Tales From the Café: Can’t Win ‘Em All

Time: Saturday, 12:49 pm

On weekends, during the day, we do brunch. This throws people off sometimes, since we switch up the menu a good bit for those two mornings and not everything people expect to see is on there. So despite the fact that I don’t work brunch all that often, I have seen more confused customers walk in on a Saturday mid-morning and be baffled by the full service treatment and the lack of breakfast sandwiches. This usually upsets some of them.

However, there are always a few for whom this is entirely unacceptable. And leave it to me to get one on my first brunch shift in months.

The system is simple: I walk up with a bottle of water and two glasses. I pour you water, smile, and introduce myself. Hi, my name is Hunter. I’ll be your server today. Can I get you anything more to drink outside of water? Wine, mimosa, cocktail? We have Coke products. This takes me about eight seconds, even if I speak slowly. Not long enough to need to interrupt.

But before I can say a word, the woman sitting at the fireplace with her husband looks up at me as if I’ve told her she had to sit in the corner for time-out. “You don’t have tuna on the menu?”

This is true. The tuna sandwich is not on our brunch menu. “No, I’m sorry, ma’am. Not for brunch.”

She sighs. “Well, it’s going to take us another minute to decide then.” And she looks back down at the menu, effectively dismissing me. Her husband adds nothing.

I force a smile back on my face. “Okay, not a problem. I’ll give you a minute to look and then stop back in.” Escape, escape… I duck back behind the counter and fill up a few of the empty water bottles that have come back through dish. Brunch is always busy, and if we run out of water bottles, things get dicey. (Not like we haven’t done that 75% of the brunches I’ve worked, but…) By the time the bottles are all filled and put back into the refrigerator, I figure enough time has passed for the couple at the fireplace to have made a decision.

I step back out and set my hand on my order pad, approaching the table. “Did you need another minute?”

“No, we’re fine,” the woman responds. “I want the apple walnut salad, with salmon.”

“Okay, sounds good.” I write that down. “Anything else to drink?”

“No.” Fair enough.

“And for you, sir?”

“I’ll do the half BLT, and a half apple walnut salad.” He takes his wife’s menu and hands them both to me. “And just water’s fine.”

“Okay, I’ll get that order right in.”

Five minutes later…

“Hey Hunter? The kitchen needs you,” I hear my coworker Kacey call from behind me. I sigh. This is never a good sign.

“Hey guys, what’s up?” I duck around the corner into the kitchen, leaning with one hand still on the door jamb.

“I’m sorry, we should have told you when you got in,” Laura–one of the few ladies in the back-of-house–said, giving me a sympathetic look. “We’re 86’d on salmon.”

I can feel my heart sinking. “You’ve got to be kidding. She’s going to murder me.” Kacey gives me a matching pitying smile and I crack my neck. “Okay, I’ll figure out what she wants instead.” I swallow hard and return to the table.

“Excuse me, ma’am? Unfortunately, the kitchen’s just told me that we’re out of salmon for the time being. Can I get you something else for your salad?”

She turns to face me, expression steadily growing less and less impressed. “So, you don’t have tuna. You don’t have salmon. You just don’t have fish at all, do you?”

I bite my tongue. “I’m sorry.”

“Well, can I do shrimp instead? Do you have that?”

“I believe we do, but I will go double-check for you right now.” She’s already turned back to the table, so my words fall on deaf ears. I jog back to the kitchen and catch Laura’s eye. “We have shrimp, right?” She nods. “Okay. Shrimp on the apple walnut then.” Please let that be the end of this…

Fifteen minutes later…

I’m closing out a check for a different customer at the register, and I see motion in my peripheral vision. I look up and see the fireplace woman walking up to us, so I raise my head to face her. “Yes, ma’am?” I’m hesitant about this. She’d asked for extra salad dressing about five minutes ago. I didn’t know what else I could possibly get for her.

“Is there something different about this dressing?” She holds out the ramekin of dressing, expression inscrutable.

