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Top 10 Complaints Heard in Restaurants and the Reason They Aren't as Bad as You Think

The point of this list is not to apologize for bad service, bad servers, or a poorly run restaurant. I am not a restaurant apologist. Far from it. I hope I can bring come clarity for you, the restaurant consumer, to situations that might seem unreasonable or inexplicable. At the very minimum, I hope to help you focus your anger in the proper direction when you encounter the situations listed in this top ten list I’ve complied over my seven plus years of waiting tables in a corporate chain restaurant.

Number 10 Complaint: “You need my I.D.? Why? I’m like 34?!!!”

Lets start with a question: How many jobs do you know of that, in the course of normal day, can land you in prison? You might be minding your own business, doing the job as you’ve been trained to do it, and then, with one mistake in judgment, go to jail? As in JAIL. I know one! It’s called waiting tables. Why? Because you didn’t ask the right question to the wrong customer.

At the restaurant I worked in, it was not uncommon to have undercover police officers “sting” our establishment once a month. A “sting” involved the police employing an underage person (usually girl) to order an alcoholic beverage from a bartender or server. If the underage girl wasn’t asked for proof of age the server was arrested, slapped with a large fine (thousands of dollars), and fired from the restaurant. As an added bonus, the guilty party would have extreme difficulty finding another serving job in any restaurant. A very good friend of mine had this happen to him one night. He was one of the hardest workers in the restaurant and made one mistake. He left the restaurant in cuffs. Nice huh? Thank god that’s not the case in your job eh?

These types of operations are common in the business. I’m not a lawyer so I can’t intelligently argue if this type of police action constitutes entrapment. I do have a problem with police intentionally promoting illicit, illegal activities to catch someone committing a crime they weren’t really attempting to commit in the first place. The legality of this action is irrelevant to my top ten list however. As a result, of these practices, there is a significant chilling effect throughout the restaurant industry. I’m here to tell you, there is NO WAY I am going to jail. I card ANYONE who orders an alcoholic beverage. I’ve carded 60 year old women. I’m not kidding. I don’t know why States don’t just mandate that you need a drivers license to drink in public. It would save a whole lot of trouble for everyone involved.

At any rate, producing proof of age is almost never a problem for most people. Most people, who have proof of age, are flattered by the request. It makes them feel younger. However, things get interesting when I card someone who doesn’t have the “card”. In other words, they left their drivers license at home. This happens more often than you might think. The conversation usually goes like this:

Me: What can I get you to drink?

Customer: I’ll have a beer.

Me: Great. Can I see your I.D.?

Customer: Oh, I forgot it in the car…..

Me: I’m sorry. Can I bring you a soda?

Customer: I don’t look 21?!!

Me: Yeah, well I’m sorry. I can’t serve you without I.D….

This is usually where it could go one of two ways. About 50% of the time, people are disappointed but they understand and order a non-alcoholic drink. Typically, it will affect my tips by about 5% but I can live with that. It’s better than jail.

The other 50% of the time is not so pleasant. I’ve had people become irate, ask for my manager, demand I be fired, leave the restaurant, and in the extreme cases, threaten violence if I didn’t produce their beer. On one occasion one “gentleman” did all of the above. The manager eventually caved and forced me serve him his beer. It was awful. This is a classic example of how to get your food spit in. I want to go on record, if that individual is reading this, that I did not spit in their food. But, by all practical judgments, I was entitled.

We don’t ask for your I.D. because we are jerks, hate you, want to make your life miserable, or don’t want you to get drunk. We know you are probably 21. We really do. We also wish we didn’t need to card you at all. But think about it for a moment…. what would you do? We can go to JAIL if we GUESS wrong about your age. That’s really what it amounts too if you don’t have your proof of age. That’s no fun. I won’t do it and that why, if you are in my section, you need your I.D. to drink.

Number 9 Complaint: “What do you mean I’m cut off??!”

Have you ever had to give a good friend bad news? Most of us have all been in a situation like this. For example: “I think I saw your wife cheating on you”. “You were so drunk last night you ­­­­­­­­­­­­_____________". "I'm not sure how you did it, but you ate the entire goldfish in one swallow". That kind of thing. To say the least, it can be awkward and uncomfortable. Sometimes it doesn’t work out very well for you, especially if your friend is looking for a place to vent his or her anger/embarrassment. The only thing thats worse than breaking bad news to a friend is breaking bad news to your boss. That can have unfortunate results for you and your future employment.

This is a situation that servers, at a corporate restaurant, are forced to deal with on a regular basis. Although servers are technically hired, fired, and critiqued by the corporation and management team, they really work for the customers who patronize the restaurant. A server who has a hard time keeping up with the management’s expectations but is loved by his/her guests will never get fired. Management will reward servers who keep their customers happy. Several friends of mind who worked at the Steak House were summarily fired because a customer called a comment line to complain. These friends weren’t particularly bad servers. However, when the customer speaks in a chain restaurant, management almost always listens.

It is this aspect of the job that makes the serving of alcohol stressful. As I mentioned in complaint 10, it is not uncommon for customers to forget their proof of age or drivers license. If the customer orders an alcoholic drink, without proof of age, it places the server in a tenuous position: serve the drink and hope the customer is old enough (and not a cop) or deny service and deal with the ramifications.

