The Ugh Department, The Aw Department

Service matters. You can have the best food in the world, but if it’s presented in a dry, humorless style (ahem, Charlie Trotter’s) your meal loses lustre.

Good service is a complicated matter. A good server is a chameleon: if one table wants professional courtesy and another table wants to yuk it up, you have to switch gears quickly and smoothly, all the while maintaining your composure. Good service is a difficult matter.

And then there’s decent service. Decent service requires a bare minimum of effort; think Roseanne at the Lanford Diner. The coffee’s plopped down, but it’s still what you ordered. Decent service.

Finally, there’s really bad service. Really bad service entails a complete disconnect between what you want and what you get. A “Ya, you ordered your dinner three hours ago, I’ll go check on it” kind of thing. A decent server is ambivalent; a really bad server hates you.

Several weeks ago, I was at a Caribou coffee reading my Business Associations book as I am wont to do. The door opened up and in rolled a boy in a wheelchair. He seemed self-sufficient, but just barely. His head bobbed up and down as he made his way across the room. He parked the chair near a couch, and–with great effort–thrust himself out of the chair and on to his feet. To the amazement of everyone watching, he made his way back across the room–agonizing step by agonizing step–to the counter, where he lowered his arms and rested his exhausted body. He ordered his drink, carefully pulling money out of his wallet. Then, he made his way back to his chair–overcoming what seemed like extraordinary difficulty. He lowered himself and finally got back in place. You could see the look of contentment on his face.

Here’s how this ties into service. The place was nearly empty. Me, two other people, and the kid in the wheelchair. The woman behind the counter HAD to have seen the ordeal of the boy in the wheelchair; and yet, after he finally completed his journey, she called out his drink order instead of bringing it to him.


Now he had to prop himself back up, thrust himself back on to his feet, and make his way–again–all the way across the room. Not only the that, he had to carry back his drink.

You’re probably thinking: “Adam, why didn’t you help him?”

Believe me, I wanted to. Yet, I didn’t want to embarass him. It was a delicate situation: he seemed so intent on doing it himself. But the awkwardness and sheer sadness of the situation was made that way by a completely oblivious counterperson. There’s really no excuse for her not bringing the drink to him. That’s not even bad service; that’s wicked bad service.

And then today I was in Dunkin’ Donuts–as I am wont to do–and, as I was ordering, a man came in with a really bad case of Parkinsons. He shooked violently as he ordered his food and attempted to pull the money out of his wallet. Without even asking, the woman behind the counter came around and carried his tray for him to the table.


And so we can see, yet again, that: (1) good servers anticipate their patron’s needs (it makes me think of Helen Mirren in Gosford Park: “A good server always knows what their master wants before they know it themselves” [liberties taken]; (2) a good server must be perceptive, taking in everything that’s going on; and (3) Dunkin’ Donuts is a superior dining establishment.

2 thoughts on “The Ugh Department, The Aw Department”

  1. What IS it with the people that work in Caribou? They are such morons. I’ve been to about half a dozen Caribous, in Charlotte, NC, in Chapel Hill and in Raleigh. Always the people behind the counter are either staggeringly stupid or staggeringly rude…or just kind of creepy. I have not noted this pattern at Starbucks or any other similar change coffee shop.

  2. I must differ with Maggie and defend the Caribou staff at the Emory Village Caribou in Atlanta. Even as a non-regular they’ve never been anything but smiley and helpful to me. Without extensive IQ tests I can only say that their senses of humor have indicated itelligence rather than Maggie’s observation of “staggering stupidity.”

    Then again, I’ve never given them the “Wheelchair Test.” Apparenly that’s what really separates the sweet from the surly.

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