Herald Journal Columns
July 11, 2005, Herald Journal

Remember your table manners

By LIZ HELLMANN

“Waitress, could we get some service over here?”

I cringe just writing these words. I’m carrying a tray full of sizzling fajitas and martinis (the most difficult drink to carry without spilling, you can’t even breathe if you expect all of it to stay in the ridiculously designed glass).

Dripping with sweat, I try to squeeze through the small crack left for me between chairs, while precariously balancing the hot peppers and steaming chicken strips as the juice occasionally springs from the pan to burn my neck.

But the guy, who has been seated for half a minute, apparently needs immediate attention.

If anyone reading this has ever been a waitress (or waiter, or politically correct “server”), you know what I’m talking about.

Looking back on my six or so years in the industry (no, not a lifetime, but long enough to seem like one), I would like to serve a few helpful hints to diners, and share some of my most hideous stories to show support for my fellow servers.

But first, a reminder to all of us on how we deal with each other, a point of frustration for more than just those in the food industry.

Different jobs can command different skills, but all hard-working, honest occupations deserve respect.

If I were to meet Donald Trump walking down the street today, I would try to be polite and friendly. I would recognize that this man has successfully built a financial empire, and has become an icon among icons in one of the most powerful nations in the world.

After my encounter with Trump, I stroll into the grocery store to buy some milk and eggs.

What would be my reason for now being impatient with the check-out boy when he miscounts my change and can’t open the drawer back up, causing me to wait another five minutes for his manager to get the key?

Why would I act like a spoiled three-year-old when the single working mom at the diner accidentally spills coffee on me?

Respect should not be doled out in accordance with status, but with character.

A college kid working his way through school, and an exhausted single mom taking on two or three jobs to keep her family fed, or even just the average working person doing their best to make an honest buck, do not warrant our impatience, annoyance, and disrespect.

The occupation is not the issue. When dealing in the working and consumer world, why let common courtesy conveniently stand by the wayside?

I know when I make mistakes, I appreciate the understanding of those around me, and enjoy returning the favor.

After all, no one is perfect, so why engage in a rat race, scratching and clawing your way to the top, when it is often easier to lend a helping hand?

If altruism doesn’t motivate, then I guess all I can say is what goes around, will eventually come around.

As for discontented diners that so often turn into crabby customers, I leave you with these pearls of wisdom.

You are only seeing one part of the equation from the corner booth in the restaurant, and for those who can’t see past the fork on their plate, just remember this.

Thoughts from a waitress

• I did not cook your food. Therefore, I can politely take your gripe about the jambalaya chicken that is too spicy, but all I can do is report back to the cook.

Perhaps, if you didn’t like spicy food, you should have thought twice about ordering something with the word “jambalaya” in the title, and the little red pepper icon next to the title in the menu.

(We thought the icons would idiot proof ordering, even if you aren’t Julia Child, but I guess we were wrong.)

• I’m very happy that you like our restaurant so much you are a regular and have been coming here for 20 years.

However, I am new and have worked here 20 minutes. Therefore, when you order pancakes with egg beaters, I’m going to order you pancakes with a side of egg beaters.

If you wanted me to read your mind and tell the chef you want pancakes made with eggbeaters and a special mix we keep just for you, with a side of low calorie, no sugar syrup, your best bet would be ordering from a psychic. I’m just your waitress.

• When I come and stand by your table, it is not because I am enthralled by your conversation. I am sorry to interrupt, I want you to enjoy your evening, but I also want you to get your food.

So, take a second, look up at me, and tell me if you are ready to order or not.

It is rude for me to have to interrupt you, but even ruder for you to ignore me when I am trying to do my job.

I’ll almost feel bad when a mysterious bug falls in your soup.

• I would like to issue an apology to all our most important customers. I am sure you are very important people, well liked by many, and hold powerful corporate positions.

But, you will have to forgive us tonight, we didn’t know you were going to be gracing us with your presence, so we didn’t have time to send in for your personal chef.

You will just have to accept the fact that you and your party will be sharing the three or four chefs in the kitchen with the rest of the civilians in the restaurant.

Which means your surf and turf may take a little longer than 10 minutes to prepare. I thank you for your noble and enduring patience, your majesty.

• If you are in a hurry, do not come to the restaurant.

I’m very excited that you are going to a movie tonight, which starts in 20 minutes.

Normally I wait five minutes before putting your order in the computer, and then I’ll generally let the food sit in the kitchen for a good 10-15 minutes before serving it.

But since you asked if your food could get done in a hurry, I’ll skip that process for you. You’re food will be out in 30 seconds flat and you’ll be at your movie in no time.

• Let me take this moment to save both of us some headaches. Before ordering that steak, put down the Heinz 57 and pay attention.

Many people think that the meat is cooked according to how it looks inside, because that is how they can gauge it when it reaches their plate.

However, rare, medium rare, medium, medium well, and well done all have their own temperatures. That is, the chef cooks them until they have reached a certain temperature inside. It is not (and should not be done) according to time, or by spearing a fork through the middle.

Therefore, what you are disdainfully picking at and decrying as “not the way I ordered it,” is exactly the way you ordered it, just not the way you actually want it.

So, please, do not glare at me.

These are just some of the frustrating situations I encountered during my less than illustrious serving career.

It was fun to vent, but I wrote this column in hopes of serving a bigger purpose.

There are always two sides to the equation, in all occupations. I wrote about being a waitress because that is what I know.

I wanted people who are frustrated with eating out to see that they may not understand the reasons behind the food or service they are complaining about. In fact, the person responsible for their dining disaster may be the same one holding their fork.

However, waitresses are not perfect, we mess up, too. But a little understanding and respect can go a long way.

I have never sabotaged someone’s food, spit on it, dropped it on the floor, or otherwise mishandled it.

I have also never, in my life, witnessed more miserable, whiny, and classless people, who thought they were something else.

The fact is they were something else, something far from the gracious people I did serve, and far from the hard-working people I worked with.

Those are the people that made the kitchen catastrophes bearable, and some even comical, some of which I will relate in my next column, in dedication to the rest of my fellow servers, past and present.