October is the third annual Dining Month on OnMilwaukee.com. All month, we're stuffed with restaurant reviews, delicious features, chef profiles, unique articles on everything food, as well as the winners of our "Best of Dining 2009."
For the first time in as long as I can remember, we didn't leave a tip last night.
We ate at a well-known family run restaurant that is known less for the quality of its food and more for its conviviality. The name of the restaurant? Doesn't matter. The restaurant held up its end of the bargain. The server didn't.
We sat, we waited. She brought our water and asked for our drink orders. She dropped them off and immediately said in a rushed fashion, "Are you ready to order?" OK, so Scott ordered his entrée, asked if there was vinegar and oil for his salad, and she snapped back, "No, Italian." Okay, Italian then.
I ordered a sandwich, for which there was no entrée counterpart. Chicken parmesan. "The sandwich?" she asked. I was confused and looked at the menu again to confirm the only chicken parmesan was a sandwich. "Yes, please."
Snapped her book shut and walked away. No smile.
Now let me say this. I totally understand a bad night. Everyone has a bad night sometimes. And I've even been put off by servers at otherwise excellent restaurants who were having a bad night, and I usually will mention something to the owner or manager out of respect. The thing is, if you deliver bad service to me, I dine out often enough, I kind of understand and will help make excuses for you. I know you might be having a bad night, but I also know that the owner may not realize they mistakenly hired a bad server.
Maybe I blog about service issues too much, but they seem to be more and more pervasive in Milwaukee, and they are ruining our restaurants.
When I waited tables, I would make the occasional error, too. I was not a technically perfect server, but I genuinely felt a sense of servitude to my tables. If I forgot your water, I felt terrible and ran to get you one right away. If I had to serve you from the right or slightly reach across you because you were sitting near a wall, I apologized and made sure you knew where I was so your arm didn't accidentally go into your plate of food or something. But bad service is cumulative. One little mistake or snarl won't send you over the edge -- it's the combination of an unfriendly, devil-may-care attitude with technical errors like delivering the check while the patron is still sitting there looking at dirty plates.
Our entrées arrived and she couldn't seem to get rid of them fast enough. Scott's bowl of pasta spun a half rotation from the force of being tossed on the table as she commanded with no enthusiasm, "Enjoy." Then she walked off to lean against the hostess podium.
We ate our dinners miserably. For us, this was a non-review night, so it's considered a "date night" where we get to eat someplace I'm not reviewing, and actually just enjoy our food and each other's company. Our server made us just want to eat and get the heck out of there.
She stopped over once, looked at our empty water glasses and started walking away. I gently asked for more water, and she complied.
Then, when our plates were nearly empty, she dropped off the bill, saying "Pay me when you're ready" and went back to leaning on the hostess station. We sat amid a sea of dirty dishes and empty glassware and watched as the poor bartender ran out to the dining room to clear the plates and glasses from another table our server had previously waited on.
When she brought our credit card back, she waved it in the air, and said, "Who gets this?" Last time I looked, credit cards have your first name on them, and since there were just two of us, I'm pretty sure she would've been able to determine which person, male or female, the bill would have gone to, if she would've just glanced at the card.
We talked about it for a little while and waffled back and forth because even with bad service, we usually leave 10 percent, but last night, we put a zero in the tip line.
Two decades ago, if you had bad service, protocol was to leave a penny, so that the server knew you didn't just forget to tip him or her, and that you were making a statement about the service you received. I don't think this server would have understood that. In fact, she probably didn't understand why we didn't tip her at all and just thought we were jerks.
Amy L. Schubert is a 15-year veteran of the hospitality industry and has worked in every aspect of bar and restaurant operations. A graduate of Marquette University (B.A.-Writing Intensive English, 1997) and UW-Milwaukee (M.A.-Rhetoric, Composition, and Professional Writing, 2001), Amy still occasionally moonlights as a guest bartender and she mixes a mean martini.
The restaurant business seems to be in Amy’s blood, and she prides herself in researching and experimenting with culinary combinations and cooking techniques in her own kitchen as well as in friends’ restaurants. Both she and her husband, Scott, are avid cooks and “wine heads,” and love to entertain friends, family and neighbors as frequently as possible.
Amy and Scott live with their boys, Alex and Nick, in Bay View, where they are all very active in the community. Amy finds great pleasure in sharing her knowledge and passions for food and writing in her contributions to OnMilwaukee.com.