“I don’t understand” happens way too often

We had been behind since we had walked in the door. It was Easter and we were fully booked. In fact, we had been fully booked for several weeks. But still the phone at the front door kept ringing.

“They won’t give us a table,” said a man to his party that was half-sitting, half-standing at the bar.

“Won’t” or “can’t” is really the question. But by phrasing it that way he hoped to avoid responsibility for not making reservations.

As children, many of us played the “phone game” where one person whispered a sentence in another person’s ear and then they passed it on and on. The result was that the original sentence never arrived intact. How could it? It was subject to the biases and the understandings of all the people involved, just like everything else.

As adults working in the restaurant business, we get to watch the “phone game” upfront and in person as it gets acted out in front of us all the time.

“Can you reserve a bar booth?” asked a woman in a pastel print.

“No, but you can request one,” I answered.

“Then why do they have reserved signs on them?”

“Because if we don’t put signs on them people just sit down at them if they become open.”

I was going to add “just like you did, just five minutes ago,” but that didn’t seem prudent. Being right and being happy are separate and distinct things; just ask anyone who has been married for more than five minutes.

In the restaurant business once you start having to explain, it is probably already a losing proposition. No amount of facts, figures and policies are going to make anyone feel better. And in the restaurant business it really is all about feelings.

“I feel that this salad should be bigger.”

“I feel that this drink should be fuller.”

“I feel like we should be able to get a table without reservations, on a major holiday, with a large party, at the very last minute.”

And it is really hard to reason with a feeling, much less argue with one.

“I don’t understand,” she said.

I was expecting that. Because she had already asked a variant of that question at least three times of two people in my immediate vicinity.

“Do we need a reservation today?”


“So, we can’t get a table without a reservation?”


“Can I make a reservation right now for a table?”


“He says we can’t make reservations,” she said turning to her party.

“That is ridiculous, how did these people make reservations then?” asked another woman in a flower print.

“Why won’t you let us make a reservation?” asked a man in an Easter suit and tie, pushing his way up to the bar. “I’ve never heard of such a thing.”

“You can make a reservation,” I said. “Just not for today.”

“Why not?”

“Because we are fully booked.”

“I have never heard of a restaurant that won’t take reservations, but won’t give you a table,” said a man in his Easter tie to the manager in his.

“What are you talking about?” the manager asked.

“Your bartender just told us that you don’t accept reservations.”

“I am sure he didn’t say that.”

“He just said exactly that,” he insisted.

Just then the spooled ticket printer spit out a ticket for a wine that we had just run out of.

“We are out of that wine,” I told the server.

“Why?” he asked.

“I don’t know why,” I said. “We are just out.”

Maybe it didn’t come in, maybe we served more than we figured we would. Maybe the winery ran out. Maybe the sales rep missed it. Maybe the delivery driver forgot it. The “why” is unimportant, it’s really the “what” that matters. And the “what” was that we didn’t have it.

I saw him go to the other bartender. Then to the manager, and then to the other manager.

“I don’t understand,” the server said.

Leaving me with these thoughts:

• Just because you work in the restaurant business, doesn’t mean that you “get it” either.

• It wasn’t Albert Einstein who said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results,” it was Narcotics Anonymous, which really makes much more sense.

• I would love to read the online review from those customers’ perspective, but I am sure I probably wouldn’t recognize it.

• Time is money in the restaurant business, and the people who waste the most of your time are usually the people not spending any money.

• “Why me, Lord? Don’t answer that!” wrote the late Charles M. Shultz.

• Solutions, I got. Says every bartender everywhere.