Welcome back to Behind Closed Ovens, where we take a look at the best and strangest stories from inside the food industry. We’ve got a new topic this week: stories about old people in restaurants, both good and bad. As always, these are real e-mails from real readers.
Kinja user applejuice:
As a student, I occasionally helped out as server at a small, family-owned restaurant (it wasn’t my regular job).
On one occasion I was beckoned over by an elderly lady (imagine Driving Miss Daisy) who said there was a mess under her table I needed to ‘see to’. I knew it was clean before she sat down, but I smiled and looked underneath and saw about 15 perfect yellow rose petals underneath. I smiled, probably made small talk, cleaned it up and then buzzed off to refill drinks.
Two minutes later she called me over again and said I had missed some of the mess, this time there were several pink rose petals carefully spread equidistant under the table. The first time I thought maybe someone had a bouquet that had fallen or something but this time it was clear this lady was spreading flower petals on the ground JUST FOR ME TO CLEAN UP! The third time the petals were red and the fourth white. I never accused her or anything (I was just there helping a friend and didn’t want to make to trouble) but just smiled and cleaned them up. At the end of her meal she gave me a very condescending “good job dear” and a lousy 50 cent tip.
After that, the owner kept calling me and saying an elderly lady was requesting me, saying I was clearly smarter than the ‘normal sort’ he had (because I could clean up rose petals?) and could I work regularly? I declined the kind offer and kept my office job. I could smile through that as a one-off, but no way could I deal with stuff like that all the time.
I was eating at an upscale vegan restaurant in Manhattan. Two elderly couples sat down near me. It was clear that the last time they had eaten at that location, it had not been a vegan restaurant. The waiter carefully explained what seitan, tofu, and tempeh were.
One of the women was inquiring about the potatoes in her entree—were they mashed? Was there any way she could get roasted potatoes instead? The waiter explained that the mashing part was pre-done and couldn’t be changed. The woman then said “I don’t eat anything pureed”—apparently her reason for needing whole potatoes. Ultimately she had to order another entree. I found myself wondering what else qualified—smoothies? Soups?
Then, the two women said they wanted to share a salad. The waiter explained that it would be fine for them to share, he would bring the salad and an extra plate. One of the women asked if they could split it in the kitchen for them. The waiter said no, the policy was to let customers split it themselves to ensure that both parties were happy with the split, to which the woman responded:
“Ugh, I find your plate splitting policy to be so offensive.”
I worked at a restaurant famous for it’s cardboard-flavored pizza and marginal breakfast. (Editor’s Note: OK, I’m blanking on what this could be. Where the hell serves both terrible pizza and breakfast?) I was a delivery driver/dishwasher on the weeknights, and a waiter on the weekends. The job wasn’t half-bad when I got to drive around of an evening and waste time outside. The 5 am Saturday morning shift, however, was a different story.
It was typically your run of the mill old people party. Rarely did you have a table with anyone under 50, and if you did it was someone’s grandchild. Old ladies were easy to get them to like you: something along the lines of “Do your parents know you gals are here” or comment on how young they look and you are golden. This particular morning, however, was something I am certain Satan himself designed.
After being slammed all morning due to there being some kind of teen softball tournament, my patience was waning with people and their complaints. It was about 9 am and an older gentleman and his wife were seated in my section. I greeted them and handed them silverware and menus, then asked what they would like to drink. The old guy informed me he would like a coffee and she would have a small sprite.
I went to the drink station to get their drinks, and as I’m pouring them, the old turd grabbed my arm, yanked on it, and said, “THIS IS NOT A SMALL SPRITE!” The cup was small, but apparently he was seeking a thimble for his elderly wife to drink from. As I did my best to keep my composure, I walked back to the kitchen, chucked the cup into the dishwasher, and grabbed a four ounce paper cup usually used for young children.
This was no better. The old dude started complaining about the food, then complained to my pushover of a manager about my ability as a waiter. My manager, as I was not a cute college girl he could be old and creepy with, agreed and berated me after he left. I quit a couple days later.