“Actually, yes ma’am. We’ve recently switched from buying the vinaigrette to making our own, so that we make all of our dressings in-house.” I’ve tried the new dressing, and it’s tasty. A lot more going on in terms of flavor than the old stuff, as far as I’m concerned.

“Well, it’s horrible.” And without further ado, she turns and walks back to the table.

My coworker Pam is standing just being me, and we exchange a look. “Ma’am?” Pam calls after her. “Can we get you something else instead?”

She waves us off. I sigh and shake my head at Pam. “She’s just determined to be angry about her food.” I give the woman a few more moments before I go back over and apologize again. “I’m sorry that we’ve had so much trouble with your salad today, ma’am.”

“I just–I know none of this is your fault.” Thank God. At least she’s got that much right. “But this salad is why we come here. It’s one of your staples, and this dressing is just disgusting. Is there dairy in this? I swear I can taste dairy. I don’t understand. We’re not coming back if it’s going to be like this.”

Promise? Can I get that in writing? “Would you like to speak to my manager about this? I can have him come over.”

“Yes, actually. I want to talk to them and figure out what they think they’re doing.”

“All right. I’ll go let him know, and he’ll be over as soon as he can.” I stand back up and walk to the table directly behind the woman, where James is meeting with two other women and planning an event. He looks up at me as I approach. “James, the woman at F2 would like to speak to a manager; she’s pretty unhappy,” I intone.

“What’s wrong?”


“Okay, I’ll go talk to her in a minute.”

Some time later I’ve completely lost track of time…

Another table is sitting next to the woman now. I should go greet them, but James hasn’t gone over to talk to the angry woman, and I’m convinced that if she sees me, it’s going to be curtains for Hunter. A moment later, I see the angry woman flag down a different server and say something to him. He nods and walks over to James. I knew it. I hear James say “Excuse me for one moment, ladies,” as he gets up and heads over to the table.

…And for the next seven minutes, they’re talking. And I’m hiding in the back. Most of my coworkers have already seen the chaos and thus no one asks me what I’m doing.

As James walks away, I can see the look of pure frustration on his face. Man, you couldn’t pay me enough to be in his shoes.

Dear God won’t this day ever end–amount of time later…

The computer system, as I’m attempting to let the angry table pay their bill, won’t let me change the salmon option out for shrimp. Can’t void. Not just “you need more permissions to do that,” just straight up won’t do it. I force a smile and look at the husband. “Just a moment–I need to get my manager’s card so I can change the price for the salad.”

“Sure, no problem,” he says with a nod.

I duck over, hating to interrupt James again, but I just want this table gone. “James, the system won’t let me change the lady’s salmon to shrimp.”

Before my sentence is done, he reaches into a pocket and pulls out his key card for me. “Just void it off. I don’t care.”

“Just the whole salad?”

He waves a hand. “Just make it all go away.”

“You got it.” Key card in hand, I return to the register–void out the salad–and the man pays his bill. (I’ll note that he thanked me for the discount on the salad, and was surprised that we’d comped it out.)

Finally a chance to catch my breath. “Hey Hunter, did you see you have three at 11?”

Or not. I look across the café toward table 11. “Okay, thanks Autumn.” I walk back to the cooler to fetch two water bottles. After all, I still have the other table at the fireplace to greet as well. They can’t have been there too long, right? God, how long have I been dealing with this? I can feel my chest tightening and my limbs getting heavy-feeling. It’s okay. You can do this. You’ve been double-sat before. These other tables aren’t going to be her. You’ll be fine.

I open the cooler door. “Hey Hunter?” Kacey is in front of me again.


“You’ve got three at 13.”

My body freezes. “Thirteen? Or eleven?”

She frowns. “Thirteen. We just sat them.”

“…are you absolutely kidding me.” My heart and stomach take a synchronized nose dive into the floor. “I just got triple sat?”

Annual panic attack: arranged.

(Author’s note: A big thanks to my real co-workers who inspired Autumn and Kacey for stepping up to the plate on the day that inspired this. I’ll admit, the panic attack might have been worth it for this story, and commiserating with the real-life James later in the day.)


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