"Night Sweats In Broad Daylight…"

April 4, 2011

I don’t know if it’s because I’ve been contemplating making yet another career change, or if it was the spicy BBQ pork sammy for lunch today, but I have just woken from the Mother of All Waiter Nightmares.  Those of you that have had them will know what I’m talking about when I say they come from out of nowhere.  I know I’m still in the restaurant business and, granted, I have some waiters at work who ARE nightmares; but I haven’t worked a shift as a waiter in almost five years.  Waiter Nightmares?  After five years?

I’ve written about Waiter Nightmares before (click and read), and about how I had learned a kind of “Directed Dreaming” technique, ala “Nightmare on Elm Street: The Dream Warriors”; so I can usually pretty much just sit back and enjoy the comic relief that comes with the absolute futility in most Waiter Nightmares, somehow knowing that this stuff could never really happen. But today’s was scarily different.

This one started at Chops in Atlanta, except that it wasn’t Chops.  In my dream I knew it was Chops, but the dining room had absolutely no resemblance.  Some of the waiters were guys that I worked with at Chops, as was the Manager, and the room was that kind of Boys Club Steak Housey kind of place with button-tuck booths, men in suits, cocktails clinking, etc.  I am back to work there, and it’s my first night back.  I don’t think I’d gone through any re-training, I think they just threw me out there.  I do remember being strangely happy to be back to work there.  Most therapists at this point would say, “Maybe you should look at that…”

I had just arrived at work, and was saying hello to some of “the guys”.  Everyone is shaking my hand and welcoming me back when The Manager tells me I’m working solo (Chops was team service with a partner, although I had some living Nightmare nights there when somebody no-showed and I DID work solo) but I will have a smaller station, over by the bar.  No prob, it’s my first night back and I’m feeling pretty bulletproof.

So, I’ve got my waiter jacket on, and my little metal badge with a number on it; I’ve got my notepad, my Cross Pens, corkscrew, crumber and all that crap.  I’m feeling good, cocky, ready to take some tables.  I had found my station in the gigantic restaurant (they’re usually gigantic in my nightmares), four deuces and one four top all in a neat little cluster near the end of this horseshoe shaped bar, and it all seems pretty manageable; after all, I’ve worked here before and know the drill.   Then I notice that the Host is walking away from seating a single diner at one of my tables, a professional looking woman in a business suit with briefcase.  I know what you’re thinking:  what kind of useless Shoe Clerk am I, to be having a Waiter Nightmare over a SINGLE!!??

Anyway, I greet madame, and get her a cocktail, a Manhattan or something I think.  She orders:  Spinach Salad to be followed by an 8oz. Filet, medium.  I don’t remeber ordering the salad, but after a couple of minutes I notice it’s on the table and, yikes, she’s almost done with it and I haven’t fired her steak yet.

I’m mildly panicked about the fire time on her Filet but, hey, it’s Chops.  They have about a billion 8oz. filets in the broiler at any one time on busy nights, and maybe I can use my one “New Guy Get Out Of Jail Free Card” to get them to rob another table so Milady won’t have too long of a wait.  But first I have to get to the POS and fire her order before I can go throw myself on the mercy (Ha!) of the Sous Chef.  And, as they say in the Circus, this is where the fun begins…

My cockiness and confidence is beginning to waver a little as I realize I don’t know where the POS is.  I walk out of the bar, into another gigantic dining room that is almost completely empty, and over against one wall is a POS touchscreen about the size of a 52″ plasma TV.  I make my way over to it and, of course, it’s a system I’ve never seen or used before.  I manage to log in, find a screen that looks like a table map, and double tap the icon for my single diner’s table (#63).  But instead of neat rows of buttons, or screens that have actual menu items, the screen looks more like a website; one of those really hard to read websites that was designed by some genius who thought red letters on a black background would be a good idea.  Almost all of the screen is taken up by pictures and advertisements for cars and other stuff.  Way down at the bottom are lines of uber-tiny type, hyperlinks to click on for menu stuff; but the type is the REALLY tiny stuff you get at the bottom of a company’s website where they put stuff like “Privacy Notice.  Site Map.  Contact Us.  Careers.”  And it’s a touchscreen, so every time I try to double tap a tiny link I get the wrong one, and some other gigantic window opens with more pictures and ads.

