Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Through the Eyes of a Server

It was OCR season. Time to pull out the starchy suit, slap on a smile, and impress potential employers. Yet as many of my peers obsessed over interviews and callbacks, I deleted every “OCR info” email in my inbox without giving it a once-over. I didn’t participate in on-campus recruiting because I already know what I’ll be doing this summer. I’ll be doing the same thing I did last summer, the same thing undergrads and grads across the nation do every summer (except, it seems, at Penn): serving tables.

Serving initially proves to be more difficult than most people would expect. For whatever reason, most restaurants thrive on drama, although it might not be apparent to clientele. Psychotic customers, out of control kids, screaming in the kitchen, clam juice spills, work-cest—all are parts a server’s typical week. After a month or so behind the scenes, employees begin to view the dining-out experience in an entirely new light—from a server’s perspective.

It begins from the moment your table is seated. The hostess hands out the menus, and the ball’s in your court. Some servers opt for the general, “Hi, can I start you off with some drinks?” while I prefer a more personable touch. “Hi, I’m Deven, and I’ll be your server this evening. Tonight our specials are…” There is some debate as to the level of cheesiness a server should exude at this part. In general, I keep the cheese to a minimum with middle-aged people and teenagers. They’ll throw it right back at you with a “Hi Deven! I’m Doreen, and this is Bob, and we’ll be your customers this evening.” The awkwardness that ensues is worth avoiding. 

Now it’s time to take the order. One table of 3 elderly couples insisted that I take their orders in reverse-height order, forcing me to choose the tallest. Then there’re the parents who try to order for the kids, and the kids who just want macaroni and cheese. After a three-minute shouting match, the mom orders fried shrimp, but the six-year-old mouths “mac n’ cheese” at me with a sly wink. How am I supposed to say no to that? 

45 minutes go by and your order still isn’t up. You go scream at the kitchen to get moving. In my case, you find that the guy in charge of the frier is out back having a smoke, so he never saw your order. You pray this won’t affect your tip, because honestly, it wasn’t even your fault. Of course, your table doesn’t know that, and they take it out on you anyway. “The server’s always the scapegoat,” one New Deck Tavern waiter explains.

Sometimes you just crack, like Jessica from the Bubble Tea House. At a Middle Eastern place where she formerly worked, an impatient customer got the best of her. “The guy wanted bread with his meal, just like they used to do back in the 80’s, and I tried explaining that our menu had changed since then, and I’d have to charge him an extra buck.” He couldn’t take no for an answer, so he stomped back to the kitchen demanding bread. The kitchen staff took him literally, tossing some bread at him. Enraged, the man filed a complaint with the manager for being “pelted with bread.” He also implied that it wouldn’t hurt to let some of the staff go either, making sure Jessica could hear. When he told her she shouldn’t expect any tip, she lost it. “I told him exactly what I thought of him, spared no details.” When his family tried to offer her a tip upon leaving, she wouldn’t take it. “I didn’t want their money, just some kindness.” she concludes. 

The stories don’t stop with ordering. I’ve had more trying experiences once the food is actually delivered. In one such instance, I misunderstood a little boy’s order, thinking he’d ordered a chicken filet. Much to my horror, it was supposed to be a filet mignon well done. When the steak did emerge about 20 minutes later, his parents told me to take it off the check. This resulted in a free filet mignon, a much smaller bill, and the resulting much smaller tip. And he didn’t even like his meal—said it had too many onions. 

Food complaints are obviously a common occurrence, but much harder for servers to handle after the food has been, well, eaten. Some customers still insist, even after their plate is clear, that the meal be taken off the bill. “They only notice if is beer is flat after they finish half of it, or that the burger is overcooked once it’s all gone,” the New Deck server explains. Jessica also says that some customers, especially students, complain about the high prices only after they’ve eaten. “In a few cases, we’ve even seen the classic ‘dine and dash,’ where the server ends up paying the bill. People just don’t want to face the financial aspect of dining out.” 

And it’s for this financial aspect that anyone becomes a server in the first place. The entire time you serve a table, the tip sits in the back of your mind. It’s almost like a little scoreboard in your head, keeping tabs on when you screw up or make someone happy. Most times, the mistakes tip the scales. At one table, everything was going great until my first big spill. The old women loved my jokes, my recommendations, even my accent (which is rare), until the point where I spilled steaming clam juice in their laps. I can usually balance four plates at once, but the dish of the 18 steamers got the best of me. The worst part was that I did it twice—once when I brought the plate out, and next when I took it back. Needless to say, my tip was small. They walked away still smelling like clams. 

While serving tables is obviously an interesting experience, it also changes the way you dine at other restaurants. Even when something’s really wrong, you always make an effort not to be that customer. Sure, sometimes it really is the server’s fault, but you also have an idea of what may be going on in the kitchen, things that are out of the server’s control. And yes, we always, always tip highly. 

Photo and Article by Deven Parker

No comments:

Post a Comment


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...