I am hedging my bets with this title, very deliberately. This may also be one the most meandering and non-sensical posts I have ever made. Get excited. Forget the next paragraph. But read it if only to see how far my wandering leads me.
I had this idea tonight, about living in postmodernity, mediation, late capitalism, etc. And I hope it is only true for our epoch 'else I'm a secret Fascist. Democratization is infantilization. Democratization is the site of alienation. Crazy. I know. Let's see why I felt this way, not why it is true or not. Probably because not. Hence, hypothesis.
Tonight I worked in a restaurant. It could be described as a casual fine dining restaurant. For many reasons, stuff fine dining it unfashionable now. Sure, there are still places to take your lover for a special night out. The waiters might even wear tuxedos. Might. You'd certainly have to seek a place like that out nowadays (I wonder if it will ever be a category on Yelp). I digress.
I worked this evening at a casual fine dining restaurant. High-quality food, casual service and atmosphere. Spend $120 on dinner for two, just, you know, relax. Don't worry. We wear jeans so you are not really that rich, right?
I started to get nostalgic for real fine dining. And I think I know why.
There are a lot of rules in fine dining.
First off, the way that the front of house (i.e. everyone who actually meets customers, who is not stuck in the kitchen) is set up is very formalized. The roles are strict, and every need the customer may have is anticipated. You might find, upon entering such a restaurant, that you are greeted by a host, whose job is to provide a friendly, pleasant introduction to the restaurant (unless the restaurant thrives on being unfriendly; imagine the stereotype of a "hot" New York restaurant where one is greeted by a condescending aspiring model; I've never been to one of these places, have only seen them on fictional TV shows, which means that they must exist in reality, if only because other people have seen them on TV too), secure you a table (actually not that easy unless the restaurant is empty), and lead to said table. So far so good. You may next, upon being seated, be served water by a backserver/busser, whose responsibilities may include, besides bringing water, bringing bread, removing your dirty plates while you are still seated and also cleaning and resetting your table once you have left. Next is your server. The server's job is to tell you about the specials, answer any and all questions you may have about the food and beverages, to be aware of any possible issues that may arise when your allergies meet the reality of the particular restaurant at which you find yourself, and also to serve you at least your beverages. In most cases, a food runner will take care of bringing you your food. The amount of people you deal with, who are employed to assist you, varies not only by the level of formality of the restaurant (i.e. many, if not all of these jobs, are done solely by the server at more casual establishments) but also by the size of the restaurant itself (large places need more staff, and more types). Regardless, the thing to keep in mind after this overlong paragraph: every person working in the front of house has a role.
While there are things to be said, possibly, about Taylorism, the division of labor, etc., that would be a digression (suffice it to say, for now, that there is something striking - Industrial era:formal fine dining::postindustrial era:casual fine dining - and the role of the server in the restaurant), let's talk about the customers for a moment in regard to a question: why so many people in the front of house, why so many roles? A simple example. Let's say you've gone out to dinner and you have a few questions about the menu. Whose time are you taking when you ask all of these questions? Immediately, of course, the answer is, the server's. Well, yes. True. In a nice establishment, especially. the answer is most definitely, the server. Why? Because he or she is just there to talk to you. Other people need water? Back server. Other people's food is ready? Food runner. Etc. All the server's needs are taken care of so that you can be taken care of. Now let's get rid of all the support staff. You have the same questions. Now whose time are you taking. Yes, the server's but also… hmm… who is going to run that food while she is talking to you? Who is going to go refill water? There is nobody else. So whose time are you taking? Another customer's. Ultimately. So whatever the motivation for (over-)staffing ye old French stuffed shirt kind of place, there was, in some respect, a social contract, even a democracy in effect. Everyone could get the same service because the desires of the customers were not placed in conflict with one another by their actions.
I think this whole post is a digression.
Let's talk about something else.
The rigidity of the the staffing and the roles individual staff members play is based on the actual process of dining in the first place. You know it. Come in, talk to the host, get seated at a table, look at the menu, order drinks, receive drinks, order food, wait for food, eat, decide on dessert, eat it or ask for the check. Pay, leave. Or more drinks, etc. It's a process, and each member of staff has there place along that process. Yes, ultimately, it is you that is being processed. That's actually part of the social contract too. Other people want to eat, employees want to go home, you know.
