Saturday, September 27, 2008

Fifty for Dinner, Please

It was Tuesday night. Ordinarily I am not in the restaurant on a Tuesday, but this night I was preparing for our first wine dinner of the season, so I was in one of the dining rooms near the front door, setting tables, folding napkins when I heard the exchange.

"Hi folks" said Sara, in her best and brightest hostess voice to the well dressed grey haired man who just walked in. "Have you got a reservation?"

I couldn't see his face, but I could hear his voice. "Oh yes," he said, putting away his Blackberry to talk with Sara face-to-face. "It's under Johnson" he said confidently, "Or possibly St. Ignatius Health Care". [Note, names have been changed]

I could hear Sara's silence as she searched for the name on the computer. The next question, I knew, came because in fact she had not fund either name in her book, "And how many people are in your party?"

We ask this because often people will arrive without knowing the name of their actual host. Doctors, for example, frequently attend functions held by drug companies and though they know the restaurant that they are supposed to go to, they have no idea what the name of the drug company rep--usually a twenty-something whom they've never actually met--nor the name of the 'sponsoring' doctor for the event.

"Um, well," he said slowly, as is figuring in his head, "I guess there's about fifty of us. You'll have to ask Brenda for the exact count, since she arranged all of this. In fact, she'll be here, along with the rest of them, in just a minute."

His optimism was premature. In fact, we had no idea that this group was coming. Now, to be fair, Sara cannot conceal this obvious fact from the customer, but neither can she appear rattled or unprepared to serve the horde about to descend upon us. To her credit as a tried and true professional, she did neither. She quickly discovers that this group has actually been scheduled for the next night, a Wednesday.

This had some good consequences, for it meant that we were not totally unprepared, just not ready on this night. The chef already had the food and most of it was already prepped. Considering that the menu involved passed hors d'oeurves and four courses, he had a lot to do in a very short time, but to his credit, he pulled it off beautifully.

As Robert marshaled his troops in the kitchen to prepare for the approaching wave of work, out front, we completely re-organized and re-set the entire restaurant in about ten minutes. This is a situation well know to those of us in the business, so to speak. We call it 'all hands on deck' and it means that everyone has to work on the problem at hand, now.

We had several long tables set up in the back dining rooms that would have accommodated them, but on her arrival, not only did the coordinator deny responsibility for the mix-up by claiming she had a 'string of emails' to show that this was in fact the day, but she also insisted, indignantly, that they had been promised the two front rooms.

A confrontation at this point would serve no one, so Sara judiciously said that we wouldn't worry about the 'blame game' for now, but just do what we had to do to pull it off. "Give us ten minutes" she said, and that's all we needed.

In ten minutes, like ants rebuilding their kicked over mound, we completely reset the two front rooms, moving, in the process, two couples that had already been seated in those rooms at our expense (meaning, we bought their meals). We also broke down the large tables in the back into a lot of smaller tables so we could seat the rest of the scheduled guests that evening.

Now, while Robert had all his food in house, I was actually short on the red wine. This was because the CEO had only just selected the wines the day before in a personal phone call to me, and having been ordered so late, it wasn't supposed to come in till the next day. Now, of course, I have some good wines in quantity in reserve, but it wasn't the wine he'd chosen. When he saw this after being seated, he called me over.

"I see you are not pouring the wine we agreed on," he said sternly.

"Um yes sir," I acknowledged reluctantly. I hate it when this happens, because all I can do is apologize and hope they'll understand because of the mix-up. I was clearly hoping for this when I said, "The wine you ordered didn't come in today. You understand, considering the mix-up"

"No," he said, "What mix-up?"

Now at this point I realized that no one had told him about the fact that they were in the restaurant on what, from our perspective was the wrong day. And, why should he be bothered? It was in fact a tribute to the way we were pulling it off that he didn't realize that it was the wrong day. It was, of course, the right day for him, and there was no way I could explain this in the few seconds I was being alloted.

"Oh," I said, "There was a delay in getting the wines out of Houston. This is a very good wine, however," I said, hoping to divert his attention to the wine itself. "I think it's even better than the wine we had hoped to serve."

"So it's what we were drinking outside?"

"Yes" I lied.

"Then it's great!" he said, and turned away.

Whew. Boy was I lucky. Brenda's ass was covered at my expense.

The rest of the party went off without a problem. The waiters all had to take extra tables, and even I had to wait on two tables in addition to the wine dinner. Some of the busboys, who have never seem me with an apron on, didn't know that I knew how, or that I was as good as I am, so it was fun to see their faces as I moved in and around my tables, serving and clearing as if it were second nature to me. Oh wait, it is.

Now, the punchline to this story comes the next day. Brenda sent our catering coordinator an apology email...of sorts. "I guess I screwed up," were her exact words, but nowhere in the subsequent text did the words "I'm sorry" appear. While she did give us credit for pulling it off, this woman had--still has--absolutely no appreciation for what a disruption her lack of planning had put upon us that evening.

Ok, Brenda did in fact send Sara a bouquet of flowers, but this is simply another gross misinterpretation of how the restaurant actually works. Sara did a great job, no doubt. But in fact, it was the kitchen that pulled off the miracle that Brenda could not even begin to comprehend.

This is not unexpected, really. After all, she has no way to compare it with her own working life. I doubt seriously if she could manage to accommodate such a serious disruption in her daily work flow, but that isn't even the point. It's about taking responsibility for one's actions. Oh and by the way, the 'string of emails' to which she referred as proof of her innocence did actually exist, but in fact, they proved her guilt. In one particularly detailed email sent by her just the day before, she acknowledged that we would see her "on Wednesday night".

I have promised not to whine here, and I hope this doesn't come off that way. After all, in this business, we are here to serve and work hard, so it isn't the unnecessary humility or the extra work that prompts these words. I am proud of what we were able to do. It's moments like these, honestly, that make the job more interesting. What brings me to comment, I suppose, is the complete absence of appreciation for the professional lives of others, especially, may I say carefully, in the 'healthcare' field.

I think that it doesn't take much to value adequately the work that others do for you, even it it's a simply thank you for services rendered, or an apology when it is due. The fact that Brenda probably never told her boss about her little 'screw-up' has double consequences in that he was pleased with the dinner yet he has no idea what we had to go through to make it happen. That, however, is the nature of the business, I guess.

If you do your job well, it looks effortless.

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