I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Once upon a time, becoming a restaurant waiter or server was to join a profession. Back then, waiters prepared a Caesar salad or cooked a steak Diane beside your table. (Perhaps they still do in restaurants that are outside the income bracket of this particular writer.)
There was none of today’s faux friendship: “My name is Kevin and I’ll be looking after you this evening." And a waiter of the old school would never say "perfect" when you ordered the kale salad (kale salad can ne'er be perfect).
Few people leave high school today with the ambition to become a waiter. The lack of enthusiasm for the job is probably matched only by the appeal of being a portable toilet cleaner at a music festival.
Some servers seem to be working survivor jobs waiting for a call from their agent about a juicy part in a revival of Les Miserables. Others are carrying hash from the kitchen to the table to finance their post-secondary education.
The Illinois Department of Employment Security lists some of the many "benefits" attached to being a food server:
- Part-time work of fewer than 40 hours a week (i.e., no benefits or job security)
- Weekend, holiday, and evening work
- Split shifts (e.g. from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. or 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.)
- Remaining courteous when dealing with obnoxious customers
- Relatively low pay
We’ve all seen the character in the movie who raises his hand and clicks his fingers to summon a waiter who then arrives slightly bent at the waist to indicate subservience. Please don’t do this.
Former waiter Zoe Williams writes that "Lots of people said they do a Fawlty Towers when someone’s fingers click—look under the table and say: 'Is there a dog under there?'"
Your server is a human who deserves to be treated with dignity. Your money doesn’t give you the right to be abusive towards your waiter, even if you are on a blind date with a pig or moron. Being abusive to the pig or moron is an entirely different matter, but try not to do it in the restaurant even though it might be very tempting.
If the service is poor and the food not up to par, by all means, complain, but don’t shout. And, it’s usually best to have your grumble with the manager, because your negative experience likely is not the server's fault and is beyond her/his power to change.
Melanie Morrison is a psychology professor at the University of Saskatchewan, Canada. She’s studied the customer/server relationship in restaurant settings. She says those who are rude to waiters are usually socially dominant people: "When they go into a restaurant, they can exact power," she told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. "They can become somebody who has been given a bit of power over a server in that moment. They can treat them in a demeaning way and be powerful in that environment because the conditions allow them to be."
To put it bluntly, a..holes will always be a..holes.
Dine and Dash
There’s a particularly low life form that eats and runs. Known by various slang terms such as "chew and screw," or "bite and bolt," these patrons set out to deliberately steal food and drink. They wait until their server is in the kitchen and then quietly leave. It’s easier if the patron is on the patio.
Different restaurants have different policies. In some, the restaurant covers the loss, while in others, the waiter is made to pay the bill. In the latter case, the staff will often chip in to help their coworker.
It can be costly. In 2013, the so-called "Champagne Bandits" stiffed a British restaurant for £520 ($627). Two bottles of Dom Perignon, a bottle of pinot grigio, scallops, and steaks all around for the party of four.
Another example involves the actress Jane Adams, who is apparently famous for something or other. She was dining at the Barney Greengrass restaurant in Beverly Hills in 2009 when she skipped out on a bill of $13.44. The waiter Tweeted about this and ended up being fired.
Outrageous Restaurant Behaviour
Rudeness and theft are actually run-of-the-mill restaurant behaviours. Of course, fights break out from time to time when well-lubricated diners decide to settle longstanding grievances. At the other end of the scale are those who try to conceal their extreme romantic attachment to one another under a table cloth.
There are folks who order their food, eat it, and then complain that it was cold, not what they ordered, or revolting. It’s a scam to get their meal for free. A family potty-training junior put a portable commode on their restaurant table so the little tyke could . . . well, you get the picture.
In the same vein, a restaurant worker posted the following: "When I worked at Starbucks and someone pooped on the floor right next to the pastry case, a perfect turd. . . . a co-worker of mine then put gloves on and picked it up in his hand and said "What do I do with it now?'" And no, the finger bowl is not a clear soup.
Kentuckian Aaron Collins had sympathy for servers who he knew worked difficult jobs for low pay. When he died in 2012, he left a stipulation in his will that asked his family to "leave an awesome tip (and I don’t mean 25%. I mean $500 on a . . .pizza)." The family created a website to honour Aaron’s wish and seek contributions. Five years later, the Collins family left its 104th $500 tip at Sir Pizza in Lexington, Kentucky.
The legendary Edsel Ford Fong waited on tables at San Francisco’s Sam Wo’s Restaurant in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s. He became known as "the world’s most insulting waiter." His shtick was to great customers with "Sit down and shut up." One frequent customer said Fong made the Soup Nazi look like the Dalai Lama. The arrogant customer yelled at the waiter "Do you know who I am?" The alert waiter announced to the dining room the need for a doctor "there’s a gentleman here who doesn’t know who he is."
Yes, it's a young Stephen Colbert and a young Steve Carrell.
- “Food Servers: Working Conditions.” Illinois Department of Employment Security, undated.
- “Don’t Ask Your Waiter What to Order – and Other Ways to Be a Perfect Diner.” Zoe Williams, The Guardian, July 11, 2019.
- “Rude Customers: the Psychology Behind Bad Restaurant Patron Behaviour.” Victoria Dinh, CBC News, February 8, 2018.
- “33 Servers Spill Their Unbelievable Customer Horror Stories (Here’s Why They Deserve Good Tips).” Erin Cossetta, Thought Company, December 16, 2013.
- “A Kentucky Family Is Leaving $500 Tips to Restaurant Servers in Brother’s Memory.” Susanna Kim, ABC News, July 31, 2012.
© 2019 Rupert Taylor
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on September 06, 2019:
Thanks Dora. I've never waited on table except at home where the comments from the kids were sometimes of a negative nature. "I hate cabbage," etc.
Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on September 06, 2019:
Most waiters deserve to be treated well, and those who behave contrary to our expectations are still entitled to our respect. How could some customers be so despicable? As usual, you shared some very interesting scenarios. Good read.