

Popular restaurants have had to cinch the waist on their reservation systems—booking more tables with shorter projected turn times. Even in fine dining, you’re rarely allotted a table for more than two hours. No one will tell you this officially but everyone will be working in concert to keep you on schedule. Weekday nights, there is a tremendous amount of pressure to expedite the first tranche of tables to ensure the second wave seats promptly. On weekends, there may be a third seating. Any problems turning tables early in the night can have a domino effect throughout service.

Restaurant management has become less apologetic about needing your table back. They obsess over cover counts because they have become the leading indicator of growth. Pre-shift meetings have become increasingly dogmatic about table-turning, often at the expense of honing service. On the whole, the industry is collectively less sympathetic toward guests who feel rushed and less tolerant of guests camping after the check has been paid. The thought of asking someone to get up used to be unthinkable for a restaurant manager. It isn’t anymore. ‘Can we get you anything else?’ is no longer a courtesy. It’s an ultimatum. Speak now or forever hold your check. Saying you don’t need anything else has become de factopermission for us to present the bill. 

As hospitality norms erode, purists will cry foul. They’ll tell you restaurants that forsake their guests will lose business. It’s a risk—hard business decisions have consequences. But this is no time for unicorn ideology about good service. Our industry’s survival depends on embracing a new paradigm. As input costs skyrocket, accepting the status quo will only lead to more restaurants closing their doors. Foodies can scream till they’re blue in the face about their right to occupy the table as they want, but without their willingness to compromise, in the future, there may be no restaurants left for them to enjoy on their own terms. 

Helpful Hints For Communicating Your Food Allergies

Researchers concluded in a recent study of food allergies that in the U.S. the number of adults who think they have a food allergy is double the amount that really do. The study determined that 19% of adults think they have a food allergy yet only 10% of the population actually have one. Though some might find these results eye-opening, they come as no surprise to anyone who works in restaurants. In fact, the study confirms what most of us have known all along: that a significant portion of the dining public, whether intentionally or not, misrepresent their dietary restrictions.

Twenty years ago, restaurant menus were written with very little concern for food intolerances. You had the occasional nut allergy, or nut job, and maybe a few scattered lactose-intolerant teenagers. Once in awhile, someone on Weight Watchers or Jenny Craig might ask you to prepare their food without butter or an elderly person with high blood pressure might ask you to go easy on the salt. Life was a lot simpler back then. 

Today, chefs have little choice but to plan their menus around the dizzying number of food trends—gluten-free, dairy-free, Vegan, Paleo, Keto, low-carb, raw foods. Menu items are designed to be retro-fitted to the nuances of endless dietary preferences. Our guests’ rapidly changing eating habits create many challenges for front and back of house. Interacting with guests who have special dietary needs has become a much more complex conversation. To make this interaction go a little more smoothly, here are EIGHT ways to better engage waitstaff when communicating food allergies in restaurants:

Don’t apologize – Food allergies are common these days so you have no reason to feel that calling attention to yours is an imposition. There are occasions when it’s challenging for servers to deal with the subleties of your diet, so show a little patience. As long as you aren’t embellishing, though, you have no reason to be asking anyone’s forgiveness. Profusely apologizing never feels genuine to servers and you risk coming across like you say the same thing every time you dine out. Servers are very busy, so cut to the chase. The more direct you are about your allergies, the easier it is for them to understand what information they should be conveying to the kitchen.

Never expect restaurants to know more about your food allergies than you do – Restaurants go to great lengths to educate their staff about the menu, but we are not medical professionals or nutritionists. Chefs often use ingredients they buy from third parties and it’s unrealistic to expect them to know if every one of these products is safe for you to eat. If we don’t make these things in our kitchen, we cannot be certain of what’s in them. When you are unfamiliar with an ingredient, it’s fine to ask “What is farro?” but don’t expect servers to authoritatively answer when you ask “Is farro safe if I can’t have gluten?” You should educate yourself about these ingredients rather than relying on servers and chefs who may not have the same expertise about certain allergens. If anything feels like a risk, order something else. 

Never conflate dietary preferences with serious food allergies – Your deciding to go Vegan for the first two weeks in February shouldn’t bring a busy kitchen to a grinding halt while your sever interrupts the chef to have a ten minute conversation about the contents of every dish you ordered. Too often, when guests overstate their dietary preferences, it leads to a much more exhaustive inquiry than is necessary. It’s maddening to waiters when they jump through hoops to protect people from an ingredient like butter, ask the chef to make all of their food without it, then if one dish can’t be made without butter, they say “Oh, a little butter is fine.”

Don’t use phony allergies to manipulate changes to the menu – The script is always the same: A guest asks for something to be changed initially and then—when the answer is no—claims to be allergic to an ingredient in the dish they don’t like. This is usually followed by a tantrum about how unfair it is that the restaurant won’t accommodate people’s food allergies. Credibility is important if you want people serving you to take your dietary restrictions seriously. We don’t take food allergies lightly so don’t play games. You might get what you want but not without branding yourself a troublemaker.

Notify your server of your allergies before you order – Food is routinely sent back when diners assume that because an ingredient wasn’t printed on the menu that the dish must not contain it. It’s ultimately your responsibility to tell your server when you place the order so that he can confirm your safety with the kitchen. Even better, when you make a reservation include dietary restrictions on your guest notes (either when you book online or by phone). Do not think you’re being difficult. Returning food in the middle of your meaI is far more difficult than having a brief conversation about your allergies with your server when you first sit down. 

