Monday, December 22, 2008

Rules #1 and #2 for Waiters

I started this blog originally as a place to vent my spleen about various unsatisfactory experiences in restaurants. I am, how you say, a jerk, and I'm easily annoyed by incompetent wait staff.

Actually, I'm usually more annoyed at the restaurant that failed to train their staff properly. But it ends up being the same thing: a disappointing dining experience for me. That is partly why I don't eat in restaurants too often, except for quick and cheap lunches during the workday. (The real reason -- that I'm cheap -- is too embarrassing to mention here.)

Why do I feel qualified to express my opinion? Who am I kidding? I'm not qualified. But I did work in some excellent restaurants in my youth in Mendocino, and learned all aspects of the restaurant business, both front and back, from some of the best. I know good service when I encounter it, and it's a delight.

Anyway, there are two Most Important Rules about waiting tables that I want to emphasize, even though I covered it in an earlier blog post:

Rule #1: Make eye contact.

Dear Waiter... How do you know when to approach a table in your station, and when to leave them alone? If your boss told you that you must always visit the table shortly after serving and ask if everything is OK, then your boss is an idiot. It's really much easier than that...

Here's what you do: You merely walk past your tables and glance in their direction. If a customer doesn't look at you, then they don't want to talk to you. You never need to ask, "Is everything OK?" or, God forbid, "Are you still working on that?"

Really really, you do not need to ask if I'm enjoying my food while I'm still chewing it. Not only have you interrupted the meaningful (or trite) conversation at our table, but you've basically forced me to be rude by either ignoring you or talking with my mouth full of your wonderful food. Bad waiter!

Seriously, this little bit of waiter-etiquette is fading into memory. Everybody is apparently now being trained in the "The more you ask if everything's OK, the bigger your tip will be" school of waiterly annoyance. The number of times I've been able to enjoy a good meal in a restaurant without being harassed by an overly chatty waiter is... well, it's a depressingly small number.

Rule #2: Be personal but not intimate.

We used to make fun of the eccentric kook waiter who would stand casually at our table (or, God forbid, sit down in our booth!) and tell us his name. ("Hi, I'm Seashell and I'll be your server today.")

Dammit-all if the eccentric kook hasn't become the norm! Somewhere along the line, this "introduce yourself and make small talk with your customers" philosophy has become standard operating procedure for wait staff.

I'm very sorry, and I'm sure you're a wonderful person, but no, I don't care what your name is. And I am not here to make friends, at least not with you. I was hoping you'd take my order and then disappear, like morning fog lifting off the fairway grass, beautifully and without a sound.

To be fair, some people love it when a waiter disgorges personal information and hovers about like long-lost pals at a high school reunion. I'm not one of them.

One of the best waiters I ever had the pleasure of working with -- Robert, at the Cafe Beaujolais in Mendocino -- this goes back 25 years -- taught me this basic rule... The best waiters are like polite and benevolent spirits. You hardly notice them at all, but you always have just what you need, when you need it.

The point is... the customers in a restaurant come in to enjoy each other's conversation, not yours. Let them be.

Monday, December 8, 2008

A Picture's Worth a Thousand Words

Some times you leave your waiter a tip. Sometimes, you leave feedback in other forms. Who is to say what's more valuable? Not me...

Check out this great photo-blog post, This is why your server is cranky, on the blog:

Thursday, July 24, 2008

How to pay $5.90 to park at BART (and have fun doing it)

So, I needed to get to work in Berkeley one morning, but also needed to take BART into the City in the afternoon.

My friend Paul was also driving to Berkeley, so I thought I'd park at the Lafayette BART and then hitch a ride with him. Then I could retrieve my car on the way home in the evening, via BART.

Good plan, right?

First of all, I discovered that you have to pay $1 to park at Lafayette BART. No problem. Then I found that the parking passes are sold INSIDE the station. Cool. So I bought a $5 ticket. But then I thought, "I can't use my ticket just to exit again. That would be a waste of money!" So I walked through the non-ticket "disabled person" gate... and was immediately stopped by BART security.

"Do you have a ticket?"

Me, with absolute brain shutdown, just staring back at her.


"Are you riding BART today?"

"Yes, I am."

