Most front-of-the-house workers in the restaurant industry fall into one of two schools of thought about Valentine's Day. School one says, "Fuck this made up holiday and all these annoying lovey-dovey couples and get me out of here now." School two says, "Cash rules everything around me. C.R.E.A.M. Get the money, dollar dollar bill ya'll."
Given everything I've written in this column you would assume I fall into the former camp, but I'm really more of a Wu-Tang fan. I'd much rather make several hundred dollars in one night than drink whiskey in a dive bar by myself while a marathon of romantic comedies plays on the television or, god forbid, spend actual time with my girlfriend.
But on one Valentine's Day several years ago I wanted to be anywhere but work.
I was employed at a restaurant that had opened the previous August. After a really busy first few months and a solid holiday season, January happened. Typically the slowest month of the year for restaurants, January infected the owners with a bad case of "We have to make as much money as possible on Valentine's Day."
It's understandable they felt this way. The cost of opening a restaurant frequently induces heavy drinking. But they went overboard, and by overboard I mean they seemingly said "yes" to anyone who wanted a reservation with no regard for the amount of tables in the restaurant or how long it would take to serve a five-course meal.
In what would prove to be foreshadowing, an early guest at the bar didn't like his salad. In an apparent attempt to impress his date he took the high road --- demanding that he get his meal for free or he would go outside and start shouting that the restaurant's salad had bugs in it. I know when I'm trying to impress a special lady I result to immature blackmail.
For the first round of reservations everything went fine. Service was smooth and the guests really enjoyed everything. As these tables got close to finishing I went to the host stand to check the reservations. I looked at the crush of people set to roll in every half hour for the rest of the night. Then I looked at my watch and realized how long it was taking our current tables to eat their meals under optimum conditions and I shuddered.
Soon after, a couple told me how much they enjoyed their meal and what came flying out of my mouth was, "I hope you're not the last people to say so."
I couldn't help it. It was a purely reactionary moment of excessive honesty. My words would soon turn out to be grimly prophetic. It seemed like guests were continually streaming in the door for the remainder of the night. But the tables they had reserved, months ago in some cases, were not ready.
One of the owners is possibly the most pleasant and relentlessly optimistic persons I have ever met. When I asked her if she had any ideas on how to fend off disaster for the rest of the evening she responded, "I'm going to find a knife and cut my wrists." Got an extra knife?
The hostess told most of the guests whose tables were not ready to grab a drink and wait in the bar. But this bar would be characterized as intimate (read: small). The dining room connected to the bar via a long skinny hallway and once the bar quickly filled up people started clogging up the hallway.
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When I went back to get my drinks, which probably weren't ready because the bartender was getting killed, I walked past a couple dozen people who looked at me like I burned down their house. Once I stood at the bar for a moment and realized my drinks weren't ready yet I headed back into the dining room to a whole lot more people giving me a very similar look.
At one point I ducked into the side station to find one of the busboys looking like he had just escaped a street fight in Compton. "I'm not going back out there," he said.
A man at one of my tables began his meal by proposing to his girlfriend and it ended when his credit card was declined. The mood was anything but romantic. I wouldn't blame any of the guests that night for never coming back.
Valentine's Day is a cash oasis in the middle of a cold Colorado winter, and I know restaurant owners want to take advantage of that. But whatever money the restaurant made that night was not worth the damage done to its reputation. Valentine's Day is supposed to be about overpriced roses and padding Hallmark's pockets, not a restaurant full of people ready to fight the staff.