In honor of National Pizza Day, Cast Iron Content collaborator and copywriter, Jenna London, regales us with a mishap from her previous life as a waitress in a small mountain town in Missoula, Montana.
It was the early 2000s and I was a recent college grad with a B.S. in Environmental Studies, even though I was always a writer at heart. I was determined to “bum around productively” for a few years—I was in love with nature and wanted to explore it as much as I could. But as soul-enriching as activities like paddling and climbing and backpacking and camping were, they didn’t pay bills. And a girl had to eat.
My personality was more compatible with a greasy spoon diner or a smoky bar, but fine dining yielded more tips. So, I’d swap my climbing harness for an apron to hold my pen and “bank” and book with customer checks. Finn & Porter was recently remodeled and was more popular than anyone expected it to be. During our pre-shift meetings, Missy, the head manager stressed the importance of keeping calm in the dining room even when we were overwhelmed.
“People aren’t coming here and paying one-hundred dollars for dinner for two to watch wait staff run around like bloody chickens with their heads cut off,” she reminded us.
A Frenzied Flock
Predictably, energy in the kitchen was frantic that night I got to work on the deck, which boasted views of Mount Sentinel and the Clark Fork River. Dinner tickets accumulated, chefs panicked, managers yelled for side dishes and halibut specials. This was the textbook definition of the restaurant industry phrase “In the weeds.”
My six-top had been waiting forever. They were getting increasingly pissed off and I didn’t blame them. They’d been there long enough to be gregarious and easy-going; then understanding and not in any rush, still content with the excuse to order another round of drinks; then, finally, buzzed and starving. I’d watched them endure all stages of poor service at a restaurant—similar to stages of grief, only less painful. There were only so many times I could smile and apologize and let them know I was checking with the kitchen again.
I wanted to implore one of the three managers on duty to remove a round of drinks from my six-top’s bill. On my way to the pizza kitchen, I tried to stop Missy, but she called over her shoulder, “I’m trying to remember ten things I need to do. I can’t help you right now,” and almost crashed into another server.
So much for not mimicking decapitated chickens.
The Chicken Dance Continues
I decided not to show my face on the deck again until l had my six-top’s pizzas. Chris, the chef manning the wood-fired oven, slid one pizza onto the tray. He turned to get the second one, wedged his wooden handle under the dough, turned around to the tray, and dropped the pizza on the floor.
My eyes widened in disbelief and fear.
He knew how long I’d been waiting. “Here. Take them this one. Then come right back. I’ll have another one for you by then, I promise.”
Too frazzled to speak, I nodded instead. My heart was pounding. I’d spent so long dealing with these pizzas that my other tables were beginning to experience five stages of poor service, too.
I lengthened and quickened my stride, covering as much ground as possible. I needed to salvage this table’s dining experience. I would convince them this pizza was so delicious, the atmosphere so calming, and the waitress so pleasant, the excessive wait wasn’t such a problem, after all. They would never even have to know what happened to their barbecue pizza—it’d be replaced so quickly they’d think I just couldn’t carry two at a time. And anyway, the margherita—a traditional pizza topped with fresh mozzarella, tomato, and basil—looked delicious, and not just because I was starving. It bubbled with gooey cheese and I salivated at the pizza’s superb balance of sauce and crispiness.
As part of the fine dining spiel, Missy and the rest of management were constantly reminding us not just serve food to our customers, but to present it to them; this wasn’t just dinner, it was an experience. So, in the name of dancing that fine-dining dance—and more importantly, of salvaging my tip—I smiled widely and presented pizza to my table of ravenous half-drunk patrons. It had been out of the oven for less than three minutes and the crust was hot and slippery against the cool pan.
“Here we are,” I said. I can’t remember now if my smile was fake or genuine. My customers released sighs of relief and sat up. I presented the pizza, making a show of food as I carried it. And as I lowered food to their table, I watched hot and gooey pizza fly off the pan and catch air—a good five feet—and land in a woman’s large leather purse. Cheese clung to the side of her expensive looking bag, and the woman’s look of surprise mirrored the one I had only a few minutes ago as I’d watched their other pizza hit the floor. I thought as quickly as I could.
“You wanted that to go, right?”
I must have picked a good time to be witty because the combination of rage and disbelief that donned their faces dissipated into wary smiles. Sure, they were peeved. Who wouldn’t be? But maybe they were a group of long-lost college friends who reunited or in town for a wedding or other celebration of life. Maybe they were stunned by my response. Maybe booze had impaired their judgment, tipping scales in my favor.
“Why don’t you get our other pizza and some napkins while you figure out how you’re going to handle this,” said the husband of the woman whose purse was covered in pizza. He was mostly wary but partly amused.
This was not the time to tell them about the first mishap. And I wasn’t convinced their barbecue pizza would be ready so quickly. I needed to stall.
