Monday, August 26, 2013

On working in Food Service

As I've mentioned here before, I spent the last year and change working as a server at a small restaurant in my college town. I originally took this job thinking I would wind up having more time to blog, but that turned out not to be the case. In a given week I'd spend between 40-50 hours at the restaurant, mostly working double shifts. I'd show up at 10:30 am, have a break for about an hour and a half in the middle of the day, and then leave work anywhere between 9 and 10 pm. Between work and applying to graduate school, I had very little time and energy leftover to devote to my blog. However it all paid off because I'm starting graduate school and actually saved up some money to be able to go.

If I could do it again, I think I'd do everything the same way. Maybe I'd put my foot down a little harder about the number of hours I worked, but to be honest, I loved working in the restaurant. It had its ups and downs like any job, but at least it was never boring and I wasn't just sitting in front of a computer screen all day. I had fun, I met some great people, and learned so much about work and life. I also learned how little people understand the service industry. It may not have anything to do with science, but I wanted to write two lists. The first about what food service taught me, the second about what patrons should know about food service.

What Food Service taught me:

  1. Patience. Someone is angry with the way their food turned out and wants to spend 10 minutes (i.e. forever in restaurant time) telling you everything that's wrong with it. A customer thinks he's ready to order but spends another five minutes hemming and hawing over the menu while you're trapped there. Just breathe, keep your cool, and wait and listen. The world will keep spinning.
  2. Multi-tasking. There's an ass in every chair and everyone needs something. Run table 1's food, on your way back grab table 5's check and ask how table 6 is doing. Run table 5's check and then stop by table 8 on the way back to take their order. Boom. Efficiency.
  3. Kill 'em with kindness. From the moment table 6 walked in you could see they were trouble. Maybe they were fighting in the car on the way to the restaurant. Maybe they've had a bad day and want to take it out on someone. Either way, if you walk up to them with a big friendly smile and a helpful disposition, you're going to save yourself a lot of grief, and if you're lucky they'll leave happier than when they came in.
  4. The squeaky wheel gets the grease. Customers who are vocal with their needs, comments, and complaints will get more focused service. HOWEVER. Customers who are vocal with their needs comments and complaints and are POLITE, PATIENT, AND KIND to their server get the best service. More on that later.
  5. Attitude is everything. The best attitude is positive, self-confident, but always willing to learn. The worst attitude is to think you don't need to learn anything new.
  6. Taking criticism is an important life skill. When taking criticism about yourself it's important to a. lower your defenses, and b. listen. When someone is telling you that you did something wrong, it's easy to hide behind your intentions. However intentions don't affect the world, actions do. So when someone is telling you how to do something better, even if they're yelling it at you in frustration, listen.
  7. Don't take everything personally. When you wait tables in a college town, you get a lot of bad tips, even when your service is great. When you wait tables anywhere, you get a lot of rude customers. People don't always say please, thank you, or even treat you like a human being when you're in the service industry. It doesn't take long for most servers to learn to not sweat the small stuff.
Things customers should consider when eating out:
  1. The minimum wage for servers in most of the US is $2.13 per hour. Servers literally make their living off of your tips, so don't be stingy. Even if your service was terrible you should at least tip 15%. Most servers aren't hired without experience and are therefore at least competent at their jobs, and chances are if they messed up it was just a goof or it wasn't even their fault (something went wrong in the kitchen or elsewhere.) After all, we all goof up at our jobs, but few of our jobs will pay us less when we make a mistake or two.
  2. Servers do not keep every penny of their tips. Most restaurants have a lot of support staff. Bussers, food runners, hosts, bartenders etc. that help the servers during the rush. Most restaurants also have a system where the servers must give away a portion of their tips to the support staff every night. This can mean that the server ends up walking home with only 60-70% of their tips. Moreover, tip-outs are usually calculated based off the server's sales, not their tips. So if you don't tip at all, then the 2% of your bill that goes to support staff that would normally come out of your tip comes out of the server's pocket instead. In other words, if you don't tip then your server essentially has to pay out the support staff themselves, and your server basically just paid for you to eat at their table.
  3. If you are vegan, gluten-free, or allergic to anything, tell your server BEFORE you order anything, and be honest. I can't tell you how many times I had a table order a vegetarian appetizer only to ask me, as they were eating their app, what was vegan on the menu. That puts me in an awkward spot. Do I tell them that the appetizer they're raving about has egg in it? Do I let it slide? I can't read your mind, you have to tell me before you order that you're vegan. When it comes to allergies, it pays to be honest. It's astonishing how many times people will insist they have allergies to something when they just don't like it or are avoiding it for diet reasons (ahem, gluten.) Just be honest. Servers actually want to make you happy. It's our job. If you want to avoid the gluten in the breading on the chicken, fine. But don't tell me you're severely gluten intolerant and then ask me for soy sauce (which is full of gluten.)
  4. If you have any time constraints, tell the host when you arrive. Then tell your server when you sit down. Five minutes before you have to catch your movie is not the time to tell me that you need your to-go boxes and check NOW. However, if you tell me ahead of time, I can be honest with you about what will come out quickest from the kitchen, and I can bring your check out with your food. Similarly, if you are in a rush, do not expect your ticket to be jumped to the front of the line. That is not fair to the other customers and you are not your server's one and only priority, either. If you are in a huge rush then consider fast food.
  5. If, for whatever reason, you have a problem with your food, let me know immediately. This is where the squeaky wheel gets the grease. If you tell me at the end of your meal that you hated your food, well there's not much I can do about it then. But if you just had a couple bites and it's too spicy, not spicy enough, too cold, or you just don't care for it, let me know as soon as you can. But I cannot stress enough how important it is to be polite and patient when alerting your server to any issues with your food. If you simply say "excuse me, but my food is cold, could you please heat it up for me?" Or, "I just don't care for dish, would it be possible for me to order something else?" you are going to get wayyyyyyyyyyyy better service than if you say "this is disgusting" with a big old frown. As servers, we get it, you come in with an expectation and when those expectations are not met, it's frustrating. But it's our job to make you happy, and we want you to be happy so help us to help you. Be polite, be understanding that if you order something else it might take a little bit for it to come out. My mother always said, "you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar."
  6. Whenever you eat out, take a look around the restaurant. Are they really busy? How many employees can you spot walking around? Knowing these questions can really help. On occasion I worked solo shifts at my restaurant. I was the only server, there was no host or busser. It amazed me how little people were aware of that and thus expected the service to be perfect. If you see 10 other tables and only one person working, then you can expect that your service is going to be a little slower. Restaurants are run by humans, after all.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Megalo-debacle: Did Discovery Really Commit a Faux-Pas?