Now I’m really starting to freak because I know that spinach salad has been cleared and my single is sitting there, tapping her fingers, waiting for that Filet, and wondering where the hell her idiot waiter has gotten to.  In my panic state, and willing to try anything I can think of to navigate this behemoth screen, I decide that there’s not enough light in the room to see it properly, so I take it down off the wall and carry it over to another corner where some sconces are beaming spotlights down on the carpet, creating circles of light in the murky room.  Strangely, there are no wires; and, strangely, this doesn’t even factor into my thinking as I pick up this unusually light, strangely wireless, and utterly useless Piece Of Shit.  Under the glow of the spotlights on the other side of the room the screen is no more readable than it had been on the wall.  And I still haven’t fired her steak.  And, even with the panic really starting to set in, I’m thinking, “Shit, all these steaks are ala carte.  I didn’t ask her about sides!”  I figure I’ll deal with that after I get this DAMN STEAK FIRED!

Still tapping at links, still getting the wrong screens, I try turning the screen around, rotating it, thinking if I can get a closer look at these damn tiny hyperlinks, I would actually be able to read them.  I’m trying to hold it out in front of me, like some massive artist’s sketch pad, and the screen is rotating with the movements, like on my wife’s Droid; so every time I turn it to make the links closer, the screen changes and they move back to where they were before.  Now I’m totally sweating, full blown dread is setting, yet all Mr. Sensitve To The Needs Of Others here, can think about is “I wonder if someone else needs to use this terminal…”  This turns out to be an non-issue, as I look back across the room to see that the screen I have taken down has been replaced by an even LARGER one, about the size of a small billboard, a veritable  JumboTron of a POS.  In my panic I’m willing to try just about anything to get this one stupid, stinking steak fired, and I consider going over to the giant screen, thinking the type must surely be larger on that one, right?  Just as I’m putting my screen down I see the link for “Fire” at the bottom and hit it.  I set the screen down on the floor, and start sprinting back to my station.

As I approach my tables, I am mildly relieved to see that no one else has been seated in my section during my adventure in the Gigantic Room with the Gigantic POS Screen.  The only catch is that my station is now somehow outside, and it’s starting to rain.  Guests at other tables are being moved inside by their waiters, but my single is standing up and looking around.  She starts picking up all her stuff, briefcase, purse, and is grabbing the silverware and napkin off the table and walking off toward the inside area.  I catch her and relieve her of her burdens, and tell her I will usher her into one of my “Inside Tables”.  I don’t know why or how I knew I actually had inside tables, but I did.  Except I don’t know the table numbers, so I don’t know if I’m seating her at one of my tables or someone else’s.  It doesn’t seem to matter, and I’ve still got to get to the kitchen to tell them to hurry that 8oz. Filet which, despite my being out of my station for what seemed like an eternity, has not arrived.  And shit!  What about those side dishes?  I forgot to ask her.

I get my single diner situated at an inside table in a dining room that is now a gigantic white event tent, like they set up at wine auctions.  I know I still have to get to the kitchen, but I can’t stop myself from helping the Manager.  He’s trying desperately to get tables set up for all the people coming in from the rain.  The tables are all 72″ banquet rounds, with one flipped upside down on top of another, so I take my place on one side of the two tables to help him flip the inverted one off.  I’m waiting for him to flip the legs up and lock them into place when I notice a stack of 6 B&B plates sitting on table we are about to flip over.  The Manager has not seen the plates, has locked the legs on his side into place and flips the unusually light table off the other one, sending the stack of B&B’s flying.  Oddly, they all stay together in one stack and fly out onto a road that is outside an open flap of this massive circus tent of a dining room.  I’m waiting for the sickening crash of shattering china, but instead hear a metallic clang; and I realize the plates must have been sitting inside of one of those metal plate covers.  Huh.  Didn’t see that one coming.

Anyway, I still need to get to the kitchen, get that Filet on the fly, and then get back to my section where I still didn’t know what the fuck the table numbers are.  Shit!  And I need to ask her about those sides!  I contemplate just ordering her a baked potato.  I mean everybody likes those, right?  But that would entail a return to the JumboTron POS again.  It’s at this point I see a guy that I used to work with about 10 years ago at another restaurant, who is apparently now working here.  Nothing about this strikes me as the least bit strange, and I stop him to say hi; but he doesn’t know me from Adam.  He does know enough to remind me I’m covering his lunch shift tomorrow, though.   Even though I haven’t been back to check on my one and only guest, I somehow know with all certainty that 8oz. Filet is NOT on the table yet, and I am a total loser.  This is when I wake up to my cell phone buzzing on the nightstand and thank God for text messages!


