The other night, I woke up several times through the night. This usually happens when I have to get up early the next morning and I had to get up so early that morning for hockey. However, I don’t think that is what was causing the sleeplessness. What kept waking me up was an interaction I had with a customer that night. It shook me.
It was a solidly busy night and Alex was working an off-site catering but generally the evening was going well and the food was going out a decent pace. We were all having fun, joking around about how tired we all were. You see, it was Valentine’s weekend, the busiest of weeks for restaurants and we were no exception. We had seen our busiest Valentine’s Day ever a few days prior and we had continued to be slammed for the weekend.
Then the thing happened that throws everyone off: a cook cut himself. Badly. We have a prep kitchen in the basement and there is cook who preps and runs food up to the line all night. The line cooks communicate with the “runner” by flipping a switch and a light comes on in the basement indicating that the line needs something. It took a few minutes to figure out what was even happening (why isn’t he answering the light?!!) but eventually we put all the pieces together and realized we had a situation. So a bartender with first aid training decided to take the cook to emergency for assessment. Emotionally its a complicated moment in a team when someone gets injured. There are the initial moments of confusion and shock, then there is the sorting out of who has to take care of what to keep the team rolling, and then there is the challenge of getting grounded again and getting the job done.
All of this happens fairly quickly. On average, I would say 10 minutes from cut and being bundled off to the hospital, to regrouping and getting your show back on the road. Remarkably quickly, I would say. And in the meantime, you just want to front of the house to continue on. Keep the drinks coming, the bread, the music, the laughs, the visiting. It’s a conundrum: do you let guests know what’s happening or just let the party keep rolling and hope it doesn’t create too many hiccups? People also are weird about cooks and blood. Understandably so. But, folks, it happens, they cut themselves. And we clean up, throw out whatever they were working on, and clean their station. Life goes on. So, that night, I went with keeping the party rolling.
Generally the restaurant seemed happy. But the kitchen was overwhelmed. In the time that it had taken to figure out what was happening, sort out what the prep hadn’t got to, and get cooking again was tough on them. And I think our sous-chef’s brain was about to implode from information overload. We stopped calling out the bills for about 5 minutes and regrouped. Just finished cooking what was right in front of us and kept moving. Calling out the bills is letting the cooks know what they need to get cooking. Our sous-chef couldn’t hear another “octopus” or “tequila mussels”. You could see his brain just couldn’t even figure out what we were saying.
At 25 minutes into this moment in our evening, a very nice lady came up to me. She explained that their table had been there for quite sometime and were wondering when their apps would be up. I apologized. I decided to explain to her that we’d had an incident and that I hadn’t necessarily wanted the servers telling their tables. I also let her know her apps were up next and I would be buying her table’s apps for the evening. She thanked me, seemed to understand and went back to her table. I checked her bill time. The order for apps had been in for 22 minutes. Yep. 22 minutes. She had come in with 7 other people, been sat, ordered drinks, been served drinks, had ordered food and had waited 22 minutes for her apps. It took us another 7 minutes to get them finished, plated and delivered to their table. I felt that we had a done a really good job.
Another 25 minutes passes, in which time I’ve called Alex and asked him to get back from the catering and he got on the line, and a man from the original woman’s table comes up to me. As we are plating their mains. He talks to me about feeling frustrated at how they’ve had to wait. During this time they’ve also been doing shooters. I can never tell how those affect people. He was not nearly as pleasant as the lady. He was resentful. I explained to him what had happened. I let him know that I had already talked to a party from his table and bought their apps. This somehow didn’t seem to satisfy him. I asked him what I could do to make it better. He responded that someone should have told their table. I explained to him why I hadn’t wanted the servers doing that but acknowledged that maybe I should have handled that differently. I asked him twice what I could do to make the situation better. He didn’t seem to want to focus on solutions, only on the timing problems. He became increasingly irritated with me. I explained that we were plating his food at that moment and I should get back to it.
In the end, the party had apps 30 minutes after ordering them and mains 30 minutes after that. Not our goal. Not a good day.
Always after moments like this, all the things I should have said come to my mind. Like, “Have you ever had a tough day at work? Does it help when people are nasty to you about it?” or “Having grace is a powerful way to move through the world” but of course none of this comes to me at the time. Instead, we all just try to gather ourselves back up and get back to work.
We are in the business of food. We should have got that food out faster. However, I come from a place where I don’t understand the sense of entitlement that rules our dining experiences. There are people who feel that it is their right to get the food at exactly the same time as anywhere else. It doesn’t matter that we make everything from scratch and cook it to order. It doesn’t matter that someone hurt himself. That person is entitled and they are going to make sure everyone knows. Ok. We know. Wouldn’t it have been more fun to engage in a little more conversation at your table and, if you were totally starving, ask for a little extra bread? Resilience is also an important part of this conversation. Surviving your food taking an extra ten minutes, when surrounded by friends, wine, music, and a lively environment, is a skill we should all develop. And do it gracefully.
I think normally most of this would have been water off a duck’s back for me. You know, I’ve been doing this restaurant gig for 7 years. I was a crisis counsellor for years before that, for people with real problems. But the real kicker of this, and what really bothered me, is that the table stiffed their server. Not one penny. And they made her feel terrible about herself. They completed deflated her. All over waiting a few extra minutes.