So if this is all a process, where does that process begin? When you walk in the door of course. When you are asked "how many will you be?", it's not just a question of finding a table large enough to accommodate your party. A table with two chairs for two of you, etc. It's also about setting in motion your processing in the best way possible. I don't mean getting you in and getting you out. I mean you having a good meal.
One of the most annoying things that happens in restaurants is a lot of people coming in at the same time. At one place I used to work, simply arriving at 7:50pm on a Friday instead of 8:00pm would have netted you vastly better service. Vastly. Why?
Let's step back. What is the host doing when he or she seats you? Yes, again, the table with the right amount of chairs, and maybe near the window if that table is unoccupied (hosting 101 - putting everyone in the back makes the restaurant look empty and people are lemmings and you want them to come in and the way that they will is by sitting the existing people at the front so they are seen). But also: sections and covers. Without a long explanation: all servers need to get their chance to make some money. They aren't being paid by the hour (usually about $2/hr., all of which goes to the IRS). I mean, you knew that, right? RIGHT? So. Um. Part of the responsibility of the host is to try and divide, you, the money, the actual wage-payer, fairly amongst the servers so that they can all afford to get drunk and talk shit about you afterwards. Kidding! Or not. Separate checks? Not kidding.
Fuck this is fun ignoring.
Everything I know; about legible prose.
Ok, so host divides you, the money, amongst the servers. Pretty simple. A restaurant with ten tables that seat four apiece on a Tuesday night. Probably two servers, each handling five tables. In some restaurants, some areas of the dining room are significantly less pleasant than others. People will ask to be moved when sat there. In this scenario, hopefully, in many cases, the servers will instead divide the money on a person-by-person basis. Whichever server is "first" will get that first group of three who will be sat at the nice table next to the window and then when a couple comes in after that, the next server will take care of them and they can sit at the next-nicest table without depriving the second server of money, which is what would happen if the second server was only, again, responsible for the area of the restaurant where nobody would want to sit; alternate while maintaining a rough parity...
OK phew. Too much information, though, if you've made it this far, you might be able to parlay some of this information into a more pleasant experience the next time you go out.
But back to the beginning. The host is not only dividing space and money, but also time. Again, when everyone comes in at the same time it sucks.
Let's say it's a Monday and I am the only server. I'll make this claim. I can wait on a restaurant that is infinite in size, PROVIDED that all tables are spaced evenly in time. Why? Ok, and here's where I start losing readers.
Table 1 comes in at 7:00. I go over to their table and take their drink order at 7:04. While I am retrieving their drinks, a new table, table 2, at 7:05. I bring the drinks for table 1 out at 7:08 take their food order and then head over to table 2 to greet them and take their drink order and then go back to the computer and put the food order in for table 1 and get the drinks for table 2 and take their food order. It would really take me having six theoretical tables and a lot more detail than I am willing to get into right now for you to really see the intricacy of it all, but maybe you already get the gist of it. I move you all along your process, and though each one starts at a different time, I, an efficient server, can handle multiple processes at once, can consolidate trips to and from the dining area, etc. Your food comes up, I talk to another table about drinks after I give you your food and then pick up a credit card, etc. Boring, yes? But you see it. Every task takes a certain amount of time, etc.
Now six couples walk in at the same time, they all sit down at the same time. I am the only server. If I space out my service in the same way, i.e. take a drink order from table 1 (of 6), bring out drinks, go to table 2 to take the drink order, go back to the bar, etc., by the time I get to table 6, well, they've been waiting quite a bit. Since everyone came at the same time, better to just take all the orders, no? Well, sorta, but not really. When the tables are spaced out, the orders are spaced out, which means that those people, it the bartenders and ESPECIALLY the chefs, also get their production tasks handed to them at a steady pace. I take six food orders at the same time, now the kitchen has gone from zero to six tickets immediately. Unless they are a big kitchen, they don't cook six tickets at the same time. For those who are really paying attention, they are starting to get this. Restaurants have a carrying capacity, a number of how many of you they can process at the same time. If I space my orders initially as a server when a lot of people come in at the same time, the last table, who may have only arrived thirty seconds behind the first, might be ten minutes behind in having their order taken. If I take all the food orders at the same time, that ten minutes gets transferred to a later point in the evening. In other words, just because all the food tickets come in at the same time, that doesn't mean that all food gets cooked immediately, which means you are still waiting ten minutes if you are table 6, only this time, it's not for me, but for your food. Tricky. Which is worse? I'd argue it's better to take your order and push the food back then to have you sitting their twiddling your thumbs. Because perception (not just keeping you in your seat and keeping your money). Kitchens can be slow. But if the food tastes good that gets forgotten quickly. But sitting around waiting for your server, especially at the beginning? No good. No fun. Because it's how you are taken care of, not whether you are at all or not.
