Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Red Hat Ladies

Does the mere mention of Red Hat Ladies drive you into a frenzy? If so, you must be a server at a restaurant. War stories of serving these purple- and red-clad women are legion in the restaurant business.

We've hosted our share of luncheons for Red Hat Ladies over the years, the most recent was last week. And like our compatriots everywhere, we've had a few experiences that have been less than positive.

From my conversations with a lot of servers, here's the general knock on Red Hat Ladies:
  • There's a group dynamic that takes over at times that causes them to be rude, pushy, and highly demanding of servers.

  • Some groups seem to make great sport of running the server: sending the server running for something, then when she gets back to the table, sending her for something else, all afternoon, effectively preventing her from serving other tables.

  • The check averages are reputedly very low: no alcohol, just water to drink, appetizers instead of entrées, no desserts, split entrées, and lots and lots of free bread.

  • They are reknowned for miserly tips on top of weak checks.

  • They want separate checks: the server's nightmare.

  • They're never in a hurry to leave until they've just sent the server to process 20 separate checks, which at a minute apiece takes at least 20 minutes.

Surely, we've witnessed all this behavior from Red Hat Ladies at our restaurant in the past, but we've also seen this behavior and worse from other large groups. My guess is that the Red Hat Ladies by virtue of being instantly recognizable are unfairly taking a lot of heat for large groups everywhere.

Last week, our group of ladies was charming; they ordered well; they tipped well; and they were neither rude nor pushy. In fact, many of them came up to me after their lunch and thanked me for a good time. Ladies, thank you for your business. Now if we could just clone you as an example for how large groups should behave in restaurants....


  1. How many separate checks qualify as a "nightmare?" I'm asking because the most common time I've done this is when we're out with another couple, so it's 4 people, 2 checks. I haven't seen this as an imposition, but then again, I'm not a waiter (all my food service experience was working the grill and dishes at McDonald's).

  2. How many separate checks are too many? There’s no right answer and I believe that two couples dining together have a right to expect two checks, if they want them. Beyond that, it gets very difficult.

    Let me preface the discussion by saying that I wait tables about once a month, so that hardly qualifies me as a professional server. Also, note that in my post, I am summarizing complaints from servers from a wide variety of restaurants; this does not necessarily represent my opinion or even what happens at my restaurant. I approach the issue of separate checks mainly from the point of view of restaurant owner: any reasonable request from a customer ought to be accommodated with a smile.

    But etiquette does apply. If you want separate checks, the time to ask for them is before you place your order, including drinks. And you need to clearly identify the number of separate checks you need up front and who belongs to which check. To do anything else is to be highly inconsiderate of your server. It’s also really good form to discuss the matter when booking the table. If I know in advance that a large party is going to require separate checks, I can add additional staff to help handle the work.

    Many servers hate separate checks because it takes extra work on their part. In a few cases, they’re just lazy servers who are not in the hospitality frame of mind, but in other cases, they are highly conscientious professionals who view splitting checks as taking valuable time away from giving service to tables. If you’ve ever had to ring 8 separate checks, you know that terrible feeling in the pit of your stomach about what is going on at your other tables while you’re tied down to the cash register for 10 minutes. And from the point of view of being able to pay your bills, you just know that ringing separate checks for one large table is going to kill your tips at your other tables.

    Frank Bruni, critic for the NY Times, writes of his experience as a server, "I can tell you that simply being asked to put a check for four people on four different credit cards, even if the amount being charged to each card was the same, created crucial extra minutes of work. I’d stand there at the credit-card-authorization machine running each card, waiting for some computer somewhere to authorize it, writing the confirmation code onto the credit card slip, beginning the process with the next card, and so on. A task that might have taken one minute with one card stretched to four or even five minutes, and meantime some couple just seated at a table looked around longingly for someone to take their drink order, while some other couple signaled in an annoyed fashion for their check."

    Yes, separate checks are an annoyance for our servers, but they don’t get terribly exercised about it. Our service staff is organized such that a server assistant will be on the floor when the server is away. In most cases when two or more couples are dining at a table, the servers are mentally prepared to do separate checks even if nobody asks up front. And, the servers are really good about asking about how many checks are required.

    A major source of headaches for some servers is a POS (point of sale) system. Because our menu changes daily, it would take more effort to reprogram the silly machine on a daily basis than it would be worth. Plus, I want the server or server assistant in the kitchen explaining to me face to face any special requests of the customer. I assure you, the servers do not like running tickets back to the kitchen when they’re busy, but they humor me, probably because I sign the paychecks.

    Many older POS (in this case, piece of crap) systems have no way to split checks. The easiest way for the server to deal with this is to enter a separate check for each person or group at the table that needs a separate check. From the server’s perspective, this is sure to draw the wrath of the kitchen as the crew tries to piece together all the dishes that they need to have up at the same time. I remember the first time that I saw twelve single orders hanging on my ticket rail. It took a couple of minutes to figure out that they were for different seats at the same table. Not being able to see the dining room, I wasn’t sure if we were getting bombed with tables or what as the ticket printer went nuts for three minutes.

    And with certain POS systems, the servers don’t have the authority to separate checks without an override from a manager. Imagine what a nightmare this can be on a busy night. That said, most modern POS systems make splitting checks fairly easy. But don’t count on every restaurant having a modern POS.

    So, back to the original question, how many separate checks are too many? Now that you have seen some of the reasons why this is a nightmare for servers, I leave the number to your judgment. When I go out, I pick up the check if I invited everyone else. Or one of us pays and we settle up outside the restaurant. What I never do is ask for a separate check or ask that the bill be put on more than two credit cards.

  3. 2 couples, party of four, two checks, no problem.
    Party of twelve separate checks, possible meltdown.
    One of the worst parts is when they start buying each other drinks. Here, put his drinks on my bill, put theirs on mine too!!!
    This can get confusing to keep track of. But the very worst part is after going through it all, trying to keep tickets intact, and assuring the right people will be charged for the right thing, one clown will announce at the end of the meal that he is picking up the bill.