Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Free Stuff

Can we talk about free stuff? You go to a restaurant and there is a certain amount of free stuff which is customary. Water, for example. Bread is another classic example. Some places have nuts or other little nibbly bits for you to munch on while you consider your dining options.

Some people get very particular with the free stuff, as if it is something they are paying for. One classic example is asking for olive oil with bread at a restaurant that serves it with butter typically. What's up with that? You don't like butter? Have you tried it? It's delicious, and we're giving it to you for FREE! You take your knife (a "butter knife") and you spread it on the bread which we are also supplying at no charge and with our compliments.

Of course we may have olive oil in the back. It's a restaurant with a kitchen, we are liable to have all sorts of ingredients which we use to prepare food for which we charge you. You will find this on the menu. Frankly, however, the oil we have may be blended olive oil/vegetable oil/soybean oil. Hardly what you would dip bread in at home. You are probably thinking of fancy extra-virgin olive oil, which is admittedly delicious with bread. However, you should ask yourself, why would they give me that for free when they clearly serve butter with the bread. I guess what I am getting at is, if you don't like butter on your bread then don't eat it, but please don't expect to get fancy olive oil as a substitution. Maybe we can work something out where we charge you a small fee?

Don't get me wrong, if you are nice and you ask sweetly you will probably get what you want. My point is, don't act entitled and don't imply that butter is somehow more low-class than oil. They are both delicious fats, and we happen to serve butter because this is not Macaroni Grill!

Also, what is the deal with people who order a salad for their meal and request "lots of bread"? "Lots of bread?" I would say that two pieces of bread per customer is plenty, and frankly we know that you are just trying to get as many free calories as possible. The bread is free, so why on earth would we give you extra when you are trying to lowball us on your bill? I would go so far as to say that there is no such thing as "lots of bread" at our restaurant. There is bread, which you get for free because we are nice and we appreciate your business. It is not a substitute for the food we sell, so don't be surprised if you keep asking for more bread and I keep forgetting to fetch it for you.

In many ways, I suspect that people who make special requests regarding free stuff are really looking for something a bit more abstract than the item they have requested. They want to be served, they want a nice well dressed young person to fetch them stuff. Fair enough, that is part of the deal when you walk into a restaurant. Frankly I want to fetch you stuff, but I only want to fetch you stuff that costs money, so that you will have the opportunity to calculate a tip (20 percent is recommended!) and pay me for my efforts. If you are requesting free stuff, there is no payoff for me. Why would I do something for you for free?

Here's my thought: If you ask for extra bread, or a lemon for your water, or olive oil instead of butter, or a little extra sauce on the side, mentally calculate what that is worth to you and include that in the tip. Then go back to that restaurant again and again and always leave a good tip. You want to see some free stuff? Be a regular who tips well and believe me, the river of free stuff (desserts, drinks, appetizers) will flow in your direction.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Waiting on friends and family....

When you're in the business of serving people food and drinks, eventually you will have to wait on a friend or family member. Striking the right balance between professionalism and personality is always a challenge, and never more so than when you know your customer socially outside of the restaurant.

There can be an inclination towards informality when you know your customer. In our efforts to make our friend feel comfortable and not awkward about being waited on by a friend sometimes this can result in sloppy service, which is why I try to remind myself that ultimately I like this person, and I want them to have a good experience at the restaurant. I try to make my service as perfect as possible, and that is how I extend myself to a friend who is looking for a meal.

From where I stand, when you come into my restaurant and sit down at the bar, you are my customer first, and my friend second. I will not let the standard of my service slip just because we are friends. I give excellent service all day to complete strangers, why would I do any less for a friend?

That being said, it can be easy for a friend to accidentally make a server's life very difficult. Maybe they really came in to talk, not spend money. Maybe they don't realize that they are joking with you but you are in work mode, so you are not really giving as good as you're getting.

One of my least favorite moves is when a friend comes in late and hangs out until close and then tells me to let him know if he and his buddies need to go. I will not do this, because you are my customer first, and I would never tell a customer to leave. They have to leave of their own accord, when they decide it is time to go.

The problem is, since he said it's okay to kick him out, which I would never do, the friend and his buddies now feel they are in the clear to hang out and watch TV at the bar until way past the closing hour.

So if you have a friend in the service industry, and you want to have a meal and visit your friend and patronize his business, first of all thank you, and second of all, be a friend and don't put him in an awkward position by being a nightmare customer! He will grin and bear it and never say anything about it, but it's not nice!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

20 % Tie Clips

One of the great things about the service industry is the people you meet. Something about waiting on the public really tends to bind together those who work to serve. On that note I would like to extend a special shout out to my co-worker Erin G who made me a 20 % tie clip. She has a fantastic blog of her own where she shows her work. She's very talented and with the holidays coming up I would suggest considering giving handmade jewelry as a gift to your friends and loved ones!

You'll find her at http://eringriffinjewelry.blogspot.com/

Monday, November 23, 2009


This is a great contribution from a good friend of mine, on a subject we have touched on here before, though perhaps not quite as hilariously....