"I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille…"

February 13, 2010

I almost got (another) 15 minutes of fame last night.  KPIX, the CBS affiliate in San Francisco, called to talk to me about my role in helping take down the website that was scalping Valentine’s Day reservations.  I spent about 20 minutes on the phone with an editor, telling him what, when, where, why, etc.  But I guess the rain, traffic and other stories took precedence, as no Satellite Up-Link Truck showed, no Klieg lights were lit to put the spotlight on this story for the public-at-large.

This is pretty disappointing to me, not just because I didn’t get my ugly mug and some footage of our restaurant on the Toob, but also because no “non-internet” based news agency in The Bay Area has mentioned squat about a story that is troubling on so many levels.

The last year has just plain sucked the weenie for restaurants across the country.  Places here and in SF were folding like lawn chairs; but, recently we have seen a definite up-tick in business, both in cover counts and check average.  So people are starting to return and they are spending money again (although corkage incidents are still out of control, but all in good time my pretty, all in good time…).   Many places, who have been hanging by a thread for the last 18 months or so, since Bernie Madoff, AIG and all the rest floated their big turds in the economy’s punchbowl, are now faced with the prospect of empty tables on the one and only really busy weekend in the Winter slow season.   Many local restaurants are depending on Valentine’s/President’s Weekend to pay their February bills.  And now they may be faced not only with empty tables when these fake reservations no-show, but also they have probably turned down a dozen legitimate parties for each of these slots by now.

So it is disappointing that no one with any reach in the “Mainstream Media” is concerned enough with this story to air it, or even publish it on their websites.

So, in addition to KPIX no-showing last night (the CBS affiliate in Atlanta did a piece on the scam on Thursday night’s news), e-mails sent, by me, to Michael Bauer and Grace Ann Walden at the SF Chronicle’s Food section have gone unanswered, unpublished and apparently unnoticed; and I have to think I am not the only one who sent one.  So, two local writers who make their living on the backs of the Bay Area’s restaurant community, did not see fit to use their reach and influence to help get the word out.  And it’s not just the owners of the restaurants that lose out on a scam like 911Reservations.com was trying to pull, it’s the servers, hosts and bartenders who will have empty stools and tables, and all the would-be patrons who can’t get in because these bogus reservations have clogged up the pipeline.   I had a sheepish Voice Mail message at the restaurant yesterday from someone calling to cancel a reservation they had obviously “purchased” from 911Reservations.com before their site went down.  They probably saw the internet buzz generated by the story and correctly figured we would, how should I put this, cut their balls off? if they showed their faces and claimed to be “Bruce Banner, party of 2, 6:30…”

The Golden Gate Restaurant Association boasts over 1000 members, yet has not mentioned Word One about this story.  Multiply that by just two fake reservations for each restaurant (many had more), and multiply that by even a modest $25 check average per guest (many are much, much higher), and you have a substantial bag of cash that was lost.  By contrast, the Georgia Restaurant Association had the story on their homepage on Thursday night, and it was picked up by UPI, Associated Press, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, etc.  Granted the scam originated there, and was much more widespread in the ATL, so it was a much hotter topic for them.  But still, a pretty weak showing by a local trade group who is supposed to have our best interests at heart.

I am, however, very pleased with the spirit of cooperation shown by our local restaurant community in helping sound the alarm, and alerting everyone they could by phone, emails, Facebook, Twitter, and personal blogs.  The pyramid of contacts started by just a few of us here and in Atlanta, took these A-Holes down in a matter of hours.

This has always been the case, especially here in our incestuous little gang in Napa Valley.  If one of us needs linen, coffee, or printer paper for our POS systems on a busy weekend, all we need do is call our neighbors; and if they have supplies enough to help us out, they always will.  If we have a catering gig and need servers or cooks, we call around and see who has staff that need or want some extra hours.  Plus, there is about 2 1/2 degrees of separation in our business, so we all know/have worked for/party/sleep with each other.  We may all be in competition for the diner’s dollars, but we really know how to circle the wagons when someone fucks with us.

So, props to Elizabeth at Auberge, Tony at Bouchon, and to John and Rob at Martini House for their assistance; to my old boss Kevin Brown at Chops/Lobster Bar in Buckhead, who was truly the first to sound the alarm there; to Don Hart, former Napkin and server with me at Piatti and the old California Cafe in Yountville, who is now Director of Operations at JCT Kitchen in Atlanta’s Westside, for getting the word out via Facebook.  Thanks to foodiebuddha.com and Eater SF for posting, and continuing to update, the lists of fake names and phone numbers used.

