It’s inevitable that sometimes, servers will have customers they have some difficulty understanding. Here’s one example of a serving handling it creatively when their managers were comically inept.
As Josh notes below, normally the best way to deal with this is to patiently and politely go through the menu with the customer to figure out what they were after, but on a busy weekend night, taking the chance on something that could potentially eat up precious minutes can be risky. So instead, Josh got creative, and everyone walked away happy. Consider this part 1 in Happy Palate Cleansing Stories after last week; part 2 is Monday.
I used to work at a huge, corporate, somewhat touristy place in downtown Washington, DC. We would get lots of people from out of town, not just tourists but also people with government-related jobs.
One Saturday night, a six-top of Ghanaian diplomats got sat in my section. I went over, gave them the standard spiel (here’s some bread and butter while you make your selections, here are our specials, etc). Although their English was not great, and their accents were thick, I could tell they understood me well enough to get by.
I returned a few minutes later to take their orders, which, despite being given in heavily accented and imperfect English, were mostly clear and pretty standard: fries, crap dip (damn, did we make good-ass crab dip), some salads. As I was leaving to put in the order, one of the diplomats whose English was the best and, therefore was in charge of ordering for the group, waved me back to the table.
“Oh,” he said, “and also the boof fallowing.”
The men (they were all men) smiled and nodded.
“I’m sorry,” I said, afraid I’d misheard him. “Can you say that again?”
“The boof fallowing,” he said. Again, most of the men nodded.
I had been working at this place for almost a year, and so I knew the fairly extensive menu inside and out; I was absolutely certain we did not have a dish called The Boof Fallowing.
If it had been a slower shift, I’d have taken a couple of minutes to comb through the menu to figure out exactly what they thought they’d ordered. Unfortunately, it was a Saturday night in the middle of tourist season, so I was slammed. I knew if I tried to solve the mystery on my own, my section would descend into chaos.
I decided to grab my manager, who happened to be walking by, and quickly explained the situation. He was a pasty, petty, insecure guy. When I explained my predicament, he scoffed.
“Just take care of your other tables,” he said dismissively. “I’ll handle it.”
It was extremely satisfying when he caught up with me a few minutes later, exasperated. I smirked at him.
“Good job, Eric,” I told him.
“Fuck off, Josh,” he told me.
I asked what to do next, and Eric said he was grabbing his boss, Paul the General Manager. This was basically the nuclear option, since Paul the GM didn’t much like to be bothered for anything other than greeting a celebrity (or what passed for a celebrity in DC, which usually meant a Congressperson or a particularly odious lobbyist) or dealing with some large, big-spending party. My six Ghanaian diplomats weren’t just any customers, but they weren’t big fish, either; I suspected Paul would not be happy about this.
A couple of minutes later, Paul the GM, white button-down shirt straining at his midsection, sidled up to the Ghanaians. In between hurriedly bussing dishes and dropping bread off at other tables, I got to watch the same scenario play out for a second time: there were some pleasantries, Paul asked the Ghanaians what they wanted, the Ghanaians ordered a bunch of things we could all understand plus The Boof Fallowing, Paul’s face sort of fell a little, the Ghanaians repeated their order (and I could tell they, too, were growing anxious, as they’d now ordered the same thing several times), and Paul nodded grimly and walked back toward me and Eric.
So now it was clear that all of us were too proud to admit we were clueless, and so none of us knew what these people wanted. With eight other four-tops in my section, I had no extra time to worry about it. Eric also had other things to do, and Paul, red-faced from walking up the main staircase and from the embarrassment of not having any answers to this asinine problem, clearly just wanted to get back to his office to count money or snort coke or whatever it was he did while the rest of us were running his restaurant for him.
Then I had an idea.
“Let’s just send them everything on the bar menu”, I suggested. “It’s all super cheap and we can comp most of it. There’s no way they’ll be unhappy with all this free food, even if it isn’t what they wanted.”
Paul and Eric looked at one another. Both men, middle-aged and balding and prideful and inept and, most importantly, desperate to deal with anything else, nodded.
Twenty minutes later, in addition to the things we knew for certain the Ghanaians had wanted, an enormous tray of appetizers arrived at their table. I bullshitted an explanation that the restaurant rolled out the red carpet for distinguished guests, and that most of the food was gratis. The Ghanaians seemed to understand and thanked me. Then they tucked in to eat. I breathed a sigh of relief, flashed a thumbs-up to Eric and Paul, who’d been watching from the wings, and went back to dealing with the rest of my section.
It wasn’t until the end of my shift, as I was clearing away the last of their dishes after they’d paid the check, that the mystery was finally solved. On his way out, the Ghanaian who’d ordered for everyone pulled me aside and, to my delight, asked me to give the chef his compliments on The Boof Fallowing. Sensing my opportunity, I asked him what he’d liked best about the dish.
“The drumsticks,” he said, running a nail through his teeth. “Very meaty.”
I looked over his shoulder at the pile of discarded buffalo wing bones on the table, and stifled a laugh.
Well done, Josh (even though that’s not your real name).
Update: The headline and lede of this post have been altered slightly. As one commenter pointed out, the issue with the original (“How Servers Should Handle Difficult-to-Understand Customers”) is that this is not the quickest or most efficient way to deal with an issue like this. It is, however, an extremely adorable, fun way to handle it, which ultimately worked out great for the customers.
Image via cobraphotography/Shutterstock. Yes, I could’ve used a picture of buffalo wings for the lede, but come on, did you really want me to ruin the punchline like that?
Contact the author at WilyUbertrout@gmail.com.