The Spitter End
September 13, 2009 8:46 AM   Subscribe

My adult son and my boyfriend refuse to ever send anything back in a restaurant because they claim the kitchen staff (in ANY restaurant, fast food or otherwise, ANYWHERE) will spit in it or do something equally disgusting to the food. I have always called bullshit on this one, but they are adamant.

For those of you who have worked in kitchens or in other food service positions, have you seen this happen a lot? A couple of times? Ever?

For those of you who receive something that you didn't order/isn't cooked to your liking, etc., do you hesitate to return it to the kitchen because you're afraid of what the kitchen staff will do to it?
posted by angiewriter to Food & Drink (68 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Most kitchens are so busy that nobody has the time to mess with individual dishes due to spite. Sending back something that isn't to your liking is part of the dining experience, and any good restaurant isn't going to allow that kind of behavior.

I'm sure it happens very occasionally, but given the sanitary conditions of most places we all eat, it isn't a big worry for me. Be polite and specific when returning a dish (I asked for rare, and this is well-done, I'm allergic to shellfish, etc.), and you're probably good to go.
posted by xingcat at 8:50 AM on September 13, 2009 [2 favorites]

If your concerns are legitimate (food too hot, food prepared badly, etc.,) and not just picky, I doubt any chef at a respectable restaurant would sabotage your meal. Horror stories are easy to come by, but in my experience in food service they are rare, and reserved for exceptionally awful customers.

As a matter of interest, how often do you send your food back? I can think of /maybe/ three or five occasions I've ever had to do this, and I eat out a lot.
posted by mr. remy at 8:51 AM on September 13, 2009 [2 favorites]

I stopped sending food back to the kitchen after my cousin told me some stories (facts he says) from when he worked in restaurants. So, I do not send food back. Ever.
posted by snowjoe at 8:52 AM on September 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

I worked in a restaurant for 8 years or so (5 years in front as host, then supervisory position, 3 in back as baker/prep), and never witnessed or heard of it happening. I have a theory that the people who are most worried about food tampering are the ones who would do it themselves if they were in a position to.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 8:53 AM on September 13, 2009 [18 favorites]

I worked in a sandwich shop for 2 years and I never saw anyone do anything gross to someone's food. The worst thing I saw was that one of the guys would always put a single kernel of corn in people's sandwiches so they'd be confused a few days later when they passed it. "When did I have corn...?" I never saw anything worse than juvenile pranks like that.

That being said, I almost never send anything back. I'm worried about annoying them because I know how much high-maintenance customers suck, not because I'm afraid of what they'll do.
posted by lilac girl at 8:54 AM on September 13, 2009 [2 favorites]

I stopped sending food back to the kitchen after my cousin told me some stories (facts he says) from when he worked in restaurants. So, I do not send food back. Ever.

friend of a friend...
posted by mr. remy at 8:56 AM on September 13, 2009 [3 favorites]

I've worked as a server and in the kitchen in multiple restaurants, from dives to 4-star. Never saw it. Never, not once, ever. The chef or cook will probably curse you out but no, will likely not alter your food in any way. I can't guarantee that it'll never happen, but if you're eating in relatively nice restaurants I wouldn't worry about it. Restaurants can and are subjected to surprise health inspections. The restaurants that want to stay open aren't going to jeopardize their business by being stupid.

And the nicer you can be when sending something back, the better. That goes for pretty much anything. More flies with honey and all that.
posted by cooker girl at 8:57 AM on September 13, 2009 [2 favorites]

I've seen spitting in food happen to rude customers in a high-end grocery store.
posted by jocelmeow at 9:00 AM on September 13, 2009

This really doesn't ever happen. People in the foodservice industry talk. If someone ever saw you spit in food or something of that nature, it would leak. And when word gets out, either 1) the restaurant will close, 2) the spitter will be fired and never find work in the industry again, or 3) both. It just isn't worth it.
posted by suburbanrobot at 9:04 AM on September 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

When I was a server, I never did this. But I knew plenty of servers who at least talked about it. Politely sending something back isn't enough to warrant that kind of reaction, though. Being a general pain is. There are ways to mitigate this kind of annoyance in your servers--and generally, they're ways to avoid these sorts of problems in the first place.

1. Know what it means to order your steak/burger a certain way. My fiance's mom always orders steaks "medium well" when she means "well done." It drives me nuts; I can't imagine how the servers feel about it.

