Way back when I first asked Seattle restaurateur and chef Tom Douglas if I could come work in his kitchens, he asked if I also wanted to try some front-of-the-house shifts. I didn't hesitate: No way! I was terrified of cranky customers, the incredible amount of multitasking, and the risk of ticking off the cooks. It's hard to be a good server.
As a critic, I'd written plenty about how inept service can ruin a meal. Heck, I even penned a Diner's Bill of Rights. But I've never walked in the well-worn shoes of a server.
This summer, however, I'm hearing all sorts of scary front-of-the-house stories from my daughter. She landed her first-ever job as a hostess at a super busy pub and deals with hundreds of hungry people a day. Most of them are polite, but there have been a few memorable meanies.
There was the guy who called her stupid before storming out and the mother who let her have it when she wouldn't let Mom put a highchair in the fire lane. Every day, there are people who are tired and cranky and snap about having to wait for a table. Of course, the nice folks far outrank the prickly pears, but it's been a steep learning curve for the kiddo. How do you keep your cool when somebody's all fired up and in your face?
For some suggestions, I asked one of the most gracious service people I've ever met.
"You've got to remember, you're never going to get anywhere by getting mad or letting somebody ruin your day," said Scott Whited, the manager of Etta's, who started out as a busser 11 years ago. "You have to think about what people want and what they need, and try to make it happen."
If sweet-talking fails to make the customer feel like a king, then, well, comp 'em.
"The other night, there was a guy who insisted a cut of meat was not the same cut described on the menu and it wasn't cooked right," Whited said. "I wasn't going to argue with him. I told him I was sorry he was unhappy and his entrée was on me."
That took the air out of the windbag's sails.
"Have you read Danny Meyer's book, Setting the Table? He talks about how when he sees an unsatisfied customer, he sees it as an opportunity to turn the situation around," Whited said.
But isn't that a case of the obnoxious squeaky wheel getting greased?
"If I spent a lot of time thinking about it, I might go crazy," he laughed.
Yeah. And did I mention my daughter has started reading Waiter Rant? Being on the receiving end of withering comments does come with at least one benefit: It's a sort of rite of passage into the ranks of service staff society. Since she started working, her brethren have shared with her some of their horror stories. Some of those stories will make you laugh. Others might make you cringe. They convinced me that I am much more comfortable in the kitchen.
About the author: Former Seattle Post-Intelligencer restaurant critic Leslie Kelly has been apprenticing in professional kitchens since the newspaper folded in March 2009 and chronicling her culinary journey from pen to pan for Serious Eats. She recently began interviewing cooks for Seattle Weekly's food blog, Voracious.