Welcome back to Behind Closed Ovens, where we take a look at the best and strangest stories from inside the food industry. This week, let’s all restore our collective faith in humanity with stories of some of the best restaurant customers out there. As always, these are real e-mails from real readers.
One night when I was in my early 20’s, I went to an upscale restaurant with my parents and one of their friends. After looking at the menu, my parents decided to split a meal. When their friend and I realized that we were going to order the same thing, we decided to split as well. We had a very nice meal with excellent service. When the bill came, my dad put his credit card in the folder as we continued chatting. I didn’t really pay much attention to the transaction. But not long after, our waiter came over and thanked us with incredible enthusiasm—so much so that I wondered what was up.
As we left, I asked my dad if he knew why the waiter had been so effusive. He told me that just because we had split two meals didn’t mean that he’d worked half as hard as he would have if we’d each ordered our own meal, so he tipped based on the amount the bill would have been had there been four entrees on it.
I’ve always known my dad was one of the good guys, but even I was pretty damned impressed with that. And I’ve made a point to use his guidelines when tipping ever since.
(Editor’s Note: Actual e-mail I sent back within seconds of reading this story: “OH MY GOD YOUR FATHER IS THE BEST HUMAN”)
Kinja user Freaked-Out Ethel:
I was waiting tables at a sushi restaurant. One evening, I had a party of 12 (co-workers from what I could gather) at my corner table. The people were fine, keeping things moving but enjoying each others company. It was a weeknight and we weren’t otherwise crowded. I don’t think it was the point of the gathering, but it was mentioned that today was the 30th birthday of one of the men at the table. He made a big production of showing me his ID to prove it. I play along and assure him he would get a free dessert after the meal. This seemed to please him.
When the time comes, I asked him what sort of dessert would he like. He then fired off a long, detailed list of what he is allergic to and the horrible reactions he could suffer if he comes near them. This list mainly consisted of nut allergies, so I suggested the green tea ice cream.
This seemed acceptable, and I brought him out a small bowl of it with the check, then backed away to give them time to squabble over paying the bill.
Then the guy calls me over. He points to the bowl of ice cream in front of him and asks me if I am sure that the green tea ice cream doesn’t have any pistachios in it. Could I go double check with the kitchen to make sure? It looks a lot like pistachio ice cream. After all, he is deathly allergic to them and his throat could swell up and he could die right here on the floor.
I was enjoying some mental exercise of that very thought when the man sitting to his right picked up the bowl and took a small bite, gestured quizzically and passed it to the person to HIS right, “What do you think? Does this taste like it has nuts in it?”
That person picked up on it, took her own taste and passed it to her right with the same question.
Obviously, this had happened before. All the other people at the table tried a bit and passed the ice cream along, to the great amusement of all but the birthday boy.
When it reached the last person sitting to birthday boy’s left, she scraped up the very last taste of the ice cream, licked the spoon, handed the bowl off to her right and announced that no, there were no nuts in that delicious ice cream.
So, recently, I’m visiting my best friend, who works at a coffee place. One of the people she works with is sick, so she asks if I’d mind coming in with her. I have zero restaurant experience, but she says she can give me some easy jobs and when there’s free time, she’ll train me in how to make coffee and stuff. It’s a slow morning, so we have a couple hours to go over the operation; I slam my fingers in the dessert freezer, burn myself making espresso, and get accidentally slapped with a (fortunately cool) spatula. Everyone is super nice and it’s fun and games all around.
THEN, we get some people in. First is a couple: man and woman in their twenties who order some coffees and sandwiches, then go sit and eat. Keep these people in mind for later.
While they’re eating, the devil himself evicts his worst tenants, and they enter the shop. It’s a family: mom, dad, two boys under ten. The family orders a black coffee for mom and three Americanos for the father and the boys. Now, I don’t drink coffee, so I’m already quietly thinking it’s super weird that these actual children are down for Americanos, much less coffee of any kind. The family also orders some food and goes to wait at a table.
