With a Side of Crazy

Special thanks to Marisa Harmon for a wonderful article about Joanie in the Herald Standard Newspaper, and for her mention of the blog!!

- by Michael!

Pop quiz.

What one central fact in my past accounts for the following facts: I know just enough about Italian wine to be dangerous; I shudder when I see a child anywhere near a bottle of syrup; and I can write my name upside down, as long as it’s with a crayon?

Why yes – it’s the fact that I spent several years waiting tables! Congratulations!

From Macaroni Grille in Nashville to Doc’s Riverfront in Waco, I’ve been a server in a fairly wide variety of restaurants. And let me tell you – when Americans eat, the crazy abounds.

I had my start at the aforementioned Macaroni Grille, at which I first learned how it is a server makes his or her money. It’s not the food. It’s the experience!

Ok, so more concretely, it’s the little crap you buy with the food.

As you may well know, servers don’t make an hourly wage unless things are going REALLY poorly, in which case they make minimum wage. But as a server you never want your paycheck to have anything but zeros on it – if your check has dollars in it, that means you didn’t make enough tips to cover minimum wage during that pay period.

Since servers work for tips, they have to find ways to increase that tip percentage. And while recommending specific (and usually pricy!) food items helps, the best way to increase that cash is by tacking on $2 or $5 at a time – you casually suggest a salad, perhaps. Or a soda.

Or, best yet, some booze. That last can be risky, because there are people who will be outright offended at the very idea that they, of ALL PEOPLE, would ever do something as sinful as drink alcohol.

I mean, if you don’t like or want any, that’s cool. Just say “No, thanks!” Matter of taste, or budget. But – news flash – Jesus did NOT change it into clean water. Drop the high-horse. That’s all I’m saying.

At any rate, this was completely new to me – the concept of “up-selling” – and was my first exposure to any type of sales. I did fairly well as a waiter, given my innate friendliness, and even managed to thrive under what passes for “high pressure” in that world, where every second seems to count as people wait with increasing impatience for their food.

Let’s get real here, folks. There are people in this world who will suffer pain you should thank God you will never experience even as you read these words. Worse, there are others who have to go entire minutes without access to the internet. I believe that we, as Americans, need to chill the heck out in restaurants. Your food is later, hotter, colder than you wanted? Smile, ask for it to be fixed, be gracious as you do so, and enjoy some hearty and filling perspective.

You would be amazed how often people got just plain nasty about food. On occasion, the pressure got to the people who were just trying to work.

For instance, when I worked at an Italian steakhouse in Nashville, one of our waiters endured a lengthy harangue by a customer who simply (and loudly) “could not believe any idiot would ever pay twenty-five dollars for no [expletive deleted] steak.” She further instructed him that, down at the Golden Corral, you could get all the steak you could eat for less than ten dollars, and even a place as overpriced as Appleby’s charged no more than half what we put on our menus!

We should be ashamed of ourselves! Asking more than twenty dollars for a steak!

Now, the waiter in question was consistently the highest tipped server at the restaurant. He worked extremely hard and took pride in his work – he could prepare the dishes as well as any of the cooks, he often argued with management about which new Italian wines they should include on our seasonal lists, and he was in charge of training the majority of our new servers (myself included).

And while he was typically the most affable of servers, the woman’s belligerence and ignorance wore him down. She had been a pill since she walked in the door, belittling her hostess and complaining about the décor, the other guests, you name it, and this questioning of our establishment’s moral fiber and quality, of which he was so very proud, was going to be the last straw. I could see the veins ticking in his head as he fought to control his temper, could literally hear him thinking, “Our steaks are the same grade, from the same company, as those served for triple this amount at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse,” and knew it was only a matter of time.

So did the rest of the staff, who surreptitiously gathered around in time to witness his detonation.

“Congratulations, ma’am,” he finally barked, interrupting a diatribe which had by now lasted more than three minutes. He began to applaud slowly as he continued: “I am just so very impressed. You have just stated the single dumbest thing that I have ever heard from any human being. In my life. Congratulations.”

The woman, and her family, received free desserts from the manager. But after work, the server received a rousing cheer and a round of drinks from those of us who had witnessed the entire scene, those of us who had often dreamed of similar scenarios while smiling behind clenched teeth.

Another time, a friend who worked in a different restaurant encountered a rude patron who, upon finding his steak cooked more thoroughly than he asked, announced that “Hey! This isn’t medium rare. This is medium. I am not eating this!” and subsequently threw it on the floor.

My friend looked at the steak, then at the patron, then back at the steak. “Come here,” he said to the diner in a voice that brooked no argument. The man followed him a few steps away, whereupon the server calmly informed the man that he would not be throwing any more food on the floor, that a new steak would be prepared according to his wishes, that he would certainly be able to enjoy his side dishes immediately and a complimentary dessert after the meal, and, once more, there was to be no more throwing food on the floor.

