If Your Waiter Could Yelp About You

Let me start by saying I never Yelp about my guests. Ive been working at this restaurant for a long time—WAY before you read about it on Yelp—and most people consider me an excellent waiter. I get great reviews all the time, so I can only assume since you were such a problem when I waited on your table last Friday night that there must be something lacking on your end.

First of all, your Open Table guest notes said you were a VIP. I guess maybe my expectations of you were a little too high from the beginning. The minute I approached the table I knew it was going to be a long night.

“Welcome to the restaurant,” I said cheerfully. You didn’t answer. I set the wine list on the table in front of you but you were too busy on your iPhone to bother acknowledging me. It’s obvious that impressing your friends on Instagram with still life portraits of napkins and cutlery is more important than considering the menu. 

“Can I bring you something—”

“Tap water no ice,” you interjected dismissively, “and some bread right away.”

I guess this must be how Open Table VIPs act, I thought to myself. After I poured the water, you ordered a Casamigos Margarita and asked if the bartender could make it with agave nectar. Does this look like a Mexican restaurant? Sorry, señor.

“Fine, fine, fine, just NO sugar. I’m Paleo,” you said.

Your friends at the table must’ve been really impressed by your story of how you saw George Clooney in an elevator once in Beverly Hills. I wasn’t. Even George knows Casamigos is total basura. Why do you think he sold the brand? Maybe you should go back to Cocktail School and learn how to order a proper drink. 

Like clockwork, you start waving me over like you were hailing a cab after I already checked in with you five times to see if you were ready. Of course, NOW you’re in a hurry and need to order RIGHT AWAY. Maybe if you tell me one more time that you have Hamilton tickets I’ll feel a greater sense of urgency. Probably not, though, because I’ll be too busy in the service station ridiculing you to my colleagues. I told them you must have given all your money to Lin-Manuel Miranda because you obviously don’t have the funds to order a proper two-course meal.

When your food arrived, it must’ve looked like I was enjoying standing there waiting for you to move your iPhone while I tried to serve your Abalone Crudo. It was hard to fight the urge to tell you right then and there that you pronounced Abalone wrong when you ordered it. It was obvious to me that you thought you were ordering Tuna. That’s Albacore, Einstein. 

When I finished putting your plates down, I couldn’t believe you had the nerve to ask if I could divide your salad too? Do I look like your mommy? You want me to cut your food into tiny pieces and spoon feed you little bites while I make roller coaster and airplane noises? Don’t be such a baby. Use the serving utensils we gave you like everyone else. This is a fine dining restaurant, not hospice care.

Someone should petition Open Table to revoke your VIP status. There are so many diners better than you. Even that guy with the bad hairpiece and the emotional support animal who always sits alone on Table 42 and drinks Beaujolais puts you to shame. He comes in all the time—ten times the VIP you’ll ever be. Do you hear me, Open Table?

After all that, I wasn’t the slightest bit surprised when the busboy cleared your table and you asked me to bring you a toothpick. You seriously can’t wait until you leave to grab one at the door on the way out? I’m sure your dining companions got a real kick out of watching you pick your teeth while they considered the dessert options. Real classy. Of course they declined dessert because the sight of you poking and prodding your gumline doesn’t exactly scream “Hey… Let’s have a slice of Key Lime Pie!!”

The highlight of waiting on you was delivering the check. Obviously, you never asked me for it, but I dropped it anyway. I figured you were inconsiderate of me all night so it only made sense that I return the favor. Your ten percent tip was just the icing on the cake. Maybe if you tipped respectably, I might not have resorted to shaming you on Yelp.

Oh… and just in case you thought I didn’t see it, I’ve already read the salacious one-star review you posted about your experience and I have two words for you: Fake News. Your “alternative ending” was worthy of an episode of Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.

Honestly, I can sleep at night knowing that the odds of your ever sitting in my section again in this restaurant (or in any other restaurant that could potentially employ me in the future) are slim to none. If it was up to me, you would never be allowed back into this restaurant again—unless maybe you’re ordering take out. 

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The Secret Conspiracy to Turn Your Table

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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. 

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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.

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