Served

Hannah Howard has worked in several restaurants, but she's made the switch to the grocery side of the industry. She's now a cheesemonger for a small market chain, and will share her experience here.

Served: Learning to Manage Restaurants and Bosses

20080616-servedbug.jpgSometimes the restaurant angels descend miraculously from above. Usually they come when all hell is about to break loose. With an understaffed party in our hotel and an unexpectedly full dining room (And look! There's another couple at the door! And another!) we needed a visit from said angels.

The party was a birthday celebration for a church group. We waited for the kitchen to put out the buffet. As an hour, then two, tiptoed by, Deb, one of the owners, and I started to worry. Empty baine maries languished in the center of the room. She rang her hands, I tapped my feet.

The partygoers had opted for only soft drinks, so there was no alcohol buzz to distract them from the wait. All was eerily quiet. Many iced teas and Diet Cokes were poured.

Meet the Owners

One of the things I love about my job is working in a small, family-owned restaurant. We are like family, sometimes a dysfunctional family, sometimes an impressively functioning one.

Deb and Gene are wife-and-husband partners of my restaurant and the nextdoor hotel. They also own many other properties in Philadelphia, including the big apartment building I call home.

Deb is most involved in the operations of the restaurant. She's the one I call boss, and an extraordinary, unique woman. Once a professional ballerina, she is now a photographer who focuses on dancers, athletes, and bodies. In her spare time, she owns a restaurant. She's the only owner I've known to spend an afternoon or two raking leaves and a long, long night sweeping and mopping the basement.

Crazy-Making Night

Gene and Michael hung out at the bar with some businessy friends. They drank tequila and munched cheese and olives.

We were planning for a slow night. Besides the party—and a buffet is the easiest of parties—we had only a smattering of reservations on the books. With two strong waiters (Julia and Kolin), myself, and a bartender, I thought we were prepared to kick butt.

Prepared we were not. Our doors were soon flooded with diners from the hotel and the neighborhood, some regulars, some new faces. Under other circumstances, we would feel relieved to be doing some serious business. That night, we were shocked.

The hotel and the restaurant are separated by a large courtyard, and Julia ran back and forth and back and forth again. She got a good workout.

Kolin was quickly inundated with tables and more tables. He's a great waiter, but enough is enough. The dining room was full. And he had no one but me to help him run food, bus tables, and brew continuous pots of coffee. I did just that, but only between greeting guests and explaining they had to wait, checking in on the party, calming Deb, making cheese plates, and trying to keep a handle on the night.

Where's the Food?

Julia ran with pizza-sized trays of canapés: melba toast slathered with foie gras and medjool date, little bites of short rib risotto, our merguez chicken sausage with pequillo pepper. None of which the kids would touch. The grownups ate though, and I could feel they were waiting for more. Empty plates were whisked away, and the tables sat naked.

Julia saw that back in the dining room, Kolin was in the shits. She tried to help him out, too, mise-ing tables and refilling water before she went back to the hotel with more iced tea.

Deb grew antsy. She felt the party, which had paid good money to rent the room and receive wonderful service, was not getting proper attention and care. So she stayed. She "helped," which isn't always helpful. The waiters have a rhythm, a chemistry, that comes from working in together night after night. They don't need to speak to know: it's time to check up on table 14, and table 22 need gougère, and 19 needs knives for their entrees.

Thanks, Angels

Who are these restaurant angels I speak of? They're the fabulous creatures that inspired the birthday girl, who organized a party for 6:30 and waited until 8:45 until dinner was served, to be totally calm, cool, laid back, and nice.

No one complained, or even commented. In fact, we got a glowing thank you email the next day: We had made her birthday really special, the food was amazing, the space was unforgettable! Hallelujah!

Also in my inbox: a rant from Deb. Deb is notorious for her long, long emails. Sometimes novella long. Astoundingly long.

The short version: she was disappointed she had to stay and help with the party. I shouldn't take her help for granted, she was not a "free waiter." I had seriously messed up by not better staffing the night.

The truth was, I wish Deb would have left, her stress was making the staff anxious, and her help was not particularly helpful. But she wouldn't go. So the night ended with a happy customer and an unhappy boss. As for me, I was unhappy too.

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