This week I will be taking a short break from discussing wine to address a recent piece that was published in the New York Times concerning the service industry.
On Sept. 17, Phoebe Damrosch published an op-ed lamenting the poor quality of service in the American (specifically New York City) table waiting industry. As a food service professional, and on behalf of every waiter I know, I am responding with my own lamentation—not concerning the declining performance of New York City waiters, but the poor behavior of restaurant guests, and how this trend has worsened significantly in the last decade.
As consumers, we have come to expect that we can get what we want, when and how we want it. The customer is always right, right? Absolutely not. Sometimes the customer is not only wrong, but rude. Being a customer in a restaurant is something that many take for granted, a privilege that is often abused.
When one arrives at a friend’s house for a dinner party, one is a guest. Merriment and nourishment are the host’s responsibility. It would be rude to demand slave-like servitude from them. Such is the role of the waiter in a restaurant. True, the waiter is compensated for his service, but the compensation is entirely in the guest’s hands at the end of the meal. Wait-staff do not make a paycheck; they rely solely on the guest’s desire to show their gratitude.
Too often, guests come in to a restaurant with the idea that they can’t get what they want because the waiter doesn’t want to give it to them. This simply defies logic. The waiter’s job is based on making sure that the guest has a great time. If the guests have a lousy time, the tip will be small and they won’t return for more business. The tip system puts the responsibility of a waiter’s wages in his own hands. If you look at it that way, it’s the fairest payment system that exists in America today! If the waiter tells a guest that they can’t do substitutions or that there is something that the guest wants that can’t be provided, it is not because they don’t like the guest. It’s more likely because the restaurant is set up in such a way that providing that thing is unfeasible.
And though the waiter bringing out a plate of coq au vin may be wishing he were practicing his monologue for that audition tomorrow, it doesn’t mean that he isn’t taking pride in the work he’s doing at that moment. Just because a waiter has higher aspirations than food service does not mean that he is careless with waiting tables. That is a cavalier and hurtful assumption.
I understand and appreciate Damrosch’s wishes for a system more like that in Europe, in which a service fee is substituted for a percentage tip. That’s a beautiful sentiment and a grand idea. But until that distant day comes, the wait-staff at the local diner, café and brasserie will continue to be staffed with tipped employees. And the responsibility for excellent service remains, as it always has, a two-way street called “Respect.”
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