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The Great Debates The State of Service in our Restaurants

Original Article:

By Jack Mauro

A man I worked for, a maitre'd/restaurant owner of the Old School, once told me that he always ignored resumes and applications when hiring servers. He'd nod, make polite noises as the applicant presented himself, and then he'd ask the person to bring a folder or a sheet of meaningless paper over to the bar. He would watch how the person walked, moved, and generally performed this relatively simple task. And he would base his decision to hire primarily on that.

On first sight, this is a pretty flimsy, if not downright pompous, sort of interview procedure. But there's wisdom to it, and it's at least as sound as the stats listed on any application which can tell you nothing of how this person carries himself; which, in turn, is pivotal in getting a sense of what this character is all about.

That man has since retired, although "retreated" might be the better word. It seems he was hiring fewer and fewer people towards the end. The walks he witnessed had become struts, and badly dressed kids, who swore they needed a job, regarded the request he would make to carry over the paper as burdensome.

I don't know what happened to the waiters of my youth. I only know they are, for the most part, gone. I was their busboy. I respected, liked, feared, and damn near killed myself for them. They combined humor, energy and common sense with that most priceless of commodities a waiter can possess - a sense of urgency. They were not stupid, mind you, and knew no life was hanging in the balance during the average lunch shift. But they knew as well that, to a good waiter, getting those dishes down on time was as crucial as spinal surgery.

There were exceptions, naturally. The trade of waiting can be compared to show business (it can, you know), and there's rarely been a dearth of lousy actors. But the difference between then and now, between the restaurant servers of twenty years ago and the tragically void blondes in khakis you try to wave down today, is not cosmetic. No, no. Nor is it a difference created by my aging eyes and distorted memory. It is that the bad ones, in those days, didn't last. Today, they last. They reign, in fact, and the general standard of service is not merely lower: it is a new beast altogether. And it ain't pretty.

OK. Take that as a given, if only as a courtesy to me. I have worked in this business for quite a long time, and seen...well, much. Now comes the more difficult part, the part I should evade. The part Oprah and her panels of waiters and unhappy customers never seem to resolve. Namely: who's to blame?

My dear restaurant owner - you are! You have made the same mistake parents make when they try a little too hard to understand their offspring. And the same error other businesses make when they ride the societal tide of humanizing corporate life, and end up accomplishing nothing but the creation of a rather lazy work force bursting with self-esteem and an astronomical assessment of its own merits. It's the sad horror of believing you will get more by giving more.

In a word, you have mistaken your business for all the other businesses out there. You now allow room for individual concerns and needs waiters in the past dealt with by themselves, because you have been encouraged to view your staff as other businesses see their own people. You try to not bully anymore. You do not fire the no-show. You nurture. And God help you, one may as well equip coal miners with steno pads.

I deplore many of the kids I work with. They astound me. They accept as their due, large tips, and are genuinely outraged when they must work, and work hard, to get them. Yet the bottom line is that no standard of quality service could have fallen unless you, the owner, allowed it. And you allowed it the first time you turned to shake your head when you saw that new waiter adjust himself in that currently prevalent, awfully personal way in front of his table. Sure, good people are hard to find. They always were. But you have settled for bodies, often when all you needed to do was remove your coat and bus the table yourself.

More appallingly, you are telling your staff that they are salespeople, a trend as numbing and omnipresent as David Lynch lighting schemes on mustard-colored restaurant walls. I could sully hundreds of pages with Why That Is Wrong (the sales thing). But I'll summarize, and give you Bottom-Line Two: any waiter who approaches his table consciously anticipating a tip amount is no waiter. And this is precisely what you encourage when you tell these kids that they're salespeople. Yes, we're in it for the money. Of course we are. Any decent server in any decent house knows he's going to make good money. The waiter with the dollar signs in the eyes is a different animal. You can see it in the toothy smile when he describes the expensive appetizer. A true waiter is the Inn, offering comfort and a fine meal. The salesperson waiter is Vegas.

Owners, managers: hearken unto me. You've screamed at me on occasion, but I've screamed back, because my skill gave me that right. Trust what I say. Avoid the role of tyrant, by all means. Yet shun, too, the patronizing, good-guy image slowly destroying good management in 9-5 businesses. Remind yourself that you are not in banking, or haberdashery, or car sales. They can afford to settle for poor help, because the consequential damage is always on the next quarterly report. And do not lose sight of the fact that the price you pay for employing workers largely compensated by your clientele is the struggle you must ever undergo in finding genuine servers.

Jack Mauro has worked in the restaurant field for over twenty years. He frequently may be heard echoing the Rebecca Howe character's comment on CHEERS: "All I've got is my career, and I don't like it."

Let's hear your thoughts on the current state of service in our restaurants...write to

Reader Feedback:

Page One  (John Berringer, Anonymous, Michael, Jack Mauro responds to Michael, Anonymous)
Page Two  (Neil J Schrieder, Kim Dalton, David Kugler, Jeff and Susan Gecas, Gair Bethley)
Page Three  (Rich C., Michelle Corey, Frank Smith, Glenn C., Joe B.)
Page Four  (Christoph Grunenfelder, Lesley Peju, Terri Stricklin, Cari Jones, Sara Watson)
Page Five  (Christopher, Steve, Jullian, Bill D., Robert Menchel)
Page Six  (George L. O'Brien, Anonymous, G. Gaskins, Big John, Pat Lackner)
Page Seven  (Sherrie Gordon, JS, Brian K., N/A, DC)
Page Eight  (Mark Paul, Faith Sweeten, Kerry, Dee Mason, Jerry Pinder)
Page Nine  (N/A, A. DeVore)
Page Ten  (Michele deCesare, Isabel, Tim, FH, David Cyrelson, Jennifer M., Chris Palmiotto, Dorothy Frisch, AV)

Related Feature Articles:

Brave New Order Revisted - By Josephine Mackenzie
My Name is Jack and I'll be Your Servant For the Evening - By Jack Mauro
Symbiotic Relationships
The Service Problem, continued (Training) - By Jack Mauro
What Happened to the Server? - By Piero Iamundo
Winning Service Strategies - By Ronald Moeller

Your Turn:
If you've got something to say, we would love to hear from you. Please visit the Great Debates Feedback Page to send in your comments.

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