The New York Times
Feb. 2, 2005
What evil lurks in the hearts of waiters? Now you can find out. But can you stomach the results?
An anonymous New York waiter wrote online recently: "In my fantasy, I become Darth Vader the next time a customer asks about the wines by the glass, then says, 'Merlot! Waiter, haven't you seen the movie "Sideways"?' Then I will slice off his head with my light saber."
Grievances, including friction between kitchen and dining room staff, rapacious management and near-universal bitterness over tipping, are being revealed with gusto on the Internet by restaurant staff members. As a customer, to read Web sites like http://www.bitterwaitress.com , http://www.waiterrant.blogspot.com and http://www.webfoodpros.com is to wonder nervously, "Could they be talking about me?"
Each month, http://www.stainedapron.com publishes a new extreme example of customer obnoxiousness. (One forum is titled "Keep Your Brats at Home!") On bitterwaitress.com , the most popular page is an annotated database of people who give bad tips (defined on the site as "any gratuity under 17 percent for service which one's peers would judge as adequate or better"). Anyone can add a name to the database, along with the location, restaurant, amount of the check, amount of the tip and any details, most of which cannot be printed in a family newspaper. (A disclaimer reads: "We are not responsible for submissions. Uh-uh, no way, not in the least.") There are almost 700 entries.
"That stuff is childish," said Timothy Banning, a California chef who often posts to http://www.ontherail.com , a San Francisco-based site for chefs. "And it makes the industry look bad."
But most servers say that letting off steam helps them do the job. "It's so important for us to have a place to vent," said Becky Donohue, who waits on tables at Mickey Mantle's in Midtown and writes occasional posts at http://www.girlcomic.net. "It's amazing that more waiters don't kill people," she said.
Many in the industry protest that the rage-filled, often incoherent blogs and posts don't represent the feelings of most restaurant staff members, And so far only a small slice of the industry is active online. "Unlike a lot of people, chefs and waiters don't have computer access at work, or enough time to fool around on the Net," said Bryce Lindholm, a Seattle chef and manager who participates in a Yahoo discussion group for restaurant employees.
But the result of these forums, say Mr. Banning, Mr. Lindholm and others, is that the symbolic wall between the kitchen and the dining room - the wall that prevents customers from knowing what is done and said by waiters and cooks - is coming down. And how do they loathe us, the customers? Now we can count the ways.
"I don't think civilians really have any idea how the staff really feels: namely, that they just can't wait to turn the table, get their tip and see the back of you," Mr. Lindholm said. "Let's be honest."
Referring to restaurant customers as civilians is common, and indicative of the siege mentality that longtime cooks and severs tend to adopt. "I'd say waiting tables is one of the most stressful jobs you can have, short of being a firefighter or an inner-city police officer," said Bruce Griffin Henderson, a singer-songwriter who did 10 years as a waiter in New York. "You have no control over anything, but you are responsible for everything. You are always being squeezed by three immutable forces: the customer, the kitchen and the management."
But recent interviews revealed some fresh irritants for the more than eight million Americans who worked in restaurants in 2002 (the most recent year for which figures are available according to the United States Department of Labor). Waiters must now enforce bans on smoking, drinking by minors and cellphone use, and are enduring an influx of Euro-rich tourists who, restaurant staff members say, often pretend not to understand American tipping practices.
Chefs say they are being driven mad by an ever-changing spectrum of diets, allergies and food issues. Gillian Clark, the chef at Colorado Kitchen in Washington, contributed thousands of words to a forum at washingtonpost.com on the subject of customers who demand changes to the menu. "I explain to them that they are in my restaurant," she wrote, "and they must have the flounder the way I make it."
Ms. Clark is relatively tolerant of customers with genuine health problems, but many bloggers reserve their most towering rages for customers with real or imagined dietary restrictions. Last year a server at a Sizzler steakhouse in Norco, Calif., was arrested after a fight with Atkins-dieting customers over whether vegetables could be substituted for potatoes. Participants in online forums reacted with understanding, though the consensus was that Jonathan Voeltner, the server, had gone too far in following the customers and covering their house with maple syrup, flour and instant mashed potatoes. "Use the forum, dude!" one poster urged. "Blow off the steam here."
According to http://www.waitersworld.com , one Washington restaurant customer recently insisted that the restaurant's $10 minimum should be waived for him, because gastric bypass surgery had rendered him unable to swallow more than a few mouthfuls at one sitting. "So why are you in a restaurant?" wrote one cook. "WHY WHY WHY?"
These writers are immoderate in their rages, but they do not discriminate. They harbor contempt for tourists, New Yorkers, Southerners, Jews, Christians, women, men, blacks, whites, American Indians. Fat people. Thin people. "My greatest dream is to keep a party of doctors waiting for 45 minutes," Mr. Lindholm said. "They are arrogant as customers, and besides, they keep me waiting in their offices. Let them wait in my restaurant."
Serious complaints about sexism, racism, drug use, hazing and management are common, but the servers' greatest source of rage is, of course, tipping. "It's the only job where your hourly wage is totally dependent on how random people feel about you," Ms. Donohue said. "How many times have you gotten bad service at Kinko's? Do you get to dock their pay?"
The vengefulness of the posts, and the recurrence of anecdotes that involve adding foreign fluids to customers' food, from breast milk to laxatives, is enough to turn anyone who dares to enter a restaurant into a nervous, toadying wreck. Jesse Elizondo, a waiter who has worked in New York restaurants for 10 years, says that's because customers generally forget how vulnerable they are to the good will of servers. "I can never understand why anyone would be even the slightest bit rude to someone who is about to touch your food," he said.
Mr. Elizondo said he discovered the forums after a bad night at work on Restaurant Row, when he went home and typed "waiter" and "revenge" into an Internet search engine. He is amazed by the challenges that customers bring into the dining room, he said, adding: "The cellphones are a big problem for us. And you wouldn't believe how many people think they can bring their own liquor, or keep their big plastic water bottle on the table. I try to assume that people just don't know any better, but sometimes it's impossible, especially with the Europeans who act so sophisticated when it's time to order the wine but so ignorant when it's time to tip the waiter."
Online venting has become a vigorous art form for many servers, especially those who are waiting on tables to finance careers as writers or performers. "Where else can you observe human nature at its worst, night after night?" Ms. Donohue, a comedian, said. "The whole system seems to invite bad behavior."
Rima Maamari worked her way through college at a Toronto steakhouse, and said that she never intended to write about waitressing when she joined a blogging circle for writers. But, she said, "everyone was so interested in reading about the stuff going on behind a waiter's poker face" that her reports from the front became her only subject. "People feel very strongly about this stuff, and not only waiters," she said. "I got a lot of bitter e-mails from people about how they shouldn't have to tip for bad service." One customer, an ex-waiter, wrote on http://www.bitterwaitress.com , "You people should QUIT WHINING or get another job."
Aline Steiner, a customer who was working online at the East Village cafe Teany last week, said she had visited some of these sites, including http://www.shamelessrestaurants.com , a controversial New York-based site where employees post anonymously with complaints about their employers.
"I think that as long as it's anonymous, there is no validity, and no harm done," she said. "But if they really want things to change, all of these issues are going to have to come out somehow. People want to be aware of how their vegetables are grown, how their chickens are killed. They should be aware of how restaurants work."
R.W. "Dick" Gaines
GnySgt USMC (Ret.)
1952 (Plt #437)--'72
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