The sad decline of restaurant arithmetic
Following an evening of substitute golf with my T.O.U.R. league at a picaresque course in pastoral though strip-mall-threatened Detroit exurbia, I join my buds at the premier hangout down the road. This local indie establishment is clearly oriented toward the white, suburban Youth of ‘Merica who have recently joined the ranks of the drinking classes: an odd mixture of Paris Hiltons and Toby Keiths.
And us: an increasingly middle-aged—meaning my definition of middle-age keeps incrementing—group of provincial golfers. The format is generally four to six of us grab a table, while two to four of the smokers, shot-drinkers, and barmaid banterers head toward the bar. Conversation at either location quickly reaches the peaks of sophistication:
“Whoa, check out the pipes and stems on that hotty comin’ thru the door!”
“Dude, for chrissakes, she’s young enough to be your daughter.”
“Whaddya talkin’ ’bout? She’s young enough to be my granddaughter!”
But the beer is okay—nothing hoppy on tap, but they do serve Boddington—and the food is, well, okay too. For example, the wings are well executed except for the proprietary sauce, and they won’t let you purchase a half-order; then they seem to ration the meat on most of the sandwiches I’ve tried.
Reminds me of that Woody Allen joke: Two women are talking about the dining situation at their retirement home:
“The food here is just awful.”
“Yes, and such small portions!”
Several of us bistro-table sitters have turned to simply ordering sliders (small hamburgers), which are only 75 cents apiece and help soak up the suds. Spence started getting his sliders with jalapeño peppers, which then became customary for everyone. That is until maybe three weeks ago when I noticed they were charging like 50¢ for the jalapeños, and I really didn’t like ‘em that much.
No one else besides me seemed to notice the extra fee until tonight. Our lovely waitress had split the bill into separate tabs, and as we were figuring out whose was whose I say:
“Hey, this one’s mine because I never get the jalapeños, only 75¢ each for the a cappella sliders.”
“What, you mean they charge us for the jalapeños?!! Well, look at that will you, sure enough, 50¢ apiece.”
“You’re kidding,” someone else chimes in, “you know what, they’re adding 75¢ for mine, same price as the slider. “
Going around the table the fee for the jalapeños varies from 50¢ to $1.25! We call over the waitress, explain the issue, and she brings the manager. Young Manager Lady (YML) says “The fee for the peppers is built into the computer as $1.25, which is what we charge for adding it to, like, pizzas and salads. In your case when we took the original bill for the whole table and then split it up, the computer (somehow) calculated different rates.”
Which of course doesn’t entirely satisfy us engineering types. It’s nonresponsive on at least two fronts:
- Just because they charge $1.25 for adding a heap o’peppers to a salad or a pizza doesn’t mean they have to charge $1.25 for slapping one or two of them on a slider (simply create another category in the database for peppers on small sandwiches!).
- A computer error on their part does not justify a wrong bill on our part.
What’s funny, too, is Scott is charged 90¢ instead of 75¢ for his sliders! But speaking of general funny, we add up the total bill for sliders and it comes to $10, whereas the total bill for the jalapeños is like $12.50! That’s the first time in my long history as a high-end beer-joint connoisseur that a garnishment exceeds the price of what it garnishes.
But YML seems to be holding her ground, or at least not conceding anything is fundamentally wrong. Since my bill is correct I’m just watching to see whether my buds are going to storm the ramparts of culinary injustice. It’s a tough call. The operation is completely FUBARed, but the amount is so trivial, does it make any sense to stand on principle?
A headsup manager would see the absurdities, recognize the value of our continued patronage and cancel the entire jalapeño charge for the evening. Then she would tell the waitstaff not to charge for slider-based jalapeños until her management can come up with a reasonable fee; I vote for “free,” though 25¢ would probably not offend too many.
As it works out, nobody wants to exert the energy to help YML to see the light and do the right thing. Grudgingly, most of the group pays their bill whatever it is, and doesn’t take it out on the waitress’s tip. Maybe in the manager’s eyes, the owner’s jalapeño policy is sacred turf she dare not cross. Or more likely, she’s acquiescing to the sentiment “if something prints out from a computer, it must be right.”
Well, I suppose most of us have our restaurant-service strange-than-fiction stories, and I don’t think this one portends the imminent collapse of civilization.
But in general when a computer behind the scenes behaves as a random-number generator, too many people accept the numbers without critical thinking. The results are sometimes comical, but such lapses of mental independence are also consistent with a society succumbing to the more dangerous affliction of “blind obedience to authority.”
And, no, Bruce, I’m not going to argue such brain disease in the United States is the sort that leads to the Rise of Cheney-Bush Syndicate.
Next week, somebody suggests bringing with us a couple of jalapeños from the Kroger across the street. But my guess is management by then will have rethought its policy in the bright light of day and it’ll be jalapeños on the house.
 Can’t resist conveying a quote on the morality of brewpubs that affirms my article on the subject back in March. It’s also consistent with my current sense of environmentalism, e.g. this book review of The Weather Makers. The quote comes from Playboy citing an article by Christopher Mark O’Brien in Green Living magazine:
“Beer is the wellspring of my hope. It’s not that I am simply drunk on the fleeting kind of optimism that comes from imbibing good beer. I am optimistic because the craft-brewing movement is steering society toward sustainability. Brewers are perfect solutions to the global social and environmental problems we face today. The act itself, of drinking good beer, does contribute to my generally cheerful outlook, but it is the accomplishments of dedicated beer activists that give me hope for an enduring shift to sustainability. Small local breweries and brewpubs are innovating closed-loop systems that shift society away from wasteful, polluting, oil-dependent business practices. Brewers are using small-scale technologies, developing local markets, reducing packaging and shipping requirements, making use of locally available materials and radically reducing overall waste. The craft beer movement is, in short, putting into practice a sustainability model called bioregionalism.”