The important crisis management lessons I learned from waiting tables

I think everyone should spend time waiting tables. And not at one of those restaurants where the waiters and waitresses show up and ask, “Do you know what you want to drink?” and “Are you ready to order?” And not at a place where someone else buses your tables for you.

After my freshman year of college, I returned from Tucson, Arizona to my hometown of Reston, Virginia, where a buddy of mine helped me get a job at Fritzbe’s, a casual and spirited neighborhood bar and restaurant with outstanding food. The waitstaff were required to commit everything on the menu and how it was cooked and tasted to memory. We were expected to treat guests to an experience and proactively offer suggestions for drinks, appetizers, main courses, and desserts. We cleaned our own tables, and teamed to support each other’s customers.

My first night on the job — half-price burger night — I spilled four drinks on one guy — simultaneously, not separately. When I told my manager, a hulking man named Mike, he said, “It’s ok, this happens to everyone at least once. It sucks right now, but come with me, and I’ll show you how we do this.” I shuffled behind Mike back to the table, where the man was stewing while his wife and daughter tried to calm him.

Mike said, “Sir, I’m very sorry for what just happened. This is Petri’s first night, and he just learned a really valuable lesson, unfortunately at your expense. He feels really terrible about this, and we are going to make this right. There is a dry cleaner in this plaza and we have an account there. You can give them my name and we’ll take care of the cleaning costs. If you prefer to go to your own cleaners, give me their name and I’ll contact them and ensure it is taken care of. Second, your entire meal is on us tonight, and I hope you’ll choose to only eat half of it, because dessert is on us too. Your next meal is on us as well, so Petri will be back with a meal voucher for you and your family. Is there anything else I can do to take care of you, besides refilling your drinks?”

You should have seen the guy’s eyes. He was shocked that we would go to those lengths to do more than what was absolutely necessary to make things better.

That couple came back every Monday for the rest of the summer and specifically requested my table. The guy even joked every week that it would be great if I could spill something on him again.

Mike’s response to me, and his actions in response to my screwup, taught me several valuable lessons in leadership, issues/crisis management, marketing, customer experience, humility, and so many other things that have been directly relevant to me in my career. Almost 30 years later, I’m still reflecting on those lessons, and I’m here to say, “Thank you Mike.”