Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A brief thought on attitude and compassion...

Not to pat myself on the back, but it always feels great when I actually succeed in putting these principles I talk about into practice. The other day I was dealing with this woman who, from the very get-go, was giving me serious attitude. She was immediately demanding and antagonistic - combative, like she was expecting to get screwed over, expecting to hate her meal, and generally getting ready for a fight. I noticed that I found myself with a slight attitude back to her; my responses were suddenly becoming more and more curt, with a slight harshness my voice doesn't usually have. It occurred to me that this woman probably doesn't realize that she's the one initiating all this negative energy out at people, an energy that creates an equally negative response in kind. So, in her world, everyone is negative towards her - she's the victim - so she gears up in anticipation of the conflict and immediately takes a combative stance from the very beginning, not realizing that it is this attitude that is creating all the hostility in the first place. It really is a vicious cycle, and on understanding it I suddenly had compassion for her, not anger. I saw the only way to break through would be to be as kind and gracious as I possibly could - to give her extra attention, to really make her feel like I cared about her and whether or not she enjoyed her meal. So that's exactly what I did, and by the end of the meal she was smiling and full of thank-you's. The checks for the table were separated, and out of all the other guests she left the best tip.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

When you can do nothing, what can you do?

Sometimes people just have to wait. Do what you can: ask for help, consolidate your steps, but in the end there is only so much even the gods can do. Accepting limitations is an important part of growth. Often we become stressed or agitated, as the chattering mind thinks that somehow this means you are “doing” something about it, something productive. It cannot abide relaxing, because it is convinced this means you are giving up. Indeed you are giving up - you are giving up the illusion of control. Being upset or stressed does not make the kitchen move faster nor does it make you any more able to do your job; if anything, it lessens your effectiveness. So relax. Be the calm in the eye of the storm.


Not to use a pun, but a good deal of waiting tables does actually involve, well, waiting. I have to wait on hot fries, I have to wait on the bar to make my chocolate espresso martini, I have to wait on bread to be sliced, I have to wait on the bakery to plate my desserts, I have to wait on the barista to make my cappuccino, etc., etc. And when you're busy, every second you're stuck waiting feels like an eternity. You know that while you're waiting for that cappuccino someone at one of your tables needs something, and odds are they're getting kind of pissed off wondering just where the f you are (I think guests subconsciously think that if I'm not immediately at their beck and call it's because I'm off just dicking around somewhere, talking with my friends or flirting with the hostesses or something. I don't think it would ever register with someone that isn't already in the industry that there are things out of my control too). And just as every second you're waiting feels like an eternity, every second the guest doesn't have that extra sauce or soda refill or whatever feels like an eternity to them too. The thing is, when you're busy it's probably because the restaurant's full, so it's very likely that the cook or the baker or the barista or whomever else is busy too. So it's pretty likely you'll be kept waiting for something.

Of all the things that can stress me out at work, waiting probably tops the list. The main things is because of the disconnect between where I want/need to be and where I am. I need to be over there, and I'm stuck here. It's like waiting in line at the movies or waiting for the elevator to the nth degree (at least when I'm waiting for the elevator someone else isn't complaining to my boss that they don't have a fresh diet coke). What I've gradually learned to do is to just embrace it, to accept that if I need that bread I have two choices: continue to wait, or go back to my table and tell them that it's going to be a few minutes while they slice some fresh bread (of course, there are some times when, because the guest has already been waiting so long, you absolutely can not return to your section without that bread (or martini, or dessert, or whatever). You still have a course of action though, and that's to ask for help. While you're waiting for that latte one of your coworkers (or, God forbid, a manager) can swing through your section to see if anyone needs anything).