“Sounds good. And how about another round of drinks, on me?”
“Getting us drunk is a great idea!” said the woman, who was digging through her purse, wiping sauce and gooey cheese off her glasses case, wallet and cell phone. Perhaps the uniqueness of Missoula had more impact on the resolution than I could comprehend. Maybe if this were a “fine dining” restaurant in a different city their reaction would have been different. Regardless of the reason for my table’s generous reaction to my sizeable mistake, I knew that if there was, in fact, a God, He took that moment to smile on me. Before I could respond to the woman, a busser appeared with the table’s barbecue pizza.
“Hang on to your purses!” I said, and backed away with my hands raised in submission. The busser gave me a confused look. I asked him to grab towels and napkins and help sop up the mess in the purse, then left before he could respond or ask what happened.
I raced towards the pizza kitchen, trying to look poised but wondering how I was going to get out of this mess. Missy approached.
“Jenna, can you handle another table?” We were almost to the pizza kitchen—an open area in the middle of the dining room, a bar and row of stools surrounding it. Happy-hour goers and hotel guests chatted and laughed.
“Well, I don’t know if I can handle another table yet. Chris threw one of the pizzas for my six-top on the floor. And I threw their other pizza into some lady’s purse.”
“Okay,” Missy said, and dashed off to the hostess stand. “Jenna doesn’t know if she can handle another table yet,” she reported back to the hostess. “Chris threw one of the pizzas for her six top on the floor. And Jenna threw their other pizza into some lady’s purse.” The hostess gave her a quizzical look. “Shit. I think I need to deal with that,” Missy said, her synapses finally firing.
She came rushing back to me as I was explaining to the pizza expediter why I needed another margherita pizza.
“So how angry are they?” Missy asked me.
“They aren’t impressed, but they calmed down when I asked her if she wanted it to-go.”
Missy gave me a cagey look and sighed. Another margherita pizza, meant for a table inside, was placed on the tray in front of her.
“Well, we’ll just take this one and go talk to them together.”
“You better carry it,” I told her, afraid to touch anything else destined for their table.
“Hey! That’s my pizza! They’ve been waiting forever!” a disgruntled waitress yelled in our wake.
Decapitated chickens abound.
“So, while I figure out what we are going to do for them, did the whole thing really fall in her purse?” Missy asked me as we walked through the dining room pretending to be poised and calm.
The busser approached.
“Jenna, they told me to just dump the sauce out and spray the dishwasher hose right in it. Do you think that will ruin the leather?” he asked me.
“I’d say it was a direct hit,” I told Missy.
“Just do whatever they told you,” she told the busser.
Missy was a couple of steps ahead of me as she presented the pizza to the people at the table. A pause in her step. Posture lengthened. Shoulders straightened. Smile plastered on. With a gesture of her hand that held the pizza, Missy made good customer service an art form.
“So, I hear we’ve had a little accident over here?” she asked the diners, who responded with chuckles, snorts of laughter, and a few snide comments. “Please accept our sincere apologies. Your dinner and drinks are on us, as well as the dry-cleaning bill. And if that doesn’t fix it, we will buy you a new purse. It’s the least we can do.”
At the time, I never imagined the moment to be a terrible and hilarious moment in my life. A person can never fully know why one experience lingers in our soul and others, seemingly of equal or greater substance, fade into her foggy memory. But she can use them for what they are worth, even if it takes an exorbitant amount of time to figure out what that value is.
Birds of a Feather
Sure, by now you may be wondering how this anecdote about an early-twenties outdoor loving kid who waitressed to make ends meet applies to marketing, to business development, to entrepreneurship. But consider this: a content writer needs to be able to see multiple sides of a product, service, or information. So that beautiful day in Missoula I was being fake to cater to a certain clientele—one who was willing to pay $14 for a personal size pizza. I understood the fine-dining atmosphere adhered to different rules than other dining establishments. For business development, I can tell you my side of the story: I was pretending to be a person I wasn’t to make ends meet. I can tell you Missy’s side: she put stock in presentation, service, and perception. I can tell you the patron’s side: she was just trying to relax for goodness sakes. But instead her favorite purse—a splurge, a luxury—tagged by a bunch of cheese, sauce, and basil on account of no action on her part but poor timing.
But I can also portray how fine dining felt familiar to me because of my upper-middle-class upbringing on the other side of the country from Missoula, in northeastern Pennsylvania. How the only reason Missy moved back to Missoula after college was because of some family guilt or expectation that she felt was beyond her control. How the patron remembered feeling utter despair.
In the end, whether you need content for a pizza business or a winery or a car dealership or an environmental survey company or a therapeutic horseback riding program, the writer’s specialty doesn’t necessarily matter. Her ability to convey a situation or principle or concept does.
And as long as pizza is not associated with your meeting, you won’t be making any unplanned trips to the dry cleaner, either.