Monday, December 8, 2008

St. Valentine's Day Massacre: Part I

Every waiter has 'The Dream'.

Whether you are still waiting tables or your last table was decades ago, you know the dream I am talking about. In fact we even call it 'the Waiter Dream' even though it is better described as a nightmare. For those who do not instantly know the substance of the dream, and thus may be identified as someone who's never been a waiter, I will explain, but rather than give an abstract invention to illustrate I will use a quite concrete, most 'real' example; a sort of nightmare-come-true: The infamous St. Valentine's Day Massacre at our restaurant (name omitted because you ought to know this) in 1999.

I have, in other essays, addressed the interrelated factors of seating capacity, seating efficiency, time spent at table and the weather on exceptionally busy days, like Thanksgiving. Of these factors, recall that while the weather is the least predictable, it is out of our control; the reservation count and timing are supposedly within our control. Clearly these factors will have a big part in our story.

First, though, I must address the day itself. Again, fortunately for the Gentle Reader, I have elsewhere written a particularly vehement screed condemning this day as a Hallmark-invented hell-producing day for restaurants across the country and socioeconomic spectrum, so I will refrain from here repeating that frothing tirade. It must, however, be said here by way of context that we have several 'big days' on the calendar every year, rain or shine, hot or cold, ready or not, here we come days. They are Thanksgiving, Mother's Day, Easter and Valentines Day. Christmas Eve and Parents' Weekend at UT are also big, but belong in a second tier because, unlike the big four, they are 'night only' while the biggest days include a lunch and dinner seating.

Except, that is, for Valentine's Day, which is really just a single dinner seating, but deserves a spot in the top four because it is such a big deal to our patrons. Honestly, we do a lot more business on Thanksgiving and Mother's Day because the parties on those days tend to be larger family groups while the reservations for Valentine's Day come in a la Noah's Ark: two by two. So, recalling that seating capacity is one of our key factors, we know instinctively that if every table holds but two patrons, we will leave something like half of the potential seats in the restaurant empty. Even if the tables are re-arranged to be more efficient by placing many more two than four-tops, there is still a gap where guests would normally be, and this results in an odd, crowded-but-not sort of feeling in the space.

Then, there is the occasion itself which, although I promised not to belabor, requires mentioning for two reasons. First, it is perceived be, by it's most insecure and therefore desperate and willing-to-do-anything proponents, a 'must-be-done-at-all-cost' event, lest they fail to assuage the fickle heart of their lover.

With this irrational thought in mind, the men--and make no mistake, it's mostly men in this category of pitiable creatures--will do anything, say anything, pay anything to get a Valentine's Day reservation. Well, almost anything. If we didn't require payment in advance by taking a credit card number at the time of the reservation, it would also be our number one day for 'no-shows' not because of broken loves, but because of broken promises: double--and triple--bookings.

That's because normally courteous men, who would ordinarily be considerate enough not to make a reservation that they did not intend to keep or at least cancel prior to the day, lose all sense of rational respect for others in their self-centered drive to procreate. It is the mass spawning that Valentine's Day not-so-obliqely represents in our present day culture that I find distasteful, if not downright ridiculous.

These wanna-be lovers will literally jump a dam, cross an ocean, double book and pay four times what it would cost the next or previous nights in their desperate desire to spawn. It's pathetic and embarassing but only to us, those who must watch. Worse, we must pretend that we share their enthusiasm for the ritual, as if we too had a stake; as if we were going to get laid; as if we would ever want that which they find attractive. Well, no wonder. If anything, we are secretly delighted to know that they have to grovel just to get some of that. Honey hush. Go on with your bad self and do the nasty--just not here for godsakes.

So, with that bit of groundwork laid, I may begin to build up an account of the event, blow by blow, so that the severe scars that I carry as a result of my participation in it can be revealed and hopefully healed as my reward for finally revisiting it long enough to write about it at last. Even now I hesitate, writing toward it but not yet about it.

So, the essence of the waiter dream is impossibility. The most important thing a waiter does is to bring the food and drink from the kitchen to the patron. Simple, really. And it is, so long as the waiter has enough hands and time to do that simple task, everybody's happy. But it should be immediately obvious that one one the most basic limitations to this key element in our formula for good service is the number of hands that the waiter--any waiter--really has at their disposal. This is, you'll doubtless have calculated by now, somewhere between one and two.