"Do - you - have - a -"

"Yes," I say, producing said ticket from shirt pocket. I continue to stare at her, putting on my very best, "I don't know what to do and I'm trying not to cry. Please help me" face.

She explains how to use the ticket gate to me, which I proceed to do. I then buy my $1 parking pass.

Now I am standing inside the Lafayette BART station like Borat on his arrival in America... All I lacked was the chicken under my arm. Meanwhile, Paul is outside, waiting for me in his sweet Pontiac rental car... Time stands still.

One minute goes by. Two minutes... I am weighing my options...
  1. Get on BART and ride to Bekeley. (F*ck Paul).
  2. Bust out through the same "disabled person" gate and jump into the rolling getaway car while BART security runs after us.
  3. Exit through the ticketed gate, like a normal person (with the world's shortest commute).
I chose option 3.

Apparently, such short commutes are anathema to BART, because they charged me $4.90 for the trip. Add that to the $1 to park....

And THAT, folks, is how you pay $5.90 to park at BART (and have fun doing it).

Monday, April 21, 2008

Speaking of Airlines...

This seems too rich a vein to leave just yet... With (insert name of any major airline) canceling (insert ungodly number of) flights every day, there are plenty of people gathering first-hand experience of an airline's "service profile" right now.

Here's one from the vault. It's a little number I like to call... "Treat your customers like POW's: Keep them cold, in the dark and on the floor."

In 2006, I was scheduled to fly out of Dulles on JetBlue, along with two co-workers, on a 9pm flight to Oakland, CA. When we got to the airport approximately one hour before the flight, we could see that the flight was delayed by about an hour, due to weather delays in the northeast. No problem, we could manage an extra hour in Dulles. They have bars.

10 pm rolls around, and I'm no aeronautical genius, but the total lack of a giant blue thing with wings outside our gate suggested that we were not about to begin pre-boarding. Finally, a new estimate: 11:30 departure. One of the gate attendants announces over the loudspeaker that the pilot missed his connection and would be on the next flight out. Hence the additional delay.

11:30. Still no plane, and no further updates from JetBlue's gate attendants, who were beginning to get that "last sentries at the Saigon embassy" look in their eyes. A crowd of restless business commuters begin to close in on the check-in desk, holding briefcases, cups of coffee, crying babies... basically anything that could be used as a weapon.

Midnight. Up steps the more senior looking gate attendant. He announces that there in fact will be no plane. There never was a plane. Or rather, there never was a pilot. Or rather, there was a pilot, but never any practical way to get him from JFK to Dulles. JetBlue didn't want to announce (admit) it until they were sure. Also, as it turns out, until it was late enough that there was no way to make alternate travel plans.

Thank you for choosing JetBlue!

Our Plan B was genius:
  1. Call Southwest airlines (you know I love to do that) and
  2. Buy three tickets to From BWI to OAK (by way of Kansas City), departing Baltimore in 8 hours.
  3. Take a $125 taxi ride to BWI, and spend the night on the floor.
Note: There are no comfortable seats, much less couches, in the outer terminal of BWI, and they close the inner terminal, where the gates and comfy seats are, during the wee hours. My stalwart companions and I spent an uncomfortable but not altogether unpleasant night on a patch of carpet behind an elevator. (Believe it or not, we actually got looks of jealousy from other, less well situated refugees.) We passed the time reminiscing about pre-Bush America and watching Apocolypse Now (seemed appropriate) on my portable DVD player.

Good times.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Why do I love calling Southwest Airlines?

I have no great explanation for this... but I always look forward to calling Southwest Airlines. Not that I call them often; maybe 4 or 5 times a year. But I know that when I do, I'll be treated well. The CSR will be friendly and courteous, and will take his or her time and be genuinely helpful.

As a result, I kind of look forward to the conversation. I get happy when I'm dialing 1-800-IFLYSWA. How awesome is that!?

Okay, it's also pathetic. Fair enough. But still... kudos to Southwest for establishing the bar for all CSRs.

Now, if we could get just a li'l more legroom...

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

How to lose a customer for life

I don't carry an American Express card. Did once. Don't any more. Here's why:

My wife and I took an extended trip to Ireland. We happened to have a large amount of cash in our bank account at the time (due to an inheritance), and we decided against carrying travelers checks in favor of using our AMEX card, which, we'd been told, had no spending limit.

