Actual Restaurant Customers Who Will Restore Your Faith in Humanity
Welcome back to Off the Menu, where we bring you the best and strangest restaurant stories from my email inbox. This week, we’ve got happy tales of genuinely great customers that prove that maybe, just maybe, humans will make it as a species. As always, these are real emails from real readers, though names have been changed.
We'll call her "Dawn"
"My first-ever job was working as a curb hop at a Southern BBQ restaurant in Eastern North Carolina. The business stood on the side of a long stretch of state highway that led to a popular lake hangout. The customers pulled up and parked in front of the building, and the curb hops went out and took their orders and brought back the food on trays that hung on the car door window. As I recall, I made $2 an hour plus tips.
"One of our regular customers, at least a couple times a week, was a young woman who drove a beat-up old Lincoln Town Car. We'll call her ‘Dawn.’ I was informed by my co-workers that Dawn was a prostitute. She was always in the company of one of a rotating cast of middle-aged or older men who sat in the passenger seat and never said a word. Dawn always did the ordering and all the talking. Most of the men were, to my co-workers' horror, African-American, and some of the other curb hops always avoided having to serve her, and I wound up doing it most of the time.
"The routine went like this: Dawn would place a small order, usually just a simple BBQ sandwich and a large iced tea for the two of them. Then as soon as I took the order and turned around to take it inside, Dawn and her companion would get out of the car and walk around to the back of the building. What happened there, I don't know. There was a storage building back there, but it was always locked. Maybe she had an ongoing arrangement with the owners, who knows. Anyway, usually by the time I got back with the tray and the food, the two of them would be getting back into the car. The man would pay me, tip me generously, and Dawn would say something nice and thank me.
"I was 15 years old and, quite literally a church choir boy, so someone like Dawn kind of terrified me. Dawn apparently picked up on this, and after the second or third time, she became really very nice and kind to me. Not in a creepy way, but in a way that just put me more at ease. She would say to her male companion, ‘I like this fella, make sure you tip him good’ and sometimes I would get a tip that was two or three times as much as the actual order had cost. I started to really like Dawn and see her differently. Maybe she was just making the best of a really rotten situation. Better this than to be knocked up and married to some dumbass North Carolina redneck.
In front of the other customers and everyone in earshot, he pushed me towards her.
"My boss, Charlie, was, of course, a dumbass NC redneck. (Charlie was his real name. Screw you, Charlie.) Because I was a quiet, shy, nerdy, skinny kid, he reasoned that I must be ‘some kind of little f*ggot.’ He suggested, several times, loudly and in front of my co-workers, that maybe I should ‘ask my buddy Dawn’ to offer her services to me so that she could ‘straighten me out.’ He especially liked to bring this up when I was doing some really crummy job, like scraping some gunky crap off of the kitchen floor on my hands and knees.
"One busy Sunday afternoon, I made a stupid mistake on an order and Charlie got ridiculously angry about it. He was determined to make me suffer for it. Then Dawn showed up, and as I went out to get her order, Charlie followed behind me. In front of the other customers and everyone in earshot, he pushed me towards her and yelled, ‘Why don'tchu put yer clit on this 'un and show him what that thang is for why doncha?’ and with a big hee-haw laugh, slapped me on the back and sauntered back inside. Dawn didn't respond to Charlie, she just stared at him, and, without breaking her gaze, said to me, ‘Don't you worry about old Charlie, honey. His sorry little peanut dick ain't been hard in years.’
"I quit the job when the next school year started. I don't know what happened to Dawn, but I hope she made a big pile of money and got the hell out of town." -- Larry Winters
The benefits of an irresponsible manager
"My first-ever job was at a small bar and restaurant at the local marina. The woman who ran the place was stinking rich and worked there as more of a hobby, so she wasn't always very concerned about how the place was doing.
"One day, it was just her and I working the lunch shift, and the place was pretty busy. The restaurant had a couple patios, and I saw my manager lead a couple guys through the restaurant to be seated on the back patio. She told me she'd take their drink orders in a minute, so I continued taking care of customers, which at that point meant I was seating people, taking orders, getting drinks, cooking the food, serving the food, ringing up customers, and busing tables. My manager, meanwhile, had sat down to have a beer with some of her friends.
