Go on, spit in his soup

Working in a New York restaurant, Chris Fehlinger learnt how to take revenge on difficult customers. Now other waiters can do the same.
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The Independent Culture
Chris Fehlinger was not what you would normally call subtle or diplomatic when he was waiting tables at a clutch of New York's toniest restaurants. Not quite your have-a-nice-day kind of guy. If a customer gave him any grief, he would return the favour.

"I would always get my revenge really quickly," he says now without a hint of regret. "If a businessman was really rude and was trying to impress a client, I would sabotage the meal so the deal would collapse. I would order the wrong dishes, recommend things that took a long time, sell them things I knew were bad."

That was nothing, he claims, compared to colleagues who wreaked their revenge on obnoxious customers by putting eye-drops in their tea or coffee (guaranteed to give them diarrhoea within hours) or urinating in the coffee pot.

"I'd say my responses were more cerebral. Sometimes you just have to disarm bad customers. A couple of times I have said to tables, you know, it seems to me you have a lot of complaints, why don't you just get them out now. I have five minutes."

But Fehlinger's unorthodox approach to service is not for everyone. Most waiters smile sweetly in the face of even the worst behaviour, grinding their teeth and bitching at fever pitch only behind closed doors. Fehlinger, 30, knew that the rage waiters felt toward restaurant owners and patrons ran deep. Two months ago, "being the Generation X poster child that I am", he decided to do something about it, using the Internet.

That something became www.bitterwaitress.com, a forum for the disgruntled in the restaurant trade to gripe about rude celebrities, demanding customers and oversexed chefs. The site is already averaging 30,000 hits a week. That's a lot of bitter waiters any way you slice it.

"I really want to do two things with the site. First, to give waiters a place to vent, and to bring scrutiny to an industry that really enjoys none. The restaurant industry in the US just sucks," he says.

"Secondly, I wanted to create a place where waiters - who in the US are mostly actors waiting for a break - can advertise their shows. When I start making some money from ads, I am going to put it back into the waitering community, giving grants to theatre companies and things like that."

The site name uses the feminine noun because Fehlinger says waitresses suffer more abuse in the trade and he wanted to drive home the point. "They get hit on by chefs, owners, customers - it's awful for them."

After three years waiting on tables in New York at three and four- star restaurants, Fehlinger saw why the industry made waiters so angry. A combination of rude patrons whose behaviour is tolerated (because competition is fierce) and egomaniacal owners who cared more about meeting models and ripping off customers ("People need food, but no-one needs a $27 piece of fish") is, he says, an intolerable mix. "Because the waiter is the focal point of the diners' experience, customers hold them responsible for everything. If they don't like the meal, or they had to wait for a table, or they feel ripped off, they punish you with a lousy tip."

For waiters in the US, tips are the main substance of their pay: they earn a measly $2.90 an hour before tips. Customers are expected to add 15 per cent to the total which then goes to the waiter - though this is not shown on the bill.

Waiters have been known to pursue customers down the street to demand their tip.

Though Fehlinger does not work as a waiter any longer (since the site went up he has become persona non grata in the trade) his brainchild has proved the perfect balm for those who do.

They write in to complain about multi-millionaire stars leaving 10 per cent tips, chefs who make sexual advances; customers who send meals back five times, demand fat-free, wheat-free, dairy-free meals in French restaurants (why go?) or whistle for the waitress like a dog when they want her; owners who skim tips and patrons so stupid the only thing you can do is laugh.

Kathryn Gallagher, a waitress on the west coast, wrote to complain that she can't stand customers who ask: "Is the tuna dolphin-free?" and "What's the difference between a cup and a bowl?"

Tricia, a waitress from New York who visits the site to calm her nerves, says everything posted there is true. "I just quit a very fancy restaurant because of the stress. Wealthy customers are the worst. They treat you like servants. They blame you if the steak isn't rare enough, and then ignore you for the rest of the meal. To get back at them I would serve them caffeinated coffee when they specifically asked for decaf."

Fehlinger says in his new role as therapist to the waitering community (apart from the website, he responds to many letters) he finds the biggest complaint is sheer rudeness dished out by customers. "People just don't understand what waiters do. They bark at them like they are household help. And they don't tip. In America tips are the waiters' salary. If you don't tip them, they don't get paid." And Fehlinger says that, in his experience, the best people to wait on are celebrities. "They know if they are rude it will very likely turn up in a gossip column the next day so they monitor their behaviour.

"The worst people are academics. They don't make a lot of money, they confuse tenure with privilege, they sit for a long time talking about boring subjects and don't tip. Rednecks with money are more fun to wait on."

One thing Fehlinger has been surprised about is the number of Brits who have posted complaints on the site regarding tipping. "Why can't the employer pay a decent wage and incorporate the cost in the bill?" one writes. "I was in New York recently and got some very average service in restaurants, so why, I ask, should I tip?"

Fehlinger says you will get no argument from him. "I agree with the Brits that the superior system is the European way. But it doesn't work like that here. They have to understand if you don't tip, your waiter can't pay the rent."

Doesn't Fehlinger worry that trashing restaurants and owners by name on the site (which he does) will attract lawsuits? True to type, he boasts he is so broke it wouldn't be worth anyone's while.

"I don't worry about getting sued because I own nothing. And besides, I could find so many people to stand up in court to prove my claims, I would win any case."