Ask The Salty Waitress: Help me nicely get rid of these camped-out customers

Illustration for article titled Ask The Salty Waitress: Help me nicely get rid of these camped-out customersem/em
Photo: Jacob Ammentorp Lund (iStock), Graphic: Nicole Antonuccio
The Salty WaitressThe Salty WaitressSalty Waitress is The Takeout’s advice column from a real-life waitress that will teach you how not to behave like a garbage person while dining out—and maybe in real life.

Dear Salty: Fellow server here. I need your advice on an annoying problem that comes up every few weeks: the table that just won’t leave. After I’ve made sure there are no more drinks coming and no one wants the dessert menu, I leave the bill, it gets paid, and then… nothing.

Meanwhile, I’m making nothing off of that table and my next reservation is getting steamed, glaring at these squatting customers taking up prime dining real estate. Our restaurant schedule is based on tables turning over in a reasonably timely fashion—what can we do about the customers who are mucking everything up, without being so rude that they never come back? (Although, maybe that wouldn’t be the worst thing…)

Impatient

Dear Impatient,

Honey, I hear you. In fact, we’ve answered a question like this once before, but there’s always more to say. Because on one hand, we want people to enjoy their time here! On the flip side, enjoying themselves can also mean messing up our restaurant’s clockwork rhythm.

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At my diner, we call these guys “campers.” We see them pitch a tent and know they’re not going anywhere. You have to be a special kind of socially tone-deaf to not realize how your extended hangout is inconveniencing your servers, your fellow diners, and this restaurant you apparently like, otherwise why are you eating there? I once worked a lunch shift where this old couple literally brought out a photo album and went down memory lane, while I gnashed my teeth in silence because they looked so sweet.

Because that’s the other side of it. Maybe a separated couple is reconciling during that extended post-dinner coffee. Maybe two long-lost friends are reconnecting. Maybe a first date is going so well that neither party wants to stop the conversation. Magic can happen in restaurants. I’ve seen it.

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Or, maybe they’re just inconsiderate so-and-sos, extended their meal just because they feel like they can. The problem with that then is if they stay until after the end of my shift, I have to transfer that table to the next server, and I don’t get those tips anymore (see: old couple flipping through photo album). Sometimes that works as a reminder. “Excuse me, I’m at the end of my shift, would you mind if we settled up here?” is a request most people seem to get. But even after they pay the bill, some people still don’t get that it’s time for them to clear out. (I agree, the obtuseness is maddening. Have they never eaten in a restaurant before? They sure haven’t worked in one, that’s for sure.)

So, let’s say they haven’t paid yet. The answer is simple: You drop off their check. Maybe (hopefully) they’ll get the hint.

Next level: They have paid but they don’t leave. There’s a saying in our industry: “The less they have on the table, the less the table is theirs.” This means you take everything away from them—their napkins, their water, the silverware, the salt and pepper, until there’s nothing left on the table. You’re slowly making it as obvious as possible.

Still there? Try this: Does your restaurant have a bar area? See if you can push them over there. I’m surmising that this group is drinking (I dunno, just a guess), so if they ask for another round, that’s the perfect opportunity to steer them that way. I’ve even had a situation where the restaurant where I worked bought a group drinks at the bar next door. Yes, it was a little pricey, but it also saved us from taking a hit, because not having that table available for the next party means that we’re losing money regardless.

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If all else fails, you have to go for the direct nuclear option. Just tell them as nicely and honestly as possible. “I’m so sorry to interrupt. We do need this table for another reservation.” A restaurateur, I forgot who, famously once said, “At the end of the table, servers are just human beings taking care of another human being. Talk to them.” If they don’t get it after all of that, then yeah, I wouldn’t be too broken up if they don’t return to your establishment. Let them go squat at someone else’s restaurant for awhile. Good riddance and on to your next table.

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DISCUSSION

I understand the problem. I understand why it’s a problem. I also understand why it’s a moral and ethical imposition.

But I’ve also been on the other side too many times. Once my group of friends scattered across the county, the opportunity to spend an evening together became rare - annually when very lucky. This mostly takes place somewhere near our old stomping grounds (which is mutually inconvenient), which means that most of us crash among family, no-frills hotels, or non-mutual friends, where imposing on anyone for group reunion space isn’t an option. We get together specifically to see each other, and no public place I know facilitates that better than a decent restaurant or a quiet bar & grill (in college that usually meant Dennys, nowadays we’d like a little more atmosphere than that). Too often, this has been after a funeral, which makes a quiet, talkable venue even more important.

All we want is a nice place to spend an entire evening together, preferably where we can get mildly drunk, and avoid leaving early because one of us may not be back next time. Not a lot of public spaces actually foster conversation, and hotel rooms are designed for locking the door/sleeping, not for pleasant evenings among friends unless you spend a bundle in advance.

Once you give up hanging out in parking lots, you learn that you always rent public space, but most spaces (other than restaurants) want you to pay for entertainment or activities, and not to amuse yourselves by talking to each other. All we want is a way to enjoy some space and time together without planning it in advance, and restaurants are very good at this. They even advertise that they provide this. We don’t want to impose, we tip extra and usually order dessert/coffee when we hole up, but that doesn’t help your boss over an entire evening. We are a fringe case and we can’t change that. So, are there any suggestions other than “Tough luck. Please feel a little guilty, then get out.”