This past weekend saw Downtown Napa hosting one of the main events of the two-month long “Mustard Festival” which has firmly established itself as one of those good ideas gone bad. The Mustard Festival was started in the early 90’s as a way to generate some business in the “slow season” here in Napa Valley. Mustard flowers, originally planted as a cover crop to hold topsoil in place during winter rains, come into bloom as soon as we get a few sunny days and turn the still dormant acres of grapevines into seas of golden blossoms. So someone decided that maybe more tourists would come to see them if there was a party involved, and the Mustard Festival was born. Originally held on a single weekend at the end of February, it has now turned into two months of events like marathons, photo contests, winery-hosted parties and other marketing ploys that start after President’s Day weekend and continue well into March.
The festival, especially the “Marketplace” weekend, has morphed into a drunkfest, filling hotels and eateries with crowds of people who feel that coming to Napa is a license to drink like a fish and act like morons (or more of a moron, as drunken idiots are usually idiots to start with). They act as if “what happens in Napa, stays in Napa” which is, for the most part, true. But we who live and work here, and have had the unpleasant task of cleaning up your vomit the last time you visited, also “stay in Napa”. So “what happens in Napa” will be waiting for you when you return; and we will most certainly remember you even if you don’t remember what you did.
This unfortunate transformation has posed a real dilemma for restaurants in the area over the past few years. Do we take part in the event, show up and dole out tastes of our food and wine to the throngs of people hoping they will pick up a menu or business card and maybe visit the restaurant for a full meal later? And will the wineries pass on what would appear at first glance to be a golden “marketing opportunity”? Many of us have learned there is too little of a return for manning a table and giving away thousands of dollars worth of free food and/or wine. After a couple of years of the drunken masses sticking a glass in our faces and demanding “Red!” or “Chard!” without so much as making eye contact or really giving a rat’s ass what they are eating or drinking, we have taken a pass on participation in the “Marketplace”. We have learned that the vast majority of attendees are not interested in any details about our food, or in joining a wine club. Their primary, driving motivation every year is eating and drinking as much as they possibly can to get their $40 worth, and then bitching wildly about it when they feel they haven’t.
Even those of us who don’t participate have to deal with the run-off crowds of drunks at 5:30 when the Marketplace ends, and this year was no exception. We were fully booked on Saturday, with almost 90 reservations. Saturday nights have more ups and downs than Chrysler stock, with people canceling and booking at the last minute. I usually overbook by a table or two because of the strong possibility of 9:00 no-shows, and I am always ready to sell the menu to people who pop their heads in the door at opening. Getting a table, any table, in at 5:30 is like finding money. I have, however, learned a valuable lesson about drunk diners and having to go through the uncomfortable song and dance of cutting people off: if you don’t let them in, you don’t have to worry about cutting them off later.
Two guys have walked in just as we are opening the doors, and they are hammered. They are either the the drunkest of the group, and as such, were easily convinced (or volunteered) to find some place for the rest to eat. Or, equally frightening, they are the most sober of their group and were chosen as the envoys because the rest are unable to speak coherently. Either way, all I can see is a Lose-Lose by letting these two and the rest of their merry band in the door.
“Can I help you gents?”
“Could we speak to the Manager?” My hostess had already told them we are booked, but they felt going up the ladder would help their case.
“That would be me…”
“So, you’re the Manager?” Slurred speech, elevated voices, questionable equilibrium. Oh, boy.
“Yes, how can I help you?”
“We had a reservation for 7.”
“Shevven pee pull…”
This is when I love having the awesome power of the Open Table database at my fingertips. “What’s the name on the reservation?” I ask, knowing full well this is all bullshit and I have no seven tops on the book. He gives me a name, I type it in the search box, letter for letter. Not in the system. LLPOF, you drunk mo-fo.
“Sorry gents, there’s nothing under that name and I am completely booked tonight.”
“Well, we’re from El Dorado County, and we came on down for the Mustard Festival this weekend…” he continues, unabashed.
His wingman on this mission has decided he needs to take the wheel here, and he chimes in with, “Listen, I own a Chevy dealership in Auburn and I need a party of seven tonight. Can you do anything for me?” Oh my! A Chevy dealership! Well, why didn’t you say so in the first place? That’s an El Camino of a different color altogether…
“Sorry guys, but I’m full.” And now you can leave, as my early reservations are beginning to arrive.
“So you’ve got 15 tables and they’re all booked?”
“No, I have 23 tables and they’re all booked. Sorry…”
“Would this make a difference?” Wingman asks, literally waving a Franklin under my nose, as if it was coated with magic smelling salts that would make me snap to and do whatever he wanted. While I have no moral problem with taking a discreetly palmed C-note from a guest as a thank you for special considerations, I have no patience with people who think I will dance to whatever drunken tune they are calling just because there’s money involved. I might be cheap, but I’m not easy, and this guy is a douche besides. I resist the very strong urge to unload on this dolt by telling him what function that hundo might serve the next time I need to use the Men’s Room. Instead I just give him my best Maitre’ D stink-eye, shake my head, and say quietly, “No it wouldn’t (you retard).”
So these two, suitably rebuffed, finally give up and stagger off. Next!
A woman who was in with a party of six the night before has returned with her boyfriend. She left her camera in the Ladies’ Room and has been in twice already, bugging the hotel desk to check Lost and Found. They obliged both times and found nothing. Now she wants me to stop what I’m doing, go to Housekeeping and check for a third time, like I have some magic ability to make her camera reappear. Instead, I take down her name and phone number and promise to look later (I won’t). I tell her I’ll call her either way. I’ll wait a few hours and then call and tell her I couldn’t find it; and that I’m really sorry she was so stupid, and got so drunk she couldn’t keep her shit together. She gives me an exasperated “thank you” and they leave. Next!
The boyfriend comes back a couple of minutes later with that sheepish look of embarrassment by association, hands me a twenty and thanks me for putting up with her. No problem dude; I only had to deal with her for a few hours. You get her 24/7, and good luck with that.
And that’s the real lesson here: there is really not enough money in the world to make dealing with drunken assholes a profitable enterprise for me or the business. The real rub is that I probably could have squeezed the party of seven in, but they would no doubt prove themselves to be as obnoxious as I already suspected they were, disrupt the entire dining room and piss off the majority of my other tables for the better part of three hours; and, in the end, it would just not be worth it.
Maybe I need to find a different line of work; or maybe just a different place to do it. Somewhere that has some other reason for people to visit besides getting hammered. Whichever the case, I am finding myself increasingly impatient when it comes to dealing with people who don’t know when it’s time to say when and go to bed. And I have really come to enjoy the power of being able to turn off the taps on them.