Welcome back to Behind Closed Ovens, where we take a look at the best and strangest stories from inside the food industry. This week, we've got more stories of horrible customers (to be followed by part 2 next week). As always, these are real e-mails from real readers.
About 8 years ago, when I was in my late teens/early 20's, I worked at a movie theater. It was the only one in my town and it had exactly one screen, so all the employees shared the various responsibilities (tickets/concessions/cleaning/dicking around while the movie was playing/making the yellowest batch of popcorn possible). This particular day, I was working concessions. We were showing some big blockbuster movie, and being the only theater in town, we got SLAMMED. We had just finished a big rush and the movie is about 15 minutes in when this older couple walks in. The husband orders a large popcorn and a soda, pays, and then his wife approaches the counter. She places both hands on the glass and looks up at me with an expression that I think is best described as all the leftover parts from a preschool Mr. Potatohead set.
"Hello! What can I get for you today?"
"I would like a box of popcorn."
"Well, we sell it in bags, usually, but I can pour it into a courtesy tray, if that's better. What size do you want?"
"No, I don't want any size, I just want popcorn in that box." She points to our cardboard courtesy trays.
At this point, I think I get it. Our large popcorns had a free refill and sometimes people would get their refill at the same time as their first bag so they didn't have to leave the theater during the movie, which we would give them in the "boxes" she kept referring to.
"Oh! Did you want the free refill now? I'm happy to do that."
"Nooooo. I don't want my husband's popcorn. I WANT MY OWN."
"Right! I can give you the refill now, in one of the courtesy trays and you won't have to share a bag with your husband."
"NO NO NO. HE needs to keep his refill. I WANT MY OWN POPCORN."
"I TOLD YOU I DON'T WANT A SIZE. Just take some popcorn from over there. Put it in a box. And GIVE. IT. TO. ME."
"...You want free popcorn?"
"It's not free if you give it to me!"
"Ma'am. I don't...I'm sorry. I really don't know what you mean. If I give you popcorn and you don't give me money after I give you the popcorn, then it's free popcorn. And that's not how this works." (I am so overwhelmed and confused that I am gesticulating WILDLY) "I can't just give you stuff."
"It's not free popcorn! You're giving it to me! Century Theaters does it all the time for me and they don't say anything."
My mouth opens and my face falls off and I am so mad at this lady. She is being purposefully obtuse and aggressively confusing. And she's yelling at me. She sees me weaken.
"Just put some popcorn in the box and I won't have to tell your manager about your rudeness."
I am not afraid of my manager. He is, in fact, standing in my view, hiding in the stock room, and trying very very hard not to laugh. But I have given up. My soul has shriveled and become a sad popcorn kernel inside me. My spirit is but a tiny, weak flame as I repeat the phrase "It's not free if you give it to me" over and over in my head. I grab a box (I'm calling them boxes now, not courtesy trays because everything I know is wrong and did you know it's not free if you give it to me?) and am about to fill it, when she says-
"You're making me miss the movie."
My eyeballs light aflame and turn to dust. I am SEETHING. She obviously is used to harassing people into giving her free shit and even though it was just popcorn and basically garbage after this show (the last of the day), I didn't want her to win. So I put exactly three pieces of popcorn into the FUCKING COURTESY TRAY I DON'T CARE THAT IT'S PEDANTIC THAT'S WHAT IT'S CALLED and slide the tray over to her. She is not satisfied.
"I'm going to need more than that."
I take the popcorn scoop and put what amounts to maybe 15 more pieces of popcorn in her tray by letting them fall through the air from the scoop into the tray like a beautiful, angry, yellow waterfall.
"OK! There you go! If you want more than that you're going to have to buy a bag."
She points at my name badge and scowls her stupid potato face scowl and says, "YOU are getting fired, bitch." Takes the tray with her 20 pieces of popcorn and goes into the movie.
A reasonable person might just give up and chalk it up to a crazy, entitled customer and go about the rest of their shift. I was not a reasonable person that day. She called me a bitch! She yelled at me! AND I STILL GAVE HER FREE POPCORN. Sure, it wasn't a lot, but she still got SOME and I was cranky about it. So with my manager's blessing, in the last 10 minutes of the show, I scooped up all the popcorn from the popper into our storage bags (essentially garbage bags for popcorn that we kept for the next day's first showing if we felt like keeping it) and found where she was sitting in the theater. I slung the bag over my shoulder like the fucking Santa Claus of popcorn and sat in the seat directly in front of hers. I put my giant ridiculous garbage bag of popcorn on the seat next to me and ate out of it, in a comically animated way for the rest of the movie. I stuck my whole arm in there, swirled it around, shoved it in my face like cookie monster. It was not dignified. It was not pretty. But it felt so fucking good. Look at all this popcorn! None of it is for you, potato lady! I'm just throwing it on the ground! Here ground! This is for you! Don't worry chair, it's not free if I give it to you! I looked absolutely bananas crazy.
