Booze, booths, canoodling and credit cards: dinner out on the town can be a recipe for awkwardness, both for diners and the staff that serves them.
A restaurant is a salad bar of human behaviors: There’s the couple on their first date, the man cashing in his bad luck on Irish whiskey at the bar, the colleagues pretending to like each other in order to impress the client.
The majority of the time, the server-customer interaction passes without incident. But, every now and again – whether in the form of a declined credit card, overserved customer or the couple getting steamy in the corner booth - it’s up to the front of the house, or waitstaff, to get things back on track and make sure other guests’ experiences aren’t negatively affected.
Jason James, the general manager of Barley Swine in Austin, Texas, said he would rather have one angry guest leave because he told them to be quiet than 10 angry guests because he did nothing about it.
“It is absolutely necessary for the FOH [front of house] to maintain peace. If for no other reason than to heighten the experience of those around you,” said James.
Justin Warner, the co-owner of Do or Dine in Brooklyn, New York, and the latest winner of "The Next Food Network Star, embraces the human element. “When you go into the boiler room of a restaurant there is generally a little box labeled 'chaos' which powers the restaurant. Too little chaos is a dull and lifeless robo-restaurant. Too much and it's, well, chaotic.”
“I think that the front of the house has more opportunities than the back of the house [kitchen staff] to turn liabilities into assets, and therefore regulate the flow of chaos a little bit more,” he added.
According to the blogger who writes under the pseudonym The Bitchy Waiter, servers are the go-between for the kitchen and the guest - and there is a delicate balance between the two.
“Customers want to blame us for the kitchen's mistakes and the kitchen wants to blame us for the customer's mistakes. It is up to the servers to bridge that gap and make sure that no one actually blames us for anything,” he said.
“I’m sorry, but your card has been declined”
Take for instance, a declined credit card. Warner said blame it on the machine, the bank, anything but the fact that the customer may just not have budgeted accordingly.
The Bitchy Waiter runs the card at least three times before returning to the guest so when the first thing the guest says is, “Try it again,” he’s already one step - or in this case, three swipes - ahead.
“Personally, I rarely use the word ‘decline.’ It just sounds so negative. I usually say something like, ‘I'm not sure why, but for some reason this card is not being accepted. Perhaps you have another one that I can use instead?’” he said.
“On very rare occasions, I have known servers to tell rude customers that the card was declined even though it wasn't just to shame them a little bit,” he added. “It's the little things that get waiters through their night.”
“You’re cut off”
Speaking of rude customers, the drunken, obnoxious customer is another inevitable and potential minefield for the front of house. Every server at some point or another is going to have to cut someone off, and the act of doing so, the gentlemen agree, is all in the presentation.
Alcohol often facilitates aggression, so Warner advocates dropping the check, doing a last call, anything other than declaring, “You’re cut off.”
“That's the worst verbiage to use to someone who is wasted. Sometimes I recommend fictitious bars that have a great happy hour all night which is just around the corner. Anything. Just get them out,” he said.
James says while he handles with care, he also makes it clear it's not up for debate.
"I use an assertive tone with them so that they get the picture. If at any point I decide they should not be driving, I will let them know that I will call them a cab. If they refuse then I tell them it is that or the police. The cab has always won that case," he said.
“Get a room!”
As for the heavy petters, there’s less coddling.
James says for the most part, people who are engaging in serious PDA (hopefully) know they are doing so in front of others, so there's no need to sugarcoat it.
“I did have a couple once give me the ‘That’s rude" at which point I replied ‘Well, you are also being rude to the people around you.’ They left and were not seen here again. No worries,” he said.
"It's worth it"
So, why not just punch out of the gig for good? Because, these restaurant veterans actually enjoy their jobs.
Warner admits, “To me it is about control. It feels good to control the chaos. If people leave happy, even better.”
“As much as I want to say that these kind of things are off-putting, they are paled in comparison to the genuine guests I deal with every single day,” says James. “It is the other 99% of my guests that are happy, giddy, and can't wait to come back that makes it worth it for me.”
Do you think it’s a server’s job to keep the peace, or would you rather they stayed out of it? Leave your thoughts in the comments below - and please share your stories of horrible customer behavior you’ve witnessed. You, of course, behave like a saint at all times.
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