Complaint 9 is an offshoot of 10. Say a customer orders an alcoholic drink and has proof of age. However, the customer wants two beers or a “double”. A “double” means, literally, double the amount of alcohol (vodka in a screwdriver, gin in a gin and tonic, etc) in the same glass for double the price. In a corporate restaurant, this again puts the server in an uncomfortable position of telling their real boss “no”. The Steak House corporate policy was not to allow anyone to have one than 23 ounces of beer, one glass of wine, or two ounces of hard liquor at any one time. Also, we could not allow a customer to drink if their express purpose was to get drunk.

Why, you might ask, would the restaurant care? There are two reasons. The first is because the Steak House saw itself as a family establishment and not a bar. At the Steak House, alcohol was a “garnish” to be provided sparingly. The second reason, as many things do in a restaurant, comes back to liability. Restaurants, at least corporate ones, are scared to death of lawsuits and legal culpability. When you work at a corporate restaurant you will, eventually, be subjected to an alcohol training session that “teaches” the staff what a drunk person looks like. The ironic element to these training sessions is that they were usually held on a Saturday morning when most of the participations were horribly hung over from the previous night’s libations. The sessions used a color code to help us identify the stages of “drunkness”. Essentially, the breakdown was as follows: green = sober, yellow = too drunk to drive, red = too drunk to stand. We, as servers were to avoid serving a customer into the “red”. The penalty, to the server, for serving people into the red could be termination.

Restaurants are held to some pretty high standards in regards to serving alcohol. Beyond the requirements restaurants must meet to actually receive a liquor license, there is serious liability issues for a bar or a waiter who serves a customer into the “red”. If a restaurant serves a drink to a person who, later in the day/evening, crashes their car into some poor unsuspecting motorist, the restaurant will have some measure of liability in the accident resolution. Translated, the restaurant could get sued and the server who sold the drink to the jerk drunk driver, could go to jail.

Inevitably this corporate policy would cause a complaint once or twice a month in my restaurant. Typically, corporate would back the restaurant up on these matters (unlike 99% of other customer service “issues”) obviously because it was their policy that caused the complaint to begin with. So now you know. If I could allow you to drink yourself into oblivion, I would. Unfortunately, I can’t and I won’t. You can’t have a double. If you look drunk, you’re getting soda. Your beer is not worth my job. Deal with it. It’s not my fault. Feel free to take it out on me with words, complaints, or a lower tip but that won’t change a thing. If you want to drink, go to a bar, not a chain restaurant.

Common Restaurant Complaint Number 8: “It’s too dark/too loud/too bright/too cold/too hot/too busy in this restaurant!”

Moving away from alcohol (complaint 10 and 9), we dive into another common complaint heard in my Steak House. Generally, this revolves around the atmosphere in the restaurant itself. Corporate restaurant have convinced themselves that every “dining experience” for every customer in their establishment must be just that: an “experience”. The corporate way of thinking does not allow for any variables that could potentially be negative and damage this “experience”. This idea is carried into the very dining room environment. I’m not referring to the actual decorations on the walls necessarily. Corporate restaurants try to control the “dining experience” down to the temperature of the room, the volume of the music in the background, and the general brightness of the restaurant.

What follows could be plucked from any corporate regional manger’s stream of consciousness:

“Servers must greet the table in X amount of time, bring the food in Y time, and bring the bill in Z time. The guest must hear music, but only in the background, while seeing their menu in light that is not brighter than 5 candles in a room that is 72 degrees.”

Is this insane, unnecessary, controlling, etc? YES! OF COURSE IT IS. Corporations are all about what looks good on paper, not about what works in the real world. There is a serious disconnect between the board room and dining room in virtually every corporate restaurant. When you specifically (and arbitrarily) decide for everyone who will ever eat in your restaurant the proper temperature of the room, volume of the music, and brightness at their table, you will have, every day, complaints about one or all three. Is everyone going to complain? Definitely not. However, there were demographics of people who, in my experience, would complain consistently about all three environmental variables. Typically, elderly people who would have a hard time hearing each other over the music, reading the menu in the dim light, or freezing to death would complain, with vigor, to their server.

When I was, repeatedly, confronted with this situation, I would do one of two things. I would either politely explain that the lighting/temperature/music was unadjustable or I would lie and tell my customers “I’ll talk to the manger about that and see if we can fix…” whatever their complaint was. Talking to the management about the problem was, typically, an exercise in futility. The management didn’t want to be reprimanded from the corporate offices if they adjusted any of the “experience” variables in the restaurant like lighting, heating, or music volume.

You might be asking yourself why the corporate front office would micromanage the Steak House to this level. If you think about it, a restaurant management team should be able to control the heat, lights, and music without a corporate directive on the matter. One would hope that corporate hiring practices were advanced enough to ensure management teams in individual Steak Houses could be trusted to handle the environmental controls of the restaurant. Unfortunately, the corporate mind set is to always assume that the people who work in the restaurant are complete idiots who have no idea what a comfortable temperature / proper lighting / reasonable music volume might be. Corporations also get so caught up in setting a “mood” or creating an “environment” they can lose sight of reality. People like to be able to hear who they are talking to, see their menu, and be comfortable indoors.

So, when you ask your server to turn up/down the heat, brighten the room, turn down the music, etc. understand that the parent corporation has specifically controlled all the environmental variables for you, the customer. This includes heat, music, and lightning. The restaurant staff (especially the management) has nothing to do with these decisions and, if they want to stay in the good graces of the corporation, will do nothing about your complaint. Corporate would rather control the variables than listen to you.

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