Learning how to wait properly has been one of the healthiest things I've ever done for myself, mainly because I get so many opportunities to practice it. Not just at work, but when I'm waiting for the bus, while I'm stuck in traffic, waiting for my girlfriend to do her hair and makeup, etc. The next time you're stuck waiting somewhere try just allowing yourself to wait. Accept that you can not be anywhere else but here right now, and that stressing out about it is going to succeed in nothing but raising your blood pressure. If you need that bus to get there or you're going to be late, you can either take a cab or just accept that you're going to be late. Frantically looking down the street every 30 seconds to see if the bus is coming doesn't make it come any faster (and while we're at it, re-pushing the elevator button doesn't seem to help much either). There's a wonderful freedom that comes from letting go, of just accepting your powerlessness in the situation and going with it. You should always do whatever is in your power to do but, at the end of the day, we only have control over so much.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Detaching From the Result (Especially If the Result is 12%)

You must discipline yourself to let go of desire and attachment to outcome. What does this mean? It means that when we service a table we begin to develop expectations of what gratuity we will receive, based on such factors as the amount of the check, the amount of attention given to the table, the temperament of the guests, etc. And what usually happens? The gratuity does not match our expectation and we become frustrated and resentful. “Did they not appreciate all the attention I gave them? The extra sauces, the constant refills of water and coffee?” It matters not. There is little to no correlation between the work performed and the money received. The Ninth, and final, Rule of Service: The size of the tip is inversely proportional to the demands of the guest. If you judge your job on a check-by-check basis, you will never be at peace - it never balances out at a one-to-one ratio. Even if you judge on a night-by-night basis, you will not be at peace – every waiter has had both the experiences of a night where one worked exceedingly hard for poor tips and the night where very little was done and all guests were tipping with the generosity of the Buddha himself. Perhaps judging by a week-by-week basis, or month-by-month it will start to even out. But better still not to look for any correlation at all. Divest yourself of any personal stake in the table, discipline yourself to not even look at the tip. If you approach your job with the attitude that your duty is simply to try to get your guests what they want, and then you will walk away with some random amount of money that bears little correlation to what you actually did that night, you will have serenity in your work and in your life. To be at peace, one must relinquish what they feel they are “entitled” to. The question you must ask yourself: would you rather be right, or at peace? Because the two seldom go hand in hand.


Do not compare the tip to the total. Then, and only then, will you be free.

--His Holiness the Dali Lama


One of the hardest parts of waiting tables is letting go of the idea of “deserving.” In a perfect world, the table that had you walk them through every item on the menu, needed their diet cokes refilled a dozen times, had an immensely convoluted order that required a five-minute conversation with the kitchen manager, asked for a plate of bar fruit to snack on (and not be charged for it) and generally just ran you into the ground, would tip 25% at the absolute minimum. But that’s not how this job works (the best tippers, in fact, usually seem to be those who require the least attention).

It’s a job where the actual amount of work you do doesn’t really have much to do with the money you make (if it were, a cup of tea would cost $6.95). Sometimes that works in our favor: There’s nothing inherently more difficult about waiting on a table that had two filets and a bottle of wine vs. a table that had two salads and some iced tea, but for some reason I’ll make $20 more for the table with the filets. So I guess it doesn’t make much sense from the guest’s perspective either.

The truth is, I have little to no control over my tips. All I can do is give the best service I can give, time and time again, and hopefully the good tippers will tip even better, and the horrible tippers will at least leave a few dollars more than they usually do. Other than that, it’s out of my hands. Once you’ve said to yourself, “How could they only leave me (insert shitty tip here)?! After all that work!” so many times, at a certain point you have to ask yourself if it even makes sense to ask that question anymore.

A large component of Eastern philosophy is detaching from the results of your actions. In Christianity it would be taking the action and turning the results over to God. The point is the same: at the end of the day we really have little to no control over the specific outcomes of what we do, and that’s true with so much of life beyond just waiting tables. We have to let go of our ideas of what’s “fair.” All we can do is our best, and hope that if we do our best enough times eventually we’ll get better results than someone who only gave a half-hearted effort or didn’t try at all.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Campers, Death and Taxes

Occasionally, you will encounter guests that stay well past the length of their meal. It is natural to become angered – do they not know that they are taking up your section and preventing you from turning a table? The answer is: No, they do not. It would never occur to a guest that you make your money by turning tables, and that their presence is actually costing you money. All they see is that they have paid good money for their meal, and have thus earned the right to stay as long as they please. After all, are they not paying customers? (Never mind the fact that no, they are not paying customers - they ar
e customers who have paid and are now just taking advantage. A thousand suns could rise and set and still the guest would not see the distinction).