Nice to know somebody is listening.


"One Night In Bangkok Makes A Hard Man Humble…"

August 24, 2009

This post was originally published back in June.  Sorry for the redux but an “Internal Server Error” demands I re-post or lose it in the bowels of virutal limbo…

As my screen name implies, I am a small town guy. I was born and raised in one, moved away to several others in my youth, and ended up back in this one again. And just like Creedence used to sing, I never had seen the good side of a City, or any reason to live in one. Now, Napa Valley has its charms; but after living here so long you become blasé about many of them. So, we had been to Jazz Fest a couple of times, we were ready for a big change to stir things up, and the California Real Estate bubble was just about to pop; so we loaded up the truck and moved to New Orleans (thank you Jed Clampett).

New Orleans is a lot like San Francisco. If you count the outlying areas on both sides of the Mississippi, their pre-Katrina populations were pretty close to the same. Both have many distinct, separate parts; their neighborhoods are like small towns unto themselves (Carrolton/ The Mission); there are tons of good restaurants; the residents don’t go to the tourist areas (the French Quarter/Fisherman’s Wharf) unless they have out of town guests; the music scenes are cool; and people actually ride the Cable Cars/Streetcars to get around. I rode the St. Charles line home almost every night from the Steakhouse in the Quarter. The free entertainment on the Streetcars after midnight is stranger-than-fiction stuff, and I may cover that in more detail at a later date. I truly enjoyed living there, however brief. My first “Big City”. But then The Storm hit, and it was on to Atlanta.

They call Atlanta the “New York of the South” but it is really more like the “L.A. of the South”. In terms of population, business, and slick urban lifestyle it makes New Orleans look Podunk. Six million people live there. Take a map of the Bay Area and scrunch the nine counties into the area occupied by the Bay, and you’ve got Metro Atlanta.

We had planned to open our own business in New Orleans, and for a while, we investigated doing the same in Atlanta. There was a burgeoning food and wine culture there and we, as former residents of Wine Central, were ready to capitalize. Then we discovered that we didn’t have enough capital to capitalize; so I went looking for a job. I had been in management in California before leaving the restaurant biz to sell wine for seven years, and wasn’t sure if I wanted to go back to it just yet, so I went looking for a waiter job. My philosophy as a waiter was that I was essentially a commissioned salesperson, so I wanted to work at the highest priced place in town. I was told the Buckhead area in north Atlanta was the place to go. So I typed up a résumé and jumped on a MARTA train (lots of free entertainment here too, as well as some unique shopping opportunities). I checked out a few likely candidates, even worked a couple of weeks at one that was supposedly the “French Laundry” of Atlanta, but finally settled in at Chops/Lobster Bar, a high-priced “Boy’s Club” steakhouse that was allegedly the busiest place in town.

Up to this point in my restaurant career, I had worked for big corporations, smaller “restaurant groups” (they didn’t want to be called “chains”), Mom and Pop shops, and some that wanted badly to be big corporations but, in their heart of hearts, were still Mom and Pops no matter how you sliced them. Nothing I had done up to that point, however, had prepared me for this “urban steakhouse”. This place was a factory, a veritable meat-spewing machine, that did $16 mil a year in two restaurants, three bars, and a don’t-bring-your-wife, bring-your-girlfriend private club, all under the same roof. The main restaurant upstairs, Chops, sat maybe 180 but had the capability to add about 80 more to that when we built the big tables up. The downstairs restaurant, Lobster Bar, with the same basic menu, sat about 130. The Club had about 100 seats. A slow night upstairs was 200 covers. Busy was 500. Really busy, and you had December. You will never see anything in your waiter-life like Chops in December.

When I started there, it was April. As a newbie, I kept my mouth shut (a distinct challenge for me) worked my low-rent station, built up a small clientele of local regulars that would ask for me, and worked my way up the waiter food chain. My partner and I (we worked in teams, with the same front waiters/back waiters staying together) had worked together in New Orleans (she was a Katrina refugee, too) and we quickly made an impression on the crew and the bosses. We started to get our share of shifts on “The Rise”, the middle portion of the floor where everybody wanted to sit and be seen, and where all the money was made.

