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Waiter, Don't Take My Plate Away

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At this point, you've probably heard my hit country song "Waiter, Don't Take My Plate Away" (click that if you missed it) and you're now singing the lyrics to yourself as you go through your day. That's to be expected.

What's not to be expected is that the song needed to be written in the first place. After all, shouldn't it be taken as a given that plates are only to be cleared when there's no food left on them? Or, perhaps more importantly, when the people at the table have stopped gliding their knives and forks across them?

And yet, it's a pretty common phenomenon these days to have your server snatch your plate away while you're still eating. I can't count the number of times a waiter or waitress has asked: "Are you finished?" when I'm still nibbling on a chicken carcass or sopping up a sauce with a piece of bread.

Worse, I've had waiters clear glasses of wine that still have a splash of liquid left in them. It might seem a minor grievance, but if you're paying money for a glass of wine, that little driplet probably has a significant monetary value. It's as if the waiter just snatched $3 or $4 off your table.

As to the "why?", for anyone who's worked in the restaurant industry, the answer is clear: waiters have to turn tables. Management pushes them to speed their tables along; by clearing your table quickly, they ensure that you finish your meal quickly, that you pay your check quickly and that a whole new group can soon sit where you're sitting and run up a big tab. Then the cycle starts again: that table's sped along, pushed out the door, and more people sit down.

I don't begrudge the restaurant industry its industry-like behavior. What galls, though, is the lack of tact. It's one thing for a waiter to approach a table and ask, "How's everyone doing here? Are we done with that plate?" It's another thing to snatch it away.

The worst offense, though, occurs when one person's finished and the other person isn't. If a waiter snatches the finished person's plate away in that scenario, they've not only robbed a diner of whatever morsels are left on the plate, they've now created an awkward situation for the person still eating: they feel rushed, self-conscious, and piggish for being the only person with food at the table.

The question, for a restaurant, is this: what's more important--letting customers eat at their own pace (creating happy customers) or speeding customers along to keep seats filled (creating a happy income stream)? The answer is one of instant gratification vs. delayed gratification.
Sure, it's more instantly gratifying for a restaurant to make more money in one night; but if the restaurant delays its gratification--sacrifices one night's income to create a loyal customer base--the rewards will be richer. When your restaurant isn't trendy anymore, you'll have your loyalists returning again and again because you're the restaurant that doesn't make them feel rushed. And that's worth its weight in gold.

Which is all to say, this is a country song that shouldn't have to be written, but that was. So the next time that you find yourself at a restaurant, with an unfinished plate of food in front of you and a waiter's hand inching in to snatch it up, break into a chorus of : "Waiter, Don't Take My Plate Away!" Then send me $5 (royalties).

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