Regular or Irregular?

By: Patrick Maguire

Book Chapter: Customer Hall of Fame

Posted: 07/27/2010

Restaurant workers are a unique breed. Cagey veterans are durable, resourceful and irreverently funny. They’ve seen and heard it all. They put their game face on and deliver great hospitality shift after shift, double after double, week after week. Despite their resiliency, it’s hard to always be the life of the party when they’re running on fumes, the laundry and errands are piling up at home, and funds are tight. The daily grind takes its toll on even the most seasoned servers.

A good friend of mine was working a double last week on an outside patio during the heat wave in Boston. When I touched her back and kissed her cheek to say hello she was sweating so much that she was clammy. The air conditioning was so ineffective at the restaurant that she spent her forty-five minute break in her car with the AC cranking. Despite her predicament, she was still joking and smiling—a true professional.

I’ve been working with and talking to restaurant workers for more than twenty eight years, and one thing that keeps them going, along with their sense of humor, is their good, repeat customers. Regulars can be lifesavers, or be the bane of a server’s existence.

Frequent flyer credits don’t guarantee you good regular status in a restaurant. Many repeat customers are loathed by the staff. The very sight of them evokes a visceral reaction nearly impossible to disguise. I’ve heard several of these gems bragging to their friends about what a “regular” they were, while the staff ridicules and curses them. A lot of bad regulars are clueless.

So what separates a good regular from an irregular?

I used to frequent a Boston restaurant so often that the GM put my name into the Micros computer system under “Maintenance” as a joke, and told me that he had punched the time clock for me if I was running late. (Hopefully I wasn’t high maintenance.) An extremely eccentric woman, with darting eyes, also frequented the same restaurant. She always sat alone with her book at the bar and rarely said a word to anyone. Without fail, if you sat close to her, she would lift her head from her book, stare into your eyes, and lean in to listen to your conversation, never looking away—very awkward and creepy. Naturally the staff dubbed her, “The Listener.” (All restaurant regulars have nicknames.)

At another restaurant I frequented, a very loquacious, clinging regular was notorious for sidling up to customers at the bar, befriending them, convincing them to let her try a bite of their food, and then eating a good portion of it. She was a mooch, and I was often a victim until I caught on to her ruse. I distinctly remember her saying, I love this place. Everyone shares their food. I bit my tongue, but wanted to reply, No they don’t, you steal it!

Kat, a reader and commenter on this blog writes, Regulars, the kind that make you smile when you see them sit in your section, who remember your name, just like you remember theirs, who take an interest in you as a human being, not just the purveyor of sustenance, are absolutely the best. The ones that have cared enough to ask for my name (I don’t generally volunteer it) and to remember it, who notice that I love my job and genuinely appreciate the way in which I do it, those people are the reason I go to work. These stupendous customers are probably about 20% of the total, just like the truly difficult ones, but they make it so much easier to deal with the other 80% and are always a great reminder of the reasons I’m in the service industry.

Serving fellow human beings food and drink is an intimate and personal experience. Great hospitality is a two-way street. If you frequent a restaurant, it is incumbent upon you to know if you’re a good regular or just a regular pain in the ass. Let’s open the discussion up to restaurant industry experts, and every other service industry worker to clarify the difference.

Please describe your favorite regulars. What do they say and do that makes them enjoyable to serve? What sets them apart from other guests?

Please describe the irregulars that make you cringe when they walk through the door. What makes them so difficult? Do they try to use their frequent flyer status to curry favor? Do you think they have any clue that they’re a royal pain in the ass? How do you and your co-workers deal with them? What are their nicknames and why? What would you tell them if you could?

Please forward this post to anyone who might want to join the conversation. Thank you.


12 Responses to “Regular or Irregular?”

  1. rebs says:

    Love this post! I haven’t worked in the biz for 4 years, but I still remember regulars and, even more so, irregulars.

    One irregular was dubbed “Douche bag scientist guy”. He worked at BU doing something scientific and usually came in with awkward people (I assume co-workers) from the lab. His guests were usually shy and polite, and this guy was all about showing off his regular status to them, acting like a complete prick to the staff, and then tipping like crap. There was one week where I happened to wait on him for dinner, then again the following day for lunch. He said to me “Wow you’re here a lot. You must really need the money”. I was stunned.

    There used to be a married couple that would come in pretty frequently who were really sweet and tipped very well. Then one night the husband asked me out while his wife was in the bathroom. He quickly became an irregular. blech.

