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Saturday, September 10, 2011

Endless Shrimp, Endless Misery

I see going to Red Lobster as mostly a celebration / special occasion place. The prices are way up there, the portions aren't really that great, but when the ol' anniversary rolls around, I know the little lady is going to want lobster and as long as we're paying for lobster, I might as well do so at a place where they have endless Cheddar Bay Biscuits to keep me happy.

In fact, Red Lobster pretty much has accepted that's all they're good for, since every time you come in, they seat you and flat-out ask you if there's a special occasion you're celebrating. Because they know it's a rare event that someone just says "I'm hungry for dinner - let's just go to Red Lobster."

Well, the special occasion we were celebrating tonight was the seasonal return of the Endless Shrimp promotion. It's one of the only times I'll volunteer making the trip and paying the price to eat here, because it's one of the only times I feel I can finally get some of that lost money back and really make it worth my time. But the past two times we've been to this place for the Endless Shrimp, it's just gotten worse and worse. Today just topped it all with a one-two combination of ineptitude and inattention.

To start, we had a comfort issue situation. The booths are Red Lobster are not fat-person-friendly, and when we were seated at such a table, it took about 20 seconds of wedging and squirming trying to fit my ass and gut in appropriately that as soon as our server came, I asked if it would be possible to get seated at a table with chairs. She was very polite and could see exactly why we were requesting it, and she went to ask the hostess about it. Sure enough, 2 minutes later we were on our way to a table with chairs where I fit much more comfortably (as long as we staggered seating with the other tables so my chair could pull out enough with nobody behind me and they could do the same for our empty chair).

Unfortunately, this table was located in what I am calling the "Inattention Zone". Our new server arrived to take our order, and didn't really do any introductions - just straight to "do you know what you want to order". Not even "can I get you something to drink" or anything like that. So my girlfriend Char picked her first two Endless Shrimp items, went with the baked potato with butter and sour cream, and the salad with bleu cheese dressing. I picked my shrimp items, salad with ranch dressing, and ordered us both Diet Cokes (since she never asked Char what she wanted to drink) and I ordered us an appetizer of onion rings, since those were new on the menu.

5 minutes later, she finally brought our drinks. No biscuits.

Another 5 minutes went by and she asked if the onion rings were a side or an appetizer. I said appetizer, and the confusion was that I forgot to pick my potato side dish. Or rather, she never bothered to ask me for it. So I said I wanted fries for my side, and the onion rings were the appetizer.

She went back to enter that in the computer, I guess. It was another 5 minutes or so before she brought our salads. And we had to ASK her to please bring us our goddamned biscuits. You know, the ones you've brought DIRECTLY OUT to the TWO OTHER tables around us that you've been service since we've been here. She went back out and brought us back a basket of biscuits. Finally.

This was a running theme we were noticing. The other tables in her area, she was visiting way more often than ours. The other tables around us who had a different server - also getting much better attention.

It was about halfway through the salad that she came to us and said "I'm sorry, but the chef has 86ed the onion rings." I decided not to gambit another appetizer, so I said okay and that was the end of that discussion. I was looking forward to trying them, but I guess they somehow ran out at 5:30pm?

It was about the time that we finished our salads when I realized our biscuits were empty and our soda glasses had been empty for a while. We pushed the empty salad plates to the end of the table and just sat there. Waiting. Waiting for our server to notice us.

She didn't appear at all until it was time to bring out the entrees. Char got her two shrimp dishes and baked potato. I got my two shrimp dishes and... a baked potato. Our server stood there and said "Do you need anything else?" when we clearly had an empty biscuit basket and empty drinks and the first thing out of my mouth was "Yes, I ordered fries." She went to go put that in, and before she left I tried to remind her about our soda. No luck.

A manager or two had been through our area, checking up on the tables and mysteriously missing our table while going through the section. Finally caught one and we let him know we were hoping to get refills of our drinks and biscuits. He quickly grabbed up our glasses and basket and headed off. Returned about 2 minutes later with everything we needed.

My fries finally arrived, and less than a minute after they were delivered, my shrimp was empty and I was waiting for the chance to order more. After all, it's Endless Shrimp, right?

While waiting for the chance to order more shrimp, the soda and biscuits were consumed. Which meant we we sitting around, picking at fries, waiting for a refill of... EVERYTHING ELSE. We were practically LOITERING at this point. If a random employee had spotted us and not known the situation, it would have looked like we were waiting for a check or something. We were not. We were still pretty dern hungry and thirsty and hoping to be noticed.

The thing that irritates me the most about the situation is that Red Lobster should TRAIN their employees specifically to handle Endless Shrimp people like me. I mean let's face it - when confronted with a person like me, the goal of the restaurant should be to fill me up as efficiently as possible so they can stay profitable, get more customers seated and served, and keep me happy so I return in the future. And the way you do that is: FILL ME UP ON BISCUITS. If there's anything that keeps Red Lobster's profit margins safe, it's those biscuits. Ingredient-wise, they're the most cost-effective food on the menu. Cheap to make, easy to crank 'em out like a biscuit factory, and doughy and filling enough to waste all that precious stomach room and get me full so that I tap out, pay up, and you can seat someone skinnier at my table and make some damn money off of them, too.

So you can understand my frustration at NOT HAVING biscuits at the ready. I mean if you're going to be freakishly slow with the shrimp refills, the least you can do is let me idly stuff biscuits down my gullet. EVERYONE WINS IF I HAVE BISCUITS. Letting that basket sit empty is a slap in the face to me and a kick in the groin to Red Lobster because now all that room is being reserved for expensive shrimp orders.

