Noted feminist Simone de Beauvoir once wrote: “Few tasks are more like the torture of Sisyphus than housework with its repetition: the clean becomes soiled, the soiled is made clean, over and over, day after day.”
Clearly Ms. Beauvoir never worked in the service industry.
Sisyphus’ torture was to roll a stone to the top of a hill only to watch it roll down again, over and over again, for eternity. Those of us in my industry know his stone all too well.
“How do you make your margaritas?” the middle-aged woman in an outdated Rolling Stones tour T-shirt asked. Shakespeare talked about the seven ages of man in his play “As You Like It.” It does not go unnoticed that he was remarkably silent on the ages of women.
I wiped my hands on my apron and faced the rolling stone.
“Well, I use …”
“Do you use anejo tequila?”
“Well I …”
“And fresh lime?” she continued. Apparently how I made them wasn’t really the question.
Every day those in the service industry answer questions. That is part of what we do. But sometimes the question isn’t at all what it seems.
• “What vodkas do you have?”
• “What rye whiskey do you carry?”
• “What comes on the hamburger?”
• “How do you prepare the fish?”
These questions seem obvious. But I have learned over the years that what is often being asked is specific but posed generally. It is called subtext. And every day a service person must ask himself, “What is really being asked?”
• “Do you carry Hangar One vodka?”
• “Do you have Whistle Pig rye?”
• “I don’t want pickles.”
• “I don’t want wheat.”
Any of these specific questions would be far more helpful. But for some reason, quite a few people want to beat around the bush. The irony is, of course, that no matter how general the question, eventually we will have to get around to the specifics. And that can take time. In my business time equals money.
“And you don’t use triple sec do you?” the lady wrinkling her nose continued. “You do use Cointreau, right?”
I looked beyond her and noticed a man waiting beginning to fidget.
Again, I wasn’t being asked what I do; I was being asked to validate what she does, or wants, or thinks. And the difference is crucial. If someone really cares what you think he or she will actually listen to what you have to say.
People ask all the time, “How do you make [insert anything]?” when what they really want to do is tell you how to make it. There are dozens of ways to make every drink out there. Even an extra-dry vodka martini — essentially a one-ingredient drink — can be made with scores of different vodkas, shaken or stirred, garnished with lemon, lime or olives, and that only scratches the surface. Let’s not even get into food preparation.
Life is subjective. And so is customer service. I will make whatever you want however you want it, period. Because frankly, I am not the one drinking it. All you have to do is ask.
So I made her margarita using the anejo tequila and Cointreau. Of course I used fresh lime juice (is there still a bar out there using anything else?) and delivered it to my discerning guest.
“That will be $18.50,” I said.
She visibly winced.
Now could I have made a delicious margarita for half that price? Sure I could have, but that is the core of the problem with validation. Without real inquiry all we have left is self-righteous ignorance. And that, my friends, can be costly for everyone involved.
“How do you make your Manhattans?” asked the fidgeting man who stepped into the woman’s empty place at the bar. I paused for just a second, wiped my hands on my apron, and then began up the hill again.
Leaving me with these thoughts:
• Time is not yours alone, it belongs to everyone waiting for you, too.
• If you are worried about other people judging what you order, you might have bigger fish to fry than just the ordering.
• There is more than one way to fry a fish, FYI.
• Albert Camus wrote in his 1942 essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
• Screw you, Camus.
Jeff Burkhart is the author of “Twenty Years Behind Bars: the spirited adventures of a real bartender” and an award winning bartender at a local restaurant. Follow him at www.jeffburkhart.net and contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.