For a (very) brief time in college one summer, I was a bull rider. I figured since I’d been taking care of cattle most of my life and already had most of the equipment (my family had a farm) and I had friends who were doing it, I might as well try it myself. And hell — it offered a way to hit the rodeo dances with pretty girls and earn a little beer money.
I wound up with a lesson on the wide gulf between something that’s simple and something that’s easy.
Bull-riding is simple. You get on the animal, you hang on for eight seconds until the buzzer sounds and you jump off. Sure, it can get a little dangerous (and this was in the day when no one wore helmets and flak jackets). But it’s not easy. Not only is it difficult to remain on the animal, one cannot always simply jump off like a child leaping from a swing. And swings do not weigh 2,500 pounds and are not angry. ‘Nuff said. My career was brief and, thankfully, did not involve personal injury. At least none of any consequence.
I was reminded of all this over the past week as we cranked up the new shop and began working with (gasp!) servers and a front-of-house staff for the first time in about three years. While our kitchen dance is by now pretty well practiced, making it mesh with unknown others in unfamiliar (though gorgeous) surroundings has been a major challenge. We’re still working into it.
Any of us, when we go out someplace to eat, want servers who are attentive but not overly so, friendly but not smarmy, efficient but not pushy and professional but not machinelike. I also like it when the chef comes out to ask how things are, but he/she doesn’t need to hang around. It’s a delicate balance, and each of us has a different ideal. I want to feel welcomed, but not like family because I am not family. I am a customer. I can sponge off family because I AM family. They can do the same to me. But it is not a professional relationship.
We’ve been slowly working out the coordination between the kitchen and getting our kitchen’s product to the customer as quickly as possible. It sounds simple but it is not easy. The kitchen is shoving out food as quickly as logistics allow. But once it hits the window, it is out of our control. We cook in chronological order — first in, first out. The trick is to make sure those carrying food to table follow the same rule, but this is not always the case.
Many variables can come into play here, not the least of which is many people ordering the same or similar items at the same time. Modern technology allows us to see when the order entered the kitchen and when it was finished, but actually getting it to table is a very human issue. Servers, under pressure to be efficient, can often grab what seems right but is actually wrong. This is why, many times, you wind up with some customers getting their food in 20 minutes while others wait over an hour. In short — those getting their food quickly are getting items meant for an earlier table.
Entire careers and an entire industry are built on dealing with this issue. Restaurants live and so often die because of it. Even the best food does not sell for very long if it is delivered cold or late. Marginal food, delivered quickly and hot, will win the competition every time. When you’re hungry, you wanna eat. Now. Everything goes hand-in-hand. Experience is the best of all teachers, and the great places (especially the great restaurant chains) have it perfected.
A few places have made a name with rude and/or slow service. Some folks like being treated in a rude fashion because it makes them feel like regulars and, well, that’s just how it is when you go there. And, I guess, all of us have been spoiled a little over the years. We want the best food and we want it now. Fortunately, New Orleanians are more patient than many others when it comes to quality. But there’s definitely a limit, particularly in a city where there are so many excellent dining options for any given budget.
Anyone who has worked in the service industry, particularly as a server, is full of stories impossible-to-please customers. But most of us are pretty basic — show us you’re trying your best and we’re willing to work with you as long as we can depend on the quality. But there’s a limit.
Finding the balance is simple, but not easy. On a busy night, it takes a combination of experience, practice and sometimes just plain luck to get it right. We’re all after the same things.
I get on that bull every day. I can’t say the ride ever gets any easier. But it’s the idea of getting on that gets me moving every morning. If things go right, I still get to dance with pretty girls and win a little beer money.
Craig Giesecke has been a broadcaster and journalist for over 30 years, including nearly two decades at the AP and UPI covering news, sports, politics, food and travel. He has been the owner of J’anita’s for five years, serving well-reviewed upscale bar food and other dishes. Comments are encouraged and welcomed.