On a wait

Tickets are spilling out of the printer faster than anyone could read them aloud. Cooks are busy filling orders for the previous 20 tickets, and not just a list of items, but a list of modifications including burger temps, steak temps, and at brunch, egg styles: sunny-side, scrambled with or without cheese, hard-fried, poached, hard-poached (that’s a boiled egg, out of the shell, people — it takes 10 minutes), with toast, without toast, gluten-free, sub a side of this, that or the other. “Customer wants his eggs on a side plate, gravy in a separate bowl, please.” We grin, we bear it. We always strive to deliver exactly what was ordered, presented as attractively as possible.

Chef hasn’t even called out the last ten tickets, lest we line cooks lose our minds and our composure. The ticket rail is full. New tickets — perforated but attached each to the next at one corner — cascade from the printer. “Can we go on a wait?” he asks the manager.

Even if you’ve never set foot in a restaurant kitchen, you’ve likely experienced “on a wait” from a customer’s perspective. It’s no fun waiting to be seated while you’re hungry, is it?

At last! Your party’s name is at the top of the wait list. Surely you’ll be seated now — you can see four empty tables from where you’re standing near the host’s station.

Alas, “on a wait” doesn’t always just mean waiting until there’s enough empty chairs at a table to seat you. What we’re all waiting for is for the kitchen to catch up on orders enough that the timing and service of your meal is near perfection. That means not seating you until the server assigned to you has taken care of previous guests to the point that they can properly devote themselves to your comfort.

Sure, we could go ahead and seat you, but it might be 20 minutes before someone’s free to take your drink orders and give you menus, another 10 before they get back to the table with your drinks and take your food order, and then another 15 minutes before your first plate comes through the door towards your table. By that time, you’ve been seated for 45 minutes with nothing to eat — after waiting for a while at the front of the restaurant. And that is what you’ll remember, and tell your friends. “We waited 45 minutes for our food!” Sometimes perception is reality. 

I’ll paraphrase Tim Quinlan, sommelier and front of the house manager where I work at Harvest Restaurant: What we in the industry want is to give you an experience as close to perfection as possible. Your dining experience isn’t simply a matter of getting your food hot. It’s a combination of assigning a server to your party who has time to make you comfortable, getting your order correct down to the last detail, and answering any questions about the menu. Then we have to communicate your order and any modifications to the kitchen, where the cooks execute it to your exact specifications — and not just mostly on a plate, but also tasting exactly as chef intended, and beautifully presented. This includes serving it properly garnished on a hot or cold plate, whichever is appropriate. 

A proper meal in a busy restaurant is like a symphony, with two conductors: the chef or expeditor, and the front of the house manager. As a consumer (and as our guest) your only job is to enjoy yourself, and that can include being patient when all you really want right this minute is for that bread basket and iced tea to be present and accounted for.

And I’ll say this again, as I’ve said many times: Make a reservation if the restaurant takes them. You’re far more likely to be seated near your reservation time even if the restaurant is on a wait, because the timing of your seating and your meal was already part of the master plan for this service before you arrived.

With this column, I’ve been writing Industry Standard for eight very happy years. Sometimes I wonder if there’s anything left to write about, but somehow there always is. Thanks for reading; it’s a pleasure to write for you. 

Marsha Lynch has worked at many Louisville independent restaurants including Limestone, Jack Fry’s, Jarfi’s, L&N Wine Bar and Bistro, Café Lou Lou, Marketplace @ Theater Square, Fontleroy’s and Harvest.