2. If you have food allergies, ask your server in advance if a dish contains those ingredients, and have a back-up plan in the event that the server or chef says that it does. Again, be polite throughout all of this. If you're likely to be allergic or sensitive to a large number of items in a restaurant (i.e. garlic in an Italian restaurant), just go ahead and ask what doesn't have that ingredient--but don't expect miracles. If this is really important, and the server doesn't know the answer, politely ask them to ask the chef--and have a back-up plan before you even send them out there ("If the soup has wheat flour in it, it's okay. Just get me a salad without croƻtons instead.") You'll be saving your server a ton of time that way.

3. If you have to send something back because of a server error, be easy going and polite about it. Don't yell. Don't expect them to magically conjure a replacement meal instantly. But, particularly if you receive something that's blatantly not what you ordered, you should let someone know--because that probably means another table has your food, and you'll be saving your server grief from another table.

4. If the error is totally your fault--you just don't like what you've ordered--I'm a little more hesitant about sending something back. It's one thing if it's totally inedible. If that's the case, don't eat it and expect a refund--let your server know as soon as you can, within the time span of a few bites, or, if you can't find him or her, grab any server and ask him or her to get a manager for you. Again, be apologetic. Stress that it's not the server's fault if you're talking to a manager.

5. Generally, don't be an asshole. Don't treat the server like a servant or an idiot. The more you communicate with him or her as an equal, the less likely that something awful is going to happen to your food.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:04 AM on September 13, 2009 [27 favorites]

Another cook here who has never seen or heard of it happening in my own restaurants. As cooker girl points out, the worst that will happen is the server/cook cursing you out behind your back, with no effect on your food. I have worked with a large number of otherwise immature young (and not so young!) people, but I think we were all more concerned about keeping our jobs and integrity than we ever were about 'punishing' someone who sent food back.

I also think the people most afraid of this are those who would consider doing it themselves.
posted by sunshinesky at 9:06 AM on September 13, 2009

Where I worked, whenever customers had a special order, a complaint or (heaven forbid) sent food back the chefs would swear, throw around insults to singe the wallpaper and rant at the waitstaff until they were red in the face. I cannot overstate the contempt they professed to hold the customers in.

Never once while I was there did they ever do anything unpalatable to the food. And I'm confident that any kitchen staff who did would have been out the door faster than you could blink.

Sabotaging food out of spite isn't a chef thing - it's a being-an-asshole thing.
posted by Lorc at 9:07 AM on September 13, 2009 [2 favorites]

I've been in the food industry for over 10 years and yes it does happen and I've seen it happen although it is a uncommon occurrence.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 9:11 AM on September 13, 2009

Generally, don't be an asshole. Don't treat the server like a servant or an idiot. The more you communicate with him or her as an equal, the less likely that something awful is going to happen to your food.

This. I used to work in a kitchen and while we didn't ever do anything bad to a customer's food, there were a few that pushed us almost far enough.
posted by schyler523 at 9:13 AM on September 13, 2009

This really doesn't ever happen.

My sister worked at a pretty good Mexican restaurant in college, and she said one sociopathic waiter spit in food when people sent it back.

But I agree with everyone else --- it's gotta be pretty rare. Think about it: there are complaints in every line of business. Reasonable people who work in restaurants and other businesses realize that complaints are natural. Only sick, sick people would try to sabotage a product just because someone complained.
posted by jayder at 9:14 AM on September 13, 2009

one of the guys would always put a single kernel of corn in people's sandwiches so they'd be confused a few days later when they passed it.

This has to be one of the oddest pranks I have ever heard of.
posted by jayder at 9:16 AM on September 13, 2009 [10 favorites]

PhoBWanKenobi has some great advice, and as a server in a relatively-high volume Mexican restaurant I concur wholeheartedly with the necessity, above all others, to be polite. It happens occasionally that food is made improperly or is too cold/hot/etc. As a server, I'm generally not upset by this and it's common practice to let the manager know, ring in and void another item, and then the manager goes down and speaks with the kitchen. I have never, ever, ever, ever heard about anyone sabotaging food. Of course, servers have griped and joked about it, but being too audibly an advocate of such practices will generally lead to a firm talking-to by the MOD. The kitchen will probably curse a bit, but everyone at my restaurant, especially right now, is very grateful for employment especially during this time of recession. We would never (I, especially, would never) jeopardize our livelihood for the momentary pleasure of revenge on a customer. I've remade food for all sorts of customers, from very nice and polite ones to pissy and entitled ones as well. Everybody's going to get the food they want, and everyone will probably be happy, but I will be muttering under my breath to the other servers if you're a jerk about it.

