Opinion

Restaurants are like music bands

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At about five o’clock, on the way home from work, Eileen called me from the road craving “real food.” I agreed to meet her at a nearby restaurant we frequent. Once seated, we scanned the menu, choosing our meals before our waiter arrived. At our table moments later a waiter asked, “Can I start you off with something to drink?” Eileen asked for water. I ordered an iced tea, unsweetened, with lemon.

Before he could say, “I’ll give you a few minutes to look over the menu,” Eileen told the waiter we already knew what we wanted to eat. “Great,” he said, scribbling onto his order book our entree choice of Fall Harvest Salads. When finished, the waiter looked up from his writing, smiled, and said, “I’ll be right back with your drinks.”

And the waiter was right back, but Eileen’s water and my unsweetened iced tea with lemon had become two tall glasses of water with ice and lemon.

“Didn’t you order iced tea?” Eileen asked, looking at my drink.

“I guess I was supposed to have water,” I smiled.

That was the latest in my ongoing observations of the inner workings of the restaurant business. This month I drove 3,200 miles to St. Petersburg, Florida and back and stayed two weeks in St. Pete. Among my overnights at express hotels, eating at restaurants along the way, in St. Pete, plus my stops at eateries in Maine — October has been a great restaurant observation month.

It’s an unfair comparison, perhaps, but of all the jobs I’ve had working with other people, when I imagine what it must be like for restaurant owners in their relations with employees, I think of my experience in music bands. The similarity, I imagine, is this: most people experience bands as a whole, as a single sound. Either a single good sound or a single bad sound.

I’m that way with restaurants. They are either good or bad. Just as one musician, for a variety of reasons, can make a band sound bad; one bad restaurant experience can keep me from ever going back.

The trick with band leaders and restaurant owners is: managing their respective operations to minimize, if not prevent, customers from having bad experiences that drive them away.

For example, being served a fresh cup of coffee always was a roll of the dice. Half the time, except in diners, I would be served burned coffee. It took me a long time to come up with a workaround. I started asking waiters a common-sense preliminary question: Is your coffee fresh? I discovered waiters would answer, “I don’t know. But if it isn’t, I will make you a fresh pot.”

Son of a gun! From the moment I started asking, Is your coffee fresh?, I was always able to get a hot fresh cup of black coffee. That is, until I asked that question of a waiter at a chain Italian restaurant in St. Pete, FL.

Is your coffee fresh? To that the waiter answered, “I don’t know. We don’t have a coffee maker on this side of the restaurant. The people who do make coffee are over there,” the waiter pointed to the adjacent dining area, “when they do make fresh coffee, make it, I think, about once every hour. But, I don’t really know. I don’t drink coffee.”

Eileen and I looked at each other speechless. Turning to the waiter I said, “I’ll have an unsweetened iced tea, please. With lemon.”

I really feel for the restaurant owner. Would I go back again to that restaurant? Maybe. But like the trumpet player who rarely showed up to practice or the ace guitarist who could never quite check his ego enough to play as a band team member — it has slipped in rank to a restaurant of last resort.

I will let you know what November brings.

Scott K. Fish has served as a communications staffer for Maine Senate and House Republican caucuses, and was communications director for Senate President Kevin Raye. He founded and edited AsMaineGoes.com and served as director of communications/public relations for Maine’s Department of Corrections until 2015. He is now using his communications skills to serve clients in the private sector.

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