Cartoon by Scott Ball
The time is nigh, folks – Valentine’s Day is upon us.
Perhaps you are madly in love. You’ve found that special person who makes you feel like you’re floating on air. Everything is sunshine, rainbows, and unicorns, and you can’t wait to celebrate the feeling with a fancy meal at an upscale restaurant.
If you envision a candle-lit dinner with soft music and an attentive server catering to you and your love's every need, think again. The reality of Cupid's big day in a restaurant looks a little different.
Valentine’s Day, otherwise known as "hell week" in some service industry circles, is one of the busiest "couples" holidays of the year for restaurants as it spreads out over several days before and after Feb. 14. New Year's Eve comes in second, but is limited to just one night. Restaurant employees have to suck it up for one crazy shift, but once it’s over they can quickly recover and move on.
Not so around Valentine's Day's: most servers and bartenders dread the pressure to provide the impeccable experience diners desire throughout the multi-day madness. This year, the holiday falls on a Wednesday, meaning the hustle began this past weekend and will carry into the next, creating at least one full week of long shifts and short nights for anyone in the service industry. Having worked in restaurants for 21 years, I've weathered many a hell week and can tell you firsthand it's no small feat.
You may think making reservations for the days before or after Feb. 14 is sheer genius – Avoid the crowd! Get better service! But in a city of 1.5 million people, you're not the only one to come up with that plan: thousands of fellow love birds are vying for that secluded table, too.
Try as they may, most restaurants are not equipped to handle the number of people Valentine's Day brings and simply can't accommodate everyone's special requests. Employees do everything they can to make diners' experiences as wonderful as possible, but realistically speaking, you'll have to wait anywhere from 15 minutes to over an hour to be seated. Your service – from sitting down to paying the tab – will take longer than usual.
Most restaurants will have a set or limited menu so as to accommodate as many people as possible and give their kitchen staff at least a chance at keeping up. As a diner, do your research: Don't make reservations without knowing what you are signing up for and don't act like you didn’t know when you arrive. Most restaurants go above and beyond to ensure people know about the menu and its price tag when taking and confirming reservations. Still, some people plead ignorance and try to get around the day's restrictions. Being rude or belligerent won't help. It will only ruin things for everyone involved. Why would you want to act like that in front of your date anyway?
Many people are involved in creating your Valentine’s Day experience. It begins with the hosts, who are responsible for managing the influx of calls regarding reservations starting in January. They have the unenviable job of telling people things they don’t want to hear consistently for at least one month. Once hell week arrives, they deal in person with an array of complaints and issues, all with a smile on their face.
When you get to your restaurant of choice, expect to wait. Chances are, everyone there will be in that same boat. It will be crowded, and you may have a hard time finding a place to sit or even stand. To bridge the wait time, ask the host for a menu and get a feel for what you might want to order, provided there are options. Better yet, take this opportunity to compliment your date or talk about your undying love for each other. Kindly refrain from any sort of prima donna-ish behavior such as bribery, name-dropping, and rudeness in the hopes of getting what you want. These tactics are neither appreciated nor productive. Go get a drink at the bar.
Since there may also be a wait at the bar, think of what you want to drink before you come face-to-face with the bartender. Dithering and asking the bartender for recommendations will slow things down even more. Bartenders are already drowning in a sea of booze and jerks. Don’t be one of the jerks.
Eventually, you'll arrive at your table. If you expect to receive your server's undivided attention, you might be disappointed. Your server likely has four other tables, is sleep-deprived, and may be under the weather. Nobody – I mean nobody – gets time off during hell week. Those who try to get a day off risk being fired or chastised by their managers and coworkers.
If things appear orderly in the dining room, know that utter chaos reigns behind the scenes. Chefs and line cooks are in the kitchen sweating, cussing, breaking dishes, and throwing things, while the bussers are hustling and trying to sneak a morsel of food because they've been working for 12 hours straight.
Servers are dreaming of the sweet deliverance of a shot of Rumpleminze and a cold beer after their shift, silently praying that none of their guests ask for an extra-foamy soy milk cappuccino – or worse, hot tea – with their dessert.
Managers have played out every possible scenario and prepared potential responses in their heads but still dread having to apologize for anything and everything.
Somewhere someone has chopped off the tip of their finger and is frantically trying to glue it back on with liquid bandaid so they can get back to work.
The entire staff needs to pee and probably hasn’t in at least six hours.
All this said, rest assured that you are in good hands. Restaurant employees are professionals, and they genuinely want to make their guests happy. When basic human emotions are respected, expectations are met, and the whole thing goes down without so much as a broken martini glass, a server has hit the hell week jackpot. There’s nothing more rewarding than the feeling of accomplishment and a generous tip amid the hellfire. Treat your service staff with respect and cheerfulness, and it will be returned.
Happy hell week ... I mean, Valentine’s Day!