It does one no good be angered by this; again, what is the sense in being angered by something you cannot change? Do whatever it is you can to hasten their exit, of course (clearing away from the table every bit of plate and flatware aside from water glasses) but, beyond that, best to accept it. If you judge only by the immediacy of the moment (they are costing you money) you will be angered. This is only because you view it as something outside the norm, as if you always turned tables rapidly and always had a constant flow of guests. However, you should know from experience this is not the case. It is not now and never has been. If you accept from the outset that part of your job is entertaining the occasional camper, that it will and does happen from time to time, you will be at peace.


Once in awhile, I actually do practice what I preach. The other lunch I had camper, after camper, after camper, and it really didn’t faze me at all (okay, I did complain once – but that was it!). For those who aren’t familiar with restaurant lingo, a “camper” is a table who, after finishing their meal, just hangs out. And hangs out. And then usually hangs out a little more. They don’t want anything else to eat, they’re not drinking any more coffee, they’re probably not even touching their waters. They just want to talk (and for those of you who are not waiters, odds are you have been this table once or twice). Why is this an issue? Well, we make our money on tips – and we can’t get a tip without a check. And we can’t get a check without you leaving and someone else sitting down.

Usually this is something that, unless they have worked in the industry themselves, the guest would never think to consider. Only once or twice in eight years has a table apologized for taking up my section and then actually compensated me for it – leaving me an extra ten or twenty depending on how long they were there for. What usually happens, if the table is aware enough in the first place to recognize what they are doing, is they will say something along the lines of, “We’re sorry, we’re just going to hang out a little bit. Is that okay?” as if I actually had some sort of choice in the matter. Really, what can I say – “Actually I would really prefer it if you got up and went to the bar (or, better yet, the Starbucks across the street)”? Maybe in some restaurants you can get away with that, but in my establishment one guest complaint can mean my job, so it’s just not worth the risk.

Getting back to the other day – I had at least three tables (possibly more, I can’t remember) that were camped out for an hour-and-a-half to two hours each (at one point, two at the same time - and one of those table's bills was $15). So, figuring at lunch I average anywhere from four to twelve dollars a table I lost about $25-$30. But, and here’s the main point, it didn’t bother me. And the reason it didn’t bother me is because I have fully accepted that campers are part of the job, that they’re a hazard that can’t be avoided. It used to piss me off to no end, it used to make me absolutely furious. That’s because I was mistakenly viewing it as an exception to the job rather than as a part of the job. Like so many things, when you’re dealing with situations you can’t change the only thing you can really change is how you look at it. When you start to see the negative things as parts of the whole rather than as deviations of it – when you fully accept them as part of the total package, you can be at peace with them.

Extrapolating out, we do the same things with so many “tragedies” of life: illness, loss, death – we can’t abide by them because we view them as aberrations. When really, loss, misfortune and death are completely unavoidable – they’re some of the few things we can actually count on; things that, without a doubt, are going to happen. One of my favorite Buddhist meditations:

Knowing I will get old, I breathe in.

Knowing I can’t escape old age,

I breathe out.

Knowing I will get sick, I breathe in.

Knowing I can’t escape sickness,

I breathe out.

Knowing I will die, I breathe in.

Knowing I can’t escape death,

I breathe out.

Knowing that one day, I will have to abandon all that I cherish today, I breathe in.

Knowing I can’t escape having to abandon all that I cherish,

I breathe out.

Knowing that my actions are my only belongings, I breathe in.

Knowing that I can’t escape the consequences of my actions,

I breathe out.

Determined to live my days deeply in mindfulness, I breathe in.

Seeing the joy and the benefit of living mindfully,

I breathe out

(from The Blooming of the Lotus by Thich Nhat Hanh)

What might strike you initially as immensely morbid is, upon practice, immensely freeing.

Knowing that I will wait on campers, I breathe in.

Knowing that I can’t escape waiting on campers,

I breathe out.