WaPo Writer Loses His Shit Over Servers Taking Away Empty Plates

In Depth

Washington Post writer Roberto A. Ferdman has decided to take a stand for all right-thinking restaurant customers everywhere. Hark his words, for he is sick and tired of enduring that most insufferable of tyrannies: a server dared attempt to pre-bus his table.

For those of you who are not familiar with the term, pre-bussing refers to the practice of removing plates—or any other item the customer is done with—from the table before they’ve actually gotten up and left, but after they’re done with them. It is this notion which Ferdman considers beyond the pale of what any reasonable human being should be forced to endure in a recent post on Wonkblog:

“Are you done with that?” the server asked, fingers already comfortable with the rim of my plate. “Can I get it out of your way?”
Yes, I had finished eating, because I am a vacuum; there was no food left in front of me. But my friend had not. His meal was only half-consumed.
“No,” I said. “We’re not done eating.”

Oh God. I can hear the smarmy, self-important tone of that statement in my head, and it’s like nails on the blackboard of my brain. I’m having flashbacks to every customer upon whom I ever silently and fervently wished Ricketts. Deep breaths.

The thing is, Ferdman’s op-ed, when it’s not busy veering off into the crotchety ramblings of someone with roughly the same understanding of the restaurant industry as a dazed gosling, is underpinned by an actually reasonable point. As a customer, you have every right to enjoy your meal in peace,* and you shouldn’t feel like you’re being rushed out the door. That is a valid complaint!**

Who Ferdman apparently chooses to blame for it, however, renders his argument painfully moronic:

Without my permission, restaurants have abandoned, or simply overlooked, a classic tenet of service etiquette (I’m talking about entrees, not the ubiquitous small plates, which demand a different etiquette). Rather than clear plates once everyone at the table has finished the meal, which has long been the custom, servers instead hover over diners, fingers twitching, until the very instant someone puts down a fork. Like vultures, they then promptly snatch up the silverware — along with everything else in front of the customer. If you’re lucky, they might ask permission before stealing your plate.

Excuse me, I need to locate my eyeballs; they seem to have rolled out of my head and onto the carpet. We’re going to ignore the bafflingly insane “without my permission” at the start of this paragraph, because I’m choosing to believe Ferdman doesn’t seriously think restaurant culture should have to check with him every time it changes in any way (I’m being generous here). Instead, let’s focus on the poorly-chosen target of Ferdman’s ire, because it’s pretty indicative about the form into which pieces like this always seem to devolve.

Every piece related to the somber tragedy of pre-bussing ultimately takes the same tack: servers are the bad guys. Servers are taking the plates out of your way because it’s their choice to be so rude. Those incompetent servers who aren’t a patch on the service we used to get in my heyday (roughly around the time of the Charge of the Light Brigade) are always trying to rush us out the door!

I wonder if Ferdman has really considered who’s responsible for the thing he doesn’t like, because it sure as hell isn’t servers. Servers are loth to do anything that might piss off the customer whose whims ultimately determine whether they’re able to make rent, and an extra five minutes likely isn’t going to have a material impact on a server’s take for the evening—at least, not when weighed against the potentiality of getting screwed over by the table in which they’ve just invested a significant amount of time and service.

No, in the case of pre-bussing—as with the formulaic introductory spiels both customers and servers despise—orders typically come from on high. My personal experience was of a uniform and constant mantra to pre-bus, then pre-bus, then pre-bus some more. If a plate was empty, get it off the table. If a customer had been dawdling over a salad for half an hour, ask if they were finished with it. Many places have rules whereby on busy nights, you’re not even supposed to go into the back of house unless your hands are full of items headed for the dishwasher. As a server, you will get in trouble—and potentially lose your job—for not pre-bussing at the vast majority of restaurants in America.

It makes sense, when you think about it. The restaurant wants to make as much money as possible and they’re getting their cut either way, so who gives a shit if the customer takes out their frustrations on the server in the form of a crappy tip? It’s a no-lose situation for the restaurant, and the server just has to hope doing their job doesn’t bite them in the ass. This structure—get them in, get them out as fast as possible, get more people in to replace them—is, at its heart, the perfectly logical end result of the American capitalist ethos. While I’m in no way a fan of this system, it’s the one we’re stuck with until we stop fetishizing the pursuit of wealth above all else (so we’re stuck with it until the end of time, basically), and blaming servers for doing what their job demands of them is an exercise in self-aggrandizement.

We also have to consider that a lot of customers actually want an empty plate taken out from in front of them; it clears table space and the sight of an empty, sauce-smeared plate isn’t exactly an aesthetic masterpiece. This is why any halfway decent server will ask before removing any plate—complaints about servers who simply grab plates without asking are entirely valid, as that’s not something anyone should be doing. Yet Ferdman’s piece indicates scandalization even from the server asking the question (and his isn’t the first time I’ve heard that particular peccadillo). There are no words for the staggering self-importance on display here, particularly since Ferdman has been told—but somehow failed to hear—this argument:

But maybe waiters are clearing individual plates because they believe that’s what customers want. I have heard as much from servers and restaurateurs.
No excuse, however, should suffice.

The fuck is this shit? “I totally know that a lot of people want this, but nah, what I personally prefer should always be the gold standard. I am the Ferdman, Arbiter of Restaurant Philosophy! The concerns of others are as dust in the cold shadow of my magnificence! The Ferdman’s will is law!

Bottom line: people who regularly place customer service professionals in unwinnable situations just to feed their own ego and/or indignation aren’t worth of 1/10 of the service to which they feel entitled. Whether he realizes it or not, that’s exactly what Ferdman is doing.

* Unless it’s past closing time, in which case oh my God get the fuck out before your server commits justifiable homicide with an oyster fork.

** Within reason. If you’ve been in a busy, non-high-end restaurant for more than two hours, seriously, get the hell out unless you’re a regular and the server knows you’re going to tip extravagantly. I don’t care how they do it in Europe and I don’t care how long you’ve been planning this epic excursion to Crazy Larry’s Taco Hut, that’s not how this exchange works. There are limits to how much you matter as a customer, and thinking such limits don’t or shouldn’t exist is the height of entitlement—and of the bullshit notion that “the customer is always right” we spend so much time and effort propping up in this country.

Image via Luiz Rocha/Shutterstock.

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