When I was in my early 20s, I worked in a small restaurant owned by a couple. Working for them was like being caught in the crosshairs of their relationship, and the wife in particular was tough on the people who worked there. She was so anxious about getting everything exactly right, exactly how she wanted it, that she became a bit of a monster. I think of my years in her employ the way you might look back on an emotionally abusive affair. I grew a lot in that job, and learned a lot, but I was so scarred by it that I was unable for ten years to go back and say hello, even though I was in the neighborhood every so often. Just coming near the place gave me anxiety.
I finally got over that a few months ago, and after a couple of fortifying cocktails up the street I decidedI should go say hello. As much as I had been treated poorly there, screamed at, had my tips stolen and been generally humiliated on a regular basis, the couple was also like family after a certain point. I poked my head into the small dining room and was immediately greeted by a young waitress with terror in her eyes.
I asked if the owners were there, and if I might say hello. The woman asked who I was with a huge amount of trepidation and I realized that just the thought of going to the owners with a request — or really, having to speak to them at all — made her quake. I’d never thought before of how the amount of tension in that restaurant must have impacted the customer experience, but in a space so tiny with so much bad will bouncing around and servers who are emotionally beat down, the experience of eating there must have been tense for any but the most oblivious customer.
The irony, of course, is that this is the exact opposite of the desired effect of the owners, who exert that iron-fisted control in an effort to make sure the customer experience is wonderful. They are so caught up in the stress of owning a business and trying to manage employees that they are unable to step back and see the outcome.
Since then, I’ve been noticing a lot of service like this, in L.A. and elsewhere. The waiter who comes to the table with a fixed but terrified smile, the waitress who's speaking to me as I’m sitting there but obviously intensely aware of someone else who's watching her over her shoulder. A few weeks back I had a supremely weird experience in which I tried to commiserate with a waiter over what jerks the people at the table next to us had been for trying to get out of paying a corkage fee. He could not comprehend that I wasn't complaining, but rather trying to speak to him as a person, make a human connection, lighten the mood after what had been a tough situation for him. “I’m so sorry!” he said over and over, looking as though someone might hit him. Across the room, an owner/manager looked on suspiciously.
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Restaurants run on respect, but fear doesn’t instill respect. I get the feeling at places where service is fantastic that the staff is having fun, and I’m there to have fun with them. This can be true in a casual or formal setting. One of the best service experiences I’ve had recently was in one of L.A.’s most formal rooms. Conversely, one of the most stressful meals I’ve had was at a tiny place known for its impeccable service. There was nothing wrong with the way anything went down, but I could taste the tension in the air as readily as I could taste the food.
It’s such an obvious truth it shouldn’t even have to be said, but a miserable staff makes for a miserable customer experience.