We’re Here For You

The First Essential Scary Truth

‘We’re here for you.’

A simple phrase that delineates the job I do behind the bar very well. John Lopez, current GM of Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles, was the first of my co-workers I remember using this disarming statement with any frequency. John was the junior manager at the Park Ave Café and I was the newly hired bartender. We’d close together every Sunday night and quickly learned why Mike Byrne, the architect of the Smith and Wollensky Restaurant Group, called his restaurant on 63rd and Park ‘the house of pain.’

On Sunday’s, the clientele was elderly, particular and very vocal their issues. During one five-week stretch in the spring of 2004, we had one near death experience every shift. During one of these events, a heart attack that required the paramedics to act quickly to (thankfully) save the man’s life, a party of four got up and left, complaining they couldn’t eat in a place where a man had died. J Lo walked over to the folks, gave them his card and reminded them “we’re here for you. We hope to see you again soon.”

At the time, I thought the phrase was cloying, precious and horribly insincere. It was only when the same four top came in a two weeks later and then two weeks later again did I realize just how effective a phrase that “we’re here for you” was. John used it to placate the angry, the questioning and those who were spoiling for a fight, the words form something of a martial arts/amateur wrestling maneuver; it’s almost impossible for a guest to stay angry when you appear to be so submissive while regaining the initiative in the interaction. To this day, when you sit at my bar, you will likely hear me say ‘we’re here for you’ three or four times a shift.

However effective this J-Lo nuisance is in New York City, it is completely lost on my peers in the Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale Metropolitan area. Here in the Valley of the Sun, good service is defined as indifference bordering on rude. In Phoenix, arrogance not humility is the rule. My latest run-in with the unflinching wall of Valley Service Mavens could have should have been an easy fix for the joint in question. However, the employees of the George and Dragon on Central Ave. decided to take the ironic comment ‘blame the victim’ literally.

January 14. Penny had managed to get us on Mike Ness’ personal list for the Social Distortion show at the Marquee. We decided to eat at the George and Dragon, a wildly popular British pub in central Phoenix. The joint bills itself as having the largest selections of draught beer and Scotch whisky in the Phoenix metro area as well as well as serving “traditional homemade British fare.” We choose a table in front of the bar. From the time I walked up to the find out if there was table service or not the service exceeded my expectations: the barmaids were arrogant and dismissive but our waitress was quick, efficient and really cared about doing their jobs well. Penny had a Pastie and I opted for a Sheppard’s Pie. Neither of which was anything special but were quite filling. Exactly what we were looking for on a cool desert night.

The George and Dragon surprise came three songs into SD’s set. As we sang along to “Ball and Chain,” I started to sweat. At first, I thought it had to do with all the people milling around and pogoing, not to mention the stale smell of beer. I walked out to find some water and was hit by a wave of low-grade nausea. I knew I was about to be laid low by a bad Sheppard’s Pie. Fortunately, Penny was able to get me back to my apartment before my 2am, 3am, 4am and 5am vomit sessions.

I was finally able to crawl to the couch at 11. Penny came by with chicken soup and Coke. She urged me to call the George and Dragon to warn them about the bad food I’d eaten. At first, I didn’t want to expend the energy to move any part of my body. I was still cramping and sweating. Let someone else tell them about their contaminated ground beef. Then I had a change of heart. After all, I had no ax to grind and I wasn’t looking for a free anything, I was just a bartender, a member of the service industry. Better they hear about their problem from one of their own.

So I called the joint at 12:40 anticipating a short phone conversation that went something like this: I’m sorry. My name is blank. I’m here from —day to —day. Come on in and ask for me. Short, quick and then I could get back to being a food-poisoned bastard. The woman who answered identified herself as Summer the manager on duty. I told her about my experience from the night before. Her reply? “It wasn’t food poisoning honey. It was something else.” At first I thought it was the cramps. They caused hallucinations, right? No. Summer kept telling me it must have been something else.

Finally, I lost my temper. “Look lady, just give me the owner,” I said.

“He’s not here honey,” she said. The more upset I got, the more condescending she got, thus the angrier I got. Finally, she agreed to give my name and number to the owner David but I shouldn’t wait for him to call me that day or any day. He was a busy man. I clicked off my iPhone in anger and drank some warm Coke.

I had fallen back asleep by the time David called me back at 12:58pm. However, David wasn’t the owner, he was the kitchen manager and proceeded to tell me how he made everything fresh daily. “It had to have been you. You have a food allergy,” he said. His arrogant, authoritarian statements reminded me of what the prison guards used to tell condemned San Quentin inmates before they sealed the door to the gas chamber: take a deep breath and you’ll die faster. However, unlike the guards and death by cyanide, I’ve had actual experience with food allergies.

“I have a shellfish allergy. If I were allergic to anything in that Sheppard’s Pie I’d have died from Anaphylactic shock hours ago,” I said.

“So you know about food allergies,” he said quietly. I had the bastard by the balls so I took the opportunity to remind him that I was doing him a favor by not having an attorney crawl up his ass. He was so impressed by my legal non-threat and still pondering another line of blame the guy you got sick the night before, I don’t think he knew I hung up.

No apologies were offered. One of the Sous chef’s I work with who has over a decade of experience in kitchens all over the country wasn’t surprised when I told him the story. As a matter of fact, he beat me to the punch line. “Let me guess, they blamed you. Classic.”

Yet another Phoenician restaurant who lacks one of the basic tenets of the service industry: ‘We’re here for you.’ I’m sure the next person they poison won’t ponder how a dining establishment fails to understand its mission statement. They’ll call the Health Department. They’re here for you as well.

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