There's a catch, though. Six orders from six couples does not a kitchen sink (hah). If EVERYONECOMESINATTHESAMETIME and everyone is loads of people, shit starts getting hectic, exponential even. Throw in a few big tables and the kitchen will start dragging tickets (i.e. taking too long to cook food) AND some mistakes may be made. That's when even a good kitchen can start fudging the temperature on your beautiful steak.
So. Going way back again. The host. Apportioning tables. It's not just about the money. It's about time. And most of the time a server spends at the table is at the beginning of the process. No matter how much you like me, we'll be talking more before your food comes. Once it's there, it's fuck off. You said it, not me. I don't take it personal. Regardless. Apportioning tables.
Let's say there are two servers. One just got a new table. Never mind all the money stuff, never mind even fair. Who gets the next table? Server two. Because the process. Server two is ready, server one is busy. Also think about timing. Two servers, same scenario as above. Six couples walk in. Between two servers, there is more flexibility in pacing the tables. Yes the bartender is going to get six tickets, and possibly all at the same time, but also, well, each server can spend more time at the table without that worrisome specter of a couple waiting ten minutes to order. This should already make sense to you. Even as I embrace this slapdash style of writing. This sentence is comprised of seven words.
So now think. Those places. Please wait to be seated. We'll be able to seat you in just a few minutes. How many in your party? Are they all here? If not, you'll have to wait. Do you have a reservation?
Why all the fuss? I hope you get it. Yes, apportioning money, yes, controlling the process, but, also, ultimately, at the end of the day, REALLY, what we are all trying to do is to prevent you from fucking over other customers. That's it. If we seat you all the same time, if you break up the order of the Steps of Service (the proper name for "the process" described above), the drinks could take longer, the food could be worse, and, this is important to note, it's rarely, RARELY, those people who throw a wrench in the process who suffer the results. You take too much of my time when I am your server and there is no food runner and someone else's food is ready? That food's getting cold. I can either tell you to shut up and go grab it or… well I won't. If nobody else takes too much of my time after you already have, your food is piping hot and delicious. Douche.
I should also add. The space itself. The tables. The bar. Each server and bartender is a landlord who will trade you labor product for your use of their space and your payment of rent. Make sure you are paying the right person. Understand who you are renting from.
A restaurant is a complex ballet, isn't it?
Here's some more junk.
Ok. Let's talk about the shift from formal fine dining to casual. It's a process that is happening. There are still remnants of the old order. No doubt. And the difference between the two is not binary; there is definitely a gradation at work (in fact what I am complaining about can be completely foreign to you, and you could work in the same damn industry on the same block in the same town).
Here is why the customers like it, from what I can tell: anti-elitism, anti-formality, more "authentic", more "indie", "organic", etc. And also, most people aren't to the manor born. I've heard the complaint. One person brought me bread and another filled my water and another took my order and who am I supposed to be talking to? I am so confused/intimidated, etc. And I'm middle class and the world was made for me, and I shouldn't have to understand.
So that's one side.
Here's the other. Labor cost labor cost labor cost. You could read all of the above and get lost in technicalities, but, you know, Karl is there lurking in the shadows. There's a lot of money in restaurants. Food costs are high, and, as silly-expensive even your casual neighborhood Thai place is compared to a decade ago, the fact of the matter is, those costs are not being passed on to the consumer at the same rate that those costs have increased for the restaurant. Now servers, bartenders, etc., they do make that crappy $2/hr. And also tips, which can be good (truth, though only up to a point). But. Food runners, bussers, back servers, etc. They get a small portion of the tip pie, but also, wait for it, just a little longer, an actual "living wage". Like $8. But labor costs. That magical "fixed" cost that ownership can adjust. Food ain't cheaper (don't forget it goes bad too!). The rent? Hah? Casual fine dining is great because you just don't have to pay as many people. But where does the labor load get transferred to? The barely-waged, of course.
