I figure since last week I asked folks to be a little nicer to sales clerks, maybe this week I should move on to restaurant wait staffs.
I worked many years in the restaurant industry, from fast food to fine dining.
I dealt with a great many nice people during that time. But unfortunately, those folks are much too difficult to remember.
I remember the crazy ones.
With a “it’s like it was yesterday” mentality.
I worked at this fish place one time, and there I was a cook. A couple came into the restaurant, but of course I didn’t see them — not right away.
I did, however, hear a loud commotion from the other side of the wall.
I stooped down and looked through the food window.
This woman and her husband were shrieking at this poor girl about a drive-thru order she didn’t even know about.
That night, the store’s main manager was working the window in the back, and he had a plan.
One of the fish I had cooked earlier got fried with a fly attached, unbeknownst to me. Sometimes they would get in the batter, and when I knew I always switched out the batter with fresh.
But this night I did not know.
I discovered the fried fly when he placed it in the Styrofoam tray. I pointed it out, and he answered, “I know, but I’m not letting her get away with being so (mean).”
Obviously I can’t give an exact quote, but you get the general idea.
He flipped the fish with the fly pointed down, closed the lid and called it good.
It was one of my first jobs, so I was still green to restaurant revenge tactics. I know I was horrified.
As the green wore off, the years in the restaurant industry added up.
I worked for this Italian chain place in the south as a waiter for a year or so.
It was the dead of winter, and we were in the aftermath of a huge ice/snow storm. Most businesses were closed — in fact, a news report listed only six businesses open during that nightmare.
And the restaurant I worked for was one of them.
I drive in the snow pretty well, but even with that ability, driving on ice is much more difficult.
I managed to get to work that day, albeit 45 minutes late.
But for once, I wasn’t in trouble. On a normal shift there were as many as 40 wait staff on the floor, and 15-20 cooks. On Friday and Saturday nights, you could double those numbers.
I got there, and we were in big trouble. We had seven wait staff, and two cooks. And, of the six businesses or so that were open, we were the only restaurant.
And we — were — packed.
Within an hour of my arrival, we were on a two-hour wait for a table. Any halfway observant person would see we were desperately floundering, and remained “in the weeds.” (That is a restaurant term, for those who don’t know, for getting way behind in serving customers.)
And we all were drowning in the weeds.
I was handling about 20-25 tables, and was doing the best I could.
Some of the servers could handle more, but two of them that night were total duds.
This couple, in my section, decides to do the full meal – drinks, appetizers, salads, main course and dessert.
That would have been great normally, but it was three times the effort that night.
“Hey you,” the woman hollers right before the salad’s arrival.
I glanced in her direction and nodded that I heard her, but was with another table taking an order.
“Hey, YOU,” she shouted, causing heads to turn.
“I’ll be right there,” I said to her in a flat monotone, coupled with a glare.
Suddenly, a flash of white crosses my field of vision.
I look to my right, and on the floor is a sugar packet. She threw a sugar packet at me.
“You better get over here, NOW,” she bellowed.
I looked at the table I was standing over and said, “I’m sorry, I’m going to go calm this woman down.”
“Man, go for it,” the man said. “I’m ready to douse her in holy water.”
I go over there and ask her what was her problem.
“We’re hungry and we want our salads NOW,” she shouted.
I told her I would, once I took this table’s order.
“No, you’ll get them now.”
I was ready to take my tray and bash her head in. Instead, I went to the kitchen, and asked for that order “on the fly.” (Another restaurant term, this time for the cook’s meaning “I need my order next over everyone else’s.” It’s usually reserved for a mistake.)
The cook looked at me and said a lot of unsavory things, but complied. Appetizers, main dish and all. I then went and got the salads, and the desserts ready.
I used a giant tray, and when I came back into my section, I could hear her complaining very loudly that everything was taking so long.
That’s when I arrived, and I filled the table for two with every bit of their meal.
I also left a pitcher of soda.
And she went off, saying a lot of nasty stuff.
“But, you said you were hungry,” I told her. “I just thought I’d help both you, and those who are stuck next to you, enjoy their meals.”
And with that, about two dozen people chuckled very loudly.
One guy even said “Maybe that’ll shut her up.”
And it did.
But I would say the highlight of my table waiting days came in Albuquerque, N.M.
I worked third shift in a well-known 24-hour restaurant (no there are none in the Tri-County).
I was the night manager there, and I can say it was a rough part of town. And that was during the daylight hours.
Night time could be downright scary.
The seating area of the restaurant was in an L-shape, and the cash register was out of sight of the back, so I worked the front area.
One night during “bar rush” (when the bars close, 24-hour restaurants get slammed), a waitress came to me to complain a table was throwing liquid creamers at other customers.
Naturally, I headed that way, expecting teenagers. What I found was three men, all of whom were older than I.
And I witnessed one of them sling a creamer at another customer. It exploded on their head, getting the mess everywhere.
Well, a small part of me thought it was funny. Very small. The rest of me couldn’t believe what I’d seen.
I go to the booth, and say in a casual tone, “I can’t believe I have to come to a table full of grown men and tell them to behave.”
I cannot repeat the responses of two of them. Suffice it to say it was chock-full of expletives.
I got over the casual tone really quick. “I was just going to tell you guys to settle down, but after that, I think it’s time for you all to go.”
Two of them got it through their drunken minds I meant business. The third one, however, had to press that last button of mine.
Right before he opened his mouth, the waitress brought their food.
“We ain’t leavin’ ‘til we done with our food, boy,” he said.
I was enraged. If looks could kill there would have been a mess to clean up that night. But I had a better idea.
“Oh really?” I asked, and I kneeled onto the empty booth seat, slamming my right arm between the napkin holder and the wall.
And I swept the table clean.
Silence enveloped the restaurant as glasses and plates began smashing on the floor. Once it was all over, two of their wallets, their keys, one of the guy’s glasses and all three meals and drinks were in a big pile on the floor.
“You’re done. Now get out,” I shouted.
It was third guy’s turn to get enraged. He jumped up out of the seat with every threat he could muster, but I just stood there, and told the waitress to get me the cordless phone — I was calling the law.
Apparently, the one guy was just sober enough to see I meant business.
He grabbed this guy, and held him back. The other one went through the mess on the floor, gathering their things. He stayed silent as well. As the three began to leave, I walked behind them. Every time the mouthy one turned around to say something, I pushed him in the back and said, “Get on, get out.”
Once the swing door closed and they were gone for good, I turned around to keep working.
And got a standing ovation from the remaining customers.
So the next time you’re in a restaurant and start thinking you’re getting bad service, look around. There could be a packed house. Someone could have called in sick. Or your waiter/waitress dealt with a crazy person or three 30 minutes before you got there. After 13 years in the restaurant industry, I know it happens.
More often than anyone would believe.
John L. Ross is a reporter for the Times-Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org