Stories Of Disastrously Inept Food Service Employees

ByTheCulinaryGeek from Chicago

Welcome back to Off The Menu, where we bring you the best and strangest food stories from my email inbox. This week, we have tales of restaurant employees who could not count to potato. As always, these are real emails from real readers.

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Maureen Flanagan

Years ago, when I was a young teenager, my family was on a ski trip near Mt. Rainier. After a day-long cross-country ski, we were famished. Anyone who's been to the Rainier area knows that there's not exactly a wealth of food options, mostly mom and pop burger and steak joints that survive purely on the fact that people get really hungry after skiing and (more than anything) want to drink. We found ourselves in one of the standard small-town diners, the kind of restaurant with plastic menus and checkered tablecloths and teenage waitresses.

Before I continue, I must preface this by saying that no matter where my mother is eating out -- be it a Michelin-starred restaurant or fast food joint -- something will be wrong with her food. I don’t mean she’ll have gripes about it being too cold or not looking right or anything like that; I mean something will be bizarrely, sometimes catastrophically wrong with the food brought to her. It will be entirely the wrong order, the order won't get placed at all, etc. It's our belief that in a previous life, she was an innkeeper at a crossroads inn and accidentally poisoned hundreds of weary travelers. My mother is a generally agreeable person and not a pain in the ass customer, so her constant bad luck is less cringe-inducing and more hilarious.

Anyway, my dad, sister and I ordered diet cokes and my mom ordered an iced tea. It was pretty busy and the waitress took quite a long time to bring back our drinks, so we were all pretty thirsty when they finally arrived. All of the diet cokes looked pretty standard, but my mom's iced tea was really dark. She pondered this for just a second (she later said she thought maybe the waitress had accidentally brought her a diet coke, but she was too thirsty to care) and then took a huge swig of her drink.

Suddenly, she spit the brown liquid all across the table and yelled, "What the hell?!"

The rest of us stared at her stunned, but she looked just as bewildered as we did.

"It's not iced tea," she said, still sputtering. "It's teriyaki sauce!"

Apparently, as the very apologetic waitress told us afterwards, the cooks often put teriyaki sauce in plastic pitchers exactly like the ones for tea. The waitress just assumed it was an extra strong iced tea and poured the glass, too busy to notice the rather pungent sweet smell or viscosity of the liquid. Following this very entertaining debacle, she served us our meals without incident. Almost twenty years later, if my mom orders iced tea, we all wait with bated breath before she takes her first sip.

Delia Sanford

This past Easter Sunday, after dinner at my parents' house, we pulled into the local Dunkin Donuts as we started driving back home. This particular location doesn't have a reputation for hiring the best and the brightest, and I get that since it was a holiday for most people in the area, you’re going to have your second string on staff that day. Still, though...

I walk to the counter and I asked if they had "decaffeinated tea," thinking that a) since Dunkin specializes in coffee they might not have tea and b) decaffeinated tea is probably a waste of time for most people. The clerk looked at me strangely. I thought he didn't hear the question, so I repeated it.

Me: "Do you have decaffeinated tea?"

DD: "I'm sorry, what do you want? Decapitated tea?"

Me: "Huh? No. Decaffeinated tea."

DD: "De-what? I...uh, I don't know what that is."

Me: "It's tea without caffeine."

DD: *a light dawns* "Oh! You mean decaf."

Greg Loyal

My first job was at Baskin Robbins. I worked there for about a year during early high school. It was minimum wage, but we got free ice cream and the staff was pretty cool, so it was a good gig for a 15-year-old.

At one point, I figured out that the cake decorators made more money, so I worked with the owner/manager to get the requisite training. Oddly enough, it’s kind of tough; the icing is very temperature dependent, so it’s tricky to get everything smooth and pretty.

After a few months of decorating I had gotten pretty good at it (FWIW, I’ve retained some of the skills, I made a killer fairy cake for my daughter’s birthday last month), so I was doing probably half of the cake orders we got. They would be on order forms with all the basic info from the customer and anyone could take an order, so some were more complete and legible than others. One day I came in to an order for a pretty small cake, 6"x9" I think, with “make 18 as big as possible” in the section indicating what the customer wanted written on the cake. I immediately thought that this was a lot of words for such a small cake, but I was determined, so I made it fit. A nice legible “Make 18 As Big As Possible” on this little white cake in green icing.

Unfortunately I wasn’t there when the customer picked it up, but the story was relayed to me many times. The customer came in, took one look at the cake, and asked for an explanation. They just wanted “18” written as largely as possible on the cake. The manager comped them the corrected cake and I got shit from everyone there until the place closed down a few months later.

Sam Baker

One of my wife's employees ran to a local bagel shop for lunch last week, and ordered a BLT. When she got back to her car and opened the package, she found out that it had lettuce and tomato, but no bacon. She went back in and told the employee who took her order that her BLT was missing the bacon, and he told her, "I thought that the 'B' was for 'bagel.'"

Nicola Rhettson

During college, I worked at a tiny but popular family-owned joint that served slightly upscale southern fare. The owner was kind of hands-off and relied on the more senior servers to train the new ones, which resulted in a mostly smooth service with an occasional disaster.

One evening, we were slammed, and had to enlist the moron hostess to seat guests and get their drink orders sorted out. This same hostess also was once told to fix our squeaky kitchen swing-door, and sprayed Rust-Oleum on the hinges. "For rusty stuff, right?" she later asked. The door ended up being painted shut in the middle of dinner service, and the whole restaurant smelled like graffiti.