It really boils down to what kind of restaurant you're eating in. I've worked in burrito joints, a coffee shop, a deli, a diner, a high-volume bar, and now a high-volume restaurant. I've never heard of anyone doing such a thing as spitting in someone's food, but those restaurants (like the diner) which employ ex-convicts as cooks and in which the servers are frequently stiffed are far more likely to be resentful and have less to lose. The better the tips, the nicer the servers. We want to please you, honestly, because it directly correlates with our income. So, just be nice and we'll be happy to be nice in return. I'm far more likely to bring you free food if you don't ruin my night.
posted by wild like kudzu at 9:28 AM on September 13, 2009

I think it is often a case of dropped things from the floor ending up on people's plates, rather than spit or worse. I worked at a donut shop that served soup, sandwiches, eggs, etc - and it was practically a management directive that if you dropped something on the floor accidentally, you were to serve it.
posted by pinky at 9:29 AM on September 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

Most kitchens are so busy that nobody has the time to mess with individual dishes due to spite.

Based on my decade or so working in restaurants, and my husband's approx 20 years, this is our experience. Throw out the offending dish, yell at the line cook/whoever for a new one, get barked at by the chef/expo for your request and run out the kitchen door to the next task. I've never seen anyone spit in food, across Irish pubs, 4 star hotels, hole in the wall restaurants and beyond. I have however seen some very unsanitary kitchen conditions, to contradict the other part of comment #1. If you want to avoid them, eat exclusively in well known brand hotels and chains, but nobody's going to do that.
posted by jamesonandwater at 9:30 AM on September 13, 2009

Of course it depends on the restaurant. I rarely think about stuff like that if I'm in places like Le Bec Fin or Picholine or WD~50.

But when I'm sitting at a table in a regular restaurant with a group of people and one of them complains about the food or the service, I am officially done with ordering anything else.

In other words: why take a chance.
posted by Zambrano at 9:38 AM on September 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

I've worked in food service, though long ago. My kids have done so more recently. None of us ever even heard of this happening. I think the general consensus here that it's pretty rare is right. It's much more likely that you're exposed to something unintentional like the products of coughing or sneezing on food, or handling of food with unclean hands, etc.

That said, sending stuff back doesn't necessarily get the problem corrected in the fashion you might expect. I was a waiter in a steak joint that served those big slabs of beef rib roast, which people ordered in various degrees of done-ness. Toward the end of the night, if the meat was running low, it tended to be hard to match the customer's preference. So someone might send back a slab of beef as "too well done". If we had nothing rarer on hand, the trick was to ladle some beet juice over it to make it look nice and pink. I never had anyone reject a piece treated this way. Servings deemed "too rare" would be dunked in the "au jus" bucket, which really didn't cook them any further but made them look browner.
posted by beagle at 9:42 AM on September 13, 2009

I've been a line cook in a number of very busy restaurants, mid-level quality.

The cooks do get pissed off when food is sent back, sometimes, because it kinks up the order processing flow and it's always a rush job. (However, they get pissed off at the waitperson, for whatever set of reasons; line cooks never even think about the schlub who's going to eat the meal.)

But in 5 or so years of slinging out thousands of meals under intense pressure, in several different kitchens, and with colleagues who were not always particularly savory sorts, I never, ever, once saw someone do anything to corrupt the food.

OK, once I had to spend half an hour explaining in French to my Haitian co-workers that no, you can't pour surplus bacon grease into the vegetarian beans, and yes there are people who think they taste edible without any meat products and that bacon grease still counted as "meat" to such people. Personally, I would tend to suspect anything labeled "vegetarian" in any restaurant that was not exclusively vegetarian. But that's me and I like raw meat so I don't care.

posted by fourcheesemac at 9:47 AM on September 13, 2009 [3 favorites]

Cooks are human, too. They have the same reservations and limitations as anyone else, so they're not going to spit in your food.

Generally, if food is sent back, it's a big deal. The waiter or waitress is usually pissed, and the cook will make it a point of pride to redo the dish the right way.

If you have people spitting in food at a restaurant, it's usually an indication of deeper problems at that restaurant.

In short, as long as you avoid total dives, you'll be fine.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:49 AM on September 13, 2009

Nthing the above.

That being said, and I hate to open this can of worms, people judge the world by their own moral/ethical standards, since that's all we have to go by. Think about that for a bit.
posted by Xoebe at 9:50 AM on September 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

I worked in a pizza joint (a shitty, shitty chain - nothing nearly as respectable as a Pizza Hut, even), and worked in a mid-class restaurant frequented by irritating college students. This stuff doesn't happen unless you really and serially piss someone off. When we're most likely to get the most pissed off is when we're the busiest... and then we just don't have the time. If we're bored, then it's more likely someone will notice, and my little bit of unconsummated revenge isn't worth my job.

