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Revenge of the hassled waiters

The story of a Sizzler server who allegedly vandalized a customer's home has others abuzz.

June 11, 2003|Gayle Pollard-Terry and Shawn Hubler | Times Staff Writers

In the Customer Hall of Shame, the family that awoke to toilet paper in the trees, maple syrup on the hedges and a mix of powdered sugar, flour and instant mashed potato flakes on the lawn after a complaint at a Sizzler restaurant wouldn't merit a mention. They even left a tip.

But their story is the talk of waiters everywhere, many of whom have revenge fantasies of their own, and tales of diners who deserved far worse. "You take care of them at the place. You don't wait until he gets home," joked Porter Wells, a waiter since 1964 at the Original Pantry in downtown Los Angeles.

He remembered a story about a waiter who had trouble with a customer over coleslaw some two decades ago. The guy hadn't touched the plate of coleslaw before him, but he insisted on more. Eat that, the waiter responded, and if you would like some more, I'll be happy to get it.

The customer insulted the waiter. "That was a mistake," according to Wells. "The waiter said, 'You want more coleslaw?' He threw a plate at him."

A guy sitting at the counter talked about his own days delivering pizza.

One regular, he recalled, always counted out the exact change and said, "No tip for you." To get even, the delivery guy started opening the lid on the pizza box so the pie would get cold. "I would look at the toppings," he said. "If I thought there was too much, I'd take a piece of pepperoni here, a piece of pepperoni there."

He never did get a tip.

"If a customer kept stiffing me, I used to ask them, 'What do you do for a living? You know what I do for a living?' " Wells said while serving platters of bacon and hash browns. "That gave them something to think about. The tips were pretty good after that."

The news story that had them talking: A woman wanted to substitute steamed vegetables for potatoes at a Sizzler in Norco. When the waiter didn't satisfy her request, her husband complained to the manager. Police say that when the customers left, the waiter had his girlfriend follow the family home, then trashed the place. He and two others were arrested, held briefly in custody, and released on their own recognizance.

"I feel sorry for the restaurant," said Duane Burrell, general manager of the Original Pantry. "This guy is totally a nut....I can't see somebody taking a chance of going to jail or stressing out over steamed vegetables."

Burrell, who waited tables for 15 years at the Pantry before joining management, can't count the number of difficult customers he served.

"I'll tell you one that happened to me," he said. "A customer wanted jelly with his steak dinner, but there was a house rule, no jelly at the dinner table. So he made up a song: 'No jelly, no tipee.' He started singing it to me at the counter."

At the Pacific Dining Car near downtown, hostess Alvena Williams, who has been in the restaurant business for 40 years, said she read about the Sizzler waiter in the paper.

"It's ridiculous. There's always a way to handle that. You can't have an attitude when people ask for things," she said. "Every restaurant has vegetables."

Hugo Solis, a waiter there for 12 years, agreed. "The customer's always right. You have to make him happy. When we have customers like that, we try to get them to relax," he said after putting in a breakfast order.

When pressed about demanding customers, Solis did remember one.

"There was this one customer who complained that the coffee was too cold, even though it was steaming," he said. "He sent it back four times. The busboy put it in the microwave for a couple of seconds." The waiter warned him that it was very, very, hot.

"He took a sip, and burned his tongue a little bit," Solis said.

Justin Davis, a server at Chevy's Mexican restaurant in San Francisco, laughed when he heard the story of the waiter's alleged revenge.

"You get a lot of abuse," he said, "although you're trained to take it. Customers yelling at you -- like, getting right up in your face and going, 'What are you, stupid?' -- and usually it's because of something they didn't understand."

Davis, a clean-shaven young man who has waited tables in the Bay Area for three years, said he has seen fellow waiters and waitresses burst into tears and go home, and, yes, occasionally take matters into their own hands, sometimes literally.

"At the place where I used to work ... people used to send back the mashed potatoes all the time because they'd get cold. And getting things sent back was a real no-no for the servers, so when they got the plate back to the kitchen, they'd be pretty mad as well.

"So some of them would, like, stick their fingers into the mashed potatoes, like up to the knuckles? And they'd go, 'Yep, they're cold, all right.' They'd do it like their fingers were thermometers, but I'm pretty sure it was aggression. Because after they'd abused the food, and stuck their hands all in it, they'd smooth it over and heat it back up and take it back out to the customer."

Which isn't to say he approves of such payback.

"Really, what you're supposed to do is tell your manager, and if they're nice, they'll talk to the customer."

And if that fails?

"The best trick, any servers can tell you, is when they get to you, go to the walk-in freezer and scream as loud as you can," Davis confided, rushing off to fetch someone a margarita. "Those freezers are airtight, so no one can hear."


Gayle Pollard-Terry reported from Los Angeles and Shawn Hubler from San Francisco.

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