During the spring and summer months when it was slow, all the crew talked about was “The Season”. “Just wait till The Season gets here,” or “you’ll make mad cash during The Season”. Unlike Napa Valley, where the tourists hit in droves spring through fall, the winter was the busiest time in Atlanta. The Holidays and the ensuing convention season were what it was all about. In Napa, and other summer vacation areas, “The Season” was 5 to 8 months long. In Atlanta, especially at Chops, they crammed it all into 8 or 10 weeks. During December, any table that could be was popped up, or built up with these crazy plywood tops that seated 10 to 14 or more. There were four tops that suddenly became eight tops. Booths were built out to tables of 12 or 16, so the person who sat in the middle on the banquette side had no hope of ever getting out to use the bathroom. You had to get to work at least an hour early to horde silverware, glassware and CHAIRS so you would have the equipment to make it through service. Waiters guarded their stocked guerdons like Mama grizzlies. Guys that waltzed in at 4:00pm, the actual start time for the dinner shift, found their carts pillaged of silverware and their tables of wine glasses. Try waiting on a full, seven table section with three forks and a soup spoon and you would easily see the logic in arriving early. The floor was so crowded with big tables that their chairs were back to back; you always had a couple of seats in your station that you literally could not reach. You would have to walk all the way around five or six other adjoining parties just to get back to the opposite side of the table to serve anything. And the weird thing was, none of the guests seemed to mind. They seemed to be used to it. The GM was great, one of those guys you would run into a burning building for. They had one or two competent Assistant Mangers, but the rest were useless. After seating 30 people in your station in less than 10 minutes, one guy used to sashay though and “help” by re-folding a napkin or picking up a used Sweet-Low packet off one of your tables. “God bless you Masked Man! And we didn’t even get a chance to thank him!”


"Letters, oh we get letters, we get let-ters ev-ry day…"

August 19, 2009

Not all our dining experiences on vacation were as sublime as the one detailed in my last post. This is an actual letter about an actual “dinner” we had at a restaurant run by a very well known National Restaurant Group that operates places in LA, Vegas, Washington, D.C., and used to run a couple of joints here in The Valley.

At first I thought I might have been expecting too much, given the resort setting and the clientele one can draw in such a locale; or maybe it’s just that so much of the dining public today has been conditioned to accept mediocrity as “four star dining”, given the high concentration of “meh” that’s out there. Or maybe the memory of our magnificent Coq Au Vin from the night before was still too recent, blotting out my ability to be objective. But, when any place operates under the umbrella of a “Name Chef”, it should provide the appropriate bang for the buck, not just coast on reputation and the fact that they have a “captive audience”.

I am reminded of my old boss from Chops/Lobster Bar in Atlanta, Kevin Brown, who went to Antigua on his honeymoon. On one side of the island is a very busy cruise ship terminal, with several on-shore restaurants nearby who cater almost exclusively to this very transient clientele. He and his bride ate at one, and K.B.’s comments were, “Can you imagine the feeding frenzy among a bunch a waiters, serving a group that is going to be there for about 90 minutes, and that they never have to worry about seeing again, ever?”

Anyway, keeping with my philosophy of “If you don’t say anything to the right people, you have no right to bitch about it to anyone else” (note the “CC” to the Director of Operations, as I think crap should definitely be allowed to flow uphill wherever appropriate), here is my letter. The names have been changed to protect the innocent and, I guess, the guilty.

I had originally put a paragraph at the end stating I “was not looking for a refund, just wanted to let you know, etc.” as I definitely did not want an invitation to return for yet another crappy meal, even if it was free. After some thought I decided I was pissed enough to accept a refund if one was offered, so I took it out.

Mr. XXXXX XXXXX
General Manager
XXXXX Restaurant
XXXX Disneyland Drive
Anaheim, CA 92802

Dean Mr. XXXXX:

We had the opportunity to dine at XXXXX on Sunday, August 9th during a three-night stay at the Disneyland Hotel. While we appreciate the many dining options now available in the Downtown Disney District, I am sorry to say we were less than “wowed” by XXXXX.

Being a GM of a hotel restaurant myself, I can certainly appreciate the challenges of hiring and retaining quality staff in a resort setting. Food quality, too, can be hard to maintain when doing large numbers during the height of season. However, the prices at XXXXX demanded a higher standard of food and service than we received. I also know that ultimately everything that happens is the fault of the management, both the good and the bad. So it is with that philosophy in mind that I am letting you know of this less-than-stellar experience at your restaurant.

There were several reasons for our dissatisfaction: sub-par food, lackadaisical service (although our primary server, Nicole, did an admirable job), and most disturbing, an unkempt dining environment which none of the staff seemed concerned about.