This limitation, though obvious, is not the most restrictive factor to good service. It is Time that really determines how many patrons a good waiter may be reasonably expected to care for. The reason for this is simple: there are many ways to carry many plates and glasses to the table, but the time it takes for a waiter to greet their guests, exchange pleasantries, answer questions, take and record the order is not only considerable, when measured in seconds, hopefully. But, given that at least half the exchange is up to the guest, who often has no interest in the efficiency of their inquiry, minutes can elapse while the waiter is effectively trapped in a time-space warp worthy of Kirk and Co.

That's because, in the 'real' world, while Time drags along at half or even quarter-speed for the waiter, it continues to barrel forward at full speed for all the other patrons. They can not only see the time distortion, but are visibly annoyed by it enough to punish the server for his inabilty to adequately control time, instead of being in awe of his frequently superhuman ability to defy gravity and alter space. No, sadly, it is not enough for a waiter to get your steak to you medium-well; it has to be on (your) time and hot, or we don't get paid. Of course, there is no other profession that operates under that presumption, but that's another topic altogether.

What concerns us here is the fact that no matter how good and efficient the waiter is, if he has too many tables, he just won't be able to get to the kitchen quickly enough or often enough to take care of them all. It's just impossible. Especially, that is, if any of the patrons is even the slightest bit demanding; requesting, say for example, more bread and water, or worse, another, presumably even more complicated cocktail than the last one, with a ending like 'sling' or 'tini'.

Each new demand, though it seems tiny to the patron and perhaps even, for a while at least, to the waiter, accumulates like mud on the tires of an atv in a swamp, and before you know it, the waiter is in that dense and life-threatening--ok, life challenging--place known to us in the business as 'the weeds'. I am uncertain about the origin and even the literal meaning of the term, there's no doubt as to it's definition from a waiter's point of view. It means you are hopelessly behind; too many things to do and not enough hands or time to do them all.

Now, there is only one way for a waiter to get out of 'the weeds' without asking for help. That is one task, one diner, one table at a time. Though the waiter's mind is overloaded, he knows he can only do these tasks sequentially, and thus someone's something will not get to them in a timely manner or, in exteme cases of the weeds, not at all. Whether this is because the waiter just can't do it or because the patron finally gives up, the result is the same: the patron is unhappy and the waiter is underpaid, at best.

Well, the waiter dream is about being in the weeds, and, because it's a dream, it possesses the nightmarish exaggerated qualities that we can only enjoy while sleeping. Except, that is, for one certain Saturday in mid-February 1999. On this day came true the very Dream I had had for years leading up to that fateful night, and now it is simply the standard Dream that I have whenever my brain decides that it is again time for me to have 'The Dream'.

Knowing the date for Valentine's Day, would, you would think, allow us time to prepare for it and plan accordingly. In 1999, however, this knowledge did nothing to help us plan or prepare, even though we certainly thought the opposite. We thought we were ready. We thought we had it planned out. But we did not.

For one thing, we had way too many reservations, and to compound that error, we had way too many reservation in every time slot, especially the most popular, 7, 7:30 and 8. Without going into numbers, suffice it to say that they is obviously only so many seats in any given time slot, but no one taking reservations for the month prior to th event had seriously taken this bit of common sense into consideration.

Now, whether we were operating under the naive assumption that there would be plenty of seats and plenty of waiters at all times or simply had no idea that this could turn out to be overwhelming if not managed adequately it doesn't matter. Either reason would suffice for the disaster that ensued, and it would be pointless to try and assign blame.

Everyone who put yet another reservation in the book at 7:30 was in some small way responsible. This would be everyone who answers the phone, and that is everyone who works in the front of the house, as we all 'share' the responsibility of answering the phone during busy times like service on a Saturday night. So, this account is in no way an attempt to assign or even discuss blame for the event; we all shared equally in it's lingering effects.

Part II: They start coming...

1 comment:

tim said...

i politely request, nay; demand! part two: 'They Start Coming.'