We visited the Emerald Isle for about three weeks and had a bonny old time. We racked up a debt of several thousand dollars on our card, which we intended to pay off in full on our return to the States. But at some point before returning, our AMEX card started getting rejected. The account had been frozen. This caused us a bit of hassle, since there was (at that time) no easy way to access the cash sitting in our savings account stateside.

On returning to the States, I called AMEX. The first person I spoke to immediately transferred me to someone "more senior." (I guess some big skull and crossbones popped up on her screen when she accessed our account.) The not-very-friendly more senior person -- let's call him Brad -- explained to me that my card had been suspended due to an unusually high volume of activity over the past few weeks.

Yes, I explained, we'd been in Europe and used the card for almost everything we did. We have plenty of cash and will pay the balance in full before the statement due date. (Note that, according to our statement, payment wasn't due for another week.)

Brad then adopted a slightly hostile tone and explained to me that the card would remain suspended until they received payment.

This bothered me. We had not been informed of any spending limit. We had not ever failed to pay the balance in full by the statement's due date, including in this instance. And we had explained that the recent activity was both legitimate and completed.

Nope, Brad could not help us. The card could not be used until they received some payment. (He emphasized some even though I'd indicated we would be paying the full balance.) OK, fine, I said, you'll receive full payment and instructions to close our account.

Brad seemed fine with that, so I considered the matter final.

Still, my do-gooder instincts compelled me to write a letter accompanying our payment, explaining the situation and offering to re-consider the decision to close the account if someone would contact me to discuss it with us. Nobody ever did.


But then, a month later, I got a form letter "from" the CEO of AMEX, expressing his sadness that we'd decided to close the account, and asking if there was anything AMEX could do to keep our business. Provided was an SASE to send comments. So I sent the same letter back in the SASE.

Never got a reply.

That was thirteen years ago. I've been shredding offers from AMEX ever since.

What should they have done differently?

I started to make another list, but why bother? We both know...

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

A tipping rant

(My brother sent this to me. I could not have said it better myself, so let's just pretend I did.)
Here's something that drives me crazy...

My date and I have just had a lovely meal. The bill is presented, neatly tucked in one of those leather folders. Let's say the bill totals $58.50. If I'm paying with cash, I might place a hundred dollar bill inside the folder, and set it near the edge of the table. The server comes by, picks up the folder, and asks, "Do you need change?"

I'm sorry, it's not your job to determine what kind of tipper I am. It's your job to make the f***ing change and let me decide whether or not I'm going to leave you 70%.

Sorry for the salty language. Enjoy your meal.

The Miracle of In-n-Out

I overheard someone at work today who said, "In-n-Out is basically the same as MacDonald's except for higher quality burgers." Okay, I agree that In-n-Out's quality standards are exemplary. But otherwise, I completely disagree with his statement. And, being a PITA curmudgeon, I had to tell him so. Here's more or less what I said (edited to improve clarity, wit and logical structure):

I like In-n-Out's food, but I looove the way they run their business. Here's a list of reasons why:
(I love lists. You'll see...)
  1. The menu; it's simple, focused and never changes. They serve a small number of excellent items. They do not insult their customers by trotting out crazy ass stuff like Choco Tacos or McRib sandwiches. Burgers, fries, soft drinks, lemonade and shakes. That's it.
  2. Service. The staff are always well trained, well managed and well paid; as a result, service is uniformly excellent. Ask yourself: Have you ever been to an In-n-Out and NOT been spoken to in a genuinely (or at least convincingly) friendly and enthusiastic manner? Have you ever heard a rude comment from an employee? Have you ever been ignored by an employee who was chatting with a co-worker? I haven't. maybe that's because In-n-Out pays significantly more than California's already high minimum wage, and every store is corporate owned and managed. (In-n-Out is not a franchise.)
  3. Cleanliness. The place is clean. The counters, the tables, the bathrooms, everything.
  4. Meaningful innovation. Not the ice cream as taco innovation of Taco Bell. For instance, when the drive-thru lines began snaking out through parking lots, In-n-Out began employing walk-up staff who take orders ahead of the kiosk via wireless handheld devices. This makes the drive-thru line go much faster. I don't know if In-n-Out invented this technique or not, but they've surely done well in their implementation.
  5. Quality. Fresh, high quality ingredients, nothing's frozen (except the ice cream in the milkshakes) and your burgers are always made to order, not in advance. The fries are made on the spot from real potatoes.
  6. Value. I can eat a complete meal at In-n-Out for $4. And I know it will be fresh and tasty. Mmmmm, boy.
By the way, the only fast food burger I like better than In-n-Out? Tommy's. Tommy's actually shares a lot of the qualities of In-n-Out, but with chili sauce on top. ... And they do breakfast. Oh yeah, with chili sauce.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Fulfilling a Curmudgeon's Lifelong Dream