For over two decades, Shark Week on Discovery Channel has been raising awareness of one of the ocean's most mysterious and powerful predators. Discovery originally started Shark Week with the purpose to dispel myths about the dangers of sharks, and to heighten the public's respect for the creatures. However, this year, many fans have felt outraged that Discovery may be straying further away from the original purpose of Shark Week. This year, Discovery unveiled the faux-documentary, Megalodon: The Monster Shark That Lives.

Megalodon, for the record, are definitely, absolutely extinct. They were super-sized sharks that once roamed the oceans some 2 million years ago.

Relative size of Megalodon (red and grey) vs. human. Source.

The Discovery special, on the other hand, suggested an alternative. Megalodon still roams the oceans, somewhere off the coast of South Africa. The documentary looked and seemed like any other documentary about real life events (however fantastic.) It convinced 70% of viewers that Megalodon could still live today. However, it was all fake. If you blinked you may have missed the disclaimers posted in small print:
"None of the institutions or agencies that appear in the film are affiliated with it in any way, nor have approved its contents."
"Though certain events and characters in this film have been dramatized, sightings of [the Megaladon,] 'Submarine' continue to this day."
"Megalodon was a real shark. Legends of giant sharks persist all over the world. There is still debate about what they may be."
These disclaimers appeared and disappeared quickly. Even if you had time to read them, they were still vague and beat around the bush. Nowhere do any of them directly say, "none of what you are viewing is based in fact."

It didn't take long for the blogosphere to ignite in outrage over the "documentary." Actor Wil Wheaton demanded Discovery apologize for misleading their audience. Popular science communicator, Christie Wilcox, wrote an open letter expressing her disappointment and anger with the direction Discovery has chosen to take with this year's Shark Week. Fans and scientists took to twitter to express their frustration. However, Discovery has stood by its documentary. Shark Week executive producer, Michael Sorensen, released this statement:
With a whole week of Shark Week Programming ahead of us, we wanted to explore the possibilities of Megalodon. It's one of the most debated shark discussions of all time, "can Megalodon exist today?" It's the ultimate Shark Week Fantasy. The stories have been out there for years and with 95 percent of the ocean unexplored, who really knows?
This statement is even more misleading. Asking "can Megalodon exist?" is not the same as asking, "does Megalodon exist?" which was the question the documentary was really asking.

When I first heard that the documentary was fake, I posted a link to Christie Wilcox's open letter on my facebook. It got several shares and comments from my friends who were as upset and disappointed as I was. Eventually my sister chimed in with a point that stopped me dead in my self-righteous tracks.
Maybe I'm missing something because I haven't seen [the show] but I'm not sure why it's generating this level of outrage. Annoyance, sure. Disappointment, totally fine. But that article is way over the top. They made a fake documentary and weren't so forthcoming with the "fake" bit (intentionally, I'm sure). They had 70% of viewers going for a minute there. Seems like that was probably the point right? They probably counted on the outrage from the science community to make their disclaimer for them. Success on all counts! Plus anyone who wasn't already aware now knows Shark Week has kicked off. I think expectations that Discovery is anything but a TV channel with a marketing plan are kind of off.
I think my sister, Laura, makes a lot of good points here and raises many important questions. First off: what responsibility does a TV channel have to present facts? They made the disclaimers, however vague and however quickly. And, as Laura pointed out, if there was anyone who missed the disclaimers, they certainly know now that the documentary was fake. Do we really have the right to be outraged? Are we, the "science community," just personally offended that Shark Week no longer meets our standards for good educational television? Or does Discovery have an obligation to uphold the original purpose and message of Shark Week from 26 years ago? I want to hear your thoughts. Discuss!