For the record, the guy did leave a tip: a shiny, newly minted penny. Anyone that waits tables can attest, a penny is a bigger slap in the face than nothing.
My first “real” job when I was 16 was at a cafeteria at a local mall, the kind of place elderly people liked, and we got a lot of them coming through, especially after church on Sunday.
I was the salad girl. My station was the first in line and took a lot of work to maintain, what with the salad bar, nasty spilled dressing, and all the JELL-O plates and 3-bean salad and ambrosia dishes that rested on the frost table. I still preferred it to the first station I started at, where you had to carve prime rib, which was a horrible, messy job.
Because the salad bar was first, I also had to stock the silverware rolled up in a napkin (I got really fast at rolling it up) and make sure there were plenty of trays. These often came back from the dishwasher wet, so we provided a stack of paper towels and a handy wastebasket to toss them in once the customer was done drying off their tray.
I was working one day when an elderly lady came in. She snarled, “These trays are WET!” I replied quite politely “Yes, I know they are ma’am, but there are some paper towels right there that you can use to dry your tray off.” She replied “Hmph!” took a paper towel, dried off her tray, and then THREW the towel right at me and hit me with it.
I very pointedly and quite silently picked up the wet paper towel, walked around the counter to the tray station, pointedly picked up the small waste basket, threw the paper towel in it, put it back down, and returned to my station.
For my silent protest, I got fired, because this kind lady complained to the manager.
Like most kitchens, the staff had a special shorthand code for writing down orders for the cooks (i.e. a Large Haddock and chips would be ‘LHC,’ a jacket potato with cheese and beans would be ‘JP+CB’... that kind of thing.) One of the dishes we did was a Spinach and Mushroom Lasagne, which was written as ‘SML’ and verbally pronounced as ‘smel’ when yelled down the kitchen (i.e. “one smel with salad.” Would’ve been gobbledegook to the customers, of course, but hey, the code wasn’t for them...
One particularly busy day one of the older waitresses took out an order with a Spinach and Mushroom Lasagne as part of the package, and when it came to serving it to the little old lady who’d ordered it COMPLETELY forgot herself and held it under her face with the salutation “Smel” (i.e. the kitchen code).
The poor old dear looked at her with a mixture of confusion and fear on her face, leaned forward... and with her eyes fixed on the waitress the whole time, as if she was afraid of what she might do if she disobeyed, aimed a nervous sniff at her dinner. And then stammered “Mmm, yes, it’s very nice, thank you.”
The waitress was mortified at her mistake, but thought explaining herself would just be even more confusing so she just kind of scuttled off without saying anything else. Until she had to serve desserts to the same table later on, and when she handed out apple pie and custard the little old lady looked up at her and whispered “Do I have to smell this first as well?”
My wife and I went out to eat at Baker’s Square, which is part of the same company as Village Inn. It’s the type of restaurant that offers predictable, unexciting food that appeals to unadventurous eaters like seniors and my siblings. But the pie is good, which is why went that night.
We had two senior couples sitting behind us—and we were glad they were behind us so they couldn’t see us laughing at them and sympathizing with the poor waitress. As one of the gentlemen was ordering, his wife kept interrupting him to say that his doctor says he can’t eat that, and telling the waitress to bring him something else instead. They argued back and forth about what he was ordering, for every piece of the meal—entree, side dishes, and drink. There was clearly a no-win situation for the waitress.
When their food came out, another member of the party complained that his meal was incorrect, and he’d been brought the wrong entree. Having heard them ordering, I can tell you that she brought what he’d ordered—he just couldn’t remember what he’d ordered.
