Column | Self-service: Where does it go from here?
Sure, you’re long-accustomed to schlepping through crowded lines at fast-food chains (a.k.a. “your friendly neighborhood hospice care center for condiment dispensers”) and have grudgingly accepted self-check-out lanes in major retailers (“from the Nobel Prize-worthy humanitarians who convinced you that 15 ounces is so much more convenient than 16 ounces”); but are you ready for a decline in service at fancier restaurants?
As a keen observer of social trends (and a keen observer of which slowpokes I can wiggle ahead of in an all-you-can-eat buffet line), I couldn’t resist reading the New York Times article headlined “San Francisco Restaurants Can’t Afford Waiters. So They’re Putting Diners to Work.”
Yes, rising commercial rents, escalating labor costs and prohibitively expensive housing (“Good help is hard to find - unless you know somebody who knows somebody who’s living in a van down by the river”) have left many upscale restaurants in San Francisco (and other trendy cities) turning service responsibilities over to the formerly pampered customers.
The cuisine, décor and wine lists may remain impeccable; but diners are expected to fetch their own silverware, pour their own drink refills, clean up their own tables and write their own racist/sexist/fat-shaming slurs on the check. (“Honey, how do you spell that thing the angry trucker called me last week? Seems like the sort of thing our hypothetical waiter would call me behind my back. Hmph! See if HE gets more than a 15 percent tip!”)
I doubt the lowered expectations can remain confined to just a handful of cities. The New Normal may be coming to your town soon. Instead of banners breezily cajoling, “Try the new appetizers,” get ready for banners brusquely declaring, “Try abandoning hope, all ye who enter here.”
Don’t feel unappreciated. If they weren’t so short-handed, the managers would surely tell you, “Thank you for splurging and dining at a sit-down restaurant. Speaking of sitting down, you might want to assemble this package from IKEA…”
This trend probably puts your great-aunt Gertie into a tizzy, albeit one influenced by rose-colored glasses. (“Sure, having someone pump your gas was a given in the Good Old Days. But I can remember when laundry day meant the milkman and Rock Hudson would fight for the chance to fold your towels!”)
If anyone actually deigns to greet you at the door, it will probably be with “Party of six? Good! You can outnumber and intimidate the vegetable vendor out back and get us a better deal on kale.”
So far, the cutbacks aren’t affecting the kitchen; but conditions can change in a hurry. If you manage to snag one of the lonesome servers zigzagging through the establishment, you might hear the admonishment, “No, no - the candle isn’t for romantic effect. You’ll, uh, need to wave your steak over it for 20 or 30 minutes while making chitchat.”
Or perhaps “Yes, we promised twelve courses: soup, salad, entrée, dessert, a course on exterminating rodents, a course on exterminating cockroaches…”
Let’s just hope simple cost-cutting doesn’t crossbreed with other causes.
“Sure, you can see a children’s menu, assuming you print it yourself and plant a tree in a sustainable forest to make up for the paper. And we’ll need to see documentation of sterilization, so you don’t bring any MORE charming rugrats into existence. Hey, that’s a nasty thing to text to Yelp and the Nobel committee…”