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The horror of being a restaurant server on Valentine’s Day

During a time when restaurant workers are routinely abused by customers, let this be your reminder that a romantic holiday is no excuse for rude behavior. 
Working at a restaurant can be hard. On Valentine's Day, it's often even harder.
Working at a restaurant can be hard. On Valentine's Day, it's often even harder.TODAY Illustration / Getty Images

On an ordinary day, working in a restaurant can be pretty tough: Customers can be demanding or even downright abusive. You don’t have a solid salary or consistent pay. The hours are long and chaotic. 

All of that is multiplied on Valentine’s Day

For several years throughout high school and college, I worked at the Melting Pot, a popular fondue chain restaurant that seemed to specialize in romantic grand gestures. Reservations would fill up weeks in advance, and as early as mid-January, guests would start to complain about … well, everything. 

The prix-fixe menu with a specialty dessert? Too expensive or too elaborate. The deposit that they had to pay to ensure their table? A price-gouging move, even though that deposit would be applied toward the cost of their meal. The limited seating time? Inexcusable. And all hell could break loose if they couldn’t get the dinner time they wanted. I remember always thinking that the person trying to make a reservation must not be in front of their loved one, because how can you reconcile a romantic meal with screaming at me, an anonymous hostess who answered the phone?

By the time the holiday — or the holiday weekend, since all of these romantic meals couldn’t possibly be contained to one dinner shift — rolled around, everyone was on guard. Valentine’s Day at this restaurant was an all-hands-on-deck day, meaning that nobody could call out or request the day off, so the kitchen was packed with servers and there were half a dozen hostesses crammed behind the front desk.

On Valentine’s Day, we could easily see more than 300 customers, or about 150 tables. This for a restaurant with just 30 or so tables meant that everything had to be choreographed perfectly. Some tables, meant for eight, were split into two areas for two, so that we could seat as many people as possible, and while guests were always told upfront if they would be seated at one of these tables, sometimes they acted as if they’d never heard that information before. I was screamed at over this. I remember once another young hostess crying after being shouted at. 

On one Valentine’s Day, I’d come straight from school to the restaurant, changing in the kitchen bathroom before hurrying up front to make sure everything was in order. There were already a few tables seated before this table arrived. Over the phone, the man who made the reservation had been told to expect a split table, but when he saw his seat, his face turned as red as any Valentine’s Day card. 

I can’t remember every word of what he said, but I do remember the way his date looked embarrassed as he shouted, literal spittle flying out of his mouth as he first berated me, then my manager for giving him such an “unsatisfactory table.” His date kept trying to get him to let it go, but he swore that he’d never come back, swore that he’d never been treated so terribly, swore that he’d write a terrible review. Finally, his date ended the conversation by sitting at the table, insisting it was fine — and finally, the tirade ended as he gave up and joined her at the table. 

The last I saw of them, he was staring at his menu, angry, while his date looked bored. “He’s already annoyed,” I remember warning the server who got the table. Later, she said that he had tipped less than 10% — because nothing’s more romantic than taking a seating issue out on the waiter who had no involvement in it. 

Another Valentine’s Day, I remember one server being particularly stressed out. She’d had a nasty table, followed by one that didn’t tip, and then at least an hour of juggling several groups at once. Two of them were ready for dessert at the same time, so rather than make either group wait, she loaded dessert settings for both tables onto her tray. 

In her rush, though, the tray was off balance, and the moment she lifted it to her shoulder, the entire thing — metal pots full of water, dishes of chocolate discs and plates full of dippable treats — crashed to the floor, echoing around the kitchen. While other servers offered to help her, she had already had enough: After an impressive stream of cursing and a quick talk with management, she quit and stormed out. 

These stories are specific to a few days at one restaurant, but I’m sure that thousands of other restaurant employees have similar tales. Valentine’s Day in particular seems to be a day where everyone is at their breaking point, and a little kindness towards employees can go a long way.  

My friends from the restaurant — who were also my high school classmates — all have their own horror stories about working on Valentine’s Day. We all remember working 10- to-12-hour shifts, driving home past midnight, scheduling homework and test assignments around the crazy period. Other employees were balancing family life and second jobs. 

While we always made a decent amount of money around the holiday, we each stopped working at the restaurant one by one, and when we talk about it now, there’s always an element of trading war stories. 

This Valentine’s Day, restaurant staff are in even more dire straits: Labor shortages mean that many establishments are understaffed. Workers may be younger than even my friends and I were as restaurants advertise to young teens. Coronavirus policies give front-of-house staff even more to police, and create even more opportunities for conflict. A restaurant host in Louisiana reported being assaulted for enforcing social distancing, while a brawl at a New York City restaurant after a host asked for proof of vaccination made headlines.  

In 2022, remember that the person serving your romantic meal is, well, a person — someone who is missing out on time with their loved ones so you can celebrate. And keep in mind that yelling at waitstaff is no way to impress a date.