The real kicker, though, was with the salt and pepper. They’d recently replaced their old shakers with disposable McCormick salt and pepper grinders. You know, to add a little class, because nothing says classy like disposable, non-refillable grinders with the labels on them. Anyway, one of them complained very loudly about the grinders, saying that they weren’t real salt and pepper, and demanding that she bring them some real salt and pepper shakers. To be fair, the grinders are probably horrible for somebody with arthritis, and she probably could have offered to help them with the grinders, but they just kept yelling for her to bring them shakers (to this day, nearly a decade later, we’ll occasionally tell each other “I don’t like this salt, bring me a real shaker.”).
We assumed that these couples probably weren’t going to be good tippers under the best of circumstances, much less after they’d been complaining the whole time. We left the waitress a big sympathy tip.
One morning my partner and I went out for an early lunch (okay, maybe it was brunch) at a local diner franchise.
The restaurant’s menu had always been standard diner food: lots of grease and eggs and french fries. However, they were in the midst of phasing in a new menu with “local fare” and “healthy options”, things like bison burgers made from grass fed bison and whole grain buns. We had mostly picked the restaurant because we could hear ourselves think, but it was nice to have a food option other than “grease and carbs with a side of extra grease.”
We had just been seated when a trio of older people were seated at the table next to us. Immediately, one of the men started complaining about the new menu. Apparently, when he goes out to eat he always orders one thing, which is a shrimp cocktail. The new menu did not have a shrimp cocktail.
That meal, all we heard about was fucking shrimp cocktails, and also cocktail sauce.
First, he complained to his fellow diners about the lack of shrimp cocktails and the new menu. Then, he complained to the wait staff and the manager. Apparently not enough people ordered the shrimp cocktail to keep it on the menu (why did the manager tell him this as a reason, why?), which was inconceivable to the dude who apparently lives for shrimp cocktails.
Finally, when they told him that they did not have the ingredients to make a shrimp cocktail (even if they had the time), he decided to order fish and chips because at least it was still fish. However, he still wanted cocktail sauce.
Both the server and the manager explained to him that since the restaurant no longer served shrimp cocktails, they did not have cocktail sauce. I think it took about ten minutes of them repeating this for him to believe that they did not have a hidden bottle of cocktail sauce in their kitchen, hoarded for the end of days.
Then, he wanted the kitchen to make cocktail sauce especially for his meal. He even offered to teach them how to make cocktail sauce, which he said was quite easy. He kept repeating the recipe and they kept interrupting him to tell him that is not how restaurants work. Apparently, cocktail sauce is really his thing, since he has taught chefs in other restaurants how to make cocktail sauce and they were very grateful! At a restaurant in Chicago, and maybe some other places too. I was trying to tune him out. Honestly, I felt like an angry Bubba from Forrest Gump was sitting at the next table, and every other phrase from his mouth was “cocktail sauce” instead of “shrimp.”
When his fish and chips came, I think he ate about two bites and pushed it away because it would have been better with cocktail sauce, and also shrimp cocktail is apparently the best damn meal on the planet. He told the staff they should change the menu back, because no one was going to want to order bison burgers when they could have had shrimp cocktail or at least cocktail sauce (which is very easy to make, did you know that? Now everyone knows that!). I wanted to stab my eardrums with a fork to make it stop.
My partner and I left a really nice tip, and also filled out the comment card on the table saying we really liked the new menu and would be coming more often because of it. We also complimented the server and the rest of the staff, in case he wrote something nasty about them that left some kind of black mark on their record with corporate.
Being half-British myself, I think if pushed I could probably be equally annoying about tea if presented with a bag of Lipton’s and lukewarm water in a styrofoam cup during a tea emergency.* Fortunately, I know that US tea is not up to my expectations, so I try not to put myself in a situation where I will go on a tea rant to someone just trying to get through their shift.
* Tea emergencies can include but are not limited to: something bad happened; something good happened; something might happen soon but I’m waiting to see; it is the afternoon; it is the morning; something reminded me of tea; there is a social gathering that requires tea.
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!
Note: I do not want poop/vomit stories. Please stop sending me poop/vomit stories.
Image via Brent Hofacker/Shutterstock.
Contact the author at WilyUbertrout@gmail.com.