This night, she kept asking us questions that we thought she should know the answer to, like "Where are the straws?" or "How do you make a Shirley Temple?" so we collectively told her to stop being annoying and just figure things out on her own.

I am plating an order in the back, and i see the hostess filling up three sweet teas and one tall glass of coffee creamer. Literally, just liquid cream. I declined to step in because this was too weird to not let her follow through on. She goes out to the table, triumphantly delivers the drinks, and the guy with the cream just sat there, dumbfounded. He told me afterward that had asked for a "half-and-half"...the affectionate name for a glass of half sweet tea, half unsweet in the south. I still laugh when I see people order that.

Dara Langstrom

I work for a delivery company similar to Seamless/GrubHub. We deliver from a lot of different restaurants. There is one popular "fast service" deli chain, famous for their sweet tea, that is the bane of our existence. They are incredibly popular and absolutely incapable of getting an order right. As such, the most experienced drivers know to go through every line, special request, sauces, sides, etc. of their order before they leave, or they will end up coming back.

So, I was checking an order of kid's meals and salads that took 30 minutes, and noticed a request for no nuts on the salad. The salads were in clear containers, and there were obviously nuts on top. I asked the girl handling to-go orders to have it remade because the customer requested no nuts. She grabbed the order sheet my company sent over and studied it for a few seconds, just in case I was lying. [Editor’s Note: Seriously, fuck restaurant employees who pull this shit. I worked with a kitchen once where any time there was a mistake, their immediate instinct was to hunt for the ticket to triple check whose fault it was. Don’t fucking do this; figure out fault later, in the moment, just fix the damn thing. Besides, spoiler alert: in the case of this kitchen, it was ALWAYS their fucking fault.] She then took to the partition behind her that basically hides the expo line from the cash registers, and told the kitchen.

After a few seconds, she stuck her head back out from behind the partition and said, in the most condescending tone possible, "Those are ALMONDS." Like that magically fixed the problem.

I, being too exasperated to laugh, informed her that almonds are nuts, and please have the kitchen fix it. She had to tell the kitchen that almonds were nuts, which makes me fear for anyone with nut allergies that eat there.

Sam B.

A few years back I took my nephew to the movies and asked him if he wanted a snack to eat. Normally he just asks for popcorn, but today he wanted a hot dog. My nephew and I are Muslim and we have to be careful about eating hot dogs because some places serve pork hot dogs. So I went up to the 16-year-old girl that was working behind the snack counter and asked her if she knew what type of meat the hot dogs were made out of.

Me: Hi, what kind of meat are your hot dogs made from?

Girl: (With incredulous look on her face as if I'm some sort of idiot for even asking this question) It's a hot dog, it's made from hot dog meat.

Me: Um, could you please be more specific, does that mean pork, or beef, or turkey?

Girl: (Still annoyed at me for even asking) I don't know, it's just a hot dog, it's made from hot dog meat.

Me: Uh, ok, I think I'll just have a small popcorn then.

What I wanted to say was "You do realize that there is no hot dog animal that is slaughtered to make hot dogs, right?" but I chose not to have her spit in my nephew's popcorn.

Jenny Sanders

I was working at a mid-priced family-friendly chain Tex Mex restaurant during the summer when I was 20. There was one guy we worked with who seemed to be under an intense amount of stress at all times.

So one day, these two dudes in suits come in. They’re waited on by my poor, stressed-out friend that we’ll call “Justin Parker.” He takes their order, runs their food, and one of the suit dudes sends it back. It’s a platter of chicken fajitas and the man sent it back saying he’d ordered beef. Justin immediately thought the guy was fucking with him. He’s angrily sputtering “I know he said chicken. I wrote it down. He ordered chicken."

The restaurant is super dead right now-maybe four tables total-and very quiet so I was like “Hey man, no worries, maybe he changed his mind. Doesn’t matter, they’ll have them out fast,” and I go back to my side work.

I should mention that the line (where the food comes out) is visible to the entire restaurant. There’s a counter separating the kitchen from the line and then a glass partition separating the line from the rest of the restaurant. Everything is open, you can see directly into the kitchen.

I’m rolling silverware at a table in the corner when I see Justin take the new fajitas to the customer. The next thing I know, Justin is barking at the guy “YOU. SAID. BEEF.” Apparently, upon receiving the “corrected” beef fajitas, the man insisted that he had ordered chicken fajitas and was pissed that his food was taking so long.

Poor “Justin” just snapped at that point. He stomped off from the table (leaving the beef fajitas), walked down the line, pulling out the cash from his apron pocket, his book, and stripping off his apron and furiously hurling them into the kitchen, while bellowing “BEEEEEEEEEF! HE SAID BEEF!!!!!!” He burst through the doors and into the parking lot. I went after him, but there was no getting him back. He had to walk home because he had no car and he was angrily shedding everything to do with the restaurant (pens, change, receipts) as he marched through the parking lot shouting “HE SAID BEEEEEEEEF!”

And that is how he quit.

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Do you have a restaurant, home-cooking, or any other food-adjacent story you’d like to see appear in Off the Menu (on ANY subject, not just this one)? Please e-mail with “Off the Menu” in the subject line (or you can find me on Twitter @EyePatchGuy). Submissions are always welcome!


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