Monday, September 6, 2010

When a Stranger Calls

"Johnny's Pizza!"

"Didn't I just talk to you on the room service phone at the hotel?"

"Which hotel?"

"Oh, never mind."

Whew! Almost busted again.

I worked for a hotel chain in Florida that had two separate phone lines that both connected to room service. One of them was advertised in the rooms as "Johnny's Pizza," trying to pass itself off as a local pizza restaurant that offered a special service to the hotel, supposedly delivering the pizzas for the room service waiter to bring to their rooms "as a convenience". They didn't exactly come out and say this much, but they put the fear of God in the waiters to never tell the truth about "Johnny" and used some pretty slick advertising. It wouldn't have been quite so bad if the pizza hadn't really sucked. It was just frozen institutional stuff that the waiters baked themselves and I wouldn't be surprised if the box cost the hotel more than the pizza did. Taking a complaint from someone over the phone and pretending not to be the person they just saw five minutes ago is a challenge.

I worked as a room service waiter long before Caller ID or any kind of electronic ordering systems. In the mornings, we relied on something called door hangers that customers filled out some time during the night and hung outside their rooms with their breakfast orders. I remember the nightmare of arriving at the hotel at 5:30 in the morning and taking the elevator to the top floor to begin picking up the hangers to organize the breakfast deliveries. I think the hotel was 17 stories. If I was gonna be in trouble, I usually found out about the time I hit the 12th floor and already had 25 rooms that wanted breakfast delivered at 7:00 a.m. Conventions were notorious for this. Since I was the only waiter (and I still had 10 more floors of orders to pick up) I would start to run, snatching the cards off the doorknobs as I flew by. Like that was gonna save me. Two room service carts will hold breakfast for five or six rooms, tops, depending on how much hot food is in the box and how well you stack the tables, so there might be 12 rooms who aren't totally pissed about when they got their breakfast. Those mornings were like Dead Man Walking. It's one thing to get in the weeds when you're on the floor, but to see it all coming an hour before it even starts is to die a thousand times.

Also, one of the worst things anyone can do to a room service waiter during the morning rush is to return something. From time to time, at the hotel in Florida, salt water would back up into our water lines, and the phone would start ringing with customers who said the coffee tasted "horrible" (it did). We couldn't do anything about the lines - the coffee was just bad - but I'd have to bring up juice or milk to replace it and there'd be all kinds of yelling and complaining. Orders would have to be comped, and that meant no gratuity on top of making two trips to the room. I also had to call all the other rooms that were expecting coffee to find out what they'd like instead. And we all know, there is no substitute for coffee in the morning. Not a legal one, anyway.

The busiest time for room service (breakfast) also coincides with the busiest time for housekeeping. The two departments shared the same service elevator, except housekeeping didn't share. They had a key to lock the elevator on the floor that they were delivering towels or bedding to, so that, after five minutes of frantically waiting for the car to arrive, I'd have to wheel my trays through the restaurant, bar and lobby to the guest elevators, knowing that by this time the food would be so cold that the best I could hope for was that the guest was too angry to eat. For about a month, I did manage to get some use out of the service elevator, but only because the housekeeping staff was afraid to ride in it after getting trapped between floors a few too many times. I had reached the point in waiter hell where plummeting 15 floors in a runaway car couldn't be all that much worse than the wrath I was almost certain to face from my third attempt at delivery of "HOT tea!" I was willing to take my chances if for no other reason than to be put out of my misery.

Even with whatever improvements have been made to room service by virtue of electronic orders (so everyone doesn't wind up ordering breakfast at the same time) there are still some pointers I can offer the potential breakfast room service customer. Don't order anything you're not willing to eat a little on the cool side, and stay away from things like waffles or sunny side up eggs that just don't lend themselves to sitting in a warmer for five or ten minutes. Scrambled eggs and omelets are best for eggs, muffins, biscuits or English muffins hold up better than toast, and you can hardly ever go wrong with yogurt, cereal or grapefruit. Coffee is served in a thermal pot, but often times hot water for tea is served in an identical pot (which makes it taste a little like coffee). It shouldn't be that way, but, "Wish in one hand ..." Although there is a service charge added to the room service bill, it doesn't all go to the waiter, so don't be thinking he's getting rich off traveling all over Hell and half of Georgia with your order of two scones and a pot of decaf. A little extra tip for the mileage on those puny orders doesn't hurt. Finally, if you are going to let your towel "slip" when you answer your hotel room door, please be sure you don't have the kind of body that inspires a lifetime of nightmares.

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