Tell them to get over it.
posted by TheNewWazoo at 9:51 AM on September 13, 2009

Nthing above, I've worked at a restaurant and in my years of experience I never once heard of such behavior, and if someone were to do that everyone (kitchen staff, waiters, etc) would think it incredibly weird and gross and assume that the person had a psychological problem. None of the line cooks I know would think to do this because 1) it's a waste of time and 2) it probably won't 'do' anything if you're really looking to 'get' anyone who sends back food, unless 2a) you're diseased or sick, in which case you wouldn't be at work in the first place. A line cook taking the time to spit in someone's food because they sent food back would be like your cable guy messing with your television wires because you called him back to fix a problem, or your plumber pissing in your kitchen sink. It's pointless and a waste of time. The only exception, I think, are the population of persons who do things that are a waste of time and energy for seemingly no reason: teenagers.
posted by farishta at 9:59 AM on September 13, 2009 [2 favorites]

I worked in a chain steak house staffed by high school students for two years and I never heard of anybody doing things to food on purpose. We did drop steaks on the floor and toss them back on the grill though. And there were cockroaches. So really it doesn't matter if you send the food back, something disgusting might still have happened to it.
posted by interplanetjanet at 10:04 AM on September 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

While I've seen spitting in food a handful of times in the kitchen, I'd be far more concerned with the general level of sanitation. Those "surprise" inspections from the county are scheduled well in advance (at least they were when I was a restaurant manager oh so long ago). Plus, if you fail the inspection you just fix what's wrong, get reinspected and nobody's the wiser.

Generally the day-to-day cleanliness levels are not what you'd expect. For instance - lots of (most?) places rely on chemical pest control to get rid of those worrisome cockroaches rather than implementing cleaning schedules which prevent the provision of food to same. Just saying - restaurants don't keep their kitchens anywhere near as clean as I keep mine (and most likely yours) on a day to day basis.

Also - their food storage conditions are not always ideal. Guess what happens when the refrigerated order gets delivered during lunch rush and the walk-in needs to be reorganized before it can be put away? That's right - it sits out until someone can get to it. Sometimes (many times) hours will pass. Not good when there's chicken, etc in the order.
posted by torquemaniac at 10:07 AM on September 13, 2009 [2 favorites]

I worked back-of-the-house in a couple of restaurants back when I was in high school and college, and I can tell you two things from my experience: I have never personally witnessed intentional food contamination, and I've heard enough stories about it happening to believe that it DOES happen on occasion, usually to people who treated the waitstaff like shit.

For that reason, I will no longer go out to eat with one of my oldest and closest friends, who invariably treated the folks at whatever restaurant we were eating in at the time like dirt. If anyone was going to have their food messed with, it was her, and I was afraid of having mine contaminated by association or mistake.
posted by deadmessenger at 10:14 AM on September 13, 2009

I never send anything back. If I don't like what I ordered, I order something else and pay for both. If things aren't to temperature, or not cooked the way I would like it (like not-crispy bacon), I suck it up, eat it, leave 15% tip and never return. If it's a total disaster (which has only happened once) I explain that this is not acceptable, I'm not paying for it, and I'm leaving now.
posted by jeffamaphone at 10:27 AM on September 13, 2009

Oh and as a follow up, I will send food back, but I'm always polite about it and I only do it with good reason. I only remember sending my main course back once. Though I send hot tea back all the time because restaurants never heat the water hot enough.
posted by interplanetjanet at 10:34 AM on September 13, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks to all of you for your responses! I KNEW I was right, and I'll be sending them a link to this and the other post about this. Ha!

@Solon and Thanks--I tried to look for this before posting my question, but couldn't find anything. Thanks for pointing me to your link!
posted by angiewriter at 10:38 AM on September 13, 2009

For those of you who receive something that you didn't order/isn't cooked to your liking, etc., do you hesitate to return it to the kitchen because you're afraid of what the kitchen staff will do to it?

I never return anything. In fact, I rarely complain either. Mostly because the best punishment is for me to never go back there and to fiercely slate that place to everyone I know who might ever go there. But I'm kinda passive aggressive like that, because I'm a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to service and living up to promises I have incredible distaste for sloppy people or businesses who aren't the same.
posted by wackybrit at 10:41 AM on September 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

Visit, and check out the occasional stories where frustrated/annoyed servers give a patron a check that says something like "Thank you, little f****r" and such -- right there, in hard copy (not hand-writtern), on the receipt, which is usually tied to the server through the system.