Speaking of which, I am QUITE dismayed that the Endless Shrimp promotion has downgraded from letting people order TWO follow-up items at a time to now only ONE at a time. The dismay can be pointed out by the simple situation I was put in when I finally was able to get my FIRST refill, after being practically assaulted by my server for having the audacity to try and order TWO things. I got a plate of breaded shrimp. There were about 10 pieces of shrimp on the plate. They took less than 60 seconds to devour. My server was still in sight, walking away, by the time I was done and wanted to flag her down to place another refill order.

Can you see why this is an inefficient way to serve people food?

I can understand the logic that the longer a person sits around NOT EATING after having eaten something, the more likely they are to wind up feeling full. It's something about the stomach sending signals to the brain to stop signalling hunger - I don't really recall the science around it because I'm more or less immune to it when it comes to small quantities of food. Which is what we have here.

If I ordered an item and got about 20 pieces of shrimp instead of 10 or less, that's twice as full I'd be getting and you'd have me out of your restaurant and paid up twice as fast. But no. You expect me to take 1 minute to eat up a tiny plate of shrimp and then wait 10 minutes to place another order and another 10 minutes to wait for it to be cooked. Oh, and then 1 minute to eat up that batch and repeat the process.

Which brings me to the ineptitude that was running rampant tonight. We were sitting around waiting for our server to take our refill shrimp order, and we were approached by another server carrying some shrimp items and saying:

Server: "Who had the sweet and spicy shrimp and who had the shrimp alfredo?"
Me: "Um, no, we haven't even had the chance to order more shrimp yet."
Server: "Oh, this isn't Ashley's table?"
Me: "I don't think so..."

She moved one table down and those seemed to be the folks who had that order. Apparently Ashley was a more-attentive server and was actually working to get her tables more food. Our server, as it turns out, was named "Sheri". And was not working to get us more food.

This scenario played out at least one other time at our table (someone trying to deliver food we didn't order) and several times at the tables around us. I mean... these tables all have NUMBERS on them, right? You all take tickets for orders based on TABLE NUMBERS, don't you? Isn't that how restaurants work???

It was about at the 90-minute mark when we'd already seen two entire tables get seated, have their food, pay, leave, and seat someone else. We started making friends with people at the tables around us. At least THEY paid attention to us and we began joking about our horrible server and the general bedlam that was going on tonight. We specifically warned the table next to us that Sheri was apparently "new to the job" and would be screwing up their orders on a regular basis, especially when they were seated so close to our "Inattention Zone". We were still waiting for another order to be taken when we overheard those people telling Sheri about the items they were missing and what they had been waiting on. They were just a lot more upfront with her about it.

I frankly can't bring myself to be mean to a server, no matter how inept or inattentive. I tend to be more passive-aggressive. Like when a manager came by and asked us if we needed anything. We easily told him about how lack of refills and how we wanted to order more shrimp. He gladly took our order, took our glasses and basket and refilled them. The one time we got our ACTUAL server to refill our biscuit basket, she took it away with our glasses to get the refill... and then disappeared for 10 minutes.

The only thing worse than having empty glasses and baskets, waiting for a refill - is when they take it all away to refill and leave you with absolutely nothing.

It was around the 2-hour mark that she said "screw it" and the next time someone tried delivering the wrong shrimp item to our table, we took it anyway. I felt bad about technically screwing someone else over who was waiting for this food, but I felt I'd been screwed over enough and the screwing-over needed to be spread around a little more to the others who weren't unfortunate enough to be seated in the "Inattention Zone".

After 140 minutes, I was pretty much done. I wasn't as full or satisfied as I prefer to be after engaging in an all-you-can-eat event, but my stomach just decided it was nevertheless the time or us to go elsewhere. Sure enough, it's about 4 hours later and I'm snacking on things before bedtime because that's how ineffective my all-you-can-eatery performed tonight.

And yet - I know we'll be back. Every time we go, it's never a GREAT experience, but with every pitfall, we learn and develop new techniques to try and make the next time better. The last time we were at Red Lobster, we picked up the technique of sliding our empties to the edge of the table. This was the best signal we could think of to say "THIS IS EMPTY AND WE NEED MORE". Which works quite well - if you have a server with a modicum of attentiveness.

Unfortunately, tonight has taught us that we need to develop better strategy for the especially-shitty servers. Maybe a more-aggressive approach will work. The table next to us, after our warning, got QUITE bitchy and verbal with Sheri about "I NEED THIS AND STILL WAITING ON THAT AND I BELIEVE I'M SUPPOSED TO GET THIS OTHER THING WHEN I ORDER THAT ITEM". It seemed to be working for them to a higher degree than our efforts got us. Perhaps if this happens again, we'll be more proactive with the managers and flag them down to let them know what's going on instead of waiting for them to come around for us to register our complaints.

I really hate the idea of getting someone in trouble, especially because I am SURE that's it's a difficult and stressful job to be a server. I frankly have never done it, would never be good at it, and have no plans in the future to ever attempt it. But if you're not doing a good job, what else can I do but let someone know you're not doing a good job? Even though there is guilt, at a certain point, the guilt means nothing to me if my poor stomach is suffering as a result. My stomach will always win out over the safety of your job when it comes to making these decisions, servers.

Just try not to get my stomach pissed off, and you'll be safe. That's a good tip for ANY server out there.

And again, I know we'll be back. It's Endless Shrimp, for goodness sake.

Just don't forget the goddamned biscuits, Red Lobster.

Remember - everyone wins when I have my Cheddar Bay Biscuits.

What about you? Have you had a similar experience? Any tips for politely dealing with inept/inattentive servers?

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