ON THE SUBJECT OF WAITERS AND CUSTOMERS

By Seamus Muldoon, Himself
 Copyright © 1997-2010
All Rights Reserved

 

          I have 50 years experience as a waiter and as a customer, at different times and for different periods of time. After being a waiter I became a lawyer.

          When I graduated law school in 1963 and began my professional career, I was paid the highest salary for a graduating attorney with the best grades from the nation’s top law schools - $ 7,500 per year. I got one of the really plum first lawyer jobs that anyone could ever hope for. I was extremely happy about that, even though the compensation was substantially below what I made during law school as a waiter. A few years later, compensation for our country’s top law school honor grads would increase to an unheard of level of $ 16,000 a year. Nowadays it is over $ 100,000 to start, and I am not really certain, considering inflation in the interim, of the extent that amount of money is really a WOW factor like it seems to be.

          The young lawyers I encounter who are making that entry level salary don’t seem to be worth nearly that much on the merits. They are mainly Stepford Wife organization nerds, plodders, clerk mentalities lacking serious initiative. The young lawyers I have encountered over the years who were really worth while seemed to have worked their way through college and law school and to have been much more entrepreneurial. But it is my perception that universities are now more in the business of training organization members than adventurers. Maybe you can’t train people to be more than clerks. If they are going to be entrepreneurial, that is something within them that blossoms in addition to the technical skills they learn in schools.

          There are many similarities between waiters and lawyers. A good to great waiter will be a lot like a good to great lawyer in personality and risk tolerance. The best lawyers and the best waiters eat what they kill. If they don’t kill anything they starve.

          My life as a waiter was mainly at the dining room of the Michigan Union building in Ann Arbor. The Michigan Union restaurant was on the second floor, above the student cafeteria. Its customers were the more senior faculty and parents on football and other festival weekends. There was a notice on the menu that said NO TIPPING ALLOWED – without doubt the product of faculty lobbying. I made more on tips working there than I made as a newly minted well paid lawyer. I took a pay cut on graduation and had to show up every morning in a suit. Each day there were reminders of my lowly status in the office. Every task assigned to me was, as it should be, a task calculated to inculcate a sense of humility.

          As a waiter, I started at the “worst” station in the Union Dining Room. At that station were customers who were essentially unknown and who came in rarely, mostly old ladies. Surprisingly, most of the customers would leave a tip for excellent service, albeit the smallest coin in one’s purse, usually a quarter. One old lady actually began requesting to be placed on my station. I treated her like Queen Elizabeth, anticipating her every whim and desire. She never had to ask for anything after her third visit, as I made note of her eating preferences and patterns. I knew what she liked to drink; what were her favorite breads and rolls; whether she liked crackers with her salad; her desire for water, coffee and tea as well as what she liked in her coffee and tea and how much ice in her glass. I paid attention to her constantly, though hardly ever was a word passed between us. Lunch for her on my service became the highlight of her week. And every time I pushed her chair in, the first thing she would do is take a quarter out of her purse and place it on the corner of the table. I never touched the tip until she had left, with a slight bow of respect and a warm statement of thanks.

           I took the shifts that everyone else missed or didn’t want until finally the floor manager started giving me better and better stations. Eventually I had the best station in the house, serving visiting parents from big cities on football and festival weekends. When a group was obviously from New York, they were seated at my service, and I regularly shared my very generous tip revenue with the floor manager. I thrived as a waiter in law school. When the kitchen was backed up and running slowly, my orders came out ahead of every one else’s, as I developed the habit of giving the head cook a fifth of whiskey twice a week. If you sat on my service, you received the same service as King George would have received had he the good fortune to dine there. I met my ultimate law school professor mentor as his waiter. He didn’t realize that I wasn’t really a full time waiter – because his service was so good – and when he heard I was a law student he insisted I take his course in Antitrust Law. He hired me as his clerk, gopher, factotum. He had many international clients and visitors, and I catered all his parties for them. He told everyone that I was like an old world European waiter and would grovel and genuflect for the slightest consideration.

          Other professors wanted to steal me away from him, and they offered more money – not that much more – and preferential grades with let and leave to skip attendance at final examinations for their courses. One professor taught an important course for me, and when I declined his offer, he took his vengeance on my final grade. He was a European teaching comparative law, and his revenge strengthened my belief that doing violence to people is often the right way to handle things.

          Occasionally I would catch some lesser light trying to steal my tips, and I would always follow him after work and the wrong was righted. Word got around and tip stealing became a very rare event.

          I practice law the same way! A good trial lawyer, like a great waiter, is an ultimate predator.

          Like a good trial lawyer, a good waiter learns his customer. A customer is a witness, and the chemistry of waiter and customer is similar to that of trial lawyer and witness. What the waiter gets from the customer is the sense of what the customer wants and doesn’t want. You don’t approach a customer and ask stupid questions about his likes and dislikes. You initiate the relationship by greeting, and measuring the greeting’s response. In that response you get tone of voice, state of mind, degree of gregariousness or condescension, patience level, attitude copping. Facial and body language are also revealing in that simple first exchange. Most waiters are taught to make the first greeting, but lack the antennae to pick up on the signals in the response. If you read that first response correctly, and you correctly size up the customer, you will know how to deal most effectively with the customer and earn the best tip you can get from this kind of customer.

