Sunday, March 17, 2013

Biting Back

      As long-time restaurant servers, the boyfriend and I are mellow, understanding diners. Wait staff, in return, always seem to be able to sniff out our 20 plus years of combined apron slavery and are friendly. Yet somehow last week, we managed to provoke a very different response from a server.

     It seemed like an unlikely time to make someone snap. We were on vacation, stopping by a little surf town in Hawaii. The day had been a bit of a bummer, as it had started dumping buckets of rain in the afternoon. We'd made the best of it, sitting next to a warm pizza oven during lunch, then checking out the surfers from a covered patio at the hotel, and later watching some trashy TV in our room. When the rain finally passed, we snuck out into the humid evening around 8:30 to look for a quick bite. 

     A "quick bite" is sort of a silly thing in a Hawaiian tourist town because your average plate of tacos, Chinese food, or veggie curry runs about 12-14 dollars. We bounced around from menu to menu trying to find something that didn't feel like robbery, settling on a busy cantina. The hostess led us to an overly loud corner table in the bar area.

     Soggy, out of it, we were skimming through the menu, when the server/bartender appeared. She burst up to our table, looking flustered, "I'll be right with you in a couple minutes OK?"

     We weren't exactly in suits, looking at our watches to get back to the office, or banging our forks on the table or anything, so I'm not sure where she got the idea we were impatiently waiting. She was probably getting over a long slam since the restaurant was a popular spot, so we didn't bat an eye over her stressed appearance.

     Yet she had the same unsmiling, distracted look when she took our order, and didn't say a thing when we were done speaking, just took our menus and left. When she came by to drop off the boyfriend's beer, he leaned and asked her as she walked away, "Oh, could we get some chips and salsa?"

     "It's coming!" She snapped.

     My boyfriend sat back like he'd been slapped in the face. Now, my boyfriend isn't one to get his nuts in a twist over snippyness from a lady- he's surrounded by strong women in his life and can deal. This was some rude, uncalled for behavior.

     "Honey..." I tried to talk him off the ledge. He was contemplating whether we should get up and leave, something we have never dreamed of doing.

     "It's like the bread thing I think," I continued. "Don't you hate it when customers bug you for bread when the bussers are practically behind you with the basket?" I wasn't sure why I was defending her, I was trying to calm him down a bit. I didn't have the energy to make a scene.

     He pointed out that we were in Hawaii and virtually nothing comes out as a freebie. He just assumed he had to order chips and salsa, and have it added to our bill. Wouldn't it be pretty funny to order a beer and have the server snap "It's coming!" as a response?

     We sat quietly, almost shamefully, like we'd just witnessed family members in a argument. The server, for her part, seemed to realize she'd crossed the line because she was suddenly much more cheerful on subsequent visits.

     I have to laugh at this experience now, because I'm sure I've been caught in a slam and said or done something ridiculous. For someone like me who's been in the business perhaps too long, it's a nice kick in the butt to see what bad service looks like. I turned up the goobery sweet quotient this weekend at work as a response.

     "Isn't she so nice?" I heard a group of regulars, my first table, say this Friday night as I walked away. This was after I'd made a helpful suggestion of an off-menu dish that would meet one of the women's dietary restrictions.

     So to my agro wait person, I appreciate the tip!

Friday, February 15, 2013

A Good Case of VD

     I'm confused... Where was the drama, February 14th? I have a blog here, and if I write another wine post, I could scare off my few readers forever!

     I was grumbling all afternoon yesterday, absolutely dreading Valentine's. I almost always get stuck with deuce after deuce of awkward newbie diners who ask a million questions about the menu and then order water and pasta. It's a "step up" night, where our regulars go to better restaurants, and folks who can barely afford ours fill the books.

     At 4:30 we had 229 reservations (vs. 150 or so for a busy Saturday). The phone was ringing and ringing and the boss had yet to arrive. I was holding my breath, waiting for some form of disaster to occur but it never came. However, no crazy night goes by without a few hiccups:

Flying by the seat of our pants, as usual- The boss' printer broke down, so he came in late with the night's menus- sort of an important item to have ready. A few servers swarmed over the stack of paper, quickly changing out the menu boards, just, just, as the line began to form at the podium.

