Is the customer always right? JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater thrust that question into a national debate last month when he had a dramatic meltdown after a confrontation with a passenger. The initial public reaction was scorn, then he emerged as a folk hero of sorts.
In the food- and beverage-intensive Lowcountry, perhaps no other customer service relationship is put to the test as often as the one between restaurant diners and workers. We invited both sides to air their gripes, and you did, with gusto. More than 100 people responded, although the vocal customers outnumbered employees by 3 to 1.
Check out the lists of the top five gripes, in descending order, on both sides of the table.
Here are a few samples of what they said:
"The person who asks 'what kind of beer do you have' and makes the server go through the list of 25 beers only to order a Bud Lite."
Peter Kinslow, Mount Pleasant
"I am a server and have been in the food and beverage industry for 25 years. I will not limit my gripe to any one ridiculous action I encounter practically every evening. I will, however, pinpoint where I believe it all began to go downhill for restaurant owners/workers alike.
"...I believe it was in the '80s when Burger King began their 'Have it your way' promotion. This campaign more or less brought special orders to the limelight. In fact, this ad encouraged it. Before this, people respected a chef for his insight and knack for combining flavors and creating a cohesive menu. In this modern era of text messaging and tweets, it is hard to gain a table's attention much less have them remotely pay attention to the paper in front of their face which describes the food they are about to devour. No, the customer has already been trained in the art of self-menu creation because in all likelihood the restaurant will oblige. Sauces on the side. Substitutions because someone has never heard of polenta. Thanks Burger King for screwing it up for everyone. And for the guy who invented ranch dressing... I'll see you in hell!"
David Tallevast, Charleston
"I would like to start with a statement first. What gives you the right as a customer to be such a big pain in the ---? Is it the media's fault, Food Network, Gordon Ramsey, or Generation X's feeling of entitlement?
"My pet peeve is the customer that wants to taste everything before they order. Can I taste the wine by the glass? Can I taste the rice that comes with the filet? Can I taste the goat cheese in the salad? What the heck? Order something you know you will like or open your pea brain and broaden your horizons with something new. But what gives you the right to ask to sample everything?"
"...I just have to smile and say thanks for the business, because the recession is killing all small independent restaurants."
Bill Twaler, Hollywood
"My number one server peeve is when a guest gives me 'the verbal.' I make $2.13 per hour. I depend on my tips to support myself. My tips are my paycheck. I can't take a 'verbal tip' to the bank and deposit it and pay my bills with it. Servers see this coming a mile away. When a guest goes overboard with the verbal compliments, that usually means there will be little compensation on the tip line of the charge slip. We even have a name for it, 'the verbal.' In a fine dining restaurant, if a patron doesn't leave at least a 20 percent tip for excellent service, the server won't walk with 15 percent of their sales, which we are taxed on, because a part of that tip goes to pay for support staff with whom we share our tips and that number is based on a percentage of our sales, not what the guest left as a tip, so they get theirs whether I get mine or not, leaving me with less than the 15 percent which I have worked so hard for."
Joanne E. Fronabarger, Charleston
"It's Friday night. A guest calls, wants a table for 4 at 7:30. Is told by the reservationist that the restaurant only has 5:30 or 9:30 available. The guest proceeds to say, 'You mean there is nothing at 7:30?' Once again, the reservationist says, 'No sir, 5:30 or 9:30 are the ONLY times available this evening.' The guest replies, 'Then how about at 8?'
Kim Kent, Charleston
"I trained many servers in my years in the hospitality business,so I have high standards, maybe downright peculiar to some, but here they are."
"I don't particularly want to know your name. If I want to know, I will ask you.
"You are not my best friend: Do not address me as 'you guys.' ('Hon' is OK if I'm at a diner where a waitress named Flo says, 'Hon, you want those eggs 'porched' soft or hard?')
"When I ask you for more water or bread, do not reply with 'no problem.' If you say no problem, it implies a problem.'
"Do not ask me, 'Is everything all right?' That is such a cop-out line. Especially when I have not even taken the first bite.
"Read your table. If I am with a festive and lively group of friends who wants you to join in, then do so. If I am involved in private conversation with a colleague or a friend, then pay attention and know when it's OK to interrupt. I'll say it again -- pay attention.
"Do not blame the kitchen, the hostess, the weather when things start to go wrong. Own the situation. You are all in this together. The best servers remain cool in a crisis, know when to get the manager, and can almost always turn a negative into a positive.
"BUT, My biggest pet peeve, bar none, is this: When serving coffee, you put the saucer down, then place the cup on the saucer at some random angle and at any old place on the table. The proper way to serve coffee is to place the cup and saucer as a single unit (if you can't do this, then you are in the wrong industry) to the right of the diner, with the handle at 4 o'clock. Not noon, not 3, not 6. 4 o'clock."
