Food Servers Can Dish Up Their Share Of Gripes, Too

I'm a restaurant critic by trade, but I'm still a waitress at heart. It's been five years since I gave up my longtime waitressing career, but only about five minutes since I've had my last "waitmare."

In these fretful dreams my station's filled with angry customers in need of attention while I'm locked in the kitchen and can't get out, or stuck at another table unable to move, or forced to run from the kitchen to the dining room (which is three blocks away), over and over and over. . . . I wake up in a sweat, an emotional wreck.

Which is exactly how I felt after dealing with scores of phone messages and mail from restaurant staffers airing their customer-related grievances. Did this table-turning response to my recent "Taste of the Town" column (in which restaurant-goers aired their peeves) make me glad that I'm no longer waiting tables? Not on your life.

I miss the camaraderie of hard-working restaurant-folk like Nicole, who, with input from co-workers, sent along a list of peeves and the admonition: "We are your servers, not your servants."

Many of those who took the time to respond (including Elise, who phoned at 3:30 a.m. after a late-night shift) asked, if nothing else, for a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

"Snapping your fingers for attention is not cosmopolitan, it's just rude," writes one waitress. And no one had kind words for customers who totally ignore a server when he or she approaches the table to take an order.

Frank has it in for cell-phone users who raise one finger in the international "wait a minute" sign, leaving him cooling his heels instead of tending to other customers. "And they expect you to get their meal quickly!" he harrumphs.

David has this suggestion for those prone to using restaurants as adjuncts to the conference room: "If you are having a business lunch and have a couple of hours of business to attend to afterward, try a coffee shop - or perhaps the office."

"The very worst part of my job," says Jason, a restaurant manager, "is when it becomes my responsibility to tell a grown adult he or she has had too much to drink. It's difficult to rationalize with a drunk," he says, "particularly if they are with friends."

Elaine complains about large parties who wait until the end of the meal to ask for separate checks. "They tell you that they are in a hurry, and then they all hand you charge cards! They obviously don't realize that each card takes about two to three minutes to process. If a server is handed five cards at the same time, well, you do the math."

Customers say the darnedest things. Michelle recounts a common reaction to the oft-posed query, "Would anyone care for a beverage?" "Teetotalers were always biting my head off and saying, `No! I'll have coffee!' " she says. Last time she looked, coffee was a beverage.

Want to really make your waiter or bartender squirm? Ask for something special, then say, "I'll make it worth your while." "Never, ever, under any circumstances say that," shudders Adam, a bartender who says he's also forced to hold his tongue each time a customer sits at his bar and asks, "What do you have?"

Pamela writes that she was once unable to hold her tongue while serving a party of office-workers celebrating Secretary's Week. One secretary turned to her and said, "I hope you have a real job!" to which Pamela peevishly replied, "Yes, I do. And I make three times the money you make in half the hours."

Cooks and servers alike carp about patrons who re-design the menu, though all agree that allergy-related requests are valid reasons for substitutions.

Claire describes this all-too-common scenario: "They come in and say, `I'll have the halibut, prepared like the salmon, with the swordfish sauce on the side.' " "It's the "Meg Ryan factor,' " insists Gage, alluding to Ryan's persnickety character in "When Harry Met Sally." "To ask for steamed veggies or sauce on the side is one thing, but to think you're being cute by rewriting the menu with all your special dietary needs is another. If you don't like the menu," he says, "don't eat out."

Why the fuss over menu changes? Mari explains: "(Customers) insist on every conceivable substitution imaginable (steamed not fried, water not butter) until we no longer recognize what we serve you as something from our menu. This not only renders our food less appealing, but disrupts the kitchen, as they are forced to break from routine to fulfill your special request."

In that vein, one restaurant owner noted that women, in general, have more special requests, require more attention, and (this seconded by many, waitresses included) are the worst tippers.

Speaking of tips, Claire (and others) ask customers who take advantage of coupons and entertainment cards to please remember to tip on the full (pre-discount) amount. "You're still getting the benefit of my food and wine knowledge, my charming wit, and my excellent service," she says.

Why does waiting on small children drive some servers crazy? "Too many allow their children to disrupt the dining experience of others," says David. "But the worst offense is allowing children to create enormous messes which (the parents) simply leave, without a word of apology. The price of a meal, they seem to believe, covers the effort of cleaning the carpet."

Tiny tots underfoot also make for a dangerous situation, particularly when servers are carrying large trays of hot food. "It's not the children who are the problem," says Wendell, "it's parents who don't set boundaries. I stopped counting the amount of times I've had to ask children to stop taking the settings off other tables, or to stop coloring on the sugar holders (which they've spilled all the sugar out of), or some other nonsense that the parent should have dealt with long before I came to the table."

A Kirkland hostess speaks for a crowd when she scolds those who call at 6 p.m. on Friday in an attempt to get reservations for eight people an hour later and act put out when she can't accommodate them. Or those who make reservations for four people and arrive with six. Or reserve for six people but show up with four.

The worst, all agree, are patrons who make reservations and don't show up at all.

Sandy has it in for "scam artists" - those, she says, who wait until they consume their entire meal before asking to see the manager to say that "everything was wrong." "If you taste something and there's a problem, let us know so we can rectify the situation," she says. "Don't wait until you've finished with everything before asking that something be deducted from the bill."

There were many loud hisses for "campers" (customers who long overstay their welcome). And David voices particular disdain for late-night lovebirds who "show up five minutes before closing, then, after their big steak at midnight, start groping each other." "Go get a room!" he begs.

Tracy - a restaurant manager obviously proud of her capable, professional serving staff - writes: "At times, when we are caught with more customers than staff can handle, or when the breakfast cook cuts off his finger, or the delivery truck forgot to bring eggs, or (we must deal with) any of the million-and-one variables that may cause service hiccups, the waitstaff is lambasted by guests about poor service."

Recognize that they are not necessarily at fault, she advises, and learn to discern between what she calls "really bad, neglectful service" and "challenged service."

How can you tell the difference? "Look for the sweaty brow," says Tracy.

Dawne and her fellow restaurant workers have a better idea. "A week's worth of restaurant experience should be mandatory at some point in one's life," they suggest. "Maybe then the `annoyances' of dining out might be alleviated slightly, leaving a small understanding spot in the hearts of diners everywhere."


Nancy Leson's phone number is 206-464-8838. Her e-mail address is: