Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A Parable

Nan-in, a Japanese master server during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

Nan-in served iced tea. He poured his visitor's cup full, and then kept on pouring.

The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. "It is overfull. No more will go in!"

"Like this cup," Nan-in said, "you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?"

“You idiot!” cried the professor. “You got iced tea all over me! You’re going to pay for my dry cleaning.”

Moral: It does not matter how enlightened you are; as a server you are still subject to those who are not.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

To avoid killing your guests, envision them as already dead.

If you wish to enter the mindset of the guest, it is crucial that you understand that the guest does not see you as an actual human being. This is the Second Noble Truth of Service. If you were to press the guest on the question of whether or not the person in front of them was a living, breathing individual - one with his own life and cares, tragedies and triumphs - they would of course concur but, truthfully, only after some consideration. The default attitude of the guest is simply to see you as a means of conveyance - a conduit of their food and drink from the ether to the table. Do not take this personally. It is simply the nature of things. Would you take it personally if a scorpion were to sting you? It is the nature of the scorpion to do so - just as it is the nature of the guest to have the self-centeredness and self-importance of a two-year-old.


To avoid killing your guests, envision them as already dead.


When we look at the world around us, very rarely do see things as they truly are. What we usually see is a conglomeration of images, assumptions and categorizations made by the mind. In other words, we don't usually see reality but rather our ideas about reality. For prehistoric man this was no doubt a helpful adaptive trait; it's much more useful to see lion = danger/run & hide, then to see the complex interplay of past and present, environment, ecosystem and co-dependent arising that is the actual "lion" (and I have to put "lion" in quotes because we're still just talking about an agreed-upon concept. In Reality, this thing called "lion" is actually its mother and its father, and the antelope it eats, and the water it drinks, and the earth, and the sun and the air and the entire universe itself. Again, not really useful when you're running for your life).

We do this every day, especially in the myriad of social interactions that make up life in the Industrialized World of the 21st century. When you check out at the grocery store, or get on the bus, or order a drink at the bar, your mind is constantly sorting and categorizing, putting everything and everyone you see into neat little organizable boxes. You might see Black Guy, or Gay Guy, or Hot Chick, or Zitface, or Bum, or even Slightly Surly Indie Coffeehouse Barista and Thinks He's So Cool Hipster DBag etc, etc. It's immensely rare that we look past our first impressions to the actual flesh and blood human being beneath (mainly because it'd be pretty hard to get anything done). So it should come as no surprise that guests do this all the time with their servers, and we do it all the time with them.

All this may make our social interactions slightly more efficient, but it has the added cost of fostering and supporting misunderstandings and prejudice. It's the dirty little secret of the service industry that a lot of us have some not so nice assumptions about our clientele based on things like race, and nationality, and class, and many servers do allow this to affect their service and their attitude. Of course, when a server approaches a table with a preconditioned hostility the guest is usually going to pick up on it - at least subconsciously - no matter how well the server thinks they are hiding it. Then the guest has some hostility in response - again, maybe just subconsciously - which the server picks up on, which only serves to "confirm" the original bias. I can't tell you how many times I've heard a server say "I can't believe I have to deal with these [fill in the blank]; they want all these refills and extra sauces and all this stuff - I know they're not going to tip me anything, so I'm sure not going to hurry at all. They can wait." And then, after the bill is paid, "See, they stiffed me! What'd I tell you?!" The worst example of this was when I overheard a server say that a table had accidentally left a fifty dollar bill with the check where they clearly meant to leave a twenty (and he still had a chance to correct the mistake before they left). The thing is, the twenty would have made it a clear 20% tip and when I asked him if he didn't feel guilty taking advantage of someone who was nice enough to leave him a good tip in the first place, he responded, "Oh, those people screw me over all the time. It's about time I got something back." And by "those people" he didn't mean the four-top he had just waited on.