My friend starts their coffees and I’m sent over with the complimentary glasses of water. When I’m about five feet from their table, dad stands up and throws out his hands like he’s Gandalf and I’m the Balrog, then he says, “Don’t you bring any of that pussy water over here. My boys don’t drink that shit—they only drink coffee.” I nod and politely say, “Excuse me,” then I go back to the kitchen and silently mouth “What the fuck?!” at the cook for like a solid minute because WHATTHEFUCKEVENWASTHAT? None of us have medical training, but we’re pretty sure you can’t live on Americanos alone. The family ultimately gets their coffees and food from my friend (who has the poker face of an Easter Island Head) and things quiet down for a while.
So that couple I mentioned earlier are getting some pastries to go when the dad and one boy walk up behind them. For a minute, my friend is handling the couple’s order, and the father and son seem perfectly content. As soon as the couple step to the side, dad takes the coffee his son had been holding, thrusts his arm across the counter and pours it out.
As a seasoned veteran, my friend leaps out of the way with the grace of a gazelle, but as a dumb newbie, I just stand there agog tempting the forces of evil. Dad looks at me and starts in on this tirade about how the coffee was SHIT and full of WATER and he needs a strong drink for his son to be a strong man and not turn into a “limp-wristed faggot.” Mom then steps in to tell my friend she was probably illiterate and a “fat illegal Mexican communist lesbian” (THOSE ACTUAL WORDS IN THAT ACTUAL ORDER IS WHAT SHE SAID IT IS SEARED INTO MY MIND BECAUSE WHAT).
My friend and I are now both offended (she as a second generation Mexican-American and I as a first generation Fat-Lesbian). We don’t get the chance to vent our rage, though, because all of a sudden, the girl from the couple leans in and very quietly says, “Hey, could you shut the fuck up?” And they do—we all shut the fuck up out of shock, in fact. Then the Mom tries to start, “Excuse me, did you just tell me—”
“To shut the fuck up,” the woman says with a very earnest expression. “Yeah, you should also leave. Your family is super rude and you should go.”
While the family stands there allowing flies to pass in and out of their gaping maws, the couple waltz out like they just arrived in America after fleeing from great Fucks Famine of 2015. But the bell over the door rings and it’s like the bell at a wrestling match. Mom and dad’s faces both go bright red and they go barreling towards the door with the kids in tow. Having little sense of self preservation, I run out after them. My friend has no choice but to run after me, and the cook loves drama (Editor’s Note: You could’ve just stopped at “he’s a cook.”), so he comes too.
In the parking lot, the couple turn around to face the approaching family. “You can’t talk to us like that,” dad says. The woman stares at him with completely dead eyes and says, “You just gonna talk about it?”
For about half a second, I’m terrified a fight is about to break out...then the guy in the couple pipes up and says, “Talk about it.” Then he keeps repeating, “Talk about it, talk about it, talk about it, ooh ooh baby!” And he lifts his hands and starts dancing backwards across the parking lot while singing “Funky Town.” The girl is just staring down the dad like a cowboy with nothing to live for, and the guy is dancing his heart out (he was actually really compelling to watch, considering he drew my eyes away from the confrontation). Finally, the guy has danced over to his truck, which he hops into, then tears around in with wheels squealing. He comes to a skidding stop perfectly behind the girl so she can reach back and, without breaking eye contact with dad, open the door and hop in.
As they drive off, I can hear the guy singing, “You gotta move on, doot doot doo doo doo doo. You gotta move on.”
Before I wrote this, I called my friend about it and she said, “If what you remember doesn’t make sense, you aren’t remembering wrong. First rule of customer service: nothing makes any goddamned sense.”
In my late teens, I waited tables at a small, independent Italian food and pizza place in a small Central Texas town. I had no training, and usually that was okay, no one expected much beyond menus, food and a check.
One night, a middle aged couple came in, ordered lasagna and manicotti dinners and wine. After dinner, the woman ordered coffee. When I served it, I fumbled the saucer and cup and dumped the whole cup in her lap. She was wearing a white dress. Hot. Coffee. White. Dress. Oh! I streaked into the bathroom for towels and mopped her lap as best I could. Apologies. Paper towels, cloth towels from the kitchen.
I offered to pay her dry cleaning bill and they kept laughing and telling me it was okay. Instead, they left me a $20 tip, on a $20 check. This was in the early 70’s and it was incredible. I’ll never forget their generosity. I try to repay them when my server screws up big time nowadays.