The Flat Iron Steak served to my daughter looked like it had been sitting quite a while under heat lamps (sauce was dried around the edges and a ring was left when it was moved, the spinach also had edges that were dried up) and the potato “gratin” had little or none of the advertised blue cheese. ($23.00). The Roti Chicken I was served tasted exactly like the rotisserie chickens we buy at Raley’s supermarket deli for $3.75 and the fries served with it hadn’t a hint of the garlic the menu said they would. Again, it looked like this dish, or at least the chicken, had been kept warm somewhere for a long time, waiting to be served. ($21.00). The only saving grace of the main courses was my wife’s Paella, which was tasty, although the rice on the bottom was burned, which kept us from finishing the dish. The Burrata Cheese appetizer was a flavorless blob.

Given the resort setting, I can understand, somewhat, the lapses in food quality. I cannot, however, excuse the condition of the patio throughout our dinner. We were seated around 9:20pm. There were four other tables on the restaurant’s patio at the time we were seated, all at different stages of their dinners. My seat at our table was facing a party of 6 who were paying their bill as we were seated. They finished up, paid and left. The table sat there, dirty, for the duration of our ordering; while we waited for 1st courses, ate first courses, had our1st courses cleared, and well into what turned out to be a long wait for our main courses. The mess on this table made me quite uncomfortable as I had always been taught, at every restaurant job I have ever had, to jump on dirty tables like a live hand-grenade. Not only did this particular table go un-cleared but also several others (some I was facing, some behind us) had now left. During this time at least four different staff members (including your floor manager) came out to the patio, looked at the dirty tables and did nothing (although one waiter did pick up a check presenter and walk back inside).

One busser did less than nothing: he came outside with one of those large oval serving trays, placed it on the dirty six-top, shoving glasses, beer bottles and coffee cups aside to make room. He then proceeded to clear items from the other dirty tables in that section of the patio (using the “one finger in each glass” method, which is not only dangerous but completely unsanitary), placing said items on the large clearing tray; and then he left. I now had not only the garbage and dirty dishes from the one table, but all the trash from all the tables in that section, piled up less than three feet from where we were sitting.

This mess remained in my view until our main courses arrived (25 minutes after apps were cleared, with an almost empty restaurant at that point); and I was unable to say anything about it, as our server was also nowhere to be seen during this interval. Indeed, during this portion of the meal, I could see no staff anywhere: behind the bar, inside the dining room or on the patio. When our main courses did arrive, I asked the server if I could speak to the manager on duty.

A woman came to our table and I explained the situation, indicating my displeasure at having to look at this mess and gesturing to the offending table(s). She apologized, then began to tell me they were short-staffed that night, that one busser hadn’t shown up for work. I don’t think I need to tell you that this is something that should never be done and was a further indicator of the lack of staff training. The point of crisis should never be allowed to reach the diner. There were many other staff members (I counted six that made appearances at various times, not including our own server) that could have been tasked with the job of clearing and re-setting, had the manger been paying the slightest bit of attention to her dining room.

As the icing on this cake of poor service, mediocre food and a dirty dining room, our server brought our check and had run my credit card on the wrong table. I could have signed it and left, paying less than half of what our bill should have been, but chose to point out her error. She apologized, yet again, and returned with the correct vouchers and bill.

I am always willing to pay for quality food, over-tip for quality service and recommend great dining experiences I have had to others, but I am neither willing nor able to suffer in silence when I feel my pocket has been picked.

Sincerely,

nativenapkin
Manager, XX XXXXX Restaurant

cc: XXX XXXXXX

Director of Operations, XXXXXX Restaurant Group

XXX South XXXXX Avenue Los Angeles, CA 90012


"Would you buy a used car from this man?"

July 30, 2009

A few nights ago, I had a guest who was interested in a certain chardonnay on our wine list.  As I approached the table I noticed that he had that “deer in the headlights” look on his face. This happens all the time.  The pressure of selecting a wine for a party that might include a boss or the future in-laws can be too much for some people.   They will, after scanning page after page of unfamiliar names, move to the fallback position of ordering the one and only name on the list that they recognize. “Uh, uh, uh, we’ll have a bottle of the Grgich” they will blurt out, snapping the wine list closed and handing it back like it’s a live snake.  Whew!  Boy, am I glad that’s over!

