A dozen waitresses are clapping and scampering toward Fred Mosher's table. Everybody looks. The waitresses sing loudly: "The minute you walked into the cafe, I could tell you were the man with the money. A real sweetie honey . . . ." Mosher reddens. "Good looking, so refined . . . ." A waitress walks her fingers up his shoulder and tousles his hair. "Hey, Big Spender. Hey, Happy Birthday . . . ." Mosher, who is 40 today, shakes his head, grinning.
Some call it fun. Some call it humiliating. Some call it both.
Many are calling the surprise restaurant serenade inescapable.
The past few decades, the use of singing servers has--in a word--mushroomed. Singing has seeped into cafeteria-style eateries and wedged its way into elegant, gourmet restaurants. But it's still most popular among mid-scale chain restaurants, where the ritual has grown to include dance routines, funny hats and photographs of the birthday person.
And, enthused or uninspired, off-key or on, they sing. In Orange County, they sing in Spanish. They sing in Thai. They sing backwards and in costume.
Repertoire of Songs
On some shifts at Mimi's Cafe in Tustin, there is a song every five minutes, said manager Howard Baldini. The Mimi's chain, which specializes in singing, requires new waitresses to learn a repertoire of 19 songs, many created by the staff. One birthday song features a '50s routine in which the waitresses roll up their sleeves, come to the table snapping their fingers and sing: "You're getting old . . . Sha na na na . . . Really old . . . Sha na na na . . . Turning gray . . . ."
Mimi's has different songs for different ages, both genders and almost any occasion from graduations to vacations. Once a woman asked them to make up a song to celebrate her divorce. "We racked our brains to think of a divorce song, but we couldn't. So we just congratulated her," said Baldini.
The waitresses chose "Big Spender" particularly for Mosher, a Tustin businessman, who had been taken out to lunch by friends. "I was surprised," he said. "Speechless. It's embarrassing, but I'm not going to chase them away."
Like most managers who encourage singing, Baldini assumes customers like it. An informal survey, however, produced mixed reactions.
\o7 I'm embarrassed. For a child it's fun to be recognized on your birthday. But when you're X number of years old, it's not the same.
--Marcia Varon, Corona del Mar.
I don't like it. I'd rather have privacy with the group of people I'm with.'
--Kim Janda, Laguna Beach.\f7
According to the staff at Antonello Ristorante, an elegant Italian restaurant in Santa Ana, 80% of their customers who acknowledge it's their birthday beg them not to sing. In any case, boisterous singing would disturb the ambiance, said assistant manager Ann Pattis, who instead gives birthday patrons a discreet piece of cake with a candle. When the restaurant does acquiesce to customers who want singing, she said, "It's done very quietly."
Others who disapprove include Andrew Manshel, a lawyer for Birch Tree Group Limited whose music publishing division owns the copyright to the tune and lyrics of "Happy Birthday to You." Manshel contends restaurant singing constitutes a public performance and restaurants whose servers sing "Happy Birthday to You" must buy a permit from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). Whenever he dines out and hears the song, he checks the restaurant's window for the ASCAP decal. He rarely finds it. But Manshel's zeal in complaining to the management has embarrassed so many friends that he said he no longer bothers.
Some food servers said singing brings them tips greater than 20% of the bill. Others say it's humiliating and wastes time. "It's a terrible policy," said one retired waitress who did not want to be identified for fear of "stirring up a bag of worms." First, she said, "You have to make out an extra slip for a piece of cake. Then, you have to get everyone together, and they have to ignore their people. Say table five's dinner is ready and you have to go sing, and then table five's dinner is cold. It creates problems with the kitchen. I hated it."
\o7 I'll sing to customers I like. But not alone. I'm too shy.
--Danny Lowery , waiter at Upstart Crow\f7 , \o7 South Coast Village.\f7
There was a time--some speculate it was before World War II--when most birthday singing was done at home by friends and relatives. No one knows where or when restaurant birthday serenades began. "It's always been done," said Chuck Dudley, 67, a former waiter who grew up in Los Angeles and now owns the Bordeaux Restaurant in Costa Mesa. He recalls hearing waiters sing for birthdays in the 1920s at Taix French Restaurant near the Los Angeles City Hall, in the 30s at Victor Hugo's in Beverly Hills and during World War II at the French House on Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles. "One waiter would quit a job and go to another restaurant and say, 'We did so and so' at the other restaurant and that's how the thing spread."