  2. During the many times I’ve been a wait professional, I’ve, sadly, encountered more irregulars. Once during my first night bartending, a couple came in with two other couples and one half of the first couple asked for her drink to be served in her to-go coffee cup (that she brought with her). I told her that, to my knowledge, I couldn’t sell her what was, in essence, to-go booze. She started to lecture me that she and her friends are regulars and the other bartender always did it for her. I told her she probably ought to come back when the other bartender was working.

    Other irregulars were usually terrible tippers/big complainers who showed up only for specials. And, I can say that most irregulars treated me terribly UNTIL they learned I wasn’t “JUST” a bartender/server/expeditor but a writer earning extra $. Isn’t that JUST awful?

  3. liza says:

    my favourite customer only comes in approx. every 3-4 months. he doesnt tip, but is just so pleasant it really makes my night when he comes in. we trade travel stories everytime either of us have been somewhere new…

    irregulars are a large family group that come in half-yearly. the kids run riot in the restaurant, bar, courtyard and toilets. and parents let them sit at as many tables as they like, make a huge mess and generally be rude.

  4. Scott says:

    To all my regulars through through the years…THANK YOU!..You have helped pay for my bills, my mortgage and my daughter’s college education…to those of you I consider to be my friends…You know who you are!…I miss you and will post my next gig when it I find the right spot…ENJOY THE SUMMER… !

  5. Paul Paz says:

    “For some people, the smile you give them while talking may be the only measure of positive human emotion they had all day.”
    Nate St. Pierre, founder of It Starts With Us

  6. peggy thompson says:

    I was a server for many years and we had a counter where i worked and we had a lot of counter creatures!!! would stay for hours and drink coffee and flirt!!! Like any of them had a chance!!!

  7. Julia says:

    My favorite regular is a guy named Leo. He’s always on his own, brings his paper and hangs out at the bar. He has a few special requests – mostly because servers, as they got to know and like him, would ‘spruce up’ his experience. (a little blue cheese on his salad, the pasta on the lunch menu in a dinner portion… etc.) He always appreciates the effort.

    Most of the servers where I work have passed a few otherwise boring afternoons hanging out with Leo. He’s pleasant, interesting, chatty and appreciative – always leaving a couple dollars more than 20%. He’s a sweetheart.

    One of the strangest “irregular” experiences I’ve ever had happened last fall. I’ve been working in the same restaurant for a few years and for at least two, had been waiting on the same couple every couple of months. They would ask to sit in my section and if they had come in on a night I didn’t work, would complain to me later that it “just wasn’t the same experience” without my wine pairings and menu suggestions. They would sometimes be difficult, taking up a lot of time and energy since they would essentially ask me to select each element of their meal and pair half glasses of wine to compliment. On slow nights I enjoy this, but the pace of our restaurant does not allow for that much time with every table. And on busier nights, they would be irritated if I encouraged them to make a few of their selections or tried to streamline their order by deciding on more than one course at a time.

    In spite of the fact that they clearly did not understand the dilemma that their neediness would put me in on busy nights, I did enjoy waiting on them. They always were complimentary and appreciative of my service. They never left more than 20% gratuity, in spite of the extra effort they required. However, after years of food and wine education, I appreciated the value that they put on my recommendations.

    Over the course of time I learned a little about them. As a successful professional couple, they dine out fairly frequently, but also like to cook and entertain. (thus the numerous detailed lists they would ask for about the wines and foods they tried – with advice on where to purchase them for private consumption) They talked often about their dogs and showed me pictures of their “babies” on a few occasions. I actually liked them very much. They were a little odd, but they were my peeps. On one night I fought with my co-workers over letting them sit without disruption until two hours after closing. I explained that they “are good regulars – just totally oblivious!!” … until they finally left their 18.5% tip and we all had to cab it home.

    I’m still trying to process what happened last fall. I have been a server for (never mind) years now, and I am prepared for a certain amount of class-ism from people who want servers who seem smart and educated, but feel the need to remind themselves (and me, in the process) of how far above service they are. This couple was something else.

    They came in on a slow night, were seated in another server’s section, but I waited on them per their request. They had new pictures of their “babies” (dogs) and I admired them as usual. Then I asked if they wanted to see a picture of my baby. NOW, just to be clear, I am a proud parent, but I generally hesitate to share anything about my life, or my little family with customers. It is like that ‘fourth wall’ in theater. Most people only ask questions of their servers to make polite conversation and using the fact that one has offspring to endear oneself seems tacky to me. That said, I unfortunately had read their desire to have me admire their dogs, not as an extention of my duties as a server, but as a friendly gesture. So, when they accepted my offer I produced a picture of my toothy grinning four-year-old son! They eyed it awkwardly, passing it back and forth… they complimented his good looks and gave it back to me. I noted that the exchange had seemed odd … but figured it was the best I could do since I didn’t have a dog picture to show them. The meal and it’s many pairings went on without a hitch. It wasn’t until after they left that I realized the extent of my faux pas… A shy 7% tip drove the point home.