     Also stations weren't assigned yet, another vital element of preparation since the floor plan was completely different with additional two-top tables. Flustered, bossman tried to set up stations as he was getting through seating the line of waiting guests. When he realized he'd  left out one of the servers from his plan, he threw his hands in the air, "You guys take whatever you want!" We all quickly conferred with each other and manned our stations, with no interruption of service on the floor. We are good with each other like that, and the boss was happy.

Deluded last minute reservation calls- I was standing at the bar well, asking the bartender about a transfer. The boss' voice came behind us as he veered away from the host stand with the phone. His pitch was a little high and odd, disbelieving: "7:15? No I'm sorry we are booked until 9:30." The bartender looked at the time: 6:50. Without needing to say anything, we started laughing.

Newbie loses his cool- Our very young, sweet day food runner was in to help the night expo. He came flying up the short stairs in the bus station into the kitchen, swearing: "That motherfucker, I'm going to fucking punch him in the mouth..." he was saying. I was a little concerned our newbie wasn't able to handle the stress of a crazy night. But then I found out who he was dealing with: One of my least favorite assholes, the misogynistic prick who I wrote about in the story Where to Shove the Pepper Grinder. I gave our newbie runner an even more explicative-laden description of dude, and he grinned widely with relief. It's always nice to know you are not alone.

     Oh, and true to form, the jackass customer tipped the server $25 on a 225 bill.

     Our improvements over the last year (remodeling, better chairs and lighting) seem to pay off this holiday. Our "sexy" was sufficient to draw our regular group of customers, and encourage them to rack up decently sized checks. And inexplicably, I kept popping 20 dollar tips on 80 dollar tabs, making up for the usual holiday 15 percenters. I even averaged over 20% tips for the night, which is simply unheard of on what is famously known as a restaurant amateur night.

     At the end of the night, we checked the sales and were disbelieving, having hit a new record. Bossman was content and I was relieved.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Missing Out on the Fun

     I might be slightly unaware of the hipster douchery of wine trade tastings. I guess because I never show up to socialize. My restaurant is in old fart land, far from the epicenter of city cool, so people's eyes glaze over when they see my name tag. I could go with the mentality of meeting new peeps, but I find I'm not my best at these events: Buzzy, with red stained teeth and hands? Not sexy. I'll chat with a couple sales reps for fun, but for the most part, I show up in non-descript black clothes and move silently from table to table, trying to actually learn something. Several things get in the way of this goal, however, which makes me hesitate to show up at these events.

Unnecessary Roughness

    If I swoop in just as the tasting starts, score! But my procrastinating self usually gets there an hour late, and I have to elbow past a bunch of tall suits to reach the front of a table. Once there, my covered boobage does little to pull the eyes of the pourer from his conversations with said suits. I'll wait a full minute before I think pass! and move on.

Tre Bicchieri San Francisco
     I once was ignored so profoundly at a tasting, that I hold the memory of this moment as the gold-standard of pouring negligence. I was the only one waiting, but the pourer refused to interrupt his conversations with the already-been-poured to even make eye contact.  I waited far longer than usual because I'd heard the wines were good but gave up. I did eventually get to taste the wines; the pourer from that table was in fact the wine maker and owner of his own company, and showed up at my restaurant to show me his wines a couple years later. Too bad I remembered him so clearly.

Shaky McShakertons

     Functioning alcoholics litter the wine field, befeebled wreckage of an industry where a drinking problem is almost requisite to staying up to date. These people are in full view at tastings and I often get pourers whose hands can barely stop shaking enough to get wine in my glass. So I get a taste with a dose of sad.

The Creeping Buzz

     I'll spit and spit like an angry llama, yet, for all this diligence, things start to get a little fuzzy about 20 wines in. It's the alcohol absorbing in through my cheeks and the fact I'm a super lightweight; And those little sneaky sips of expensive-ass wines I can't afford and have a hard time dumping, those sips catch up fast.

Nasty Splashback

  Spit buckets fill up quickly. I've only been nailed in the face a couple times with a rebound droplet of saliva-frothed bucket wine, but it was almost enough to make a germaphobe like me cry out in horror.

     Once I watched a hapless fellow dump out his finished taste not into the bucket, but into a decanter. The pourer was speechless, unsure whether to dump out the $100+ wine sitting in the decanter or pretend to look the other way.

