After 25 years in the restaurant business, I have broken up with the dining public. Ours was a dish-functional relationship that had run its courses. We had a good run, but like a stock that had been left on a burner too long, my love for the restaurant business had simply evaporated, and it was time to move on.
The public and I had issues. We communicated poorly. When diners said they needed their space, they meant the tables were placed too closely together. When I said I needed my space, it meant I wanted their table back. The public was not committed to our relationship; diners routinely made dates with me and then either showed up late or not at all, often without so much as a phone call. They grew suspicious of me and talked about me online.
It's not that I didn't have a passion for cooking; I cashed out a tony degree from Georgetown University for a $6-an-hour job as a line cook. Ten years later, I owned a restaurant.
Don't get me wrong; the demise of my relationship with the public was as much my fault as the public's. My cooking got a little sloppy, and sometimes dinner wasn't ready on time. I said I was sorry and even gave things away for free, but diners felt they deserved more. My marriage with the public was on the rocks.
The plain fact is that diners do not carry their weight in the diner-restaurateur relationship. My own shortcomings aside, restaurateurs everywhere face this problem.
Upon the waters of the Internet, diners cast aspersions on restaurants perpetuating "scams" on the unsuspecting public and then feed on those "revelations" like sharks.
The convivial atmosphere of restaurants induces the public to relax the standard of good manners and responsibility that it maintains in other professional settings. The boundaries between customers and service staff are less definite in restaurants than in other businesses. Some diners treat servers as pals; others treat them as servants.
Servers are professionals whose primary duties are to promote and sell a restaurant's products: food and beverages. Many diners mistake salesmanship for trickery and treat wait staff with suspicion. I'll never understand why diners would think a restaurateur or members of the staff would want to deceive the very people who keep them in business.
The following is a list of "scams" that in reality are not scams at all:
* The Bottled Water Scam: When a server asks, "Would you like sparkling, still or ice water?" the server is not trying to pad the bill with a sneaky sale but is merely offering the guest a choice. Bottled water is not free in restaurants any more than it is in sandwich shops or gyms.
* The "Call Brand" Scam: In restaurants, as in liquor stores, Grey Goose Vodka costs more than Kamchatka Vodka. A server who asks which brand of vodka a guest prefers rather than if the guest prefers a particular brand is a good salesman, not a con artist.
* The "Make Them Wait at the Bar" Scam: To maximize profit, a restaurateur wants diners to come and go as quickly as possible, but the greater priority is to serve people well. That's why, at busy times, even if a table is available, new arrivals might be sent to the lounge to avoid overwhelming the kitchen and service staff. More often than not, the owner offers the first round of drinks on the house, preferring to eat the cost rather than risk bad service. The restaurant is not trying to "make its money on the booze." More than 60 percent of restaurant sales is food, not alcohol; restaurateurs make their money from volume.
* The "Most Expensive Item on the Menu" Scam: Diners asking for menu or wine recommendations often leap to the conclusion that servers push costly items to "jack up" the bill and therefore the tip. In fact, servers usually recommend mid-priced items to avoid being perceived as greedy. Sometimes lobster just is the best dish and the Chateau Gruaud Larose the best wine. A guest, fearful of looking cheap, might ask a server for a "good" wine without mentioning a price limit. Rather than accusing the server of "trying to pull a fast one" for suggesting an expensive wine, the guest should swallow his own false pride and simply ask the server to suggest something more moderately priced.
Restaurant folk endeavor to maintain a good reputation. They understand only too well the Basic Rule of Restaurant Word of Mouth: that a guest will share a good experience with a few people and a bad experience with a few hundred -- and the bad experience will be more outrageous with each retelling.
Today, a guest who feels mistreated expects to be remunerated. Diners have come to believe that every day is Christmas in restaurants. A restaurateur is by nature a generous person who entertains patrons as if they were guests in his home. Unfortunately, many patrons do not exercise the manners of guests receiving hospitality. Instead, they accept the host's generosity as if they deserve it. This sense of entitlement takes several forms:
* Stealing: Many people rationalize theft with the belief that restaurants build its cost into their budgets. Not true. Taking a book of matches is accepting a gift; taking 20 is stealing. And the offer of a book of matches does not extend to the ashtray, salt and pepper shakers, napkin rings, silverware, steak knives, sugar packets, sugar bowl, bud vase, votive candle holder, soap dispenser, toilet paper, martini glass, artwork or the server's pen. These things disappear with alarming regularity from every restaurant; the nicer the restaurant, it seems, the higher the rate of theft.
* Special-Occasion Freebies: Whoever the first person was who gave a free "birthday" dessert to a patron should be shot. What started out as a good promotion and an expression of goodwill has somehow turned into a requirement. The public has come to expect, even demand, a free dessert for a birthday or anniversary. Diners have been overheard telling tablemates that they always say it's their birthday. Indignant diners will point out the "error" of being charged for birthday desserts they ordered. It is the prerogative, not the obligation, of a restaurateur to give things away.
* Compensation for Mishaps: A few months ago, a woman planted a human finger in her food at a well-known restaurant chain. She viewed this as an acceptable way to earn a living. And why not? Our society has come to expect compensation for any inconvenience. Chip a nail on a glass? Free appetizers! No toilet paper in the restroom? Free desserts! The waiter spilled some water? Pay my mortgage! Enough. Restaurant employees are human beings whomake mistakes. A misstep should not be an opportunity for a shakedown. The correct response from a guest given something on the house is, "Thank you," not, "Is that all?"
* Compensation for Patronage: Restaurateurs are besieged with requests for donations and cannot afford to donate to every cause. Reminding the owner that "I eat here all the time" is a tacit form of extortion. If a restaurateur chooses not to donate a dinner to the "Spring Fling Auction" for the second cousin of a diner's next-door neighbor, the patron's reply should be, "I understand," not "I'll never set foot in this place again."
There are lessons to be gleaned from any break-up. My relationship with the dining public taught me that good manners and the Golden Rule are the cornerstones of a tranquil life. Ending that relationship proved something to me: The best thing about working in the restaurant business is talking about it in the past tense.
David Hagedorn was a line cook at the Tabard Inn, sous-chef (under Chef Alison Swope) at New Heights, chef at the West End Cafe (currently Circle One Bistro), chef and owner of Trumpets, and most recently a chef and owner of David Greggory Restau-Lounge. He is currently working on a series of autobiographical short stories, a cookbook and various food-related articles.