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Fast-Casual Food For Thought

We don’t get takeout often, but Saturday, we had a hankering for food from a popular fast-casual restaurant, whose name I’m intentionally leaving out for reasons which will likely become obvious as the story unfolds.

As is customary these days, we punched up the restaurant’s app, and each of us took turns scrolling and selecting entrees and sides, then passed the phone to the next person before giving the order a name (appropriately, ours was “Joan” since it was both her idea and her phone), and hitting the “place order” icon, which magically sent the order and paid for it. (Sometimes, life is too easy, isn’t it?)

The restaurant is a seven-minute drive (give or take), and historically, if I jump in the car immediately after placing the order, by the time I arrive, our food has already been prepared and can be found among its peers on the “online orders” shelf, in a strange but effective honor system by which bags are placed in a group for customers, or passers-by I guess, to grab and go (or steal if you fall in the “passer-by” category).

Seven minutes after leaving home, I arrived at the restaurant. I joined two or three others waiting for their respective online orders and noted the dining room was strangely empty. Yet, the entire vibe of the place was tense, the pace in the kitchen feverish. I checked the “online orders” shelf but didn’t see our food.

“No worries,” I thought. “I’m sure it’s next.”

As I backed up and stood against the wall, I felt the growing tension of the place, as employees yelled questions and commands to – or more to the point, at – one another, often referring to orders on a “first-name” basis.

“I need a baguette for Joan!”

“Here’s the chicken for Becky … is that order ready to go? If it is, get it outta here!”

“Can someone clean this up? I spilled it getting Dale ready.”

“Where are the drink cups for Randy?” (An unidentified voice from the back room) “They’re sitting next to the bag, with his packets of hot sauce!”

As I stood and observed, it became obvious these people were overwhelmed, doing their best to keep up, feeling the growing impatience of their customers and the tension among their crew.

A few moments later, some online orders came out (Matt, Jackie and Andy), and their rightful owners quickly scooped them up as I stood there, nodding and smiling to them as two new folks replaced the departed, executing a routine that has become common at these joints: walk in, check for your order on shelf, sigh and roll your eyes when you see it’s not ready, glance at your “online order peers” to read the room, and find a place against the wall to wait.

I’m an impatient person, and of that fact, I’m aware. But I will give myself credit for this: when I see people obviously struggling, overwhelmed or doing anything they can just to keep up in a situation, I try not to add to the tension with my words, attitude or body language.

ASIDE: Right now, everyone who knows me is probably laughing because while I can think all that about myself, my delivery isn’t always consistent with my intention. So, you’ll just have to trust me when I say I decided to remain calm, keep a pleasant look on my face and realize that waiting a few minutes for food isn’t the worst thing that could happen. However, my vibe didn’t seem to carry over to some of the other patrons.

Every few moments, when someone would walk into to order at the counter, they’d be greeted by a friendly, smiling (though nervous) employee with the following bad news: “Hi … yeah … so … um, just so you know, it’s gonna be about … um … 35 minutes to get your food. We’re trying to catch up on all the online orders.”

At the end of each sentence, her voice would rise in pitch, as though she was asking a question, or subconsciously, asking for the customer to understand the situation, hoping they’d simply flash an understanding smile and walk out.

As you can imagine, those folks were few and far between. In the 20 minutes I stood there (yes, that’s two-zero), waiting for my “fast-casual” order, I saw people say things and react in ways that ranged from “head-scratching” to downright inappropriate.

Here’s a sampling.

One guy walked in, was given the entire “Hi … yeah … so … um” explanation, and then proceeded to grill this poor part-timer with questions. “How did this happen? Why is it taking so long? I mean, look around, there’s nobody here! This sucks!” Then, he turned on his heels, shot those of us in the “online orders” bullpen a look as if to say, “There, I guess I told her!” and stormed out.

Next, a group of six arrived (mom, dad, two kids, grandma and grandpa), and when notified of the situation, just stood at the counter, completely in the way of all customer and staff activity, discussing their next move. “What are we gonna do now?” That’s a direct quote from the father character, delivered with a sense of urgency that made one think this place was the final outpost before joining the other settlers on the Oregon Trail. (Fact: There are no fewer than 10 restaurants within 200 yards of where we were standing.)

But the climax, the thing that turned this experience from just another benign one-act play to an award winner was the woman decided that she was going to take matters into her own hands; that she’d been looking forward to this $9, inexpertly prepared, semi-warm entrée with a made-up ethnic name all week, and come hell or high water, she was going to get it.

When she walked in, the “Hi … yeah … so … um” employee was away from the counter, delivering an order to a customer who had chosen curbside pickup. (Again, sometimes life is too easy.) This left the woman standing at the counter alone – intently reading the huge menu board -- with no explanation of the situation at hand.

When she looked down and noticed no one standing in front of her to take her order, she tried to get someone’s attention in the kitchen. It started politely enough: “Excuse me? Uh, excuse me?” But soon, her tone turned aggressive. “Hey … HEY! I WANNA ORDER! HELLOOOOOO!?!”

Getting no response, she walked around the counter and INTO THE KITCHEN. Now, let me preface this by saying she was not threatening anyone, and all were safe. I honestly think she just wanted answers, and if none of us online losers were willing to take the bull by the horns, she figured she needed to step up. That said, I’m guessing all parties, from the restaurant staff to the health department, my “people” in the online orders queue, and basically any rational human would define this move as an unwelcome, inappropriate tactic.

I looked at my online order friends, and we shared a smirk as if to say, “I can’t wait to see how this plays out.”

We didn’t have to wait long. As she entered the kitchen, a middle-aged employee wheeled on his heels with a knife dotted with grilled chicken shavings (I believe it was Amy’s chicken if I recall), and said, channeling his inner George Costanza, “This is NOT a good time!”

This stunned her, stopping her in her tracks, and for a moment, I think the entire place went silent. (It was that moment of silence when you’re not sure what comes next: widespread laughter, applause or a heated encounter.)

After a tense couple of seconds, the standoff ended, and the woman turned and quietly walked out the door, never to be seen again.

Shortly thereafter, the “Hi … yeah … so … um” employee yelled “Joan?” I approached, grabbed the bag from her, and I was on my way, but not before telling her, “Hang in there. It’ll get better. And thanks for the hard work.” With that, she smiled, thanked me, and we went our separate ways.

I could have gotten mad, internally seething that my “fast-casual” experience was anything but fast (though I was – as usual – perfectly cast as “casual” in my sweatshirt and jeans). But why? Why get worked up over something like that, something so trivial? OK, we waited, at a place where we don’t expect to wait. Some people were given news they didn’t want to hear, but it wasn’t devastating, life-changing news. We weren’t setting out on the Oregon Trail with only what we could carry, faced with an uncertain future.

Besides, it’s not like the staff planned this or somehow relished in our inconvenience. Fact is, they’re the ones who suffered, not us. We eventually got and enjoyed our food (or at worst, walked out and went somewhere else), albeit a bit later than we had planned. They had to stay “in it,” working through the problem until the end, taking all the hits – the glares, attitudes, words and sometimes, invasive tactics -- their customers dealt out.

I’m not one to tell others what to do, so what I’m about to say is not advice. I can only tell you how I do things. And in situations like this, I think while it’s easy to get pissed, to sigh and rant, it’s just as easy to take a breath, channel some patience, and tell overwhelmed service person (one who didn’t choose or create the situation they’re in), “Hey. Hang in there. It’ll get better. And thanks for the hard work.” Because you never know how much impact those kind words might have on a person, or on others who hear them.

On Saturday, I can tell you those words made us both feel better.

© 2022 David R. Haznaw

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