As far as I know, she never called to complain about me.
After 16 years of working in hospitality, this was my last night of waitressing EVER. A couple of women sat down at our communal table for dinner, and while one of them was practically silent, the other was a nightmare from the start — dismissive, rude, demanding...we all know the type, but I didn't pay much attention until she started discussing her (very active) sex life loud enough that I could hear her from the other end of my section. While I'm all about women being sexually empowered, the volume of this conversation was incredibly inconsiderate. I could see the discomfort on the faces of the guests in between whom she was sat; one couple on a date, and another having a business dinner...
Anyway, half a bottle of Prosecco in, she was drunk enough to order "a side of hamburger. I mean fries, a side of fries" from me. 10 minutes later, I'm taking an order from another table, when I start getting hit by something. I turn around, and this woman is waving one arm wildly while getting ready to throw more french fries at me, screaming about how she had been trying to get her check for 25 minutes.
I bring the check and she announces herself as an editor at New York Magazine as loudly as possible before leaving no tip and stumbling out of the restaurant. Out of curiosity, we looked her up on LinkedIn. Homegirl hadn't worked at NyMag in 6 years. What a winner...
At least there's a happy ending, besides my no longer working in restaurants: the couple on the date apologized that I had to experience that and left me a 50% tip.
I once had a half hour discussion of Anna Karenina with a customer who told me after a long pause that I was: "pretty literate for a waitress." I wish I had told him that he was pretty rude for a human.
While I was earning my PhD I spent each summer with my parents in a small Texas town. It was the sort of place that had fifteen booze stores, one grocery store, and no library. My mother was very sick, and my father had no healthcare and a small salary (ministers get the shaft in Texas, his congregation was made up of the mayor and half of the very affluent staff from the local nuclear power plant) so I divided my time between caring for her and working at the only local restaurant. It was a Sonic.
The work was OK. There was a lot of sexual harassment from customers, but my coworkers were genuinely lovely people, mainly women with lots of kids. I was the only white girl, and that will become very important in a minute. There was one gay man, a very sweet individual who went missing for four days and when he turned up again it came out that he had nearly been beaten to death by his five brothers because they caught him with his boyfriend. He came back to work early because he needed to make rent. It was that kind of town.
In any case, about two-thirds of our customers were affluent white people. I mean, hummer driving, extremely conservative, designer clothes wearing status-hounds that tipped absolutely nothing. Most of our tips came from people who knew what it was like to struggle for money. (Editor's Note: Since a lot of people have asked about whether tipping is expected at Sonic—and it's a good question!—I think I should address it: I think Sonic is different from your typical fast food place because of the curbside service. At the same time, the way I read this is also more that tips are appreciated at Sonic, but not expected. Think of it like Starbucks; it's a nice thing to do, but you're not a terrible person if you don't have the extra buck). There was a huge cultural bias among the local white people. White women were supposed to have blond hair, long nails, little education beyond high school (maybe a year or two at Texas A&M before getting married) and they were absolutely never supposed to work. I was actually told, by a customer, that I was a "race traitor."
Despite it all, I kept working, kept feigning cheerfulness. I kept up the banter.
But the real joy came when one day, near the end of the last summer I worked there. A woman pulled up in a brand new pickup truck, her hair drawn back in a slick, dyed-yellow pony-tail, sunglasses, a diamond the size of a baby's thumb glinting on her left ring finger, and a class ring from my undergraduate alma mater on her right. I grinned when I saw it, since most people bought those rings junior year. I was thinking 'oh, she must have just graduated. I can TALK to her!' So when I handed her the greasy bag of burgers she ordered, I said, 'Hi, thanks for your order.' I showed her my matching ring, 'I think we went to the same school.'
She looked down at me over the rims of her sunglasses, snorted, and said, 'No dear. You see, I went to university.' Then she dropped the exact price of her meal on the tarmac and pulled out of the parking lot while I was picking the coins up.
If I knew her name and address, I'd send her copies of my last couple of books. I'd like to give her something interesting to mull over while she waits for her husband to find a younger, bouncier piece of flesh.
I worked as a server at a "country farm cookin" restaurant chain for most of my highschool and college career for extra money. I got stuck working the Fourth of July one year, and wasn't too worried about it, because I told myself "who would go to a chain restaurant instead of a home BBQ?"
