Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Tales from the darkside.....Part I

I don't know why I am on such a restaurant kick these days, maybe it is the nostalgia that the end of the year brings but I have been thinking a lot about my restaurant days, which I must say were some of the funnest years of my life.  Restaurant culture is like no other, totally unique and sort of an island of its own.  

I worked a lot of restaurant jobs, I've been a hostess, a cashier, a bartender, a cocktail waitress, a waitress an expediter and a manager.  I have had jobs for one day, 6 months, a year, 7 years.  I have quit by not showing up for a shift and I have definitely faked being sick to get out of a shift on more than one occasion.  

By far my most treasured memories from my restaurant years are the friends I have made and kept, now for decades.  Very many of these friends like to razz me about what a crappy employee I was since my cynicism and contempt for authority was completely unchecked during all the years I spent in the restaurant business.  Now in my current work, my colleagues still think I have unpacked all my cynical baggage, but they have not even scratched the surface of my evilness.  That's another unique thing about the restaurant business, there is no need to really have a whole lot of decorum.  Sure, with your customers, yes, you are playing a role, but the restaurant business has a huge underbelly, beyond that kitchen door and once you walk though it, all decorum is gone.  

OK, I have gone a little off topic, because I was talking about how my friends like to razz me about what a horrible waitress I was (and not horrible in that I was not a good server but more my utter contempt for anything corporate or happy, etc.).  When I see these friends, invariably we always go down memory lane and my husband (who didn't know me back then) gets a huge kick out of hearing my horror stories.  Still, even though I was a good waitress and actually made decent money at it, I did a lot of contemptous things while in the restaurant business, most of them when I was a waitress for a large corporate American chain. 

So, in my effort to come clean in the new year (why the hell I am making that effort, I don't know), here are just as couple of my dastardly deeds (or at least the ones I am willing to publish).  Here they are:

Doggie Bags - another restaurant friend of mine and I once had a contest to see how much food we could cram into one to-go box.  From that shift onward I sort of held the contest with myself.  You would not believe how much left over pasta can fit into a box the size of a Big Mac..  And one of those clear plastic containers that they use to make to-go salads?  I could fit leftovers of at least 3 dinners in there, plus bread.  My customers used to always thank me for being so thoughtful to put their stuff in a bag for them to carry.  I used to go so far as to put some empty to go boxes in the bag to make it look like everybody had their own container.  Little did they know (until they got home that is) that my kind act of thoughtfulness was only a way to cover up the evidence.  

You really can increase your tips with the Dessert Tray - I worked in a restaurant where they had a dessert tray.  Granted, a dessert tray is probably one of the very best ways to sell dessert, but I must admit I hated the hell out of having to show that stupid tray.  What bugged me about it is that this particular restaurant, which was a family restaurant, was one of these places that didn't take reservations and the idea of the whole concept (despite their advertising) was to turn tables, turn and burn.  They made money by turning tables and we made money by turning tables.  Now true, dessert added a premium amount of money to a check, 4 desserts was easily an extra $20 on the check (by 1990's standards) which meant an extra 3-4 bucks for me per table.  The problem was that dessert puts everybody in slow motion.  They want coffee with their dessert, which means most likely they are going to linger, so yeah, I have an extra $4 in tips, but guess what, they have just sat for extra half hour.  In that half hour, another table could be eating salad and waiting for their entrees.  When I added it up, I figured the best way for me to make the most money was to turn and burn as fast as possible, so I often skipped showing the tray and that always earned me a lot of flack from my managers.  I didn't give a crap about my add on sales, after all I don't make commission, I make tips.  Plus, on principle, the Dessert Tray seemed out of place to me in this particular establishment whose sole purpose was to feed as many covers as possible and turn and burn.  Dessert means linger, relax, have another cup of coffee, it totally went against the principles.  A dessert tray belongs in the kind of restaurant where there is maybe 2-3 seatings a night, where you are supposed to linger, with coffee and after dinner drinks and the rest of it.  

Anyhow, there were times I would show the damn tray, like for instance if they ordered coffee, therefore they are lingering already  or if they asked for it.  Or on those occasions where I was sick to death of my manager busting me for not showing the tray, I would show it just to shut him or her the f*** up.  