During my tenure as a server at a relatively nice local Chinese restaurant outside of Boulder, CO, I learned a hard truth about serving families with children: not all parents think they need to tip on their children’s meals. “Wait, this is a thing?” you ask. Yes, it’s a thing. A thing that I learned the hard way, over and over, as I got what amounted to a 10 percent tip because mom and dad were only tipping for their food and drinks, and not for their kids.
In fairness, this practice doesn’t apply to the majority of customers, but it’s hard not to remember those tables. They become a permanent thorn in the side of your restaurant experience.
During my second summer working at this restaurant, however, I encountered a rare unicorn of a customer, a perfect yin to the yang of the “no tips on kids’ meals” crowd. A family came in with their little boy, who was probably around a year old. I got him a high chair and some crayons, and he happily got to scribbling while his parents ordered food. For the next 45 minutes or so, as I delivered their food and checked on them periodically, I was impressed by how much they engaged with their son. He was trying all of their food, and they were talking to him, playing with him — it was very cute. Of course, it’s Chinese food, so he was making a mess. Rice was piled under his high chair, along with scraps of vegetables and dollops of sauce.
Finally, I cleared their plates and brought them their check. They paid with a credit card. After they left, I went to pick up the credit card receipt and found a 20 percent tip...and a note written on the back of the bill with three $1 bills clipped to it: “Thanks you for putting up with my mess so that I could try out some new and delicious food! My mom and dad really appreciate it!” It was “signed” with the little boy’s name.
In the grand scheme of things, $3 isn’t that much, but that day it was more than enough to restore my faith in humanity. I now have a baby daughter, and my husband and I are carrying on this tradition, leaving a few extra dollars with a note from our daughter thanking the server for putting up with our extra mess. I know how much extra work those messes can be, and thanks to my long-ago customer, it seems like the least we can do.
I was living in Sun Valley at the time working in a tea/coffee/breakfast place and I had a customer come in who wanted his Irish soda bread burnt. I, thinking he meant very brown served it to him that way. He politely said no, really I meant burnt. So that’s what I did: I toasted it until the smoke alarm almost went off.
This lovely man came in every day, I burned his bread, and he left a $5.00 tip on a $4.00 meal. One time, he heard me (quietly, I swear) talking to another waitress about how I couldn’t afford to have my other cat spayed yet, and when he left, I found $100.00 under the cup for my cat.
This was 40 years ago and I always try to be as nice to wait staff as he was to me.
I grew up in a small-ish town in Ohio. It had a not overly extravagant but serviceable country club with a golf course, swimming pool, tennis courts, restaurant and bar. I waited tables in the bar for my later high school years, serving fancy cocktails to the parents of my richer classmates. It was very “She’s All That” without the makeover scene. Despite occasionally having to pass apps at a birthday or graduation party of my peers, I liked the job.
Members had weekly golf leagues—men on Tuesdays and women on Wednesdays—and would come into the bar for a bite and beer after. League nights were always busy but I liked getting to know the members and knowing exactly what they would order helped make the situation manageable.
My last week working there before heading off to college something truly wonderful happened. On Tuesday, the men’s league, the gents kept slipping me a few extra bucks here and there. “Just to help with books.” “I hope this gets you started.” It sounds creepy, but it was really sweet. In total, I ended up with over $200 that night.
The next night, I was finishing serving the ladies’ league when one of the more outspoken members called me over. She presented me a card containing about the same amount of money as the previous night. They had taken a small collection earlier.
To this day (about 10 years later), their generosity still gets to me.
I had just completed training at that Australian-themed steakhouse (Editor’s Note: Steakback Outhouse, we know) and it was one of the first nights that I was working my section without having a trainer looking over my shoulder. Nice-looking folks on a double date were seated in my section and after delivering their drinks, I launched into a ridiculously thorough overview of the menu.
Perhaps indulging me a bit, they asked a few questions so I could show off my new-found knowledge some more. One of the ladies asked me to tell her more about the filet mignon—specifically, if I thought it would be enough food for her. Confusing my weights and measures, I told her, “well, it’s 9 inches, and that’s about all I can fit.” I was mortified as they exploded into hysterical laughter. I took the rest of their order with a menu up in front of my face.