In this case, I knew by his selection the style and flavor profile he was looking for.  I also knew that this particular vintage from this particular producer was a very lean one, not at all typical of their house style (this was the very reason we had purchased it, as it was crisp, racy, and an excellent “food wine”). I shared this information with him and offered some alternate choices that I felt appropriate, all within the same basic price range.  But this guy was the Boss Man, out with several of his boys and their wives, and as such was feeling pumped up like Popeye in the Macy’s parade.  He insisted on his original choice.  I brought it out, presented, poured a taste, and this look of “Oh crap, the suit was right” shot across his face just long enough for me to notice before he mentally ha-rumphed, straightened his tie and approved the bottle. He then had to re-enforce his choice by criticizing mine while I am still at the table.  “The sommelier suggested the Blah-blah-blah Chard, but I chose this…”  What a douche.

Our guests are mostly educated, sensible people when it comes to dealing with all the other professional service providers in their lives.  They would never think of telling their Mercedes mechanic, “You know, Gunter, I don’t think it needs new brakes; let’s replace the water pump instead.”  They would never contradict their doctor with “Look, Doc, I know the distended abdomen and acute lower intestinal pain is indicative of a ruptured appendix, but I think I’d rather have that gall bladder removal today…” So it is always amazing to me that seasoned professionals like us, whether we be server, manager, or sommelier, often have our advice ignored by guests because they think they must surely know more than some guy who just works in a restaurant.

Most all of us who are qualified to work in a Michelin-starred restaurant like ours have dedicated a great deal of our work and personal lives to the study and tasting of the food and beverage products we serve.  Many of us are certified by very recognizable bodies like the Court of Master Sommeliers, culinary institutions like the CIA, the CCA, Johnson and Wales College, NECI, etc.  We have taken courses to enrich and educate ourselves from highly qualified educators teaching courses on enology, food and wine education and service.  Add to that the extensive training that is required by restaurants at our level: usually a week or more split between kitchen, door, and dining room; learning wine and spirits lists, menu ingredients and being tested before anyone of us goes anywhere near a guest’s table.  Follow that with daily updates and training in standards, techniques, and product knowledge.  This on-going training is a fact of life in restaurants such as ours.  We know the items on our menus and wine lists inside out and backwards.

Every day of our professional lives we are immersed in food, wine, and service; we research it, taste it, talk about it; we practice describing it, serving it, etc. At our restaurant the main focus of both the menu and the wine program is the pairing of our Chef’s dishes with the wines the Sommeliers have purchased.  This is not a process of simply decreeing, “Yeah, those are pretty good together…” The Chef adjusts dishes to agree with a wine, the Somms will open 5 or 6 different wines trying to find the match that will make our guests sit up and take notice. Even our “family meal” at work is an educational experience: we play “Mystery Wine” every day, blind-tasting a wine our Sommelier has selected to match with our Employee Meal, trying to determine varietal, vintage, country of origin; and we often nail it.  On our days off, we cannot simply pop a bottle of wine. We have to sniff, swirl, and analyze it.  We think about how it will agree with or contrast the dish with which we have paired it for our dinners at home.  The point I am trying to make here is that this is our job.  It’s what we do.  And we do it well.

Perhaps because of past experiences with Old-School waiters in Old-School places that would fleece you like a spring lamb given the opportunity, there is a tendency for guests to regard their server as they would a cheap hooker they had brought back to their hotel room:  “I am interested in what you have to offer, but I am keeping both eyes and one hand on my wallet at all times.”  I worked with a guy at Chops/Lobster Bar in Atlanta that would recommend a magnum of cabernet to a party of two, and whose only suggestion when asked about a chardonnay was the Marcassin ($280 a bottle, but the price was never disclosed until the check arrived).  Once, a guest told me he would give me $50 for the steel badge with the restaurant name that we wore as part of our uniform.  This guy overheard the conversation and almost tore off his jacket trying to get his badge off.

The seasoned, professional server is truly interested in opening his guest’s eyes to new experiences, as it is always personally satisfying and most often profitable when tip time comes.  My crew knows they don’t have to push our guests into overly expensive choices.  With an average check of $120 per person, they know the guest has already made that choice when they picked up the phone to call for a reservation. While we never want to under-estimate our diners’ need or ability to spend money, we will always try to provide them with an experience they will think is a good value, enjoy, and want to repeat.  If they let us.