And I'm not talking about the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. We've all seen it, and we've all been uncomfortable. Where do you draw the line? I have, of course, been out to dinner with girlfriends and shown them affection. They are my center of attention. There might be some hand holding before the plates arrive at the table. I might squeeze a knee and wink. I even recall, under the right circumstances, loading up a nice forkful of my dish and offering it across the table for my companion to taste. That is, unless the server is present or maybe the restaurant is crowded and we just so happen to be a focal point because of our stunning goods looks and the uncontollable laughter coming from our table. But let me assure you, never, and I mean NEVER have I been involved in an unbridled make-out session in the middle of a restaurant. Now there are certain acceptable levels of PDA. Maybe the red wine has gotten to you a little bit. Maybe your lover's eyes have an extra little twinkle in them tonight. Steal a kiss, please! I am a bleeding heart romantic myself. But there are definitely boundaries.

Last week, while I was working bar, I noticed a table getting a little too affectionate. I even overheard some of the servers murmuring about it. A short while later, a server approached me and asked if one of his tables could move over to the bar. This happens from time to time and there was some sort of game on the television so I promptly agreed. The server then quietly said to me, "Sorry, man." I thought he was apologizing because they had already paid their tab and were bringing over half a bottle of wine to finish without needing (or paying for) my services. It was a pretty slow night and I wasn't concerned about them idling in my otherwise valuable real estate. Little did I know it was the make-out kids. I say "kids" but they were mid 30's to 40 and they thought the bar was their green light for a little extra freedom.

They proceeded to make a complete spectacle of themselves. Two seats over from them, I had two very well-known local bartenders, not to mention two of the best tippers that come to visit me (Thanks, guys!). Honestly, I wouldn't have minded SOME kissing going on at my bar. I can always look away or busy myself with closing duties. But it became a pretty big problem when I stopped looking at them and could still HEAR them. And I don't mean: (smooch) "You look great tonight." Or, "Holy shit, you're beautiful and I love you. Give me a kiss." I mean it sounded like an eight year old kid came in from a blizzard and his mom gave him a grilled cheese and a bowl of Campbell's tomato soup. "Slurp. Mmmm. Slurp. Oh yeah. (some more slurping, possibly some chewing) Slurp. Mmmm." I really think it was minutes away from a pubic display of affection. Yes, I spelled that right. So, of course my two regulars get a little weirded out and anybody that came over to check the score quickly noticed the wannabe Cinemax scene going on.

These are the lines I rehearsed in my head before approaching them:

"Excuse me, guys. Now, believe me, I'm very happy for how well your night is going. Matter of fact, I'm a little jealous. But it's a little too much for the fairly sophisticated dinner atmosphere that we're going for here. Maybe you could take it down a notch."

But as I readied myself for the awkward situation that was about to happen, the slurping got louder. It was pounding in my head head like Poe's Telltale Mouth. My blood pressure went up and I started putting things away by releasing them inches away from where they belonged hoping to show my displeasure for their obliviousness. Then I realized: They were, in fact, upsetting our expected level of behavior. Not to mention, they were compromising my own personal beliefs and limits. I came up with a few choice words on my way around the bar but decided to hold back.

What came out was:

"HEY. There are people TRYING to enjoy their dinner RIGHT next to you. You need to cool it."

They snapped back to reality with a shocked, almost post-coital look on their faces and quickly apologized. I only meant for them to enjoy each other a little less, finish their wine and say "Thanks, Goodnight" but they immediately left. I thought about feeling bad but it was too much and it needed to be done. I did not spend nine years in the fine dining industry to be made to feel like I was working at a drive-in.

I guess the point of my story is that people can see you. Your public displays of affection can be tasteful and even appreciated. Show your love. It might make for a great night for you, your server and even the people around you. Touch her face. Tell her she's beautiful. Tell her a joke. Maybe feed her some of your dinner. But... THERE ARE LINES! Cross them at home.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

"Do you do anything special for dessert?"

The other night a customer followed a server over to the wait station and asked, "Do you do anything special for dessert?"

Observing the exchange, I wanted to tell him, yes, I do a soft-shoe tap routine and I sing happy birthday while juggling frying pans and kitchen knives. That would be pretty special, no? But of course what he was looking for was something on the house for his friend who was celebrating a birthday.

Here's the thing, though. She's YOUR friend, so why don't YOU buy her a piece of pie? Why should the restaurant buy her a dessert? We don't know her, or you, and really you shouldn't be up from your table and over here by the wait station, don't you know bad things happen when you leave the table and start wandering around?

Bottom line, we buy desserts for our friends, won't you do the same?

His server was much kinder and gently informed him that we would gladly put a candle on whatever dessert he cared to order for her, and we would bring it out unannounced after all entrees were finished and cleared. The customer returned to his table, but did not order a dessert at this time. He also joked about what a slow eater he was.

Only a few minutes later the mom at the table came over to ask the same question, and got the same answer.

This group of diners had been waiting for their table for a half hour, and the restaurant had felt some chagrin over this and had gone ahead and bought them a round of appetizers. They waited until they finished all those appetizers before they finally ordered entrees, about five minutes after the kitchen closed. Of course their order was honored and their food was prepared to the high standards of our kitchen. It was pretty late by this time, however.

