Service 101: Partnership in Service

Brooke Burton Red Door Cafe San FranciscoService is a dance that requires partnership. A diner orders a meal from a waiter. A customer asks a salesperson for a pair of shoes in their size. A passenger requests a seat assignment from an airline booking agent. The sequence of service is the required steps of giving and receiving in business transactions. Unlike any ballet, however, plenty of participants are unaware they contribute to the outcome of the service dance. When one half of the partnership is belligerent, demanding, and unmindful of their contributions to the equation beyond the financial, often times the dance becomes contentious.

Customers may have a very clear opinion of the responsibilities of the service giver–complaining about customer service is de rigueur on sites like Yelp–but its rare for the patron to see past their financial role in the dance. The Red Door Cafe is a small restaurant in the Pacific Heights neighborhood of San Francisco where each and every potential diner is made aware of their role in their service experience and the owner challenges every diner to take responsibility for their part in the service exchange.

Wake up and smell the coffee

My good friend and fellow service provider, Michael Procopio suggested I check out the small restaurant when I recently visited San Francisco.  “The lines will be insane,” Michael said. “But you have to go. Really. You must.”

Upon reading up on the Red Door Cafe on Yelp, you’ll see 5 star reviews from diners who rave about incredible food, great service, and an untraditional setting for breakfast. But it isn’t until you arrive at the restaurant and take a good look through the big glass windows that you start to really understand that you are regarding a very unique establishment.

The 12-seat restaurant opens at 10 am, but you’ll more than likely find a line has formed outside on the sidewalk by 10:15. Unlike a typical queue for breakfast, however, the diners-to-be aren’t reading newspapers while they wait. Customers giggle and laugh as they cuddle tattered, plastic baby dolls and sip coffee from Easter egg colored bowls.

A sign in the window spells things out for the curious diner right away: This isn’t a restaurant, it’s an experience. Look around and you’ll quickly start to get an inkling that this place is different. Inside, you’ll see diners cavorting with plastic trolls and headless dolls. If you look close enough you’ll note the risqué, plastic items sold at most sex shops next to the salt and pepper shakers on every table.

Ahmed–known to his regulars as A.D. or Absolutely Delicious–is the gregarious owner/bouncer/server/host of The Red Door Cafe. He’s the man to speak to if you want to put your name on the clipboard wait list.

“I don’t let everyone into my restaurant,” A.D. says as he sashays outside to eyeball you and other potential diners. “You have to prove why I should let you in, honey.”

You should know that in order to even consider dining at The Red Door, you’ll need to keep an open mind. You’ll be interviewed, required to read the rules of the restaurant, and maybe even hazed. If you ask for egg whites, sauce on the side, act like “a Barbie”, or give off “bad vibes” you will be asked to leave the tiny 12-seat restaurant. You might even be kicked out.

A.D. may do any number of things to figure out if you are worthy of his attention and care. He may hand you a doll and tell you to care for it (“I can’t take care of you if you can’t care for this doll”), ask you a personal question (“Why should I let you in? Tell me something interesting about yourself”), or body scan you. What AD said to my husband about his sweat pants made us both blush.

A.D. is an entertaining–if not intimidating–host. He is beautiful and fierce with his curly brown hair–reminiscent of a pin curl wig from your best-friend’s drag box–and tight jean shorts, cowboy boots, and a plaid cowboy shirt that could pop open on cue if you pulled hard enough. He flirts with couples, gets cozy with neighbors, and pushes the boundaries of customer service standards with every potential diner he meets.

From the minute AD meets you, you are (painfully) aware that not everyone is Red Door patron material. “Honey,” he says. “I can’t give love to people who can’t love me.”

Red Door Cafe San Francisco service rules

Passing the test

Once you get past the interview process with A.D. (I haven’t felt that excited to make it through an up-close examination of character since my college application process) you are given one of the six small tables in the restaurant.

Savor your seat at a table, because the line outside gets longer by the minute. Scan the menu, enjoy the puns, and select an item you won’t be embarrassed to order (some of the tastiest dishes have racy names). Once you’ve placed your order, sit back and enjoy the show.