Casual fine dining feels like a collusion between the permanent and provisional owners of my labor to demand more work of me for less money. Sound familiar?
And I guess this is where I give up trying to explain my hypothesis, because I can feel the connection somehow, but am having a hard time articulating it. I guess my customers are starting to feel a lot more like consumers to me and the rule-driven, hierarchical structures that provided me insulation are going out of style. Ok that's totally not totally true. Restaurants are becoming postmodern, is all.
Maybe this is all just meaningless drivel, let's write some more!
Tonight a group of thirty came in. First it was a few people "oh we don't know how many we'll be". Bad news right from the start. Sometimes when you get bad service, which is not something I provided this evening, it's you. I mean, consider all of the above. You don't know how many you will be? Then where do I seat you? What do I tell the kitchen (mark of a good host btw is communication with the kitchen, either directly or through a manger)? Already the process is broken, and you've broken it.
We didn't have a table for thirty people. And those thirty didn't arrive at the same time. So the groups within the groups were not distributed between the multiple tables in the way they would have wanted had they all arrived at the same time. So they moved around, they wanted separate checks, they wanted to get some drinks from the bar and some drinks from the server, and it's up to us to keep track, to keep tabs, literally. Oh and they all ordered their food at different times. And continued to move around. The food would go to the right place but not the right person. Can you see how this doesn't work? It's not just slightly obnoxious and entitled; it's actually making a job impossible to do and harder at the same time. Let that one sink in for a minute because that particular piece of writing "impossible to do and harder at the same time" is only seemingly nonsense when translated into writing; it can be felt quite easily.
What of the other customers? Can you imagine? Try not. The other customers, they did alright. But I could see the frustration. We were distracted. We couldn't escape the vortex.
But the thing that bugged me - what recourse? The collapse of the social contract, the collapse of standards, the expectation of happiness without a preceding definition… There's nothing to say. ?nothing to do. Take it, take the money, have a few drinks, next day. You can just say nyah nyah nyah isn't your job hard. Well, what about yours? How much do the expectations change? How much do they contradict each other? A job can be hard because the thing you are meant to do is hard. What if what are you meant to do?
Let's try something simple. Plates.
You are a party of three. I have brought you your entrees. You are happy. So far, so good. Now one of you is done eating. Fine dining rule: wait until all guests are done eating before removing any plates lest you make anyone feel rushed. The contradictory expectation of many customers: if my plate is empty you should be taking it away regardless. Why aren't you? Aren't you paying attention? And also, what are the signals that a diner is done? Well, the plate being empty is the easy one. Nobody does that thing with the fork and the knife anymore unless they have some serious manners (sometimes I fantasize about working at a restaurant whose only patrons are old money; they would all know how to behave, not because they cared about me, but because they wouldn't want to embarrass themselves). What about how long since you last took a bite? A minute? Two minutes? Do you push the plate away? Ok I can ask you. Are you done? No. Ok. I'll be back. And I am, but nothing has changed on your plate. Ask again? Annoying? I don't know. I don't want to, yet. I need to back off. All the while, you are done. You are wondering why your plate is still there, thinking I am not paying attention when I am attuned to every action you are taking from twenty feet away, counting the seconds since you have even looked at your food. I am trying to anticipate, you are providing no signal.
When you read a book review in the New York Times, you are mostly reading a book review. Sure, you have to be aware of the biases of the paper, and the reviewer, but that's nothing compared to reading reviews on Amazon. Your primary job is to review the reviewer first. More work.
It's the same thing with plates. There is no clear expectation held of me except to do the job you except me to do, but those expectations are always contextual, provisional. It's not, may I take your plate, it's trying to guess when you would expect me to take your plate based on my own ability to pick up clues about when you would expect me to take your plate without you providing any at all.
(Oh and also let's just say that management can be just as confused about all of this as I am. Only they get to be mad at me whichever decision I make. I could wait one day and be wrong, could wait another and be right. )
And 90% of the time, you don't even care, so this is all insane hyper-awareness and over-thinking, and yet, I don't even know if you don't even care until it's too late. And not caring is not my luxury. So, may I take your plate? All done? Yes. Thanks.