The guest harrumphed and stalked back to his seat, having the good grace to blush at his behavior. A few minutes later, my friend bore a steaming sirloin from the kitchen on a fresh plate and said, “Here you are, sir. Please check for me – is this steak cooked properly?”

The diner cut into the steak and, upon seeing the ruby red he had expected at first, exclaimed “Yeah – that’s medium rare. This is what I wanted to begin with!” and went to take a bite.

“Good,” said his waiter, then dumped the perfectly cooked cut of beef onto the floor.

“Since you made a fool of yourself and embarrassed me and your family with that little display, I think you deserve to wait, again, for another steak. Enjoy your meal.”

It was his last night working there, anyway… and I won’t lie to you, this tale of heroism just makes me all warm and fuzzy inside.

These are the stories I remember most clearly, of course, because bad experiences do tend to stick out a bit more in the memory. But I’d be lying if I said or implied that it was all like this, or even largely like this.

Far from it.

For every customer who just could not be pleased, there were dozens more who raved about all aspects of their meals, complimenting the food, thanking me or my colleagues for excellent service, you name it. Once at a breakfast restaurant in Birmingham called “Crepes Eggs-Cetera” (I cannot make this up), a family with three small children was so thankful for my patience with their kids, who decided that our multi-colored syrups were perfect for finger-painting on the table, that they tipped me the entire cost of their meal!

You might groan to hear about those kids, but honestly, they were so cute that I didn’t care. It was as though a little coterie of very serious miniature diplomats from some foreign civilization met and decided, as a delegation, to portray their message of peace and harmony via a tasteful mural of blueberry trees and strawberry-flavored flowers.

For every self-important blowhard who held up an imperious finger to shush me from greeting him and his wife while I was trying to get drink orders, glaring at me as though it were somehow my fault that he was simply too rude to put the phone away when eating dinner with the woman he purportedly loved, many more would ask and remember my name, listen to my recommendations, and approve with fervor once they’d tried them, leaving hefty tips to further underscore their approval of my recommendations.

Because the recommendations were really the most important part of my job. Being there with a refill on time and a smile on my face was important, obviously, but I wanted to help people find something new, perhaps, or maybe just a perfect dish for them at that exact moment. That was part of the experience that I wanted to help create for them, because that way I would not only make their night but make them want to come back.

I was always careful not to just blindly recommend the most expensive things on any menu, but always asked people what they were in the mood for and then pointed them towards something similar that I knew they’d enjoy, no matter the price tag. It’s how I want to be treated, and I think people appreciated it from me, as well; I know for a fact that nobody who took my advice was ever disappointed.

I did, of course, have the people who just wouldn’t hear it. At the aforementioned Italian steakhouse, they would say something like, “I’m in an Italian restaurant – why on Earth would I order pork chops here? Or seafood? Bring me some spaghetti!”

Sometimes, if they seemed personable, I would explain that, in Italy, pasta is what one eats while the steak or grilled swordfish is cooking, that eating pasta as an entire meal is not really all that typical, that they eat more pork per year in Florence alone than we do in the entire Southeast. But more often than not, I would just smile and bring them a dish that they could have made at home, in ten minutes, for less than an eighth of what we charged for it.

It happened to all of us.

But most folks were more than happy to hear me out and either go with my suggestion or ask my opinion of something else, and go from there. It was all about helping create that experience.

Sometimes, however, my attempts to help “create the experience” went awry. I don’t just mean, “I’m allergic to shellfish, thanks for trying to kill me with that grilled shrimp recommendation”-type moments, although I had several of those. No, I’m more talking about times when my inner eager-puppy led me to try way to hard and thus make a fool of myself.

Since I’m all about laughing at the stupid things I do, I’ll close with one example of such a moment.

As a “singing waiter” at Macaroni Grille, I would sing snippets of random Italian arias from my voice lessons as part of “the experience,” which most of my patrons endured with good humor. One night, I was serving two couples, one pair in their sixties and the other in their thirties. They were very pleasant, but very private, having specifically requested a table in the farthest corner of the restaurant.

Once their food arrived, I came back to check on them and make sure everything was satisfactory. They assured me that everything was fine, at which point I asked if they would like to hear an “Italian feasting song.”

The younger man, who was clearly the patron of this dinner, looked at me with a bemused expression and said, “Um, sure?” in a tone that would probably should have given me pause. But, since I was a singing waiter, and since I’m notoriously bad at picking up on all of these “behavioral cues” I keep hearing about, I just went right ahead and sang!

It went well, they applauded politely, and I left them alone to finish their meal without further interruption. It wasn’t until he had left the building (and a very gracious tip, I might add) that three fellow waiters mobbed me at once, called me all kinds of names, and told me I had just thrown my stupid song at country music legend Clint Black, dining in our restaurant with his wife and parents.

I say he’s a legend, because I have been told that he is a legend. I still don’t think that I have ever heard a song of his, and certainly didn’t recognize him as a dumb young singing waiter at Macaroni Grille.

Needless to say, I felt like an utter fool. But who knows? Maybe I succeeded in creating an experience for him and his family... I certainly did for me!