So, on one particular night, it had to be a weekend when we were so busy that we ran from the second we walked in the door all night.  One of those nights where you had to wait for eveyrthing from bread, to salad to your friggin veggie side.  This is one of these nights where the kitchen just looks like an operating room in a war zone.  One of my last tables told me that they were interested in dessert (I was interested in getting my ass over to TGI Fridays to knock back some Absolut and cranberries at a deep discount).  I drag out the tray which also looks like it has been though an autopsy, after so many times being taken in and out of that little dorm fridge.  And my customers settle on our seasonal dessert which is this 6 layer chocolate cake, served with vanilla icecream and whipped cream.  Yippee.  I go in the back, thinking I am never getting out of there and already deciding how much extra am I going to tip the busboys to clean my tables and do my sidework.  I get back to the dessert fridge where all the desserts are already plated and of course......fridge empty. SHIT.  I trudge onto the back walk in cooler, already determined that I am not going to fill up the fridge by bringing a whole damn tray of chocolate cakes to put in the fridge, but I am going and getting my one crappy piece.  I go back to the tray cart that has the desserts and guess what, no f-in chocolate cake.  I go to the prep guy and he tells me, we're out.  And I say, are they frozen, and he says, nope, we're completely out.  SHIT.  So, now after I have invested 5-7 minutes in this dessert, I have to go out there and tell them we're out, they probably won't want anything else which means I will have invested all this time for them and I will get zippo for it.  

But wait!  I've got an idea.  I run out to the little dorm fridges where the dessert trays are, the first fridge, the cake has a big gash at the end where the icing is, that's a big fat no.  I go to the other side where the other fridge is and I take out the tray and on first inspection, it looks okay, no gashes, no little piece that fell off the end.  I touch the layers a little with my fingers to see if it is too stale and it pretty much feels like a cake that has been exposed to the elements for about 8 hours and I think, all is lost.  But wait!  I have brain wave.  The cake gets half covered up with ice cream and whipped cream which can make the cake a bit soggy.  Soggy + Stale = fresh cake!  I am a genius!  I'll just turn the piece over, so that the side exposed to the air is down, throw ice cream and whipped cream on top of it and voila!  So I run with a tray to a closed dining room where people aren't lurking around (because I can't do this in the kitchen, I'll get caught).  I run in the kitchen to get a dish, I flip the cake onto the dish and run back to the kitchen (because this dessert is really taking a long time).  I cut back in and walk back to the walk in fridge and come out as if I am carrying this cake from the fridge the whole time.  I go and put the ice cream and just as I am about to squirt the whipped cream, and here comes my frigging manager, saying "don't tell me you showed the dessert tray" and I just laugh and then he says, we sold out of that cake.  I say, yeah I heard but I checked back in the walk in and there was one plated on a tray with chocolate mousse, so this is the last one. This idiot (who I not very secretly used to call Ferret Face because he reminded me of Frank Burns from MASH) congratulated me on my resourcefulness and I serve the dessert and not only do I apologize for taking so long but I  tell them the delay was because we were sold out, but I checked in the fridge in the back anyway and tell them how lucky it was that I looked on the chocolate mousse tray and found their cake.  And of course, because of the inconvenience, my manager insisted that their coffees be on the house.  Victory.  Free anything will keep anyone from complaining.  That three top ate every bite of that cake and ended up leaving me a $20 tip on a $45 check.  It does pay to show the tray.  Lesson learned. 

These are some of my tamer stories, I've done worse, believe me, but you will just have to stay tuned!

Anyone feel like going out to eat?


  1. Ahh, the stories I could tell from my waitressing days. I like the cake deal. From experience free anything ups the tip. I would give away anything free I could get away with. Of course, it wasn't worth anything unless you told the customer, "so sorry for the delay, let me get you some coffee, or other beverage for the inconvenience". Most restaurants don't check if you charged the customer for coffee....

  2. I think the thing about my restaurant days and real estate days that made them so fun is that the businesses weren't hierarchical. All of us were doing the same thing and there was no ladder to climb so therefore no backstabbing. Plus, it was stressful as all get out so there needed to be that release (aka partying) to get through it. Telling the war stories, etc. I made many friends for life in both industries.

    If someone dropped silverware (and I didn't like them) I would just walk around the corner, wait a second, and return it to them. Here you go! Enjoy your dinner you f*cker!