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Food & Dining

Houck: Dear diner, they are servers not servants


Published:   |   Updated: July 8, 2013 at 08:10 AM

It's not true, of course, but it seems as though we've all surrendered to the tired idea that customer service in restaurants is getting worse. We seem to have evolved into a species that loves thinking of ourselves as the frump-faced judges on an imaginary dining show titled "So You Think You Can Serve."

It used to be that you could deploy a bad attitude in the restaurant arts and be thought of as feisty or complicated or, my favorite, "lovably gruff." That no longer is the case. In this Ask Me How I'm Doing world, every raised eyebrow is interpreted as sarcasm, indifference or, God forbid, a lack of all-consuming passion to ensure that every bite you take is some supernaturally enriching event for your soul.

At no time in this country's dining history has there been more emphasis on making the customer happy, regardless of the consequences. Every business - from burger chains to white-tablecloth steak houses - trains, inspects, re-trains and re-inspects its staff with a rigor once reserved for special ops assault teams.

And yet it isn't enough. Bringing us food isn't enough. We want a smile. We want gentle, playful banter. We want those who bring us sustenance in a retail setting to ignore the fact that they're making less than minimum wage plus tips minus benefits and focus on bringing us nothing less than maximum culinary joy. Bad day? Who cares. Feed me. And make it snappy.

Just the other day a friend asked a question, one I hear from more people with more frequency.

"Is it just me, or does service at restaurants seem to be on the decline?"

To me, this ranks right up there with, "Nobody makes anything that lasts anymore," and "Television is worse today than it used to be" and "YOU KIDS GET OFF MY LAWN!"

Too often, he said, meals are served with a going-through-the-motions, zombie-like energy that screams, "I can't wait to get off work."

My reply: You get the service you pay for.

When he asked if I meant that only higher-priced restaurants offer better service, I said that isn't always the case. I've had the consummate food experience at sandwich shops. I've also enjoyed meal management (that's really what table service is) at fine dining spots. And I've had breathtakingly awful service at both.

But at a certain point, customers would help themselves if they stopped thinking of service as servitude and of themselves as priceless hungry unicorns. They also would do well to understand that the dining experience has two sides and that maybe, just maybe, they might be bad customers.

These are harsh truths, but I worked in the retail food sector long enough to confirm that human beings are flawed and frequently terrible creatures who lack the basic tools to communicate their needs and expectations.

You also should acknowledge that a terrible customer at one table can experience awful service while another served by the same staff member can have a fantastic meal. Negativity is a self-fulfilling emotion.

How can you ensure great service? It's as easy as this:

Go to a restaurant you love. Ask for their best server. Reward that employee (or employees) with a large tip. The kind of tip that would make LeBron James blush. Do that more than once and you'll never have terrible service. Then go to your next favorite spot. Repeat. Tell your friends and family to do the same. Think of it as planting a garden of enjoyable meals. Eventually, everything will bloom.

If your server treats you like an IRS agent with an ax to grind, tip the proper 20 percent (No, not your Groupon rate), and ask for a different server next time. Or act like an adult and simply go to another restaurant. Don't go cry on Facebook. Don't leave a passive-aggressive 5-cent gratuity. That's a clown move, bro. Be grateful you had enough plastic in your debit card to fill your belly and move on.

Dining out should be about enriching your body, fortifying your soul, sharing conversation and, when done well, building relationships with those trusted to feed you.

Don't agree? Fine. Serve yourself.

At least you'll know who to blame.

jhouck@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7324

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