"Back to the two guys seated outside. They came back inside and told my manager that it had been about 10 minutes since they'd been seated and nobody had come out to take their drink orders. She told them they may want to sit inside instead so they could be served faster. These guys were obviously kind of miffed, but they took a seat at an inside table anyway. My manager came over and told me to serve these gentlemen, then went back to her drinking buddies.
"The restaurant had quieted down at that point, so I was able to devote a good amount of time to these guys. I apologized about the wait, took their orders, and got them their food, and they were very polite to me, although I did notice them glancing sideways at my manager from time to time. I got them their bill, and after a minute, the one guy waved me over. He quietly asked me if I shared tips with the woman who first seated them. I said no, she was my manager. He then handed me a $20, saying, ‘This is for the meal.’ He then said, ‘And this is for you’ and handed me a $50. I looked at him. I looked at the $50. I didn't know what to say. The guy just smiled and told me to make sure I put that right in my wallet, and that I was an excellent server. Then they left.
"For once, I was glad I had an irresponsible manager." -- Andrea Parker
I snapped like cheap spandex
"I'm a server at an extremely large venue, and I work seasonally. It holds up to 600 people. We do everything from weddings and proms to regular dinners and brunches. Dinners are usually 150-200 people, depending on the month. I have to mention that we generally serve buffet-style and I don't make minimum wage, and cash tips are like finding gold doubloons on a crowded public beach. We earn every penny by running food up multiple floors and bussing every table together because we don't have set sections.
"That night I was in the second end of a particularly hellish double. My boss was in a mood that can only be described as ‘actor playing Satan, working method-style.’ He had us running in 18 different directions because it was one of those nights where it was decided that our beautifully running employee engine needed a 5lb bag of sugar in the gas tank. Nothing we did was right, everything needed changing on the fly.
"I was seating the various parties that had booked for dinner, when I greeted a group of 12 women that insisted quite vociferously that they needed to be seated at the same eight-top table. OK, that's fine, totally understandable. We didn't have larger tables on that floor, and we were packed and had no other options to move them. I rearranged chairs, added place settings, folded more napkins, and apologized for them not being informed about the table sizes prior to booking.
"Meanwhile, our boss was still behaving as though his underwear was too small and on backwards. He decided that I alone should prep the dessert table. On another floor. I was cutting 20 cakes while he raged that it should have been done already (we'd already set the usual amount out). I was running cakes up the stairs, sweating profusely, makeup running into my eyes, feeling like Sisyphus with his boulder. I almost fumbled a chocolate cake, and because the dessert table was directly next to that 12-top of women, they saw it all. My professional wall cracked. I snapped like cheap spandex stretched over an elephant's ass. I started to cry.
"One of those women got right up and handed me a napkin. She said they could tell I was having a hard night. I apologized, because flipping out shouldn't be seen by customers. She said it was OK, and it felt like there was light at the end of the tunnel that maybe wasn't an oncoming train.
"Once things slowed down, I got the chance to stop to talk to them. Turns out they were a dinner club that picked a new place to try every month and that they'd heard of us. They said the best things about our food, the service, and me, and by the end of dinner, I swear I loved them all like family. Despite tip being included in the dinner price, one of them handed me a small gold gift box and said it was from them. It was almost $30 and chocolates. I split the tip with the other servers and to this day those 12 women remain some of my all-time favorites." -- Mary Etheridge
Gotta love a healthy tipper
"I worked at a relatively small local chain. I was working one of our normal doubles on a Thursday. I was told by the hostess that I had a two-top on the patio, so I go out and greet the younger couple. Before they even order a drink, they say, ‘We are a very difficult table and very demanding. We just want to let you know that in advance.’
"OK, sure. I go put their orders in for wine and toddle back to drop off their drinks. When I get back to the table, they say, ‘Since we’re so hard to deal with, we always pre-tip, so you’ll come back.’ They then proceed to hand me a $20 bill. I am on board with this. They get an appetizer, and when I bring it back, they order another round of wine and pre-tip me again, $10 this time.
"After this, I am the Genie from Aladdin. Poof, what do you need. Poof, what do you need. I am all over that table.