Overshadowed Greatness

     Palate fatigue is real and sets in quick. Gigantic wines begin to seem incredible. The Sagrantinos, the Syrahs; with ripping tannin and high alcohol, these wines shake some life from my numbed senses. Delicate red, dry wines go blerg compared to their burlier cousins, though these are the wines I drink at home. I've given up at even trying whites, especially Italian ones: Hmm, water, interesting.

Don't Mug Me

     Lately it seems it's become trendy to hold tastings in the worst and least accessible neighborhoods in the city. I already have to drive; don't insult me by making me have to sketch street park.

     This year they switched the tasting venue of Tre Bicchieri, the only tasting I really give a damn about, as it has a huge selection of award-winning Italian wines. The new venue is at least large and has parking, but is way more annoying to get to so again, meh. I decided to not get my shift covered to go.

     I'm pouting right now as I type because I'm missing out on this event. For all the annoyances of tastings, there is something magical about walking into a huge room filled with voices, sparkling glassware and your favorite wines in the whole world. I'll be thinking about that while I'm serving people their pasta tonight.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Misconceptions About Sommelier-dom

     I'm late posting this week because I spent the weekend studying and taking a test. A wine test. Many thoughts ran through my head as the hours of studying passed by:

A) I'm too old for this shit
B) Where, working in California, will I need an in-depth knowledge of Greek wines?
C) Am I doing this for myself or others?

SF Gate article "The Ultimate Test"
     I'm asked often at work "are you a sommelier?" This question irks me because it's like if I walked up to a bartender and said, "are you a bartender?" If he/she is serving drinks behind a bar, that's kinda the definition of the job. There are different levels of experience and expertise to any profession sure, but, by the book, a sommelier buys, stores, sells and serves wine in a restaurant. Which is what I do, and have been doing for the last few years.

     Of course the Court of Master Sommeliers have done a good job of claiming the term "sommelier" for themselves. This is a group that gives actual credentials for somms, ones that look shiny on a business card or résumé. As much as these are nice to have, anyone who has worked in the business for a whack of time knows that book learning is no substitution for hands-on knowledge. This is acknowledged by the Court of Master Sommeliers, I suppose, in the fact that you can't even apply for the advanced exam without five years in the wine/service industry.

     The holy grail of the sommelier study path is to get your MS, or Master Sommelier. Supposedly if you achieve this, kittens will start flying out of your backside, and you will suddenly start speaking perfect French. Or that's what I've heard.

     To me, my job is work: negotiating, dealing with sales people, unpacking bottle after bottle, and trying to read customers' minds. It seems so far removed from the hallowed grounds of the James Suckling-style "wine experts" out there, that as far as I'm concerned, the Court of Master Sommeliers can keep the term sommelier. I'm happy being just a wine buyer

     Soo, how did I get sucked into this test nonsense then? A year ago I figured I'd shut people up by getting some sort of credential, and looked into the Wine and Spirits Education Trust. Their top credential, the MW, or Master of Wine, is equally respected and as famously difficult to achieve; There are 280 Masters of Wine as of 2010, and 186 Master Sommeliers as of 2011, according to the great Oz (Wikipedia). The main difference between the two credentials is that the MS is more service based, and the MW is more trade and business orientated.

     Because I like being different and I don't particularly enjoy the thought of farting kittens, I decided to go the MW route. The first place for me to jump in was taking the WSET level three certificate. This certificate is a prerequisite to taking a two-year "wine diploma" course (that costs 4,000 bucks or so); the diploma is considered the best way to possibly be granted entry into the MW program (which costs more than $10,000 to complete).

     Oh and the WSET Level 3 is available as a home study course, unlike the first sommelier level, which makes you sit through a two-day all-day-long lecture on beginning wine stuff. Blech.

     No one seems to have a clue why I'd want to take the WSET Level 3 vs. Sommelier 1. I've had some fun conversations like this:

     I'm talking to regular about how I've had to drink more wine instead of beer lately in preparation for my test. A slightly tipsy wine rep at the bar interrupts:

     "So you're going to be a sommelier?"

     "Well, not exactly, this test is a little different. It's more relevant to what I want to do."

     "Yeah and what's that?"

     "It's a bit more industry side of things which I like. I don't think I'll be taking the sommelier test."

