The server in training was being shadowed by another server who wouldn’t let her get a word in edgewise.
More like a second skin than a mentor, the Shadow was short with her charge, yet overly solicitous with us. Having seen, and probably been guilty of the same behavior, I tried to make eye contact with the new server.
“What’s the special house Hollandaise like?” I asked. “Is it really lemony? Super thick? Can I get it served on the side?” Jumping in, Shadow answered my questions with a rapid-fire, second nature that comes from reciting such information a hundred times over.
Shifting my chair a bit, I wanted to engage the new server and show some small sign of support for what I know is a difficult process. Shadow was going to be a tough act to follow, even though it was supposed to be the other way around.
But unable to engage, we placed our order with Shadow, who repeated it word-for-word to the trainee, who was scribbling furiously. Watching them walk away, my companion was puzzled by the situation and my interest in it.
“What was that all about?” he asked. “Why wouldn’t she let that poor girl talk? Even at the grocery store they have a sign that says ‘Cashier in Training,’ but they still let them take forever to look up produce codes. It’s a learning process. But, why is it bothering you so much?”
“Being trained like that is embarrassing, especially if you have experience,” I explained. “But this is probably Shadow’s section and therefore, Shadow’s tips. She has an interest that goes beyond making sure we were asked if we wanted our muffins grilled or toasted. But I hate the way she’s acting like the new server isn’t there. It’s demeaning.”
Watching the newbie struggle with the point-of-sale system, I explained that most corporate places have an official trainer who gets a little something extra to make sure everyone is trained consistently. In smaller restaurants, the training is often a self-guided affair. That, or it’s a ball and chain for whoever is doing the training.
When the new server came over to refill waters, I asked her what her favorite dish was. She started to answer, but was gently, and literally, shoved aside. “Yeah, well, she’s new,” Shadow blurted, adjusting her stance to be directly in front of my chair again. “She doesn’t know very much about the menu yet so she probably doesn’t have a favorite.”
At that point, the new server sort of hip-checked back.
“I really like the blueberry creme brulee French toast with real maple syrup,” she said confidently. “That, or the crispy prosciutto, balsamic onion and goat cheese flatbread. I am very familiar with the menu and do have favorites.”
This time, it was Shadow’s turn to be flustered and she handled it poorly. “They were talking to me,” she hissed. “Don’t ever interrupt at a table when people are talking.”
Changing our original order to the new favorites, my friend filled out a comment card suggesting the uncomfortable-for-all training process be revisited. He also noted the new hire was knowledgeable and lovely.
So, what of it? Maybe Shadow was having a bad day. Or maybe she was territorial about her section, or even worried about a little competent competition coming aboard.
Training isn’t fun, especially when it’s not your primary job duty. But servers like Shadow should be flattered to be role models, and professional enough to make both the trainee and herself look good.
Both represent the house that feeds them, and no matter how long ago, all of us were newbies.
Q — We went to a Thanksgiving Day brunch that was more than $25 per person. I can understand charging extra for alcoholic drinks, but shouldn’t coffee have been included? — Sandy T., Portland.
A — I feel as if I answer some version of this coffee question at least once a month.
Professionally, I say it’s up to you to look over the menu carefully. Restaurants like to list everything that’s included in a buffet-style menu because it makes the price point more appealing.
Personally, I say yes, at $25 per person, coffee, tea or a fountain drink should have been included with a holiday, buffet meal.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, and may be featured in a future column. Follow Natalie on Twitter: @Nhladd.