"All in all, they pre-tipped me $50 and their bill came to just around $45 -- they tipped a healthy 30% on top of that. The kicker of the whole situation is that at no point were they anything like they described. They were very nice and courteous throughout everything; just a total pleasure to deal with." -- Alan Lake
[Editor’s Note: Tables that say they’re demanding tend to be great tables. The ones you want to watch out for are the “we’re great customers and we’ve worked in the service industry” ones. Yikes.]
You can't judge a book by... how many cookie sundaes it eats
"I worked at the ESPN Zone for almost four years. One night, this table of four nondescript white guys sits in my section. I give the mandatory spiel, they are NOT interested in small talk or even making eye contact. They rattle off their entire order at the very beginning (including dessert, which is odd). For a table of four they order:
- Two of our massive appetizer platters (this includes a full order of spinach dip, a full order of wings, a 1/4 rack of ribs, fries, and some other deep-fried thing which I've forgotten). Two of these platters for four people would normally be more than enough for the evening.
- Four Caesar salads. These salads are giant, entrée-sized salads, not side salads.
- Four full racks of ribs. This is self-explanatory -- they were huge.
- Four cookie sundaes. The cookie sundae was a cast-iron skillet with a giant chocolate chip cookie baked into it, two huge scoops of ice cream, and a river of hot fudge.
- Two 32oz beers each
"They order this while barely glancing my way. I made a polite comment about how much food they were ordering, and were they sure about that? They basically said yes, bring it out as quickly as possible, in whatever order it's ready. OK, I place the order and stand back to watch the carnage.
"They tear through all this food like Cookie Monster gobbling cookies; I've never seen anything like it. They aren't The Rock-sized, or even overweight -- they’re just normal, average-sized dudes. I’m actually nauseated by the endless shoving of meat into their maws, chugging of beer, and belching. They show no interest in talking to me in any capacity, so I don’t say a word, and just keep plopping dish after dish in front of their faces to be evacuated. They eat EVERYTHING. No exaggeration, it was probably 15,000 calories apiece.
"At the end of their meal (which, no lie, was only 45 minutes later) they ask for the check, which is about $100/person. Usually tables that place mystifying orders like this are either high-drama or tip 5-10%. These guys, though, each peel off enough cash for their bill and then tip $40 each. I made $160 for barely acknowledging a table and silently judging them for their extreme gluttony.
"Happy ending, I guess?" -- Mara Gonzalez
Did you mean to leave me this much?
"I'm not sure if this counts as a restaurant customer being the best, or just weird. I waited tables briefly at a diner across the street from a big state college. It was one of those ‘breakfast all the time’-type places.
"One of the regulars was this weird dude in his 20s, who'd apparently been going there for years. He'd come in alone every Saturday night, looking hungover as hell, order some regrettable breakfast or other (he was a big fan of our chicken-fried steak and eggs), and sit in a corner booth for maybe 45 minutes to an hour, drinking coffee, listening to headphones, and reading something on his laptop. I got a look over his shoulder once, and it looked like a D&D rulebook, but when I tried to talk to him about it, he seemed basically uncomfortable, so I dropped it. Normally, someone taking that long at a table would have been annoying (people usually took around 20 minutes), but we were basically empty on Saturday nights, so we tolerated it. Also, he was an excellent tipper, usually 50% or so (not that impressive when the checks averaged $10, but still, better than most of our customers), so again, having him camp wasn't too terrible.
He looks at me with this weird, pained look on his face.
“One year, on the day before Christmas Eve, he comes in, looking less horribly hungover than usual. Another regular, a drunk woman who kept coming in and trying to scam us into giving her free food with sob stories, follows him in. She walks up to our manager and starts in on a long story about how she's stranded and desperately needs some bread or French fries to keep her going. Our manager, who is very polite but has heard it all before, just stands there nodding, while quietly motioning for me to come over. The quiet dude is sitting next to her, and abruptly interrupts, "Hey, why don't you give her a piece of pie and put it on my tab?" Weirdly, the woman starts complaining about how she doesn't need pie, she needs bread (drunks are weird). Anyways, our manager, who didn't want a drunk woman hanging around, just shakes his head. So, drunk lady doesn't get her pie, and I'm slightly worried about my tip, since customers get weird when you say no to them.
