|Photo: David Sifry, Flickr.|
While servers who spill coffee on their guests or forget to bring an extra fork are generally forgiven, there's no redemption for servers who vanish. Without their server in sight, guests feel neglected, trapped and exasperated by the entire eating-out experience. It's a rotten situation, which is why most diners who've posted here about terrible service have admitted to at some point wondering where their server went.
Assuming that question is sometimes posed sincerely, I offer here a few solutions to the Case of the Missing Server. Note that these explanations aren't excuses: Great servers don't go AWOL, ever. But there are many rational reasons, unapparent to guests, why servers can't be found. He or she just might be ...
1. Splitting checks. Here's one task that's become more laborious with the advent of computers. To prevent employee theft, most electronic point-of-sale systems are designed to make shifting guest tabs a tricky, multi-step process. Woe to the server who accidentally sticks Seat 3's fried wonton app on Seat 4's bill: On some popular systems, such an error can only be corrected by recombining the entire check and starting over. Creating six separate checks -- and gathering up six pens for signing them -- can take a server off the floor for up to five minutes (which, to a guest waiting for an iced tea refill, feels like an hour).
2. Restocking inventory. Since restaurant owners can't make money where they can't seat guests, wait stations are often too small to hold everything a restaurant needs for a busy evening. No matter how much prep servers do, they inevitably run out of ice, napkins or lemons a few turns in -- and are forced to make the trek to a far-off basement or locked closet to replenish them.
3. Waiting on the bartender. Only the most permissive restaurant managers allow servers to pour their tables' drinks, which means they have to wait patiently at a service bar while the barkeep hooks up a new keg or makes a run to the wine cellar.
4. Cleaning up. If the front of the house is bustling, the back of the house is assuredly hectic. Rushed servers and bussers often stack dirty dishes haphazardly in the dish room -- and then they to deal with the mess when the dishes topple to the ground. As most servers have discovered, there's no quick way to locate a mop, safely dispose of sharp-edged shards of broken plates and set up a "caution" sign so fellow staffers don't slip on the sauced and buttered floor.
5. Chatting with customers. Servers who gab with guests about the weather while you're waiting for your check deserve the penny you're tempted to leave them. But it's often the guests who initiate the conversation, insisting that their servers not budge til they've told them about every dish on the menu. Other guests demand a server stand by their side while they make up their minds, or fuss if a server discreetly steps away when it becomes clear they have no intention of interrupting their discussion to acknowledge him. These self-absorbed guests never seem to realize just whose time they're wasting.
Fellow servers, is this list complete? What else detains you behind the scenes? Tell us in the comments below.