Dishin' That: Don't underestimate a restaurant relationship

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At first glance, I thought the following letter was either a prank from one of my friends in the industry, or recovered from a “Downton Abbey”-era time capsule. My initial reaction was to send a reply thanking this woman for writing and, for once, mind my own business.

However, this isn’t my first time around the block of restaurant romances, and as the mother of two daughters (my youngest being a millennial Lady Rose on steroids), I’ve opted to share it, toss in my two cents and, open it up to the masses:

Thank you for your perspective on the restaurant industry. My husband and I enjoy reading your column and are interested in the dress code conversation. He wants to donate his neck ties to Goodwill while I look forward to the occasional holiday party and a chance to get dressed up.

We also enjoy reading because both of our children are in the hospitality field. My stepson works in Chicago for a large hotel chain and currently puts in over 50 hours a week. He is happy and has made a lot of friends.

My daughter is in Boston and has worked two different jobs in the past three years. The first place offered benefits and tuition reimbursement, but she was dating a co-worker and that relationship went south. Her supervisor wanted her to stay, but she chose to leave for a job with no benefits and later nights.

While I want her to be happy, now she is dating a co-worker at her new job and I don’t understand why she would put herself in that situation again. He’s a nice man but they don’t seem to have much in common beyond the same work address, and I’m wondering if she’s jeopardizing her career.

Many people believe fraternization is unprofessional in any business, but the writer has touched on a subject that every server, bartender, host and kitchen employee can relate to in some way. Even if they haven’t been involved in their own dalliance, they will surely have a story to tell.

Unlike an office setting, a restaurant is a workplace within a workplace. The atmosphere is more casual and relaxed before and after guests arrive. Long and unconventional hours lend themselves to a familiarity not often seen in a 9-to-5 setting. And for the most part, the majority of staff is on the same level.

Then there’s the whole business of shift drinks and how enjoyable it is to simply relax together after a physically demanding day-turned-into-late-night. Few outside the industry can understand why it is so awkward to be present when two grown men fight, almost literally, over a check neither of them wants to pay. It’s nice to meet someone who does.

And it isn’t just romantic liaisons, because unlikely friendships develop, too. Unless you’ve been in the trenches, you can’t see how suddenly attractive and/or valued someone becomes when they bus all your tables because you’re in the weeds. More than one of us has been surprisingly comfortable telling our secrets to someone we’ve just started working with.

Sharing these human-nature based experiences is very different from discussing a return-on-investment spreadsheet in a florescent-lit office cafeteria.

Lastly, while I understand the concern about a daughter’s choices, (both personally and professionally) those who know me can attest that I’m no relationship expert.

What I can say is I’ve seen many successful industry romances last long after both parties leave and move on to other things. Here in Portland, we all know of more than one couple who own and operate both the front and back of the house, both at work and at home.

So, mother to mother, I gently suggest backing off and letting your daughter figure it out. Thank you for reading and I hope the opportunity to get dressed up and dine out comes your way soon.

Peas & Q’s

Q — I was recently shocked at the cost of a cup of coffee, with one refill graciously offered by our waitress after dinner. Isn’t three dollars too expensive, regardless of the location? — Allan G., Portland.

A — My fallback response to questions regarding restaurant pricing is to ask yourself about house costs and perceived value before passing out from sticker shock. Was the coffee a custom-roasted blend, or presented in a labor intensive French press? Was it served in an oversized saucer? Was the pricing on the same high-range scale for cocktails, wine and dinner, making it relative? Were you aware of the cost prior to ordering? Most importantly, did you enjoy it?

Perception is reality and if you believe three dollars is too high, than it is. That said, seek out the “one dollar any size coffee” from McDonald’s and stay away from Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks. You’ll be jolted awake there too.

Natalie Ladd lives in Portland. When not pecking away, she can be found serving the masses at a busy eatery, or tirelessly conducting happy-hour field research. Hospitality questions or comments should be sent to, and may be featured in a future column. Follow Natalie on Twitter: @Nhladd.

  • Mike Bond

    Great column, Natalie. You’re absolutely right.