“Dude orders corned beef hash, eats it, drinks his coffee, and gets ready to go. He grabs his receipt, heads to the counter, hands me his card, signs the receipt, and starts to walk out. I look at the signed slip. He'd left me a $40 tip. On a $10 bill. I call out to him and go, ‘Hey, did you mean to leave me this much?’ He looks at me with this weird, pained look on his face, like he thinks I'm slightly rude for asking. ‘Yeah. Merry Christmas. Or whatever.’ I start to thank him, but he looks so uncomfortable talking to me that I stop and he walks out. He kept coming back, but I never mentioned it to him again.” -- Lon Amerson
How one incident can impact a server's life
"After a late night of post-conference partying in San Francisco, a few friends and I showed up for breakfast, two minutes after opening, at a touristy little Fisherman’s Wharf joint for some pre-flight breakfast burritos. Our server was a lovely young woman who seemed a bit frazzled, but that’s probably because we rolled up before they even had all the condiments out on the tables.
"About five minutes later, the stereotypical uptight businesswoman -- crisp designer skirt suit, high heels with the red on the bottom, hair pulled back so tight it had to have hurt -- came in and got seated at a nearby table. She ordered a coffee and a water, politely, but in that aloof Sex in the City tone, and a quiche. She then proceeded to pull from her gigantic (probably designer) purse an iPad, iPhone, a Blackberry, and several legal pads, and spread them across the table like it was her personal office. This looked absurd, because, again, it was a tourist joint on the Wharf at 8am, but whatever.
"We got our food and dug in. At some point, business lady must have gotten her coffee and water, because about 10 minutes later, our server came out with the lady’s quiche in one hand and a pitcher of water in the other. You can probably see where this is going… a slight miscalculation of balance as she tried to figure out where to put anything on this makeshift ‘desk,’ and the pitcher of water and the plate ended up crashing onto the table, all over Ms. Businesswoman’s electronics, papers, and skirt.
"My friends and I watched in abject horror, waiting for this uptight woman to rip our server a new one. She must have thought it was coming too, because she immediately started apologizing and grabbed a whole roll of paper towels to try to rescue the various expensive devices. I can just imagine the poor girl was calculating the total of all these things in her head.
"Then something amazing happened. Business Lady started laughing and picking up her iThings with just a casual glance at each one before tossing them back in her bag. She seemed far more concerned about our server, who was almost in tears, and kept reassuring her it was OK, because ‘I shouldn’t have had them all out on the table in the first place.’
"After copious apologies passed between them, our server recovered and brought out another quiche and a water, getting another thanks from the lady, as well as both soaked legal pads to ‘throw away, please.’ We wrapped up our check and were just about to leave when the lady flagged down the server to ask to speak to her manager. We decided to stay just to see how this panned out and, if needed, plead our server’s case.
"Our server was visibly scared when she brought her (older, male) manager to the table and then started to head off to the back, probably to cry and ponder other job options. Business Lady asked her to stay, and proceeded to tell the manager that the service was awesome and she really hoped [server’s name which I don’t remember, but she DID] didn’t get into any trouble, because she wasn’t upset at all and [server’s name] wasn’t in the wrong. I distinctly remember the words, ‘I had too much stuff on the table’ and ‘things happen.’
"I don’t really remember what was said by the manager, but the lady left shortly after and I, being nosy, stayed to ask our server how much she’d tipped. Sorta dazed, she pulled a crisp $50 from the woman’s check pad and held it up for us to see. I’d have to guess the tab was no less than $15, from what she’d ordered.
"Maybe this lady was just so rich she didn’t care if her various phones and things were ruined, but I have to hope, if I’m ever so wealthy as to be able to purchase Louboutins, I’d remember to be that cognizant of how one incident can impact a server’s life and how I could (maybe) help." -- Shannon Karev
Do you have a restaurant, home-cooking, or any other food-adjacent story you’d like to see appear in Off the Menu (on ANY subject, not just this one)? Please email WilyUbertrout@gmail.com with “Off the Menu” in the subject line (or you can find me on Twitter: @EyePatchGuy). Submissions are always welcome!
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