[Paleopsych] NYT: The Waiter You Stiffed Has Not Forgotten

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Fri Feb 4 14:41:36 UTC 2005

The New York Times > Dining & Wine > The Waiter You Stiffed Has Not Forgotten


    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 [1]www.bitterwaitress.com,
    [2]www.waiterrant.blogspot.com and [3]www.webfoodpros.com is to wonder
    nervously, "Could they be talking about me?"

    Each month, [4]www.stainedapron.com publishes a new extreme example of
    customer obnoxiousness. (One forum is titled "Keep Your Brats at
    Home!") On [5]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

    "That stuff is childish," said Timothy Banning, a California chef who
    often posts to [6]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 [7]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
    [8]www.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 [9]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

    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
    www.bitterwaitress.com, "You people should QUIT WHINING or get another

    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 [10]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."

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