I've always been a pain in the ass about service, particularly in restaurants. I suppose that comes from working in restaurants for years during college, in every conceivable capacity that did not require advanced training (chef) or capital (owner).

My friends and family have endured my pontification on the subject for years... Now, they will be relieved to know that I'm creating another outlet for my angst... A blog about service.

First, I should explain the title. It's from one of my pet peeves of restaurant service. Someone is enjoying (or not) a nice (or not) meal, and he makes the momentary error of putting down his fork. The waiter will swoop by and ask, "Are you still working on that?" Whenever someone asks me that question, I'm tempted to say, "I'm not working. I'm eating." My point being... eating in a restaurant is not a job; it's a pleasure (or at least it should be). You should be allowed to relax, take breaks, take your time, enjoy the company of others or just sit still and chew. When I'm done, my knife and fork will be at 4 o'clock and I'll probably ask you for the check, or dessert, or something.

So now you're beginning to sense (with horror, no doubt) what a huge pain in the ass I really am.

But in my own defense... I believe everything I care about is universal. These are not arbitrary opinions, or based on some arcane book of etiquette. I formed my sense of good service while waiting tables, or more often by watching other more skilled staff wait tables, in a wide variety of restaurants.

Let's begin with... My basic rules for Waiters:
  1. Eye contact. Walk past your tables. (Through your "station.") If a customer doesn't look at you, they don't want to talk to you. You never need to ask, "Is everything OK?" or, God forbid, "Are you still working on that?" ("Why yes, and I'll be..." Oh, never mind.) This is the number one rule of good service, and sadly the most violated one. Really really, you do not need to ask if I'm enjoying my food while I'm still chewing it. Not only have you interrupted the meaningful (or trite) conversation at our table, but you've basically forced me to be rude by either ignoring you or talking with my mouth full of your wonderful food. Bad waiter!
  2. Personal but not intimate. I'm very sorry, and I'm sure you're a wonderful person, but no, I don't care what your name is. And I am not here to make friends (at least not with you). To be fair, some people love it when a waiter disgorges personal information and hovers about like long-lost pals at a high school reunion. I don't.
  3. Four o'clock. A thoughtful (dare I say educated?) customer will place his cutlery at the "four o'clock" position on his plate when he would like the plate to be removed. There are variations on this in practice (fork and knife crossed, for example), so you'll have to figure it out if someone deviates. And eventually, if a customer is apparently done but not employing the four o'clock technique, you might have to abandon this tactic and just ask. But please, no reference to work in your inquiry. TYVM.
  4. Serve from the left, clear from the right. Or is it, serve from the right and clear from the left? I don't really care about this one, to be honest. It does add a bit of predictability and slightly reduces the chance of catastrophe. But really, this is nonsense. Let's move on.
  5. Rule number one is the most important rule. Seriously. You can skip the other four rules. They're just there for symmetry and weight. Rule number one is key. (Maybe next I'll write Five Rules for Restaurant Customers including the number one rule: Make eye contact with your waiter if you need something. Don't yell out "Miss" or "Sir" or -- God forbid -- hiss at them like a snake. That's a sure-fire way to get ignorified...)
PS: Please forgive me my insistence on the archaic term "Waiter" instead of server. When I say waiter, I mean server. Or vice versa. Whichever gets you off my back. And for simplicity's sake, I am using the male gender designators of he/him to refer to non-specific persons. I know there are female customers and servers. Thank you and I'm sorry and let's be friends.