Frances W. Bramlett, former GM, Slightly North of Broad, Mount Pleasant
"My peeve: Servers who do not come back soon after bringing the meal to check if everything is all right. What if there is a mistake? What if it tastes funny? What if I need some lemon? Sometimes s/he comes back too long after the plate is presented--do I just sit there and hope to catch someone's attention? (And if s/he does come back, don't ask the questions as I am putting food into my mouth!)
"My husband's peeve: Servers who pick up the bill and payment and say, 'Do you need change?' Not appropriate! A server should always assume the customer needs change unless the customer chooses to volunteer the information. It is the fastest way to encourage my husband to reduce the amount of the gratuity!"
Marilyn Kaple, Summerville
"Not giving the prices when telling about the daily specials -- so that I have to ask the prices or just be surprised."
Catherine Bloom, Mount Pleasant
"My biggest peeve is unruly children, especially in 'nice' restaurants where you may be spending $100s on dinner for two and expect nice, quiet, surroundings. And I blame the parents for allowing it more than the children themselves.
"A customer with an attitude is almost as bad. Even if your steak is over done, or your drink is wrong, there are quiet ways to deal with it without embarrassing your server or yourself.
Tim Smith, Summerville
"No soap in the bathroom. Now that's downright DISGUSTING, especially if you know that's the same bathroom the employees use!"
Betsy Monahan, Coosaw Pointe
"Most offensive restaurant conduct: wait staff asking, 'Do you need change?' when picking up check from the table at the end of the meal.
"That question ruins the whole meal. It's crudely begging for a tip. How offensively proletarian.
"They don't ask the same question when payment is by credit/debit card, only when payment is by cash. They don't ask, 'May I add a tip to your credit/debit card bill?' What makes cash payment any different?
"The transparent excuse advanced by some wait staff for asking the 'change' question is that the wait staff doesn't want to have to return to the table. How preposterous, and if true, lazy. They return to the table for a card transaction; cash transaction is no different."
A. Elliott Barrow Jr., Mount Pleasant
"Finally, an outlet for my frustration. Restaurants, mostly chains, have resorted to having runners or servers in training deliver your meal to your table. They show up with all these hot dishes and then start asking who ordered what. I do not agree with this policy as it forces all the diners to stop immediately whatever they are discussing and then have to determine who gets which plate. I did not memorize everyone else's meal when the order was first placed and I do not need to be questioned about each plate when they arrive. I came to be served; otherwise I would have just gone to a buffet restaurant.
"Also when a customer pays cash, the server should always tell the customer they will bring back their change. If the change is the tip, the customer can say keep it all. But when a server asks 'Do you want change,' my attitude changes. If my bill is $25 and all I have is two twenty dollars bills totaling $40, I don't think I had any intention of leaving a $15 tip."
George Kanski, North Charleston
"What has happened to, 'May I remove your plate?' The answer is that it is now 'Are you still workin' on that?'
"I guess we, the customers, are thought of as farm animals 'workin' on whatever is in the trough. Who is training these people to talk to patrons in this way?"
"No. 2 irritation: Removing dishes of diners who have finished 'workin' while even one person at the table is still eating ('workin'). This is a no-no but it has become commonplace."
Diane Sherman, Mount Pleasant
"I don't like when you are seated next to the area where the servers get drinks, etc., so all you hear is clanging and banging while you're eating. Why don't they put those areas away from the diners, or the tables away from those areas?"
Denise Longman, RN, BP Cooper River Plant
"Servers who take away plates before everyone has finished eating!
"In the past, we experienced this only at casual eateries such as diners, cafes, and pubs and assumed the waiter or waitress was proving to be attentive to each customer by noticing the moment the fork and knife were put down together on a plate. Nowadays, though, we find that even at more formal restaurants, including those with table linens, servers are whisking away each plate in succession as the diners finish the entree one by one. This practice not only interrupts conversation, it makes uncomfortable the person or persons who finished first, puts pressure on the others to hurry up and eat, and defeats a major purpose of dining out -- a relaxing, unhurried experience with family or friends."
Charmaine Gillow, Mount Pleasant
You enter a restaurant properly dressed, shoes shined, and hungry. A hostess approaches and you smile and say two for dinner. This way please and you trail her past a half dozen nice places to sit and then two menus are placed on a table near the rest room, or entrance and exit door to the kitchen, a waiter stand, or a party of 10. The question is why?
Ted and Peggy Cooper, Summerville
Teresa Taylor is the food editor. Reach her at email@example.com.