A.D. is one of the most talented–albeit naughty–professionals I’ve ever seen work in the restaurant business. To witness this lithe man in action is to understand the joy of service. Everything A.D. does in his playhouse is done with grace and an economy of motion. He sees everything: the approaching first time guests on the sidewalk, the empty coffee cup, the gesturing cook in the kitchen as an order comes up. He showers returning guests with affection, purrs flirtatiously with men and women, and coaxes the anxious out of their shell. He is like a prima-ballerina performing in a small, local theater. His moves are professional despite the rough-around-the-edges atmosphere.

AD flings one-liners as he greets guests (“I think the secret to the success of my restaurant is fear”), interviews diners, takes orders, serves stacks of plates, refills coffee, and explains the steps to getting the most out of every dish without breaking a sweat.

“Guests suck the life out of you,” AD says as he refills my coffee with a wink. “That’s why I have to interview everyone who comes in here. If you’re going to suck my titties dry all day I can’t give you anything. ”

A.D.’s message of service may be delivered in an off-color way, but his missive on service is clear. Great service is a two way street. What customers bring to a restaurant is just as important as what the restaurant brings to its diners. “Friends always ask me how it is I’m so happy all day,” A.D. says. He leans over a table to adjust a burrito that stands erect on a plate. “It’s because I don’t let bad vibes in my restaurant. I don’t have time for it.”

After the long wait on the sidewalk and the robust coffee you sipped from bowls, you will be equal parts hungry and grateful for the towering carnival that arrives on a plate that’s set before you. You’ll savor the twist of fruit, the bunch of fresh  mint tossed over your tortilla-wrapped scrambled eggs. The flavors will be as bright, playful and exciting as the man serving the food.

When it’s time to pay, you are mindful of the service and how much effort it took to have a meal at this tiny place. You are mindful because you were part of something extraordinary. You were a willing participant.

The Red Door Cafe in the Pacific Heights neighborhood in San Francisco, is just the place for customers to become conscious–and sometimes painfully self-conscious–of the part they play in their dining experience. The Red Door Cafe is a 12 seat restaurant that charges by the dish but its really more of a performance art piece that challenges participants to understand the dance of service.

Red Door Cafe

1608 Bush St
San Francisco, CA 94108
(415) 441-1564

Red Door Cafe Yelp Review
A Glowing Yelp Review for Red Door Cafe

16 comments

  1. Egle

    We’re flying across the pond in three months and gonna be visiting San Francisco as well. For the last two months I’ve been making a ‘must visit’ list including some of the best or intriguing restaurants, cafes, bars, food carts, etc. And the Red Door Cafe now is definitely on the top. I hope we’ll make it in! :)
    Thanks for sharing.

  2. Amanda

    Well, as a family of six with all my children under 7 (and whom I enjoy spending time with and like taking out to dinner), I can say that that is one place I probably wont be trying! Guess we will have to stick to Chili’s. Thanks for the review though! :)

    • Food Woolf

      Michael,
      Thank you again for the tap on the shoulder to go over there, the introduction to AD and for being such a great “I’ll-be-in-the-lobby-in-10-minutes!” friend! How did the post go down with AD?

  3. marla

    Now this is a crazy fabulous experience!!! These folks have guts and I love that. Your portrait with the doll is hilarious!

  4. Lana

    I am always on the lookout for interesting places to visit while visiting San Francisco and I know that my daughter and I would enjoy Red Door Cafe:) I have stashed a lot of years in restaurant service industry, so I cannot wait to see how Ahmed does it! Thanks!

  5. Lucy Lean

    Yikes I instantly feel afraid – is that me questioning my inability to play like a child, my fear of those plastic Chucky horror film esque dolls or the terrifying idea that I may not be up to the challenge of Ahmed’s rules? There’s something really off putting about this experience for me – I guess I just fall into the category of those that don’t get it? Am I too uptight and British? or just simply never queue for food – too reminiscent of school dinners! Or don’t want to be grilled in public or have to prove myself like auditioning for something when all I want is a good cup of coffee in the morning?

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