Figuring out who’s a VIP, and why

Clearly he wasn’t a regular customer. By regular I mean both the oft-returning clientele and the normal everyday Joe. For starters every member of the staff came by to say hello. The manager personally delivered two of the three appetizers he ate, including one he hadn’t ordered. He really was getting the preferential treatment. For those of you who believe in egalitarianism, maybe the restaurant environs are not for you because inside a restaurant’s doors it is anything but fair.

Maybe you’ve heard the term VIP? Well, where do you think that term came from? The restaurant business, my friend.

Unfortunately we, my family and I, were sitting next to him. And while we had to ask for every single step of service — silverware, napkins, water — he was showered with attention. Nothing makes you feel more ignored than contrast.

I wasn’t sure what to make of him. Half his head was shaved, he wore a $100 Calvin Klein flannel shirt, had a full sleeve tattoo of some minor Aztec god surrounded by Hebrew letters and he sipped his old fashioned as if he was the King of England.

He was clearly affecting a look. Scarf tied around his neck, nerdish glasses, no socks, loafers — you get the gist. One of the “in” crowd if ever I saw one. You know the type. Just because they know the newest coolest thing, they think that somehow makes them better than everyone else. They don’t even know what makes an old fashioned an old fashioned but they drink it with an orange blossom, because that’s what the cool people do.

And there he was, sitting next to me and being treated like royalty. I’ve seen it before. In fact I’ve lived it before (minus the flannel and scarf). There are three primary groups of people who often get the royal treatment from the whole staff and not just the one person expecting to make a tip — owners, press and employees.

Owners: As a one-time owner of a nightclub I learned that the worst employees are the ones who look like they are doing the most when you are around. Obsequiousness is usually the clue. Do they like you because they like you? Or do they like you because you are the owner, manager, cook or bartender? Experience eventually helps you sort that out. That and a keen enough eye to notice that they aren’t doing the same for everybody else. The best owner I ever worked for once told me, “Go ahead and ignore me but take care of them, [pointing to everyone else] because they are the ones paying the bills.”

Press: I once received a letter about a column I wrote that read, “I wished you had let me know you were coming.” Doesn’t that defeat the purpose? I was there to see what the experience was like for everybody, not just what it was like for a journalist. You are who you really are when you think no one is looking. Some publications forget that. Or count on it.

Employees: In the 1980s I worked for a large restaurant chain that did not allow its employees to frequent it in their off hours. The manager said to me, “Show me a bar full of off-duty employees, and I’ll show you a bar losing money.” I don’t think he meant that everyone took advantage, but if it’s a significant portion of your business, you might want to take a closer look.

And a closer look is what I took. When you spend all your working hours looking for clues based on tiny details — Do they want dessert? Why are they leaving more than half their salad uneaten? Do they want to be noticed? Do they want to be left alone? — you figure things out.

“What time are you working tomorrow?” the manager asked.

And sometimes you figure it out based on more obvious ones.

Leaving me with these thoughts:

• “Let me tell you something about these tattoos, OK? That is Buddhist, that is Nordic, that is Hindu, that’s just gibberish. They are completely conflicting ideologies, and that does not make you a citizen of the world, it makes you full of sh*t!” — Sarah Marshall, from “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” (2008).

• “If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you do read the newspaper, you’re misinformed.” — Mark Twain.

• “Because I said so.” — Owners the world over.