Servers: Eat in Secrecy, Please

Dear Helena,
Restaurant work is not exactly my vocation (I am a nursing student), but I've been a server for a few years and think of myself as fairly professional. Currently, I work part time in an Italian café. The other day one of the cooks threw together a quick cheese panini for me to eat on my break. It was pretty quiet so I took it behind the counter so I could talk to the other girl who was working there. A customer came up and placed his order. Then he gave me a strange look and said it made him "uncomfortable" to see me eating a sandwich in a place where food is served, and he wanted to give me a chance to explain myself before he posted a "negative online review." WHAT????? I don't get why he made such a fuss.
—Low Blood Sugar

Dear Low Blood Sugar,
You messed up. As a server, you shouldn't eat in front of customers, for the same reason you shouldn't talk on the phone or reapply your makeup in front of them. These activities are bad for the ambiance and are potentially unhygienic. The customer sees this and may think: "Yuck! That server may not wash his hands after eating, and may leave cheese grease, crumbs, and microscopic traces of saliva on my cutlery!"

I understand that you have to eat on the job. If you're on your feet for six or seven hours, carbo-loading at the preshift family meal isn't going to carry you through to the end of the night. But you should take your snack out of customers' sight. Max Belkin, a server with 25 years of experience and creator of the blog Waiternotes, says even when the kitchen is an open one, "every restaurant has places [customers] would never see, like … where they wash the plates." One former restaurant cook told me that when he worked in an open kitchen, he and his colleagues crouched down behind the counter rather than let customers see them eating.

Many restaurants let their employees eat unlimited amounts of certain foods, like bread, salad, or soup, says Belkin. But many customers have no idea that servers sometimes also help themselves to diners' leftovers. Some are squeamish about this, but according to Belkin, there has been at least one scavenger in every restaurant he has ever worked in. As with many areas of food hygiene, people vary wildly in how fastidious they are. Belkin knew one server who, rather inexplicably, "would only eat off a woman's plate, never off a man's plate." Geoff*, a server in Chicago with seven years of experience, says that many waiters will help themselves to a half-finished plate of finger food, like fried mozzarella sticks, but would shudder at the thought of eating food that a customer's cutlery had touched. Then there are people like former server Michael Jones-Morales, who admits that when he worked in high-end places, he wouldn't think twice about helping himself to half-finished "$40 filet mignon."

Geoff says that even when he and his coworkers were scraping leftovers into a doggy bag, "we would grab a forkful here and there." Now that's something you definitely don't want the customer to see you doing.

*He did not wish his last name to be used.

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