     "But you should totally be a sommelier. You are so talented!"

     I had to walk away at this point before I felt compelled to knock my head into the wall next to the bar. I know that this conversation will repeat itself a hundred times, so I might as well get used to it.

     Thank you Samantha Sans Dosage, for bringing to my attention douche biscuit extraordinaire, Brad Newman and his Reviewer Card sham. I mustered up the energy this weekend to do a story about this on Wino on a Ramble, if anyone is curious.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

A Certain Percentage of Human

     The woman got up from her table to waylay me at the entrance of the back room. Uh oh, this was never a good sign.

       It was late and the restaurant was emptying out, the woman's party of twelve just finishing up. Since they were my last table of the evening, I was feeling relaxed.

     "We have some members of our group who would like to pay individually," she said. "I can help you figure out who is with who."

     "So you want separate checks?" I clarified.

     She looked at me like I'd said a dirty word. "Checks? I guess that's how you call it. We have people who would like to pay for their own items."

     I never figured I'd ever see anyone get touchy-feely over being referred to as a "check" vs. a person. I wondered if I should take the woman back to our computer terminal and introduce her: Computer, this guest would like to be recognized by her name, and not as check #432, got that?

     Instead I blinked and got to the more pressing matter at hand. "We can do separate checks here, but typically we ask that groups make this request in advance. If we know beforehand we can keep track of everything, otherwise it gets complicated."

     "I can help you..." she offered.

     "It's OK I still have my map." I actually had the table mostly memorized since it was one of my last, but I wanted her to see my map with my god-awful handwriting. "Alright, who is together?"

     She pointed out each person who would get a check, and who they were paying for. I made some more chicken scratches on my map to indicate this, then nodded and walked away, leaving her to cross her fingers as to the outcome of this exercise.

     I handed them six bills, which had each beverage, appetizer, salad, main and dessert perfectly accounted for. As this took a while, I didn't want to keep them waiting even longer by adding gratuity to each bill. Also, when couples pay separately they usually tip better (since they aren't subsidizing Uncle Bob's 30 dollar steak or whatever the case may be;) for this reason, I personally don't mind doing individual checks.

     I'd forgotten one thing however, which my boss pointed out when I came back with five credit cards and a cash payment: most of them were from out of town. Four of the six "checks" tipped 10%.

     Of the necessary transactions that take place in a restaurant day to day, it's almost always the tip line on a credit card slip that dehumanizes the most.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Kid Karma

     One hundred dollars- I spend my life chasing these crisp, clean, underused measures of success, yet so many of my customers throw these bills around like they are nothing. For every person who enters our restaurant with a reverence for the ritual of spending money, 10 more are in jeans, in a hurry, and sit at their tables on their iPhones looking bored; They act like they are in their own living rooms, and are paying a hundred bucks for the privilege. I love our laid-back neighborhood vibe, but I have joked more than once, particularly when I'm being pressured for time, "Are we McDonald's for rich people?"

     We have a regular, a floppy-haired, mild-mannered guy, who comes around 8:30 or 9 pm, dressed in a suit coat and toting his hyper-active spawn. If you are a parent you understand the significance of this immediately: 9 pm should be time for bed, not for hanging out with dad at a fancy restaurant. Dad always has a 1/2 bottle of wine of something excessively expensive for the occasion, something French worth hundreds of dollars. Like our other "living room" regulars he does not pay corkage (Though at least he gives me a splash to try, and I can't really complain about a 20-40 dollar taste of wine.)

     Usually, floppy hair's child passes out as soon as he eats. I'll catch him stretched out in a banquette or across a few chairs pushed together in the main dining room. It's late enough that there are not too many other people around to witness this less-than-stellar example of parenting. Dad continues his meal, contently messing with his tablet or watching TV, enjoying his fabulously expensive Bordeaux.

     I didn't appreciate the method to this madness until floppy hair came in early one day. He was with the whole family‒wife, two older kids, and the little one‒coming in at 6 pm or so. The mini-member of the spawn was in full spaz. He couldn't sit still, messing with the table papers, getting into his dad's space, and I feared several times for his water glass. It was a special occasion, and the family was nicely dressed. Dad had brought in a half bottle of Chateau Lafite Rothschild, a 1st growth Bordeaux which costs roughly 800-1500 for a full bottle, to enjoy with mom.

