[Paleopsych] NYT: The Waiter You Stiffed Has Not Forgotten
checker at panix.com
Fri Feb 4 14:41:36 UTC 2005
The New York Times > Dining & Wine > The Waiter You Stiffed Has Not Forgotten
By JULIA MOSKIN
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 www.bitterwaitress.com,
www.waiterrant.blogspot.com and www.webfoodpros.com is to wonder
nervously, "Could they be talking about me?"
Each month, 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
"That stuff is childish," said Timothy Banning, a California chef who
often posts to 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 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
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
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 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
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 www.shamelessrestaurants.com, a controversial New
York-based site where employees post anonymously with complaints about
"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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