When an old friend from another city came to visit, my friend Jamie took him to lunch at one of his favorite restaurants — a cozy bistro on 39th Street.
"I was very excited," Jamie told me. "It should have been perfect."
It might have been, but Jamie had the misfortune of being served by a young woman whose waitressing skills were unpolished — to put it mildly. Jamie and his friend had finished their lunch but were still catching up on old times. Their waitress, however, was eager for them to leave so she could turn that table and make another tip. Within earshot of their table, she complained about how they wouldn't leave. Then, when Jamie asked for a refill of his iced tea, she said, "I'll put that in a to-go cup for you."
I was once nearly fired from a midtown restaurant for doing the same thing that Jamie's waitress did. I'm not proud of it, but it turned out to be a defining point for me as a professional waiter.
The customers at my table knew I wanted them to leave, so they happily sat there for another hour, chatting amiably and sipping their cold coffee (I petulantly refused to warm their cups with refills). They left me a decent tip — which I didn't deserve — but I fumed about them until a much wiser veteran waiter took me aside.
"If you really want to be a good waiter, you'll never do that again," he told me. "If the customer wants to sit there for the next 24 hours, you attend to them graciously, as if they were the most important people in the room. You always treat customers the way you want to be treated, and they'll become your regulars."
At first it didn't seem like good advice — wasn't I losing money by not turning the table? But after forcing myself to become a more patient and gracious waiter, I began to understand that the word service means a lot more than just schlepping plates. It's like being an ambassador for the whole restaurant business.
I won't name the restaurant on 39th Street, in hopes that the waitress will learn the same lesson I did. But when Jamie asked whether he should complain to the owner, I told him "yes" — if he wants his favorite restaurant to stay in business.