To make matters worse, the gentleman who first asked about the birthday turned out to really be an extremely slow eater. His server was really wanting to clear the entrees and get dessert going since there had been a request for a candle and the kitchen was closing. Finally, at the request of the table, the server cleared the other guests and brought dessert menus.

One guy orders a piece of pie, but it is clear he is ordering it for himself, not the young lady with the birthday. She orders only a cup of coffee. So our server, who had planned to bring a birthday candle adorning some type of dessert, is in a bind.

Undaunted, and with characteristic savoir faire, he takes a birthday candle and melts the bottom of it so that he can fix it onto the handle of the coffee mug. He then brings out the young lady's coffee, and she gamely blows out the candle and makes a wish.

As the server is leaving the table, he hears the slow eater say, "Coffee with a candle? That's cheap!"

Then the same low-life asks his check to be split off and pays only for himself, not chipping in on the birthday girl's meal or anything, let alone springing for a piece of pie. Tip...not 20%

P.S. my friend made me a 20% tie clip, it is so great and I have been wearing it for work. It looks cool and it keeps my tie out of my customer's soup. I will try to get a good picture of it so I can post it....

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Larry David is a big tipper!

I have to comment on the most recent episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, a show I personally enjoy frequently.

In the episode, Larry, the main character, is out for lunch with some friends. When he asks for the check, he notes that a gratuity of eighteen percent has been included. He observes that there is a line to add an additional tip, and remarks to his friends, "Am I supposed to calculate the extra two percent myself?" In the end, he decides not to leave any additional tip in protest to the included gratuity and to the math which its inclusion forces him to perform.

I think this is a valid point on his part. Larry is suggesting that a tip of eighteen percent would require additional tipping, to bring it up to twenty or twenty five percent. He's worth four hundred million dollars, he's happy to leave a thirty percent tip, but don't ask him to calculate the difference between eighteen percent and what his typical tip percentage might be.

Including the gratuity is often done at the discretion of the server, and it can be a "live by the sword die, by the sword" type of situation. On the one hand, if you have a table that has dropped some serious cash on dinner, including the gratuity can be a way to guarantee that they won't lowball you on the tip. On the other hand, a party that springs for an eighty dollar bottle of champagne might turn around and leave you a huge tip. If the gratuity is included, it can be an obstacle for a customer trying to calculate their normal tip percentage. As Larry points out, calculating two or seven percent can be tricky when you are trying to bring the total tip up to whatever your typical tip is.

I think the key here, and the reason this whole episode warms my heart, is that Larry acknowledges that eighteen percent is not an adequate tip for good service. His only issue is with the math. If the server had left off the gratuity, I feel confident Larry would have rewarded his excellent service with a tip of at least twenty percent. Having included the gratuity, the server has to be happy with what he gets.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Where is everybody?

Something that really gets me every time is when customers show up one minute after we open for business, look around the as yet empty dining room, then come out with some brilliant observation like "Where is everybody?"

You know what, everybody just called, and when they heard you were here they said they would be right down.

The thing is, we just opened. Somebody has to be the first customer of the evening. This happens every night. Don't worry, our business is doing fine, we JUST OPENED!

I don't know if these people realize how their comments come across. When they walk in and say "It's like a party that no one came to!" it sounds like they are suggesting that we have failed in some way, or that we are unloved. Nothing could be further from the truth. The fact that we get customers so immediately upon unlocking the front door suggests that we are a busy and successful restaurant.

Perhaps you would prefer that we hire actors to sit at some tables from the moment we open each night, so that you don't have to be the only customers.

Being first is a good thing, you will have our undivided attention. So relax, enjoy, don't make snarky comments!

For goodness sake, don't mention that the "parking lot is full so where is everybody?" That's a public lot, so anyone can park there. Please don't imply that somehow we have let you down by not saving you a parking place. We are not going to let you down in any way, so let's not get off on the wrong foot, folks.

We also don't want to hear "Well we had a reservation but I guess we didn't need it!" You don't know that, for all you know the entire restaurant is booked and you are merely the first to arrive. The whole place might be about to fill up, so a reservation is always a good idea. Just allow us to show you to your table, and then you can get down to the business of dining.

Also, because you are the first ones here, please don't tell the host, "I guess we can sit wherever we like!" This is no more true when you are the first ones here than it would be later on in the evening. The host will show you to your table. If you don't like it, we may choose to seat you elsewhere, but please don't mistake this generous hospitality as some sort of right that you possess. The table we put you at will be one that we choose, and you will eventually like it. That table by the window that you think you can have because you are the early birds? Sorry, it's reserved. How about this one? Great, enjoy your meal.

And for goodness sake, don't say something along the lines of, "Whoa, you guys are so dead!" This is our livelihood, so we can't easily discuss our chances of making enough money to pay our mortgage tonight. It's not funny to us, and anyway we just opened! Give the evening a chance to develop, and maybe we can talk later about the recession and the recovery and how that affects the casual fine dining market.

What are some other classic snarky comments from early customers? If you think of any, please write them in the comments below!

PS-sorry for the infrequent posts lately, I have been busy assembling cribs and moving furniture....