    The experience continues to frustrate me. I have gone over it in my head a hundred times. Primarily, I wish that I knew what they were so bothered by. Did the fact that I (a thirty year old woman) have a child shock them? … I’m almost certain that I had mentioned my son in conversation before that night… Or, were they thrown by the dark tone of his skin? (I’m white, but he’s half African) … or was it truly that after years of service, meeting their friends, admiring their pets and spending hours in casual conversation with them, the friendly gesture on my part overstepped what they perceived to be “my place”.

    A couple of months later, they returned and once again sat in another server’s section. I greeted them warmly, but did not wait on them. I have a sliver of self-respect to maintain, and (more importantly) I have a child to support.

  8. Karen says:

    As a bartender who works on the Las Vegas Strip, I generally do not really have “regulars.” What I do get are what I call my “weekend regulars.” These are people in town for their Vegas vacation and they are mine for the duration of their stay. These are the tourists I live for – they are so much fun and so pleasant. They may not tip astronomically, but they tip consistently and I get excited every time I see them. Then, of course, they go home, and I never see them again, and it’s time for the next wave of tourists.

    One weekend regular I remember most fondly as of late was one gentleman who came to sit at my bar around 7am for about 4 days straight. 7am was the tail end of the graveyard shift I pulled on this particular bar and he would sit down like clockwork right as I arrived back from my lunch break. Graveyard on this bar in particular was one of the most difficult bars I have ever worked in Las Vegas – it seems to attract the drunkest ghouls and goblins who had me calling security or throwing them off the bar myself more often than I actually made drinks. But by 7am, they were long gone, and “Gene” would arrive. At first he just wanted a Bailey’s and coffee and to be left alone while he read the paper, but slowly he and I started talking about all sorts of topics. For those 4 days, I kept calling Gene “My breath of fresh air,” and he would immediately ask what sort of circus carried on at this now calm, quiet bar. After dealing with everything from indecent language to indecent exposure to indecent excretion for the first 5 hours of my shift, Gene was such a joy. Bar irregulars can be all sorts of insanely behaved – now imagine each one from all over the world has been set loose in Vegas. I’d find myself glancing at the clock and thinking that thank God I’d at least have Gene to pleasantly wrap up the shift. Then of course in four days time, he and his wife (who I finally met on his last morning) flew home. He said he and the misses had plans to return next spring. I sure hope I see him again.

    Another tourist who visited in May was also so epic that I actually gave him my name to add to Facebook. He wrote on my wall recently that he hopes to be back in Vegas circa January. I suppose my situation is a little different than most servers or bartenders, but when someone travels hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles from home, returns to your resort and immediately seeks you out – that is just as rewarding as a huge, fabulous tip.

    OK…maybe be not JUST…but really, really damn close :-D

  9. Geeeeeezzzzzz Patrick! Every time I visit your blog I feel like relaxing and kicking back… its better than a visit to a therapist! Great post AGAIN!

    Nicknames: “Barney” (Looked just like’em -heart of gold) “Scrooge” (Bow tie wearing professor, dolled out the tip from a coin purse and snapped each coin onto the table so we could hear it) “Lola” (72 year old Flamingo Dancer – funny loved to give detailed excerpts of her past loves) “Nora” (a real prick macho attorney) “Talulla” (looked and spoke exactly like Talulla Bankhead – retired actress, heavy drinker, lonely but heart of gold – great tipper) “Miss MoneyPenny” (Executive Secretary type always scoping for an intro to new James Bond. Would always ask.. “who’s that, can you introduce me?”) “Handy Dandy” (Plumbing contractor-always nice was willing to help fix anything FREE) “Sly” (Plump vest wearing fast talking used car salesman would empty the sugar bowl in his pocket) “Olive-aaaa” (Like from Green Acres. Wore overalls with a dress shirt and tie – loved to talk about his bird-watching or his tractor.) “Dick” (Stockbroker because he was a real dick) “Fritz” (Everything went on the fritz, broke or whatever he asked for was 86) “Klinger” (Must have been a closet cross dresser because he always had faded lipstick on his lips and smudged mascara – nice guy. I think he was a guy.) Madame Ortanz (68 year old plump, bubbly, flamboyant who loved to hummmmm through her entire meal.) All if not most were nice people. Spent money with us regularly. Preferred certain servers over others and made a point of sitting in their “special server” section. They were keen to learn all their regulars little idiocrasies which is an art form onto itself. Only a few were very high maintenance “but” only if there was a deviation to the service or the server was unfamiliar with their habits. I think back and wonder how fortunate we were to have them. It was like we could always count on them as much as they counted on us. We were part of their daily lives and they made sure we knew it.