They tipped well.
I went to college in Canada, and I couldn’t work during the school year (being American). Those bills wouldn’t pay themselves, and the only time I could save up money was during my summers spent at home in Pittsburgh. I would work at least two full time waitressing gigs at once, grabbing three or four hours of sleep where I could, drinking buckets of coffee and coffee milkshakes. I was a tiny, twitchy mess, but I was young and eager to please, so I made good tips. One of those jobs was at a 24 hour diner named Eat ’n Park. I worked almost exclusively the midnight shift, arriving between 9pm and 11pm and leaving eight or so hours later.
Then one Sunday, I agreed to take on a dinner shift for a friend. I was used to serving breakfast platters and ice cream to drunk people, but the dinner shift involved big parties, multiple courses, sides and bread baskets and all kinds of bullshit that I wasn’t used to working into my routine. I was deep, deep in the weeds with a full section and people were getting pissed.
Fast forward to me standing next to a booth crammed with a big mom and four hungry kids, with the toddler in a high chair next to me. This mom had been kind to me all night, telling me to take my time as I powered past her table multiple times chirping “be there in a minute!” My tray was laden with the food for this table and drinks for the next—those huge red plastic coke cups that were popular ten years ago at diners (maybe they still are) that are larger at the top than at the bottom. You can probably guess where this is going.
I put down the last plate, lost the balance on the tray, and two giant cups of coca cola tipped over and poured over the toddler. I couldn’t have aimed better if I’d tried. The child was soaking wet and SCREAMING. I was beyond horrified and apologetic.
“Don’t worry about it,” the mom said, totally chill. “These things happen!” I could not believe how nonplussed she was that her child was drenched in brown soda water. I helped clean him up, gave what little extra attention I could muster to the rest of their meal, and comped their desserts.
A few minutes later, I was standing at the credit card machine for another customer when one of my fellow servers told me “there’s a lady out there that wants to see you.”
It was the mom. She said, and I’ll never forget this: “Honey, I just wanted to give you a hug, because you looked like you really needed it.” We hugged.
When I was working as a waitress at a local chain of fifties diners in Colorado called Gunther Toodys, I had to endure 5 cent burger night. The gist was that if a table ordered two drinks and two burgers, the second burger was five cents. This offer went for multiple burgers, so if it was a six top three of the burgers were 5 cents. You can imagine what this did to my check average: every ticket was basically half of what it should have been per pair of burgers, which meant my tips suffered because no one ever tipped before the discount. To add to this, burger nights were always PACKED. I’d have a five table section, get triple sat all night long, turn and burn them in under 30 minutes, and it wouldn’t let up until 930. This means I’d average at least 100 people a burger night but walk out with like, 50 in tips before tip out. The servers universally hated it, and referred to it as five cent tip night.
Anyway, I’m working one burger night during the height of the economic recession and hating life more than usual because apparently the first thing to go in a recession is tipping your server. So I have this two-top, normal couple, order burgers and shakes. Totally standard. When I drop their food, we get to talking about the recession, and they ask how it’s impacted me. At this point I’m burnt out, so I tell the truth: that I usually make 20 dollars less a night in tips than I used to, and about 30 less on burger nights. They’re super sympathetic and then tell me that they’re about to lose their house and the husband lost his job and they’re in pretty dire straits. I say all the usual platitudes and leave, not really giving it much thought.
When I drop their check they hand me a wad of cash and say good night. As they’re walking out the door, I unfold the bills and it’s their tab total plus 50 dollars with a note attached that says: “here’s that 30 for tonight and the 20 for tomorrow that you’re missing out on. You were great!”
Every time they came back in, I made sure to wait on them and gave them free milkshakes as a thank you for being so selfless when they themselves had every reason to penny pinch.
I used to work at a popular restaurant that’s name included a color and a sea creature and who is notoriously litigious, so no real names. (Editor’s Note: It’s cool, we know you were working at the Blue Spider-Crab.) Anyway, I was working a particularly uneventful lunch shift, when a middle-aged couple accompanied by a small (yet polite) child were seated in my section. Since I had literally nothing else to do, I gave this trio all of my attention.