Be clear about the severity of your allergic reaction – Not all food allergies are created equally. Garlic giving you gas is not the same as someone going into anaphylactic shock from eating peanuts. A guest recently put an Epi-pen on the table to make sure his server understood the seriousness of his shellfish allergy. It was a little melodramatic, but he definitely got his point across. Servers can become complacent as people frequently exaggerate their dietary restrictions. Making the severity of your allergy clear in the language that you use (“It’s life-threatening” or “I can get very sick from cross-contamination” ) will hopefully circumvent any risk of complacency. Your server may be annoyed, but they definitely don’t want someone dying at their table.

Don’t expect that every dish on the menu can be made to accommodate your diet – Many ingredients on the menu are prepared in advance. If mushrooms have already been sautéed in butter beforehand and you are intolerant of dairy, do not expect the kitchen to stop what they are doing to slice and sauté a separate batch of raw mushrooms in olive oil for you. The server will politely offer to remove the mushrooms and you should be agreeable or, if that’s not what you want, consult with the server and order something else.

Restaurants don’t owe you anything just because you have an allergy – You should never expect a restaurant kitchen to behave like your home kitchen. Try cooking for a hundred different people in your home and see how much time you have to tailor the food you make to everyone’s unique dietary needs. Most chefs do the best they can to accommodate dietary restrictions within the confines of a commercial kitchen. Respect that.

Why Abusive Restaurant Culture Will Never Go Away

2018 was a momentous year in the restaurant world. It will go down in history as a precipice—when the world finally learned how fucked up we are. The shameful skeletons amassed in our closets had outgrown our ability to hide them and finally burst into the public eye. The restaurant industry has been dysfunctional for as long as chefs have worn hats—so the revelations come as little surprise to those of us employed by it, who have become accustomed to the misogyny, abuse and bullying. We may never go back to the way things were, but it feels premature to declare the era of “Men Behaving Badly” in restaurants over. Anyone who thinks that is ignoring how poorly—prior to these public scandals—we’ve policed ourselves. How do you think we got here in the first place?

If not for the persistence of journalists exposing what the restaurant business couldn’t expose itself, these abuses would have continued unfettered. Now that we’re under a microscope, the industry is more attuned to these problems, but real reform requires real accountability not just excommunication of the worst offenders. In hospitality, we’ve always been conditioned that looking the other way makes everyone less suspicious. How can we expect victims to speak up about inappropriate behavior if the only people who can effect real change are the perpetrators? Sadly, it’s easy to imagine a world where restaurants slide back into their bad habits.

Cultural issues in the workplace typically start from the top and get passed down the chain of command. Restaurants owned by aggressive people tend to rely on aggression and fear-mongering as tools to increase productivity. Since they can’t be omnipresent, some restaurateurs train management to be aggressive by proxy. No matter how competent a restaurant’s HR Department is, it rarely has the authority to discipline the owners when the owners are the problem. This is why malpractice among CEO’s is tolerated more than offenses by middle management (See: Weinstein, Moonves, Kalanick). Subordinates who are victims don’t challenge executives because they worry their complaints will be construed as treasonous. 

Aggression is used in restaurants to test loyalty. The competition in elite establishments is cutthroat, which creates a cult-like atmosphere that coerces employees into accepting mistreatment. Management often subjects new hires to unofficial “hazing” to weed out prospects with weak constitutions. There are still many chefs and managers who believe that fear is the most effective tactic for ensuring the proper level of motivation and complicity. 

restaurant culture

Adrenaline fuels our business. Though it can be relentless, chefs thrive on the frenetic pace and the rush they get from powering through a busy night. But often, the endorphins of a chaotic service cause tempers to flare and egos to clash. Harassment and aggression in the restaurant world may be more violent than in corporate environments because we aren’t confined to offices and cubicles. We have a tendency to behave like uncaged animals, abusing each other to survive. Tomorrow, all may be forgotten but the psychic baggage we carry around with us is burdensome and usually bubbles to the surface in deviant ways. 

Misconduct by owners and upper management happens everyday in the restaurant business and most subordinates know that there is very little they can do to stop it. Complaints aren’t taken seriously and individuals aren’t willing to jeopardize their standing within the organization to call attention to the guilty parties. The dynamic is remarkably similar to abuses that have transpired among priests within the Catholic Church. Victim’s voices can’t be heard if the organization is only concerned with its own sanctity.

The most public restaurant harassment scandals—Batali, Friedman, Besh, Hallowell—have one very obvious element in common (aside from their all having been perpetrated by men): They were all the owners. It’s unfathomable to think that aggressive male owners will properly design safety mechanisms to protect employees from aggression when many of these male owners consider their aggressive tendencies to be the key to their success. Being a tyrant requires a lack of concern for the feelings of the people in your kingdom. Dictators ignore societal mores because they believe they know what’s best for their constituency. Restaurant owners who exhibit tyrannical tendencies rarely face criticism from their lieutenants, who must choose loyalty over ethics if they want to keep their jobs. 

In the meantime, while we wait for the next chef-shaming exposé, we move forward without having drawn a road map for accountability. It’s hard to imagine—since moral compasses have long since betrayed us—that without a map we wont end up driving off the same cliff again.