     I poured the wine, eyeing the spastic minion distrustfully. Dad didn't seem to care, his method of dealing with the kid was "cope and ignore." My own small experience with children tells me I'd be a doormat of a parent as well, so I really can't judge; however, this child's lack of discipline came back to bite floppy hair. Towards the end of their meal, I walked past to see a stemmed glass down, with wine poured across an empty plate and surrounding table cloth.

     A couple hundred dollars worth of wine was soaking into the table cloth, but floppy hair seemed unfazed. He simply stood up and took junior for a walk outside. Perhaps he was simply happy his tan suit had been spared.

     I finally understood the 9 pm visits. The late hour plus rich food were a tranq dart for the minion, with our restaurant chairs serving as a containment unit. It's nice to know we can provide a service to our regulars beyond, you know, food and drink.

     For anyone who is curious, is the Lafite Rothschild worth ten crisp hundred dollar bills? Not even close‒ I've tried a few different vintages now and I'm always impressed by its polish and elegance; It kind of reminds of Anne Hathaway: glamorous, wholesome, neatly put together. But quirky tends to catch my interest more than perfect, and there are too many beautiful, intriguing wines under 50 bucks to ever make me throw my hundreds at any single bottle.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

March of the Pens

The Elves Get Stabby

     The six-pack of wine rested on the mats at my feet. This half-sized wine case, so petite and easy to lift, had become a hurdle. It was over-zealously taped together, as though whoever had shipped it was a chronic tape-waster or simply took delight in envisioning a box monkey somewhere trying to wrestle this package free. Normally I would mount an efficient assault on such a mess, but this day was different.
     Somehow I hurt my lower back this week. This is in spite of a mellow schedule this holiday season, where I haven't had to do any doubles or banquet events, only a few extra shifts. Yet Wednesday I was lifting plates and felt an uncomfortable pressure in my back; By Friday the same motion produced a "Holy hot Chihuahua, that hurts!" Bending down was the worst, feeling like half a dozen miniature pitchfork-wielding elves were stabbing my lower back. Fortunately walking around was only minimally painful.

     Naturally, however, everything I had to get to in the wine room was low to the ground. At the end of the month, and end of the year in particular, the wine room is a ghost of itself, with the remaining cases lingering in bottom cubbies. It seemed like these survivors were either hiding or taunting me, like the mummy-taped six-pack of wine. Every time I reached down toward the small case to swipe at its wrappings with a butter knife, the pain shot back. Once I'd finally maneuvered it open, I had to try and get the bottles out. I lifted one bottle, ok, then the second, hmm, but by the third it was, oh hell no! I got down on my knees and set the bottles on a low shelf, then transported those bottles to their home cubby. A one-armed kangaroo could have handled this process about as quickly and efficiently.

     The boss man came in to help for a second, ripping open a couple cases of wine and throwing them into a cubby in no time. Meanwhile, I was dinking around, stuck with my one bottle, two bottle shuffle. Doh.

Loose Pens

     Every server knows the pen game. By the end of the day, half of those tawdry buggers will be in someone else's apron or purse; If not, it must have been a slow night. It is fully possible to walk in to work with ten black Bics, only to have them all vanish or curiously be replaced by some glittery clickers or others that are sporting some off-the-wall company logo.

     Last night, instead of a slow dwindle, my pens took more drastic measures to escape. My work apron has developed a giant hole in one of the pockets, so I had my kit and server book all stuffed into one side. Every other time I pulled out my server book, a pen came flipping out. I started feeling like I was pooping pens everywhere. They dropped in front of my tables, in the kitchen, in the bus station... I would gaze at them forlornly, knowing that the stabby elves awaited me if I tried to bend over to pick them up. So low, I admonished my writing implements. Running away while you know you can...

     A pen popped out onto the server station's floor, and I stared. It was one of my last pens left. I said to a coworker, "If you want to pick that up, it's yours." I would never ask them to get it for me. It was the way of the pen game- If they went to the effort of picking it up, it belonged to them. Nevertheless, I had the tiniest hope that this person might take pity and offer it back. But alas, the server picked it up and threw it in his pocket without hesitation and walked away. I sighed, thinking, Don't hate the player, hate the game. I would have done the same thing.