The night was going smoothly enough: Tickets came in, plates went out. Guests lined up at the host stand, tables got sat. But without any warning it all went to hell in a perfect storm of an overcooked burger, a spilled wine glass, an irrational request for a substitution (“I only eat bread made from amaranth”) and a crying child. You are now in the weeds.
Once you’re in the weeds, it’s hard to get back out. Tickets pile up and water glasses sit empty. The only thing preventing you from shoving a raw steak in your mouth while running out of the restaurant screaming and chasing a city bus down the street like an animal is that your brain is too vapor-locked to have that idea. (Indeed, that idea only occurred to me in retrospect after a particularly busy shift.)
Here are a few signs you’re about to transition from just another service to living in a state of pure panic.
The Dining Room is Empty at 6:45 on a Friday
If you’re looking at a lot of empty seats on a weekend night, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be slow. It more likely means everyone will arrive at once. It’ll feel like a series of tour buses just pulled up all at the same time (by the way, this has happened to me.)
When you see an empty dining room, do not cut your dishwasher – it’ll be better to play labor-percentage-chicken with your GM than to get crushed by the hungry masses who all decided to go to the same late-afternoon Madeleine Peyroux concert (also totally happened to me.)
You Didn’t Get Your Prep Done
Cooking is all about prep and mise en place. If you don’t have everything ready to go once the doors open, you’re fucked. It doesn’t even matter if it’s a normal cover-count kind of night. If you don’t have enough onions prepped, they’ll order nothing but burgers. If you didn’t wash the lettuce, look forward to a string of Caesar salad tickets. It’s like they know what to order just to make your life a living hell.
None of the Wineglasses Came Back from the Dish Pit
Sometimes things don’t go smoothly for the dish pit. The machine could go down for repairs, the mid shift guy could be late, or the chemicals run out. The result is the same, though, you don’t have any wine glasses to start the shift. Even if you do manage to get a few racks through, they won’t be polished.
Just like with prep, it’s important to understand that THEY KNOW. The guests will show a sudden and intense interest in the wine list. They’ll ask you all about the Pinot Noir, and even request the burgundy glasses to go with it.
A Guest Has Lots of Questions
This was my favorite. I’d be cruising around my section with impeccable timing, anticipating issues before they had a chance to sprout wings like locusts. I’d think, ‘oh just get them started and I can work my way up the row as they look over the menu.’ Instead they want to discuss and question… everything.
Meanwhile you can see the rest of your section going down in flames. You try to listen to the guest, but you observe every water glass in your section is empty, there’s food up in the pass, the back-server is putting out unpolished wineglasses on your VIP table and Carl the Host just triple sat your section.
Just take a moment to reflect on your life, and the choices you’ve made to bring you to this place, as once you answer each of the guest’s questions and finally step away, you’re going to be in the weeds.