Restauranteurs and customers have stories to tell
Monday, June 09, 2014 9:06 AM
There's a neighborhood diner in the big city whose reputation has spread far beyond the neighborhood boundaries. I've been an irregular customer there for many years: when I do eat out for breakfast, that diner would be my first choice.
It occurred to me one morning, as I was reading the reviews of all the "Best of" awards that Bonnie had acquired over the years, that she must have a lot of fun stories to tell - funny, sad, ludicrous and everything in between. So I asked her; she laughed and said, "Oh, do I have the stories!" We agreed that we would meet.
Later, driving back home to southeast Minnesota, I thought about Bonnie, and then about my own long history in restaurants. My parents' business included a restaurant and a large dining room. My mother managed that, the motel and the bookkeeping, and my father managed the gas station, car dealership and garage.
I was 8 years old when my parents started the business and it was an "all hands on deck" type of operation. All three of us siblings worked from day one: I think I can still wash, rinse and dry dishes fast enough to win a contest. Those were the days before dishwashing machines. I also learned to peel potatoes at a pretty good speed; sometimes it seemed as if we went through mountains of potatoes. The peeled ones that were not cooked for mashed potatoes or American fries would sit in a bucket of cold water in the walk-in cooler. When needed, they would go through the manual French-fry cutter one at a time, and then into the deep-fat fryer.
The cook arrived in the very early dark hours every morning, and by the time the restaurant opened at 6 a.m., she already had fresh home-baked cinnamon rolls ready for the breakfast crowd. She would save dough for the rolls to be served with the noon meal and then start frying cake donuts.
Of course we had regular customers who would show up like clockwork every morning; their menu choices were predictable. One man loved to tease the staff and my mother decided he could use a little teasing in return. He always ordered a fresh cake donut to savor with his morning coffee, and my mom decided she would surprise him with a good laugh. She had the cook make a special donut for him: two layers of thin dough, cut with the donut cutter, were laid out on the cutting board. She then carefully laid cotton (the kind we usually see now in cotton balls) on one of the sides. The second piece was laid over the first, and then the edges all around were pinched together. After it had been fried in the hot oil, it looked just like all the other donuts.
When this man asked for his regular morning donut, the wait staff knew exactly which one to serve to him. He didn't notice that the place had gone a little quiet; the cook and the waitress, along with my mother and a couple of others who were in on the secret, were watching intently as he took his first bite. He started to chew, frowned and looked at the donut out of which he had just taken a big mouthful. Then he looked around, and it was the cue for everyone watching to yell, "April Fool's!" It was April first. That story made the rounds.
Ask anyone who has ever worked in a restaurant about stories, and everyone has several. I heard about a customer who had written a letter of complaint to a restaurant. This customer claimed that he had been in this café for breakfast, and his sausage order had been short: apparently he thought he was going to get three sausages, and he only got two. The restaurant owner was exasperated, so he wrapped up a cooked sausage and mailed it to the complainant. I guess sometimes you just can't help yourself.
Another incident that was told to me was about a customer who took the silverware off the table. Evidently, he just put it in a pocket or bag and walked out with it, because the wait staff said there was none left on the table when he went to clear it. Maybe he felt as if he had been shorted on something too.
Then there was the waiter who didn't feel the tip a customer had left was big enough, even though the customers felt his service had been pretty lousy. The waiter picked up the tip as the customer was leaving the table, and said in a clearly snide voice, "Sir, I believe you forgot something," and handed the money to the customer. The customer accepted the tip money, and calmly said, "Well, I guess you know what you are worth."
One of the many things I learned from my father is that everyone has a story. What they need is someone to listen. I knew Bonnie had a lot of good stories about her 40-some years in a diner at the same location. However, I didn't grab the opportunity to listen to her quickly enough; I read her obituary in the newspaper after she had died from cancer. I have promised myself to do better: listen to those stories before it is too late.