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Tampa Bay restaurateurs share tales of customers behaving badly

The couple's first Match.com date was not going swimmingly. Sitting at the wine bar at Clearwater's Cuvée 103, the woman seemed exceptionally, er, thirsty. Eventually she stood up and wobbled her way onto the stage where a jazz trio was getting into full swing, Florida Orchestra bass player T.J. Glowacki plucking at his valuable 19th century German bass.

"As they were starting a tune, the woman asked the bassist for lessons and strummed his instrument," remembers Cuvée 103 owner John Zias. "The drummer turned to her and said, 'You're kind of ruining the moment,' and she said, 'I AM the moment.' "

It didn't get better from there. Confused, the woman had misplaced her credit card, convinced the bartender had stolen it. She would call the police. Suit yourself, the management said agreeably.

"She comes out and commits the cardinal sin of approaching an officer aggressively," says Zias. "She was arrested for public drunkenness."

For that unlucky Match.com guy, it was a first date gone very bad. For the management of Cuvée 103, it was another night in the restaurant business.

• • •

On Jezebel.com there's a section devoted entirely to restaurant customers behaving badly: the most outrageous requests, the dumbest questions, the creepiest behavior and a whole lot of scary things that happen in the restroom. As Zias is quick to point out, in the restaurant business the mantra is "The customer is always right." That means when his customer orders a $30 glass of Caymus cabernet topped off with a lot of ice cubes, the answer is, "Coming right up." When the customer rages about offensive cilantro in her dish (which in fact is Thai basil), it's time to grin and bear it.

We spent time listening to the war stories of Tampa Bay area restaurateurs, waiters and chefs. Some of the tales are astounding and silly, but many serve as guidelines for how to be better customers. And almost invariably, restaurateurs are able to maintain a sense of humor and appreciation of their customers, even the tricky ones.

"Sure, people have come in and stated they are vegetarians and then ordered a steak extra well done because 'It doesn't count then, right?' " says Michelle Baker, co-owner of the Refinery in Tampa. "And sure we have had a person or two storm out because we use chipped plates (throwing a chipped plate away is the farthest thing from sustainable as it gets). And we have had the unusual request for pictures with Greg … from women … and young ladies … and a few young men. We've had a few people scream … oh, yes, scream. We've had a few people show up so intoxicated that they couldn't see straight (and no, we did not serve them). But all in all, we've got a great group of people flowing in and out of these doors. We are grateful for our customers. It is hard to bash on that."

Tina Avila, co-owner of Casa Tina and Pan y Vino in Dunedin, sees irksome behavior that is largely a reflection of customers not thinking of the restaurant's ultimate mission: to make money.

"With Mexican food we give away chips and salsa, and people expect that to be unlimited. But the business of the restaurant is to sell food, and the servers' income is based on the sales, so we provide the first one free and then charge for refills. Also, grownups sometimes ask for items on the kids' menu. The kids' menu is a courtesy for the parents, with the prices very low so it's affordable for the parents to come out. But it's not at all the same profit on those items."

Mike Harting, owner of 3 Daughters Brewing in St. Petersburg, has had similar experiences.

"A guy came in the other night with a cooler of beer — to our brewery. All the games we have, and the band, those things are free so that we can sell beer. It's the only thing we sell."

Still, Harting has other restaurant war stories that blow that one out of the water. Some years back, when he was co-owner of BellaBrava in St. Petersburg, he noticed a couple in the bar engaged in an act best left in the bedroom. He had to gently request that they, well, get a room.

Bruce Caplan, owner of Fetishes in St. Pete Beach, says he can't top that one. But he has a humdinger.

"Years ago, a guy calls me and wants to arrange a dinner, soup to nuts. He doesn't want a menu or wine list brought to the table, he wants everything preselected. I must have spoken with this guy half a dozen times. The night comes and a limo pulls up and the one (guy) has a bottle of wine. I open the door and the guy hands me the bottle and says, 'Can you get rid of this for me? It's not wine.' And it's warm and I can see that it's urine."

What's a restaurateur to do? Keep calm and carry on. And wash his hands.

For Sheri Aquilar, general manager of Island Way Grill in Clearwater, one of the most memorable stories wasn't a customer behaving badly so much as being very, very unlucky.

"Years ago at a restaurant I worked at, there were some people who were cutting through the bushes to the entrance, and the manhole cover on the grease trap lifted open and a women fell in up to the waist. They had to pull her out, and she came into the restaurant tearing off her clothes. Eventually she calmed down and people gave her clothes, but she was in the bathroom for a while."

Aquilar has other tales, but she urges people on either side of restaurant transactions to focus on courtesy.

"We understand that maybe you've had a bad day, even lost your job. But we want you to be happy when you leave the restaurant. Give us the opportunity to fix things. We're all in it together."

Jeannie Pierola, chef-owner at Tampa's Edison, says she feels similarly.

"Everyone is an expert on what they like. The better a customer can do to communicate that to us is going to help us to please them. There are no dumb questions … Just relax and ask the questions. The entire staff loves to talk about the menu and the cocktails and the wine."

That said, she has had her share of goofy requests over the years. Back in her days as executive chef at Bern's Steak House, she sent a server to ask if guests in a large party had any allergies "or things we needed to know about."

"The server came back and said, 'Chef, I have a vegetarian.' The woman said she could not eat the last two courses, which were lamb and beef. But she said she could eat duck and veal. So she couldn't eat a cow but she could eat a baby cow."

Sigh.

Contact Laura Reiley at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.

How to be a better customer

• If you're going to request separate checks, make that known up front. (And for big parties, stay seated in the seat in which you started.)

• Honor your reservations, and call if your numbers change. (When four show up for a reservation for eight, the restaurant loses money on the empty chairs.)

• A dish's components have been carefully orchestrated by the chef. If you want to change something, it should be for a good reason, and you should ask with humility. As chef Jeannie Pierola says, "A dish is a composition like a song, with a beginning, middle and end."

• If you have food allergies or even strong aversions, the onus is on you to convey these to your server.

• Have a bad experience? Cool off for 24 hours before flaming a restaurant on Yelp or TripAdvisor. You have the power to affect someone's livelihood.

• With coupons, Groupons and other deals, you still tip on the undiscounted total.

• Slow service is a common complaint. Ask yourself how much your own texting/tweeting/Instagramming affects your server's ability to do his or her job. In fact, put the phone away and see how smoothly service can go.

• A restaurant is not a child's playground. Bring something for kids to do or be willing to engage them in conversation. The whole time.

• Tone matters. "This isn't to my liking" or "This isn't what I expected" often works better than "This is bad."

Laura Reiley

Take our poll

Pleasant night out? Hardly!

Food critic Laura Reiley talked with several restaurant owners about customers behaving badly, and discovered lots of horror stories. That got us thinking: Which of these behaviors bothers you the most when you see it:

Children out of control and parents oblivious.

Server trying to do job but customers are too busy texting to order.

Totally drunk, obnoxious people making a scene.

Loud complainer who yells at server.

Tampa Bay restaurateurs share tales of customers behaving badly 08/18/14 [Last modified: Monday, August 18, 2014 4:51pm]

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