Since it was the Fourth, we were severely understaffed as anyone that was actually scheduled to work called in "sick." I ended up having an entire half of the restaurant to myself. Total, there were two servers and one manager covering the restaurant (besides cooking and prep staff).
I had a relatively slow shift and didn't have any more than I could handle until SHIT. HIT. THE. FAN.
Suddenly, we had a FULL restaurant, with a wait out the door. I couldn't keep up and neither could the other waitress or the manager, who was running around cooking, busing tables, taking orders and getting refills. It was utter chaos. We didn't have orders in, we didn't have the food prepped to cook it once they got the orders in; I didn't even have dinner rolls to pass out to keep people sated until I got to them.
It got to a relatively manageable pace (still full, but I wasn't dying) and my sister came to visit because she thought it would be slow. I sat her down and chatted about how crazy it was for about one minute TOPS as I watched the hostess seat and chit chat with whom I will forever call the Deranged Santa Claus. He looked like a Biker Santa and was covered in tattoos and piercings.
The hostess walked away and I went up and asked for their drink order. The Deranged Santa with a lot of attitude asked for a coffee. I asked if he wanted cream (as is the custom) and he yelled "DID I TELL YOU I WANTED CREAM?!" and I replied "No sir, but its customary to ask." After which he ordered, "ICE COLD MILK. DON'T GIVE ME THAT PLASTIC-EY CREAM SHIT."
So I go and get his coffee, his wife's drink and his ice cold milk and bring it back to him. I asked if they were ready to order and they weren't, so I went to check on my sister's table, chatted with her, and then went back to take their order.
He looks even more in a worse mood than he was before and ordered a breakfast platter, "I want X platter but with sunny side up eggs and an extra egg, CRISPY home fries, and extra limp bacon," and then he yelled "and if you stop to chat to that girl over there, you will be WEARING MY FOOD."
I couldn't handle it. I ran back into the break room and had a panic attack. One of the line cooks came in and saw me, and freaked out and went and grabbed my sister. I had management in there ready to call an ambulance and I told them what that asshole said to me and I said I wasn't going back out there. My manager went and talked to the customer. I don't know what she said, but later on she came back in and said that he wanted to apologize to me. I didn't want to go out there, but she made me.
He looked all sad and was like "I was joking. Here, have some bacon," and tried to be cute and offer me bacon. I told him I was too nauseous for bacon and went back to the breakroom. On top of all that, the asshole gave me a $1.00 tip.
I was left a tip in the form of the word "TIP" spelled out in (lengthwise cut) pickles on the window next to the booth. No cash, no credit, just TIP in pickles for me to clean up.
I worked at Crustacean in San Francisco for far too long.
One Sunday night, I was waiting a table of six. Grandma, Grandpa, Mom, Dad, and two sons. The sons were in their 40s. Everything went well until the bill came, which is standard procedure for jerk customers who want to get something free. Thankfully, there was an automatic gratuity added to the checks of parties of six or more. Immediately, they complained that the bill was too high. When they could find no cracks in the logic of the itemized list of charges, the sons went after me. One called me over to his side of the table. I assumed it would be in protest of the gratuity, the low-hanging fruit for congenital complainers.
"Do you have a military discount?" asked one of the sons.
"No. I'm sorry. That's not something we offer."
"Well, we're in the Air Force and think you should consider it." As if the concept of a military discount was new.
"That's not really anything I have a say in, sir."
"Maybe you'll consider it the next time we fly over this city in our jets." The guy was acting dead serious, though what he was saying was insane.
I moved on. It was busy, and this was not a pleasant interaction.
I came back to the table on my next round and the mother, a real peach of a lady, waved the receipt at me and asked (I remember this sentence, verbatim):
"What did you do to justify the tip we're supposed to give you?" She was fire-in-her-eyes pissed off.
I was seriously taken aback. I have been doing this job for well over a decade, and I have never before, or since, been asked that question or seen such hatred in a customer's face. I couldn't think of anything to say. Sometimes, a person might ask if a server keeps all of the tips, and you can explain how every front-of-house employee gets a cut. With her, I needed a second to get my composure.
"I don't need to justify how I earn a living any more than you do." I was surprised that such a reasoned answer came from me in that moment.
"Don't talk to our mother like that!" barked one of the sons.
"Your job is to serve us and do what we say. You're not supposed to talk back."
I walked away before I said something horrible. Management, spineless as always, took off the gratuity. I'm certain the manager apologized about my behavior.
I don't work there any more.
Do you have a crazy restaurant story you'd like to see appear in Behind Closed Ovens (on ANY subject, not just this one)? Please e-mail WilyUbertrout@gmail.com with "Behind Closed Ovens" in the subject line (or you can find me on Twitter @EyePatchGuy). Submissions are always welcome!
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