The Food Service Conundrum

Obviously, I had a good time at FOGCon. Before I plunge into this post, I want to say again that the Walnut Creek Marriott is an excellent host to this event. I love the Marriott. One thing in particular that I love is that every hotel worker I meet, from the housekeepers in the hallway, to the valet parkers, to the front desk, are cheerful, friendly, and go out of their way to help me if I have a question or a problem.

But then…

The restaurant and lounge are called Atrio. Service at Atrio was strange, whether in the bar/lounge or the dining area. And, while this is going to read like a complaint, it isn’t really. It’s more of a puzzle to be picked at or worried over (the way a dog worries a chew-toy) than a complaint.

And that said, the conundrum of food service could be a problem for someone, depending on their schedule.

The lounge and the dining area are one large area, bisected by the actual bar which has tall walls to support a flatscreen TV and cupboards with lots of bar-related supplies. The same servers work in the dining area and the lounge. The restaurant also provides room-service, food to be picked up at the host station, and on-site banquets.

There was almost never a wait for a table at the host station. Whether I was with a group or alone, I was usually seated in less than one minute. It was after I was seated that things got weird.

Usually, once I was seated (again, regardless of how many at my table) it would take several minutes for someone to check in with me. Sunday morning for breakfast I was seated right away. I told the host I did not want the buffet and needed a menu. Then I started talking to the person next to me who was also at the Con. After about six minutes he said, “Has somebody been by? I didn’t see anybody.”

The host came by, frowned at my bare table, (no water, no coffee, no menu,) and went off to get me a menu. “I’ll have someone here right away,” he said, and about three minutes later a breathless server arrived, apologized and asked if I wanted coffee. I got my decaf pretty quickly, but it was another five minutes or so before she took my order. I should point out that more than half of the people I was watching were using the excellent breakfast buffet. There were three servers bringing out food, so the dining room did not seem under-staffed. Here’s the other weird thing; a server came up to me (not my server) with a plate and said, “Omelet and hash browns?” I said no and she went away. She had no idea which table ordered what, and plainly was trying to match the food to the table — as if they didn’t have a system for that.

That happened at more than one meal. “Pizza margherita and Atrio burger?” “Um, no, Caesar salad and chicken fingers.” “Oh, okay, sorry.”

Eventually I got my oatmeal that morning though. I was in no hurry, so it wasn’t a problem, but it was strange. And if I’d been scheduled for a 9:00 am panel, I might have left without my food.

As challenging as it was to get food, it could be even more challenging to get a drink in the bar.

Yes, that’s right. It was harder to get a drink. Where do food establishments make their profit? At the bar. Still, one afternoon, I was sitting with a good-sized group in the lounge. After ten or fifteen minutes, a server approached us and asked if we wanted something. There were six of us and one had ordered when he was alone, before we descended on him. We started ordering, and the person to my left said she needed her check with the drink because she had to leave right after. So did the person to her left, and the person to that person’s left. (They were all attending the same event.)

The server said she understood and went straight to the bar, where she got their beverages and their checks. When she came back, I said, “I would like to order something too.”

“Yes,” she said. “I’ll be right back.” She walked past the bar and into the dining area.

After ten minutes I got tired of waiting. There were two of us who hadn’t been served, so I got the other person’s order and went to the bar, ordered and brought back drinks. We were halfway through our drinks when the server returned. “Oh, I see you got drinks,” she said. “I’m sorry I didn’t get back.”

Is this just weird, or what?

I think, seriously, that she got grabbed to deliver some room service or help at the on-site banquet that was happening in another room. I think this is part of the problem; no one really has a station, and people get pulled off to go do other stuff. There is also a line-of-sight problem; if you are expected to serve in the lounge AND the dining area, you can’t see either space from the other space. Possibly, my drink server — okay, not-drink-server in my case– had three tables fill up in the dining area while she was trying to help us, and had to at least get orders in. And then maybe she had to carry around a homeless pizza margherita and try to find its table.

I’m writing this because food service has been an issue at each FOGCon I’ve attended.

Servers are routinely friendly and try to keep smiling when they interact with diner-wannabes. They look overwhelmed and harried. They are all good about trying not to take any stress out on the customer, unless excessive apologizing upsets you. They seem like a group of people trying to do their best in a chaotic situation.

As far as food goes, the hotel has a shuttle and there are about fifty-seven restaurants within two miles (okay, maybe not fifty-seven). An excellent deli and an excellent dim sum place are a ten-minute walk away. Both offer food to go. There is a Jack in the Box across the street. The hotel restaurant offers convenience, at least theoretically. And the bar is the traditional meeting place at conventions, so a bar is handy. Still, compared to the Marriott operation, the food service (which I’m sure is a different company) is noticeably poorer.

Again, this is not a complaint. It’s more that my atrophied manager-skill set is twitching. What’s the problem here? Is it systemic? Let’s analyze. Let’s brainstorm. Let’s resolve. And I’ll go up to the bar to get us a beer while we’re doing it.

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