  10. Dr. Hank says:

    I was a regular at O’Lacey’s in Batavia, NY this past spring. I knew all server staff names and their unique, individual sense(s) of humor and would genuinely engage them (by name) every visit. I tipped significantly well from my first day until my last. They reciprocated in many ways, but that’s not what I was looking for. I knew a little bit about each servers’ personal life and was always available to listen – many times injecting humor or thoughts.

    I sat on same stool and they’d “work it” to be sure I had a seat when busy. But, I must say I really liked them as individuals and was authentic, warts and all, with them. They’d always smile and greet me big shout-out “Dr. Hank!” on almost every visit (about 2-3 times a week for two Guinesses every time w/beer poured before I got to shake their hand “hello”) almost every time!

    Great people.

  11. K dog says:

    My faves, I shall call them “our boys.” Our boys love every restaurant in our group, and have invested their time and money into being part and parcel of our family. A lovely couple, they celebrate with us many times during any week. We are their second home. The rehersal dinner for their wedding at one restaurant and the reception at another, they included us in the celebration as staff just as they would their family. On several occasions, they have invited staff members to soirees at their home so that they could take care of us! Even pulled out the Pappy Van Winkle for me because they remembered that I love Bourbon! One of them did a “stage” at our restaurant because he wanted to learn more about the craft of meat fabrication. We see the boys walking down the street toward our store and are always excited to take care of them- not because of the money nor the connections- because they have become an integral part of our family. One of the boys even brought me coffee from Portland, Oregon when he returned from his business trip just because he knew I had a hankering for it! The boys are welcome in my home, place of work or anywhere with me, anytime! What class acts, I could say, but it’s not an act, they are genuinely kind and welcoming people we should all be so lucky to know!

  12. 50 says:

    I and my staff’s fav regulars were Tony and Sunny. Tony is an elderly bachelor who raves about my scrambled eggs and came in nearly every day. He would always take the time to hug and ask about each of us and make conversation when the place was quiet. He would bring us flowers and herbs from his garden and candy at Christmas and he was a good tipper even when he only had coffee and a scone. Sunny is a teeny tiny elderly lady so frail we had to help her cross the street in a windstorm. Gave me LOADS of grief when I changed bread choices. Came in every Sat. for 1 – just 1 egg benedict, no fruit cup and side of bacon. Rarely tipped. Came in one time and asked me if I could make egg whites tasty b/c her Dr. wanted her to lay off the bacon. I told her I could put some salsa in them for her and her reply was “screw it, give me my eggs benny and bacon :)” Always wore pink or baby blue to match her baby blue eyes. Came in day b/f the MA hurricane 2 years ago and I asked her if she needed a sandwich or some soup for dinner and she replied, “I’ve got my gin and nuts, so I’ll be fine.” Corker!!

    Irregulars – one very large woman, lawyer -she insisted telling me this as she proceeded to berate me for telling her I couldn’t guarantee no seeds or nuts had not touched her daughter’s sandwich since I use seeds and nuts and had a basket of multi-seed bagels on the counter. Another was pestering me (I had an open kitchen) about chai calories and I told her I didn’t know. Again with the “you should know, you own a restaurant.” She ordered green tea and returned to pester me about more ice. I asked her to ask the counter staff as I had a full board and she complained he was busy (he was the place was packed and only 2 of us were working that day). She keeps pestering me and I ask her to please (a)Let me work and (b)Not stand behind the counter. She comments “somebody hasn’t been laid in a while.” Are f’ing kidding me? I told her to leave, she insists on more ice, I told her NO, just leave or I’ll call the cops. She makes another nasty, derogatory comment about my sex life. PLZ note that this is NOT some high society snot, she looks like she just crawled out of bed. I reach for the phone and she finally makes her way to the door BUT NOT BEFORE SHE REFILLS HER F/ING GLASS OF TEA and shouts on the way out “I know a lot of people in this town.”

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