          Your waiter station is your own private and independent business. It really isn’t, but you must treat it as if it were. That space is where you earn your livelihood. You will thrive or starve right there. If you are a newbie to that restaurant, you will be assigned to Siberia and must work your way to better stations. Depending on the restaurant, the location of the station determines where Siberia is. Siberia in an upscale restaurant is the area near the kitchen door or by the entry to the rest rooms. Siberia in another restaurant can be anywhere you are. The senior waiters will be assigned the better “looking” customers by the Maitre D. The senior waiters know how to cultivate the MD and have successfully done so. How that works may be different from restaurant to restaurant, and it can be counted on to include tips sharing – not always, but you can expect that to be part of the mix. In some restaurants tips sharing is simply compulsory, so cultivating the MD is more complex/subtle. As the least senior waiter, expect to get the groups of twenty blue haired old women who all want separate checks and tip stingily if at all.

          After the first greeting, you sense the amount of direct involvement in the course of the meal that the customer wants, and you provide exactly that. Hovering over people who really wish to be left alone is certain to minimize your tip. Not appearing magically, as if summoned by a bell, when something is required, will also minimize your tip. Entering and leaving the dining room for any purpose without surveying your station to ascertain what any of your customers might want at that moment is the hallmark of the lousy waiter. That waiter will never do well. Unobtrusive attentiveness is like performing a magic act. As you do that better and better, money appears out of thin air.

          Amazingly, some waiters – with no future – don’t start by “learning” the menu and the wine list. They are unable to have a competent discussion with a customer about how a dish is prepared and served. Every good restaurant has its wine manager seminar with the waiters about the wine list, including tastings. A good wine manager will also school the wait staff about the handling of stemware. No one wants to receive a wine glass with the waiter’s finger prints on the bowl. Stemware must be handled by the bottom or by the stem only, so that the wine is seen first in its unsullied vessel, inviting instant oenological fantasy. People who are spending good money for a fine meal with wine expect to be served by competent staff. Incompetence is compensated as the incompetent should be compensated. People who believe that a waiter is little more than a servant, some menial of low estate, have no idea at all what a competent waiter has to have become to bring to his encounter with you a level of excellence and expertise commensurate with the quality of the gastronomic and oenological experience you expect. You may think you are an expert on what you eat, and you may be. The waiter standing there before you is as much an expert on the subject of what that restaurant serves and how it should be presented to you and your guests.

          Most people know very little about how to be a customer. People are not schooled on how to be a customer. Most believe that what they owe is limited to the limit on the credit card they ultimately present. That is a very narrow and ignorant view of the role of the customer. A customer who can’t appreciate good service is just a boor.

          There is a social contract between a customer and a waiter, much like the terms of Voltair’s social contract amongst God and humans. The customer represents God, but God must be reasonable or the contract won’t work. A customer must recognize and observe the context and positions of the parties – customer and waiter. The essence of that context is a one act play or ballet in which the customer and waiter both have command of the requisites of the roles, and then goes on about the process of compliance with those roles. At its most basic, the customer purchases and the waiter serves. Larded upon that infrastructure are the nuances and grace notes that differentiate the more talented amongst waiters and customers. I won’t belabor this with endless examples of simple human consideration for one another – like a waiter’s ability to recognize the underfunded couple on a celebration event dinner and steer them through a wonderful but very reasonable menu and wine selection; or a customer’s duty to recognize that his table is not the only table in the restaurant and anticipating his requirements so as to make comfortable allowances for the fact that the waiter has to minister to others as well. As both play their roles expertly, the meal improves in quality and the social experience is seamless in its compliance with the libretto and score of the performance.

          Amongst the most boorish notions that customers have is that they have “paid for the table” and are entitled to occupy it for as long as they might like. That is utter nonsense. A waiter must turn his tables and account for a new party at least twice at dinner time. And many instances three times, depending on the restaurant’s hours and whether the evening is a festival evening in which there is the opportunity to turn it three times. No reasonable customer should ever order desert and coffee at the table when the waiter can turn it now. The waiter has already earned as much as he is going to get from this group. He must turn the table to optimize his livelihood. Since few customers know this or give a damn about it if they do, a good restaurant should have the practice of informing customers that desert, coffee and after dinner drinks are served in the lounge.

          Serving after main course selections in the lounge is much better table management. The establishment should be the governance of this ritual so that it is not the waiter who delivers news that some boorish customer becomes exercised about and reduces the tip. Waiters should make this ritual a matter of important bargaining with their restaurants, as this one change in the enactment of dinner would mean faster table turning. The customer, in this scenario, gets to stand up and stretch as he and his group walks to the lounge. The group can spend another hour if they like with desert, coffee and liqueurs, generating another tip for the bar waiter and permitting the turning of the main dining table. It also follows the post prandial ritual of taking dessert et cetera in another room than the dining room amongst those who are able to enjoy a more genteel life at home. It also means that fewer desserts will be sold – a distinct public health service to reduce sugar intake and lower obesity. Many simply won’t go into the lounge and buy dessert. The restaurant that must live on dessert revenue is not long for this world anyway. As that custom is more widely adopted by better restaurants, the public will more graciously accept it.

          There are matters of waiter/restaurant relations that I don’t care to comment upon because they are now customarily wage and hour issues that are bargained for in union negotiations and sorted out in litigation – things like tips sharing and what is to be done before clocking in, without compensation. That is beyond the scope of this article and my views are not worth mentioning on those subjects anyway.

          It is my fervent hope that this Muldoonian Tutorial may enjoy circulation in the trade, to the enhancement of the experiences of all the players.

 

 


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