Accused of mistreating Katrina victims
Welcome to In the Weeds. Kyle will be right with you -- most likely to complain about something. Usually he is pleasant, but this is his place to blow off some steam. Don't take it personally; he just needs to vent because he's been doing this for about thirteen years. Enjoy your meal.
Early on a Friday night five years ago, after I had forced down yet another plate of pasta for family meal before the dinner rush, a table of three -- two women and a man -- were seated in my section. They were older, but not coffee- and splitting-entrees old. When I greeted them, they were very pleasant, even bordering on bubbly.
On the surface, they appeared to be an ideal group -- nice, low-maintenance -- and I had the feeling that if all went well, they'd leave behind a $15 to $20 tip to start the night off right. Appearances can be deceiving, of course, and, in the end, they proved to be like no one I'd ever waited on -- before or since.
As we conversed, they explained that they had been displaced from their New Orleans home after Hurricane Katrina and were staying with relatives in the area. I told them I was sorry for their ordeal and said that my cousin was in a similar position.
I was amazed at their high spirits, until they placed an order that should have sent off warning signals in my head. There was about to be a different kind of storm in the restaurant.
They ordered fried calamari to start, which was the most popular dish on the menu. Then they ordered their main courses, but altered each in some way. A fish dish with a sauce that normally accompanies a different type of fish. Spaghetti with a sauce borrowed from another dish. And a chicken dish with a sauce typically served with beef.
This was a family-owned Italian restaurant and the chef/owner was a pony-tailed Vespa rider from Capri who uses olive oil rather than lotion. He hated to deviate from his menu. When guests asked for alterations, he felt like they were insulting his heritage. Some would call him dedicated to his craft, some would call him an asshole: Both would be right.
I told the diners the chef didn't like alterations, but that I would see what I could do. I knew he would grudgingly make the changes -- but it didn't hurt to let my table know I was pulling strings for them.
I had no worries about the calamari, everyone loved the dish. Except this group. I asked if they would like another order or to try a different appetizer, but they waved me off. They said it wasn't prepared poorly, they just didn't like it.
So it was on to their weird creations for dinner. I delivered their entrees and gave them time to take a few bites. When I checked back, I could tell I wasn't going to enjoy the answer to the question, "How is everything prepared?"
"We don't like it," one of the women replied.
"What's wrong?" I asked.
It just didn't taste good, they said. I offered to prepare the dishes again or let them try something different. They again declined and kept slogging through a meal they clearly hated.
These are the worst kind of disgruntled customers. They won't allow a server to try and fix the problem, but suffer through -- getting madder with each bite. And these people got a whole different kind of mad.
A few minutes later, I double-checked to see if there was anything I could do, but all they wanted was the food out of their way and the check. Then, as I was clearing their plates, they hit me with the equivalent of an uppercut from a nun: "Do they think they can just give us anything since we're Katrina victims and think we'll be happy with it?" one woman asked.
I wish I could have seen my face after she said that. it probably looked like, well, like I had just been punched by a nun. I responded with a stammering "Of course not," as I was still trying to absorb what she'd just asked me.
At the time, only a couple of months after the storm devastated the Gulf Coast, I couldn't have imagined saying anything close to confrontational to someone in their position. I might have reminded a table with a different recent history that the dishes they hated were their own creation -- but not this group.
Instead, I explained the situation to the chef to see if we could discount their bill at all. I'm not fluent in Italian curse words, but my sense was that he was less than sympathetic.
I have never wanted to deliver a check less than at that moment. They didn't argue paying the bill, but their expressions told me that they wanted the chef to know he had ruined their one pleasant evening out in many months.
My night was ruined, too.