My Server Is Stoned!

There is no reader question this week. Instead, Helena has a topic she'd like to address.

Recently, San Francisco Chronicle restaurant reviewer Michael Bauer posted a reader's question, "What do you do when your waiter is high on something other than life?" I decided to talk to some servers and get their perspective. Is it really such a faux pas to get high on the job? After all, they're not operating heavy machinery.

Many do indulge, says Jenny*, who worked as a server in top-tier Bay Area restaurants for nine years. "I smoked pot all day long," she confesses. While coke is usually reserved for afterwork partying, plenty of servers enjoy a quick hit of weed while waiting tables. Jenny says this didn't prevent her from memorizing orders and juggling the needs of different diners. "After years of doing the same thing, you know your sequence of service." In fact, Jenny believes that her habit actually improved her work, making conversation flow more easily. "One particular evening I had four or five tables, and they were all talking with one another and laughing, and I felt like the master of ceremonies."

In fact, the chief hazard of being high, according to Jenny, is getting the munchies. At one extremely high-end restaurant where she worked, the dessert chef "used to put pastry scraps like cookies and ends of cake at the bottom of the stairs [leading up to the dining room], so every time I went up and every time I went down I would reward myself with a chunk of the cake. I put on a few extra pounds."

But while the odd toke in the walk-in doesn't make much difference to a server's performance, overindulgence is of course dangerous. Sean*, who has been a server for six years, says that he has "a three-hour rule": If he smokes pot, it has to be at least three hours before he starts work. Being seriously baked could lead to an accident. "You have to move around a great deal. There are spills on the floor." And drugs other than pot are a bad idea. Coke, for instance, just makes a server jabber and give off an uneasy frenetic energy. Jenny says, "The one time I tried that, I distinctly remember thinking, 'This sucks, why did I do that?'"

So if your server appears to be mildly addled from a quick smoke in the parking lot, you should let him have his fun. But what should you do if he has overdone it, launching into boring tangents or forgetting half your order? Drug addiction is of course a serious problem, but it's not your place to perform an intervention. You have no way of knowing if this server has made a one-time mistake, or if he overindulges regularly. Instead, deal with an overly high server the same way you would deal with other faults in the service: Leave a really small tip.

Don't rat your server out to the manager, because the penalty could be severe, says Sean. At best, the server will get a warning, with the promise that he'll be fired if there's another complaint. If he can be easily replaced, he could be fired on the spot.

What about confronting a high server directly? Don't bother. Most likely, he'll deny it. Even if he confesses—which some high people will—that is unlikely to improve your service. Take the experience of Derek Pearcy, a software engineer in San Francisco. "A bunch of friends were getting late-night food, and the service was awful: apple juice instead of tea; waitstaff slowly leaning over to one side, eventually being propped up by the person closest to them; a final bill that made no sense. My friend said, 'Is everyone here high?' The waitress responded with mild indignation that no, some of them were tripping."

*Servers interviewed for this article asked to remain anonymous, for obvious reasons.

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