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For Hospitality Professionals and Food Connoisseurs
Issue #30 August 21, 1998
In This Issue
* Feature Article
"My Name is Jack and I'll be Your Servant For the Evening"
Serving has given me a fine, if erratic, livelihood for quite a while. It has paid my bills, brought me into contact with a great many people, taken me to cities I might otherwise never have seen, and given me much to ponder.
I have spent considerable ink in examining how we servers do what we do. There is a widespread sentiment in the restaurant business that finding good waiters is a more treacherous affair than ever it was, and I've agreed. I've criticized on paper what I curse in life, tried to train well those whom I was given to train, developed an almost supernatural eye for the non-server applying for the position, blamed management (always a pleasure), and even taken a hard look at my own shortcomings in the field.
Now I take a moment to look beyond the wait station - to the guest. This is complex, but easy, and easy only because I can do it in the cozy knowledge that we can change nothing here at all. We adapt to accommodate the guest, because that is the business. But just as the personable customer is the same most everywhere he goes, the less than ideal guest will remain precisely what he is. Seemingly insurmountable problems in the field aside, all that is wrong with the guest is here to stay.
I sat at a table, twenty-four years ago, having coffee with a waitress named Joreen. It was our break time; she was making the new, very eager-to-please busboy that I was feel welcome. We talked about incidental things, then about our restaurant itself. And she said, with no bitterness in her voice or in her being, that, after three months in the business, I would lose whatever respect I'd ever had for people.
She was wrong. Six weeks did it. Yes, I'm teasing. Joreen was a smart woman, though, and was articulating volumes in that simple and cynical sentence. People don't need to do very much when they come into a restaurant. They needn't smile if they'd rather not. They are under no obligation to be happy, either at being there or, indeed, in being alive. There is no one in the place they ought to impress, or should want to impress. They scarcely need to dress nicely any longer. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that there's only one thing they really must do, and that is behave in a well-mannered way. As, presumably, they would in any other public forum.
Very often, they don't. And this is a very curious thing. What comprises 'well-mannered' is not arduous to achieve, and may be better defined by examining what it is not. It is not arrogance. Buying a meal is a fairly common activity, and a less aristocratic gesture than giving a park to the city, yet so many purchasing a dinner carry themselves with haughtiness they do not exhibit to other merchants they patronize. The man who would never dream of barking a rude command to a bank teller is heard snapping at a server for failing to know what onions in a salad do to his digestion.
And good manners are emphatically not evident in the guest who sees the comfortable restaurant chair as the seat in which he can snugly fit all that day's grievances with the world. More unconscious association? I suspect so. How else to explain rudeness rarely seen in other markets? Actually, there is another explanation, and it's a pet theory of mine. (Its merits may not overwhelm you, but we see nice things in our own pets that others sometimes miss.)
Basically, the American middle class of this century's earlier decades lived in a way we do not. I refer here to one particular: domestic help. Even throughout the 1950's, it was an ordinary thing that suburban households have a servant of some kind, usually of the housekeeper variety. Nothing fancy, mind you - merely a woman to help with the cooking, the cleaning, the kids. Even city apartment dwellers shared such help; the girl who gave her Wednesday mornings to one, her Friday afternoons to another.
As this vanished, so too faded a minor social skill: the ability to direct service in a natural, non-condescending way. Several generations are now grown to adulthood with no awareness of the right approach to those hired to do for them. It's a technique without artifice, a very specific human touch, and it's needed to ask something of even the most primitive and temporary personal assistance. It's ironic, as most of the public is employed in variations on the same theme, that this small ability is lost when it comes to asking for food and drink.
There you have it - my version of the servant problem. I sometimes think it ought to be known as the master problem. We who wait on tables are the last and only form of servant most people will ever know. Would that the masters and mistresses who briefly employ us understood better the essential element of courtesy in these contacts. Yes, my respect for humanity has been altered by the many dealings with the public inherent in my job. Yet my one wish (at work, anyway) has remained the same, unchanged since that long ago lesson over coffee. Restaurant guests should realize that I don't expect or want them to love me, bully me, be interested in me, frighten me or be frightened by me; but that, if they are simply civil, simply polite, I will do everything I can for them. That is a reflex within me, and I believe it lies in all true servers.
Jack Mauro is a self-described lifer in the hospitality field. He owns no restaurants, but possesses a very old set of Eliot, anger, and some really nice crystal he got as a gift.
**More feedback on "Smoking in Restaurants"...
No one should have to breathe smoke to have a job. A restaurant worker should not be told, "if you don't like breathing a known Group A carcinogen, go find a job somewhere else."
No other Group A carcinogen (asbestos, radon, benzene, etc.) is allowed in a restaurant or any other workplace. Why should smoke? It kills more than all the others combined.
Joseph W. Cherner, President
I love to sit near you uptight non-smokers in restaurants that still allow smoking -- and I am one to pick my restaurants by that policy. When second-hand smoke studies start working from evidence to conclusions and not the other way around, I'll get some compassion. For now, I'll be blowing smoke rings over your table. I, you see, can sit back and self-righteously puff away on a tiny cigarette. I don't own a car. How many of you anti-tobacco-crazed zealots are as kind to the environment?
**Next Post - More feedback on Service...
I am a fine dining restaurant owner in Guelph - The Other Brother's.
Although I do not have nearly the years in the business that Mr. Mauro has, I hear his voice. I would encourage him to come and enjoy our servers as we try to instill in them the loyalty and hard working effort that he describes of his youth. My husband, a few years older than myself laments and praises the teachings of his former maitre d's. We also hire our employees in a similar fashion and very rarely will employ an individual based on the merits of the resume but in the merits of their seeming intelligence, compassion and poise.
I hope that you are happy to hear that some of the younger generation are trying to carry on the finer points of the industry's tradition.
Great publication - I love reading it.
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