What's the solution? Our brains just so naturally default to putting people in boxes. For my part, I really try to be mindful when approaching a table, to be aware of how my mind is instantly sizing them up and try to replace that with at least an understanding of them as an actual person. It's especially hard when a guest is rude, to not immediately think "rich pr*ck" or "stuck-up _____" etc, instead of looking through that to see someone who themselves may be hurting, or unhappy, or had a really bad day or maybe even a bad childhood. Maybe they are being a jerk right now, or self-centered, or demanding, but they also were once an innocent, smiling one-year old. At some point in their life they too have suffered tragedy and loss - they've had or will have a loved one die, and they themselves will face sickness and death. They have known fear, and sadness, and disappointment, as well as joy and love. That is not to say we allow ourselves to be doormats, or continue to put up with unacceptable behavior, but that we look through that to the flawed and fragile human being that lies beneath.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

In Memoriam...

Prepare yourself physically and mentally for the task ahead. If you have not slept or eaten properly (or are hung over) you will surely suffer. Draw your focus to your breath. Attune your senses into the now. A waiter must be quick but not frenzied; calm, yet alert. If you have any problems outside of work that is where you must leave them; in service, as in war, grief has no place on the battlefield.


One of my friends, and coworkers, passed away last month. It was completely out of the blue; he had been having some medical problems - serious, but not terminally serious - but was out of the hospital and planning on moving cross country with his wife at the end of the week. He actually met up with a bunch of us at a Cubs game just a couple of days beforehand - a little haggard but, by all accounts, in good spirits. Then overnight, at home, there was a complication and all of a sudden he was in the hospital in with “minimal brain activity” and in critical condition. When I came in to work the next day for the lunch shift the staff was walking around like zombies. The latest news was that the doctors were going to try a “hail-mary” surgery but the prognosis, obviously, wasn't very hopeful. But the world didn't stop just because our friend was all of a sudden probably about to die. The restaurant was still open, people were still coming in for lunch, the kitchen was still backed up, guests were still occasionally rude. And I still had to be friendly and give good service.

When word that he had passed made it around to me (and that's how it happened, the information wasn't announced so much as spread in whispers and asides from server to server) I was in the middle of getting an iced tea refill for table 106, had to go take an order for 107, check on the food (which was over twenty minutes) for table 108, and run a credit card at table 105. There simply wasn't time to process anything, much less grieve. Food still had to go out, orders still had to be taken, and iced teas still needed to be refilled.

The next 36 hours stood as a testament to the humanity and grace of our management and coworkers that, quite frankly, I would never have expected. Because of religious reasons Patrick's family was holding the funeral service just two days after his death - on a Saturday no less - making it nearly impossible for any of us to attend. Our GM and managers immediately started working with the floor plan: adjusting in-times, getting reliefs to come in early, running a couple of servers or food runners short, whatever they could do to free up those of us who were close to Patrick (and there were a lot of us, Pat was a career server and had been with the company 14 years) to attend the service. Newer employees who weren't as close to the man picked up doubles, came in early or stayed late without complaining, just so his friends could pay their respects and grieve in peace. Our former GM actually flew in from California the morning of the service so he could attend and I later heard through the grapevine that our current GM personally had helped out with Patrick's hospital costs

And it's that - that coming together of people working around the system, doing what needs to be done so that the business could keep running but that we, the actual human beings, could have our time - that makes me well up just sitting here writing about it, even over a month after it happened. Because the world doesn't stop for pain, or for tragedy, or for loss. We stop. The world itself is fairly indifferent. It's we who care, it's we who make the meaning. Tragedy takes us out of the world, makes us take stock and, hopefully, wakes us up to what's really important. And the days pass, and the earth keeps turning, and the tables do too. Before you know it you're right back to complaining about your shitty section, or the or the bad tip, or your managers or your coworkers or whatever whatever. But for a few days last month each of us knew what was really important, and each of us treated each other with genuine warmth and grace and care – like actual human beings.