Hell and Walleyes

April 30, 2011
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Four score and seven months ago, the mother of all food service disasters unraveled on the prime fish fry Friday of the summer. It was a normal day of work, a bit slow on tables, a tad understaffed, but the customer flow was nothing we couldn’t handle. In the kitchen, my eyes gazed upon the unfamiliar menu that night; the fish fry special.

“Would you like your fish fry baked or fried? This meal is an Icelandic cod that comes with tartar sauce, coleslaw and cinnamon apples. And for a side, you have your choice of fries or potato pancakes.”

Saying it out loud, rehearsing it for the cooks, I already sounded like a natural. It was as if I was born for nights like that; nights to serve fish fries. I mean, it was a fish fry, how much harder could that get? It was just fish. Sure, there were plenty of different types of fish that could be served, but what was the difference? Salmon was pink, and I had always heard it tasted kind of like chicken, walleye was a big plate of fish that was prepared baked or fried, and Fridays we had cod for the fish fry. It wouldn’t be that hard.

The seconds were slithering by, as if God was trying to tease me. At five o’clock, on a Friday night, I had one table. One. Sure, I would have made… fifteen for a tip, maybe twenty? My excitement was decreasing slowly, as the night was becoming a sinker for my bank account.

“Cat, you’re the double outside, third on the right,” my manager, Mike, had directed me towards, handing me the menus.

“Good evening, my name is Cat and I will be your server tonight. Can I offer you two anything special to drink tonight? We have a great selection to choose from.

“You said that was two pino grigiots? Alright, and I would also like to point out tonight’s fish fry special. We have a great offer, Icelandic cod, baked or fried, with a side of either potato pancakes or fries. I’ll let you look the menu over for a bit, and I will be back with your wine in just a moment!”
It hadn’t been that bad at all. Hustling this fish fry to these customers was already like my typical work schedule, serving four o’clock cocktail hour for the golfers; simple, and a great tip to add to my summer earnings.

“The four person on the left? Sure I’ll take them”
A good steady flow of people were starting to com….

“The table of six in the back? I’ve got them!”
All I wanted were more tables, give me mor…

“Three top by the tv’s, I’m on it.”

“Sarah, could you bring that table menus for me?”
The pinot’s were on the bar. I quickly trayed them, wrote my orders for Ralph to mix and outside I went.

“Here you are, sorry about the wait. So what can I get for you two this evening?...Oh you are interested in the fish fry tonight? Wonderful, it is a popular item tonight, and quite delicious from what I’ve heard. Would you like that baked or fried? Alright, and with a soup or salad tonight? Two soups? Wonderful. So you wanted one baked and fried, with two soups. I will put your order in right away!”
Was it possible that I had gone from one simple two top to five tables in a matter of fifteen minutes? What did it matter though, the busier the better. The adrenaline was rushing. I entered my code into the computer, clicked the fish fry button, one baked, one fried… where the hell was the soup button? Oh well, open modification-TWO SOUP. Done.
My drinks were up on the bar, the five top had their drinks, the three person in the corner had theirs, dang it, forgot to water the…

“Sure mike, I can take a four person on public. Tell them I’ll be there in a moment.”
…Water the uhh, hmmm… oh! Water the four top, and take the order for the five top.

“So let me repeat that… You said you wanted the fish fry tonight? With fries? Repeat again? So you said the walleye? Alright I will put that fish fry order in right away!”
Enter code, baked or fried walleye on the computer screen. They said, three baked, two fried with fries….. No fries? Open modification- FIVE FRIES. But wait, did they really order the cod fish fry and not the walleye? Well, uhh, just… enter.
The more the time ran, I robotically entered in the orders, walleyes, baked, cod, fried, fries, soup, salad, open modifications, walleye, cod. The people weren’t stopping. More, and more, and more and more. How would I ever physically be able to give good service to nine tables at the same time? My buzzer had been buzzing against my leg. I trayed my order, carried them to the three top, placed them down and…

“Excuse me? You ordered the fish fry, yes. Wait, you got the walleye? I am so sorry. I grabbed the wrong tray, I can quickly fix that for you.”
Did I really grab the wrong tray again? That was what they ordered, but the customer is always right, so maybe double check my booklet. That was my fifth table whose order was wrong. I didn’t understand. I entered in the walleye when written down. Shit, they had ordered walleye, not the cod fish fry. Why had I put cod in?
Frantically I stood, flipping through each page of my booklet, attempting to sort out where the problem had started. Had I really wrote the fish fry cod for two walleyes? Walleyes were twenty one a piece. That’s a seven dollar difference from the cod. My stomach dropped, my face began to burn. Could every customer see the fire of embarrassment and confusion burning behind my skin?
What was I thinking? Had I really just agreed with Mike to take another table? I was being buzzed again? What could the kitchen want now?...Mark was there; the head chef, looking pissed beyond all belief, holding…my mistake; my walleye.

“Cat, what the hell do you think you are doing? This is the fourth plate returned from your table! Do you understand what a walleye is! You are wasting this food with your stupidity. So, which order is yours?
The truth was, the typical non-fisherman within me immediately popped into my head realizing, I had no idea what the difference between a walleye and a cod. They are both fish right? Both baked or fried? Probably taste different.

“Mark, I am so sorry. I understand this is my fault. I…”
What could I say? I was completely in the wrong, the utter definition of a mistake. It was impossible to correct what had been done, especially when there was no chance to sort out my problem, fix it or breathe. I was surprised that with all the confusion going on, that my body hadn’t gone into an anxiety shock, or started hyperventilating. And of course, I had forgotten my inhaler at home. It looked like that night I was going to suffocate, in front of every customer, coworker, boss, and chef. If I would have had the choice to run at that moment, I would have taken off as if running marathons was my out-of-shape-self’s favorite past time. But I couldn’t run, couldn’t cry, and barely had the chance to breathe. I had to keep pushing through every mistake I had made, and clench my jaw as Mark screamed, customers left, yelled and made me feel as if my life on this night was a complete error.
Mark and Mike stood there, arguing about something that I eventually stopped understanding. Their conversation was directed at me, surrounding me, about me, but the only person missing in this argument was me. My fault, my mistake, fire her, an understaffed night. I quickly slipped between them grabbing my full tray and ignoring them, I walked out onto the floor. All I had to do was plaster that fake, apologetic smile on my face for two more hours. Just two more and I could go explode in my car. I just had to hold it together for a tiny bit more.
Damn it, my first mess up was leaving, walking right in front of me. Instead of turning around and going the other direction, I kept walking, headed straight for them.

“Thank you so much for coming in tonight, and again, I apologize sincerely at my mistake tonight. I promise that it will never happen again. And like I said, I just am so sorry for the confusion with your order. I take full responsibility.”
The man looked at me, with utmost sincerity and forgiveness in his eyes as he reassured me I was ok. Before I could continue to the bar, I was embraced by his hug; his comforting arms that forced a wave of peace over my body, which released streams of embarrassment from my eyes. I had quickly realized that if I had stood there any longer, tears would soak my face and I may have just walked right out of that restaurant and never returned. I quickly pulled away, wiped my eyes, smiled quickly. With that, my peace faded, and I was thrown back into my night of hell, walleyes and utter disaster.

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