The couple’s first Match.com date was not going swimmingly. Sitting at the wine bar at Clearwater’s Cuvée 103, the woman seemed exceptionally, er, thirsty. Eventually she stood up and wobbled her way onto the stage where a jazz trio was getting into full swing, Florida Orchestra bass player T.J. Glowacki plucking at his valuable 19th century German bass.
“As they were starting a tune, the woman asked the bassist for lessons and strummed his instrument,” Cuvée 103 owner John Zias remembers. “The drummer turned to her and said, ‘You’re kind of ruining the moment,’ and she said, ‘I am the moment.’ ”
It didn’t get better from there. Confused, the woman had misplaced her credit card, convinced that the bartender had stolen it. She would call the police. Suit yourself, the management said agreeably.
“She comes out and commits the cardinal sin of approaching an officer aggressively,” Zias says. “She was arrested for public drunkenness.”
For that unlucky Match.com guy, it was a first date gone very bad. For the management of Cuvée 103, it was another night in the restaurant business.
On Jezebel.com, there’s a section devoted entirely to restaurant customers behaving badly: the most outrageous requests, the dumbest questions, creepiest behavior, and a whole lot of scary things that happen in the restroom. As Zias is quick to point out: In the restaurant business, the mantra is “The customer is always right.” This means that when his customer orders a $30 glass of Caymus cabernet topped off with a lot of ice cubes, the answer is, “Coming right up.” When the customer rages about offensive cilantro in her dish (which in fact is Thai basil), it’s time to grin and bear it.
We spent time listening to the war stories of Tampa Bay-area restaurateurs, waiters and chefs. Some of the tales are astounding and silly, but many serve as guidelines for how to be better customers. And almost invariably, restaurateurs are able to maintain a sense of humor and appreciation of their customers, even the tricky ones.
Tina Avila, co-owner of Casa Tina and Pan y Vino in Dunedin, says she sees irksome behavior that is largely a reflection of customers not thinking of the restaurant’s ultimate mission: to make money.
“With Mexican food, we give away chips and salsa, and people expect that to be unlimited,” she says. “But the business of the restaurant is to sell food, and the servers’ income is based on the sales, so we provide the first one free and then charge for refills. Also, grown-ups sometimes ask for items on the kids’ menu. The kids’ menu is a courtesy for the parents, with the prices very low so it’s affordable for the parents to come out. But it’s not at all the same profit on those items.”
Mike Harting, owner of 3 Daughters Brewing in St. Petersburg, has had similar experiences. “A guy came in the other night with a cooler of beer – to our brewery,” he says. “All the games we have, and the band, those things are free so that we can sell beer. It’s the only thing we sell.”
Still, Harting has other restaurant war stories that blow that one out of the water. Some years back, when he was co-owner of BellaBrava in St. Petersburg, he noticed a couple in the bar engaged in an act best left in the bedroom. He had to gently request that they, well, get a room.
Bruce Caplan, owner of Fetishes in St. Pete Beach, says he can’t top that one. But he has a humdinger.
“Years ago, a guy calls me and wants to arrange a dinner, soup to nuts. He doesn’t want a menu or wine list brought to the table; he wants everything preselected,” Caplan says. “I must have spoken with this guy half a dozen times. The night comes and a limo pulls up and the one (guy) has a bottle of wine. I open the door and the guy hands me the bottle and says, ‘Can you get rid of this for me? It’s not wine.’ And it’s warm, and I can see that it’s urine.”
What’s a restaurateur to do? Keep calm and carry on. And wash his hands.
For Sheri Aquilar, general manager of Island Way Grill in Clearwater, one of the most memorable stories wasn’t a customer behaving badly so much as being very, very unlucky.
“Years ago at a restaurant I worked at, there were some people who were cutting through the bushes to the entrance, and the manhole cover on the grease trap lifted open and a women fell in up to the waist,” she says. “They had to pull her out, and she came into the restaurant tearing off her clothes. Eventually, she calmed down and people gave her clothes, but she was in the bathroom for a while.”
Aquilar has other tales, but she urges people on either side of restaurant transactions to focus on courtesy.
“We understand that maybe you’ve had a bad day, even lost your job,” she says, “but we want you to be happy when you leave the restaurant. Give us the opportunity to fix things. We’re all in it together.”
Jeannie Pierola, chef-owner at Tampa’s Edison, feels similarly. “Everyone is an expert on what they like. The better a customer can do to communicate that to us is going to help us to please them,” she says. “There are no dumb questions – just relax and ask the questions. The entire staff loves to talk about the menu and the cocktails and the wine.”
That said, she has had her share of goofy requests over the years. Back in her days as executive chef at Bern’s Steak House, she sent a server to ask if guests in a large party had any allergies “or things we needed to know about.”
“The server came back and said, ‘Chef, I have a vegetarian.’ The woman said she could not eat the last two courses, which were lamb and beef. But she said she could eat duck and veal. So she couldn’t eat a cow, but she could eat a baby cow.”