Service 101: Compassion in the Dining Room

Walk into the 24-seat restaurant I work in and within just seconds you’ll have the entire place sized up: cement walls, high ceilings, a pastry counter, an open kitchen, two tables that hold eight people, and one counter that seats another eight guests. That’s it.  Often, we have a line of people that spills out onto the sidewalk of Wilshire Boulevard.

“Where’s the rest of the place?” is a common refrain I hear several times a day. Confused diners scan the room for a side dining area with a hidden cache of tables with extra seating. But our tiny foot print with two tables is all we have. So we have to get creative–which is why every seat in the restaurant is part of the communal seating plan.

Every once in a while, there’s a lull in service and there are plenty of seats to be had. During those quiet times guests seat themselves. Men and women leisurely toss jackets and bags over empty chairs, splay their newspapers across the marble tabletops, and order their meal without any idea that soon—when the glittering-white daylight of Santa Monica fades—a swarm of hungry customers will arrive hungry for food and a piece of what was once their personal space.

The transition between the quiet and busy times is where things tend to get a little sticky. When the number of guests waiting to be seated reach more than four people, the energy in the room shifts.  You can feel the tension, as the people waiting begin to covet the single, empty chairs that separate the seated diners. It’s during these moments when the guests who are waiting for a spot need a special kind of assistance. The diners need my help in asking people to share some available space with them.

This isn’t the easiest of challenges a restaurant manager can face. Asking guests to do something for you requires a lot of diplomacy and humility, and even if you bring a lot of kindness to the table it still might not go well. It’s in these awkward moments outside the realm of our comfort zone, however, that magic sometimes happens.

Heroes and Saints

“Would you mind terribly if I moved you over one seat so that I may put two people here next to you?” I ask.

For some people, the question of giving up their warmed seat for a perfect stranger is a no-brainer.  Without even looking up from their meal, some guests respond to my request for help with a giant YES! Which way do you want me to go? They practically jump up and scoot over a seat before I can tell them which way to go. After they’ve moved, they smile at me and say, is there anything else I can do for you?

Other diners agree to the request but need to pause before responding. They scan the faces of the people waiting and check the dining room to confirm the lack of seating. With a clear understanding of the circumstances and the need of others, the customer obliges and is happy to help. Which way do you want me to go, they ask, and switch seats with an understanding smile.

I’m happy to report that more often than not, most diners will agree to the request. When a customer says yes to an appeal like this they create space for someone else, help a perfect strangers eat sooner, and assist in making the restaurant run smoother. It’s a wonderful thing to see a moment of kindness devoid of calculation, especially in a city known for power plays and big egos.  Though not everyone in the world may notice the diner who is willing to move over, I see an elegant gesture of kindness and compassion in action.

Once in a while, however, a diner will bristle at a request to move over. They become recalcitrant and offended at the mention of them needing to relocate. How dare you ask me to move, they say. I quickly apologize for interrupting their meal, thank them for considering my request, and make a quick retreat. I am careful not to offer any judgement in these moments. It’s my job to do my best to empathize with all my guests, even the challenging ones.

Love and Service

We all struggle with unexpected moments in life that require extraordinary kindness. Cars speed to get in front of us. People cut us in line. Co-workers demand things from us we don’t want to give. Every day is a chance to grow as a human. We can act in kindness for others or decide that today we will serve only our own needs. We get to decide what moves we want to make in life. Sometimes we may choose to avoid any movement entirely. It’s up to us.

12 Replies to “Service 101: Compassion in the Dining Room”

  1. I always want to help out – but sometimes if I’m really into a book, or something, or even daydreaming, I get all confuzzled if someone asks me to move. Maybe it’s because I try to eat alone and know that it can be weird.
    Also, I know that in other countries, no one would leave an empty seat between them and another person, no matter how busy or not the restaurant/movie theatre is.

    Regardless, this post is quite lovely.

  2. I think this is an issue that is helped by doing some world travel – in Europe, they simply don’t have the vast space that we are used to here in the US and communal tables are common. Some of my best travel experiences have happened sitting at a table with strangers! I’m always pleasantly surprised when someone offers to move to give us a seat…

  3. I do think it’s the little interactions that we have every day that make civilization run. If you can take an awkward moment — bumping into someone, reaching for the same box on a shelf, needing two seats together — and turn it into something that makes two strangers smile at each other, you’ve done your part to keep us mindful that we’re all in this together. And you do it many times a day. The importance of such small things is at the heart of why I love your take on service.

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