"Tractor Beamed"

July 8, 2009

Lately, I have been spreading myself pretty thin at work. In an attempt to cut labor costs during these uncertain times, some nights I find myself being bartender, host, Maitre’D, manager, expeditor, and Sommelier simultaneously. This has mostly been working out well for the labor costs, keeping the service charge pool as shallow as possible, and for the guests, who are not experiencing any dropoff in service quality as a result. But it can be a real high-wire act without a net sometimes. Things as insignificant as a phone call can run the risk of disrupting the delicate balance. I am reminded of the old Ed Sullivan Show and the guy who used to come on every few weeks to do his Spinning Plates on The Sticks Routine. He would get all these plates spinning on these incredibly thin dowels, and have to constantly return to the first plates he had started to keep them spinning, all the while adding more and more plates, and then running back to the beginning again to keep the first ones going, well you get the idea. What would happen if this guy’s phone rang? Decisions, decisions…

So last night I am in my multi-tasking glory. We are fairly busy for a Tuesday, lots of tables, but they are all small parties. Much easier to keep the deuces spinning on the sticks than the 10-tops. I am helping out by taking a dessert order from a table when the lady orders a Hot Tea. Coffee, espresso, even an after-dinner “frou-frou drink”, I can jump on and have out to the table in no time, allowing me to return to my spinning plate collection and keep them all from crashing down in a pile of broken china. But Hot Tea is, and always will be, the bane of waiters everywhere.

People who drink Hot Tea are just different. Maybe they are trying to be just Oh-So-British, or they are doing it for their health or to help them sleep (“Do you have chamomille? And skim milk only…”). Whatever your reasons, we hate you. We don’t hate you personally, we don’t really know you; but we hate it when you are in our stations when we are in the weeds.

At most American restaurants, Hot Tea is an afterthought. Buy a gigantic box of Lipton bags, throw it on a shelf in the Coffee Station, and you’re done. Some places try to dazzle with their huge variety of old, stale, Twinings tea bags (and isn’t that big fancy wooden box with all the bags in it just SO impressive? “It must be good, they brought it out to the table in a wooden box so I could choose my bag!”) But really, Hot Tea is something most Americans and many restaurants, know little about and care even less. So Americans who order it have become used to Hot Tea being a tea pot, tea bag, lemon, maybe some milk if the waiter really wants to suck up, and sweetener. We, of course, use very fresh, very expensive loose tea in a tea strainer, individually brewing each cup (and the 7 refills that are invariably asked for), serve it with a de-seeded lemon wedge, steamed milk, yada yada yada. Takes a while to put together is my point. While I’m tractor beamed in by my solitary Hot Tea Lady, the phone starts to ring, a new party has arrived at the door, hot food is coming up, and my waiter needs a couple of Martinis for Table 9. Oh, man, gotta keep them plates spinning…

Once, I was working a dinner shift at Chops/Lobster Bar in Atlanta. I mentioned Chops and the everyday craziness that went on there in an earlier post. I was, of course, up to my arse in alligators, so busy that as tables ordered dessert, I didn’t even want to whisper the word coffee for fear of having to actually stop the Merry-Go-Round to serve one. I’ve got this party of five, all guys, businessmen in town for some convention or other (they all started to look alike to me after a while). The Boss Man, who had ordered the wine and been everyone at the table’s role model for ordering (he had the Surf and Turf, the boys all dutifully followed suit) had asked for the check. I had printed and presented, picked it up, run his Amex, and was just setting the pen down on top of the returned folder thinking “Thank GOD I’m done with these guys I might survive this Hell Night yet…” when Boss Man says to his Boys, “Anybody want anything esle?’ What?!! You are done my friend. I have given you your allotted time and effort. You go now, other people coming. But, Boss Man is now asking “Could you bring me a Hot Tea?”; and he is about to drag me over the cliff with his lemmings by looking around the table and pointing at each of them, asking, “Hot Tea? Hot Tea? Hot Tea? Hot Tea?”

At Chops there were three restaurants and three bars with anywhere from 8 to 15 service teams of two waiters working on any given night. The people kept coming through the door like the Zombies in “Night Of The Living Dead”. The breakage there was incredible. Property-wide we broke something like three dozen pieces of glassware and china EVERY DAY! We barely had silverware to set the tables and serve our stations. So I don’t think I need to tell you what a Hemorrhoidic Pain in the Ass getting enough shit together to do FIVE Hot Teas at the same time was. And of course, the Lemmings decided that Hot Tea time was the perfect instance to finally express a little individuality and assertiveness with their choices and all wanted different flavors (“Very impressive Tea Box you have there…”); so I couldn’t even double up two of them in one pot of Darjeeling. Add to that the fact that I was positive we only had one teapot in the station, so I had to go on the hunt. Let’s see, didn’t I see one in the Walk-In last week with Cocktail Sauce or Ketchup in it? Oh, someone please help me wake up.