In chatting with them, I learned it was grandparents’ day at the little boy’s school and that they had decided to have a special lunch out together. I remarked quite sincerely that this couple did not look old enough to have a grandson. Young Grandma started blushing and thanked me for saying so.
A few moments later, my GM stopped by their table to check in (like I said, we were slow and everyone was bored). They said the food and service were excellent and that I was very nice. I also saw him giving the group directions to the Cold Stone located in our mall. I asked him if everything was okay.
“They’re fine, the little boy just had his heart set on ice cream. Go ahead and drop their check.”
I do this, jokingly tell them to bring me back some ice cream, and wave goodbye to them a few minutes later. To my joy, I found a quite generous tip left behind for me. I smiled and proceeded to clean up the scant mess they’d left behind.
About half an hour later, I was rolling silverware in the BOH, and another server came back to tell me I had a visitor. It was Young Grandma and Polite Boy. Polite Boy had his hands behind his back and a very sneaky smile on his face. I ask what’s behind his back, and he gleefully presents me with a small ice cream from Cold Stone. I’m so taken aback that I hug this small child within an inch of his life and thank Young Grandma profusely. She just smiled and said, “He insisted on bringing it to you himself.”
This was definitely one of the top ten days I’ve ever had.
(Editor’s Note: OH DEAR GOD MY COLD, BLACKENED EXCUSE FOR A HEART)
My very first job was working at a now defunct truck-stop in the Ozark Mountains area of Arkansas in the early 2000s. One soul-crushingly hot July day, I was working as the “hostess” in the diner attached to the truck-stop when a trucker came in to make a to-go order. He was a pretty heavy-set, bearded guy, probably in his mid-sixties, and wearing a button-up shirt. After he made his order, he told me that he was going to go check something in his truck, and he’d be back in 15 minutes to pick up his order. I put his order in and went about my business.
After a few minutes, the trucker came back in and told me that it was too hot to be outside and I told him he was welcome to just hang out at a table while his food was cooking, so he sat down near me and we starting talking. When he had gone out to his truck, he had taken off his button-up shirt and was now wearing a red muscle shirt. I also noticed he was now carrying a plastic bag from the store section of the truck-stop, and when I asked him what he bought, he pulled out a cheap knock-off Barbie and some princess jewelry and told me he had picked them up for his granddaughter, who he was going to see later that week.
A few minutes into our conversation, a family came in that consisted of a young father, his Southern Belle of a wife, and their daughter, who was not quite 4. I sat them down and went to check on the truckers food while the 4-year old desperately tried to get her mother’s attention. As I walked out of the kitchen holding the trucker’s order, the girl started slowing building herself into a total state of mania.
Finally, in front of the entire restaurant, the little girl stood up in her chair, pointed at the trucker and screamed “MOM THAT’S SANTA AND HE’S ON VACATION AND I CAUGHT HIM AND THAT IS SANTA. THAT. IS. SANTA. CLAUS!” She then sat down, exhausted, and stared unblinkingly at the trucker while her parents looked at her, absolutely mortified.
Before anyone had a chance to collect their thoughts and say something to her, the trucker jumped up, walked over to the little girl and immediately busted out a perfect, booming Santa impersonation:
Santa/Trucker: “Ho Ho Ho! That’s right! I am Santa, and I’m on a secret vacation here in Arkansas, but you caught me! Do you know what happens when little girls catch Santa on vacation?”
Little girl, “no....” (side note: yes, the parents looked absolutely terrified at this point)
Santa/Trucker: “YOU GET PRESENTS! HO HO HO!”
He then proceeded to hand the little girl all the cheap truck-stop toys he had bought for his own granddaughter, then took his to-go order out of my hands, winked, and walked out the door.
I never saw him again.
(Editor’s Note: OK, I’m like 85% sure that actually WAS Santa.)
Do you have a crazy restaurant or other food-industry 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. Also, if your stories are not food-related in some way, I am unable to do anything with them. Sorry.
Image via Botamochy/Shutterstock.
Contact the author at WilyUbertrout@gmail.com.