Wednesday, January 9, 2008

A Tale of Two Waitresses

I got an interesting email today from my Zagat subscription. It linked to a story about two similar experiences that somebody had in Vegas, back to back, with two different waitresses.

In the first experience, the customer asked for a strip of undercooked bacon to be made "crispy", an act that would likely take a matter of only another minute or so for the cook. Not only did the waitress give them grief before finally relenting, when the bacon came back it was technically "crispy", but also "stiff as a board".

In the second experience with a different waitress, the customer asked for their eggs to be served separately, and halfway across the room (their daughter apparently greatly dislikes the smell of eggs). This waitress didn't even blink, and in fact asked whether they wanted the eggs or the rest of the meal served first. When asked if that was the strangest request she'd ever gotten, she replied, "This isn't strange. Honey, it doesn't even come close."

A comparison is to be made between the two waitresses, one of which is obviously unreasonable, and one of which obviously cares deeply about her customers, or at the very least doesn't mind the occasional odd request. Is it a valid comparison? Not quite, in my opinion.

If I were cooking bacon at home for my family, and my daughter (who is not, at the time of this writing, actually old enough to eat bacon) asked me to take a floppy piece of bacon and make it crispy, it wouldn't be a big deal. Presumably, it should also not be a big deal for a professional kitchen at a high end restaurant who, I might note, likely has to serve breakfast for anywhere from dozens to hundreds, to perhaps even thousands of guests in a very small space of time. When thought about it in that sense, the cook has to take extra time and resources to handle just another request which, in all likelihood, they don't actually have time to handle.

The waitress knew this. It had probably been burned into her skull by the kitchen staff every time she agreed to make a special request for a customer. This can be confirmed by the fact that she informed the customer that "the kitchen won't like that". She apparently handled the situation with rudeness. I don't know if she was actually rude, or if her initial refusal was only interpreted as such by the customer. I'm guessing that she was only trying to deflect what was about to become grief from the cook who had to handle the request. In an act of relentment to provide customer service (or at least avoid having the customer ask for the manager), she finally agreed.

The customer notes their mental response to the waitress: "The kitchen won't like that? Excuse me. Is the kitchen paying for the meal? Does the kitchen really care about cooking bacon a little longer?"

Yes. In fact, they probably do care about cooking the bacon a little longer. How did the cook handle the request? He apparently did fulfill the customer's request. He may have been belligerent with it, apparently cooking the bacon to a level of crispness that he knew nobody would ever be happy with, but he did fulfill the request. He might have even seen the extra crispiness as a sort of revenge, and for the customer's sake, I hope that's the only sort of revenge that he decided to exact upon her (though I doubt it).

He could have handled it differently. He could have just set the bacon aside on the griddle, let it cook a little longer while he did his other duties, and then when it was done, moved it back to the plate, and the plate back to the heat lamp, where it would be brought back to the customer. It would still have been an annoyance, but he could have done it. He apparently decided to teach what he considered to be an unreasonable customer a lesson in the process.

How does this compare to the second experience? The customer wanted their eggs to be served separately, and at a different interval from the rest of their meal. This request requires no extra involvement from the kitchen. The waitress could easily ask for two different plates (one with the egg and one with everything else) as if they were two different orders, and then handled them as such herself. Waitresses do this sort of thing on a regular basis, and the kitchen (who, again, was likely swamped) would never know about it.

She could also have involved the kitchen, and this is where a difference could be apparent. If she involved the kitchen, she certainly didn't mind doing so. Perhaps she has a better working relationship with the cooks. Perhaps she knows how busy the kitchen is (or isn't) and doesn't mind bullying a cook to get things done. I have often seen this willingness to bully the cooks define a waitress that refuses to place any priority above customer satisfaction.

I'm guessing that she chose not to involve the kitchen any more than necessary. She was obviously experienced enough at her job to have seen a lot of strange things. This tells me that she was probably also experienced enough to be able to handle such a request on her own. While each request likely carries equal weight in our own home kitchens, the request involving the egg is drastically easier to manage in a high-production environment such as one might see in Las Vegas, America's playground.

What is the point of all this? Unless you have worked in a restaurant, there is no way you can possibly know how difficult it is to do so. You may think you know how reasonable a request is, but until you're the person fulfilling the request, you probably don't.

Why do I bring this up? I eat out a fair amount when I travel (about 2 - 3 weeks a month), and occasionally when I'm in my home state. I see a lot of examples of customer service, both good and bad. And I see a lot of reactions from my peers, both good and bad. I've cooked in kitchens and I've waited tables. My first inclination is to put myself in the shoes of the serving staff and the kitchen staff. If my food is late, I know that it's likely (though not always) a problem in the kitchen. I don't start mentally subtracting pennies from the server's tip, unless I have a really, really good reason. In fact, I'm more likely to start mentally adding pennies to the tip based upon how good the service is.

I can only recall one instance in my life where a server was so utterly incapable of providing decent enough service that I felt they deserved to be tipped less than 15%. In fact, she was reportedly fired less than two weeks later. I prefer to tip at least 20% (despite being from Utah), and often tip more if the service was excellent.

Next time you're in a situation like that, think a little bit about what you're asking for. Is your server being unreasonable, or are you? Take a few hints from them. If they tell you that "the kitchen won't like that", they're likely telling the truth. Deal with it. I don't want to hear your whining unless it really is warranted.

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