Friday, January 9, 2009

Flashback Friday: You really can be too nice in this business

When I was 15 or 16, I got a job at a restaurant a few miles away from my high school. It is one of the nicest restaurants in the area, although still a few notches down from being true "fine dining." I was a hostess: seating and clearing tables, and quickly worked my way up to being a lead hostess. As lead hostess, I basically ran the entire restaurant. Okay, so I wasn't in fact managing employees or cooking the food, but the choices I made as lead host affected every area of the crew and made an impact on the success of the entire shift. Don't underestimate that girl (or guy) at the front of the house with the clipboard, because a great deal of control rests in her hands. An incompetent lead host will activate a domino effect resulting in poor service, slow ticket times, and dissatisfied customers. But I was a damned good lead host. And my General Manager not only knew it, she kindly told me so on multiple occasions. I left the restaurant when the time came to start my (short-lived) college education.

During summer vacation, I was thrilled to finally be old enough to step into the enviable role of a foodserver. At this particular restaurant, the requirements for servers are pretty strict. We had to memorize every ingredient in every item on the menu. We were required to ask specific questions when greeting a table, and set each plate at a specific visual rotation in front of the guest. There were no notepads allowed--we memorized all orders for tables with fewer than 6 guests. I took the job seriously, and worked to become highly proficient at the many skills required to excel in such a fast-paced environment. I am an excellent multitasker, and to this day that aspect remains my favorite memory of foodservice. During a busy shift, I might be simultaneously inputting the four-top order I memorized from table 21 since their salads just arrived, printing a guest check for table 11, calling for a side of thousand from the cold side of the kitchen, filling water glasses for the new guests at 20 on my way to pick up Long Islands at the bar for table 10 after I grab the side of thousand from Jose, back to my section to drop off the check, waters, drinks, and dressing, then take 20's order, grab a few app plates for them, head back to the kitchen where I run food to table 109 and pick up the credit card from 11 before returning to put in the app order for 20 and run 11's card. I grab dessert menus for 30 on my way out with food for table 52, and drop off the menus before returning the credit card slips and bidding goodnight to the guests at 11. And it goes on and on like this. Usually with more weird requests and unexpected problems than you'd probably ever guess.

Since I did not return to school in the fall, I continued my "education" in the restaurant. And truly, I did learn a LOT--about people, about on-the-job politics, and about life. I am still learning from this job, as experiences become currently relevant to a lesson I am ready to learn.

I worked in this restaurant for a total of 5 years, most of the time enduring a love-hate relationship with the place. I enjoyed the social interaction with my co-workers. I made more money than I needed on a very flexible schedule. I felt like I did a good job and my customers liked me. On the other hand, I dealt with some despicable human beings, had to pick up the cloth napkin I saw an old man repeatedly blow his nose into, and the manager who had once showered me with praise for my skills as a hostess did not apparently feel that my server persona deserved the same appreciation. Despite my compliance, sales results, and complimentary comment cards, I felt as thought I was constantly fighting for "The General's" approval. My every move was under intense scrutiny, and I would be called on innocent mistakes and little discretions that I had watched numerous servers get away with right in front of her.

I was eventually asked to resign from my position as a foodserver in this restaurant. Just before my shift one day, I was invited into the manager's office, where she explained to me that my service had generated the final customer complaint necessary for her to terminate my employment. What follows is the story of my reprehensible customer service.

It was a beautiful, sunny day. We had the outdoor seating open and the empty tables beckoned anyone who would enjoy a good meal near a sparkling fountain under the warm sun. My shift had barely started at mid-afternoon, so I was ready and full of energy. My first table to arrive was a large group: at least 10 or 12 people, adult men and women, looked as though it might be a family but I couldn't be sure. After the host pulled together a few of the round, umbrella-clad patio tables (always an awkward proposition, but worth it to sit outside on a gorgeous day like today), I bounded outside to greet them. I said hello and asked everyone how they were doing. Those who did not reply with silence did so with little more than a grunt. I thought that was strange, and didn't intend to have these bummers bring me down with them. I made a cheery comment about the delightful weather, and then continued with my usual (required) spiel about the menu, specials, soups and so on.

We continued in this manner throughout their meal. Me: friendly and perky. Them: gloomy and callous. Finally they paid their bill and went on their way. Only I caught sight of one of the gentlemen from the group speaking with a manager in the bar. He approached me and shared that these customers had not been satisfied with my service. I was immediately defensive, explaining how every aspect was impeccable, and that I was totally nice to them in spite of their crotchety moods. This is when he informed me that the group had just come from a funeral. They did not apparently appreciate me being so friendly and happy. They also did not apparently think that I was just doing my job, and that normally servers are expected to be friendly and happy. They did, however, apparently think that they bore some sort of tell-tale sign that I should have recognized as the reason for their less-than-sunny dispositions. I swear, there were no black veils or funeral programs in view; I don't even think they were all wearing black or I might have put two and two together.

At any rate, I had no clue about the circumstances that brought them together at our restaurant that afternoon. But I do believe that even a person in mourning can appreciate a lovely, sunny day, and that I shouldn't be penalized for being friendly and vivacious. But that is precisely what got me fired.

Sitting in the manager's office, staring at a form I was being asked to sign indicating my resignation, I was dumbfounded. I thought about all of the truly terrible things I could have done to bring me to this moment instead of being too nice, things I may have even considered at various times. I thought about my co-worker who had recently stormed out in the middle of his shift, but was back at work the next week. I wondered to myself if this same "complaint" had been received by one of Leslie or Catherine's tables, would the managers have even bothered to write it in their files?

I couldn't help but be offended when The General asked me to consider whether foodservice was "the right job" for me. I had worked my butt off for this company, and for each of the negative remarks in that little manila file, there are dozens of positive comment cards and countless clients who left my section with a smile on their face and a big fat tip on the line. So instead of signing her paper meant to protect the company, I let her fire me.

Of course foodservice isn't the right job for me! There are few people in the world who can make a career surviving in that environment. And I'd venture to say they all know how to suck up to the boss better than me. The truth is, when I was fired, only three months remained until the Grand Opening of our first Curves club. So it was really inconvenient to have to find a new job, and get hired under the false pretense that I would be able to stick around long-term. But with 5 years at that restaurant on my resume, I got the job I wanted in an instant. And since the standards there were relatively lax compared with my previous job, I was able to proudly demonstrate some of the best service they had ever witnessed, and left them wishing I could stay. I don't believe they would have ever considered "too friendly" a complaint worth even writing in my file.


jaeyde said...

wow. just wow.

Bridget said...

Yeah, wow.

Who sits outside on the sunny patio after a funeral?!?!? I just mean that if they were trying to send the message of mourning to you, that probably didn't help.

guentherfamilynews said...

I have to be honest, I knew before you said it that it was probably a funeral... I have been in the position the other people were in before.... but I would never be mad at someone else for being happy on a nice day.
Nor would I complain of an unknowing server being too friendly. I would say that was unfair of them and probably not really allowed.
I suppose you still haven't learned your lesson and are being nice to people... really Kristen, you need to start being a jerk. :p

Sarah Rose Evans said...

This posts reminds me:
1. I was a terrible food service worker.
2. That time the management at the restaurant I worked at fired their best waiter, for a really dumb reason. He'd let a kitchen worker sit in his section and hadn't told the managers when the kitchen worker got up and helped himself to the food in the back. That isn't quite as dumb as firing someone for being too friendly, though.

Mikael said...

I interviewed for dozens of server positions, but was NEVER hired! I think it must have been my "too friendly" and bubbly attitude. Maybe if I walked in with a frown and an attitude I would have gotten the jobs!


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