Now that means people who know they'll get caught occasionally get frustrated enough to do this sort of thing anyway. Frustrated server who exposes themselves to firing in this way is to frustrated cooks who do something to your food, as person who writes to a network complaining about a television shown is to people who stop watching the show without contacting the network.
posted by davejay at 10:56 AM on September 13, 2009

A brief tip with regards to getting meat cooked to your specification: I personally prefer my steak pink with no red and no blood. That usually means medium well. Whenever I order steak at a restaurant, however, I ask what medium well means to them. It tends to vary slightly from place to place, and since I dislike sending anything back, this usually gives me enough information to order either medium well or well done as appropriate.
posted by lazaruslong at 11:00 AM on September 13, 2009 [2 favorites]

And no, I never have the fear that sending something back will result in something being done to my food. I recognize it as a legitimate concern, but to be frank, it seems so nebulous as to not be worth the time to worry about. Not to be all squicky, but let's be real: The amount of microbes and "unwanted" bacteria we ingest from eating food that hasn't been intentionally "messed with" is probably pretty high. I mean, what guarantee do we have that the napkin our silverware is wrapped in that we use to eat with is 100% sanitary? Sure, the idea of eating someone's spit is pretty revolting, but I mean, the chances are slim it will ever happen, even slimmer that you would even notice it, and comparatively probably isn't going to hurt you in any serious way.
posted by lazaruslong at 11:03 AM on September 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

I've seen this happen, but it was a long time ago when I worked at a low end chain restaurant. It's the waiters, not the kitchen staff, that will do it, and only if you've been rude.

If you're at a decent restaurant though it's totally different and no one would ever even think about doing this. That's been my experience anyway.
posted by xammerboy at 11:04 AM on September 13, 2009

I waited tables in college at various restaurants and chains in and around Baltimore.

Sending food back will not get your food spit upon. It'll piss off the cook sometimes, but they're always pissed off, so who cares?

Being a complete dick to the waitperson? Yes, things can happen, but usually don't from what I saw. At most you'll have the waiter/waitress calling you names in the kitchen.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:37 AM on September 13, 2009

Sending back something that isn't to your liking is part of the dining experience

Really? I go out to eat a regularly, and I can only remember someone sending back something once in the past 10 years.

If your order isn't any good at a restaurant, it's almost invariably not because they didn't get it right that time. It's probably because the food isn't good there. Sending it back isn't going to change that. Sending something back is only worthwhile if either the food was something you didn't order or some aspect of the food was incorrect and easily adjusted (eg, medium rare when you asked for medium well).

This is one of those AskMeFi things where I have to take issue with the very premise of the question. If you're sending things back regularly enough that it becomes an issue, then you're doing something wrong.
posted by deanc at 11:42 AM on September 13, 2009

I've never worked in a nice restaurant, so I can't speak to that, but when I was a server in casual places, I saw nasty things happen to rude people's food all the time. In another thread, I asserted my belief that this was universal; now I realize that it may have been a function of my sample. That is, the kind of place that would have hired me as I was then -- young and pretty but completely hopeless as a server, and consequently without (good...) references -- may be the kind of place where nasty things are more likely to happen to rude people's food.
posted by Methylviolet at 11:44 AM on September 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

denac: There are absolutely other circumstances where sending food back is appropriate. If you're doing it a lot, something is probably wrong, but on occasion, it does happen. For instance, I was at a nice restaurant a month or so ago. I've been there a number of times and their spaghetti is to die for and is always perfectly cooked just-so. In fact, I've marveled at their consistency in this regard before. Well the last time I was there the spaghetti was simply wrong: soft and mushy. After a little deliberation, I did send it back because I knew that the food, and this dish in particular, isn't good there, and this one clearly missed the mark for whatever reason. The staff was incredibly apologetic, even brought me some of the day's soup to try while they cooked a new batch, and the new one came out just perfect. In short, they did everything impeccably and made me feel it was their duty to get it right. That's how a good restaurant should work!

If you haven't had the dish a bunch of times before, sometimes you have to use your best judgment. If I think a dish is as good as it's going to get from that restaurant, I'm not going to send it back, even if it's pretty bad. If I think it's the kind of place that can do better, and where the problem is related to the preparation (i.e. it's not "I don't like the sauce" or "you didn't tell me there were going to be mushrooms"), then yeah, I'm going to send it back.
posted by zachlipton at 12:21 PM on September 13, 2009

one of the guys would always put a single kernel of corn in people's sandwiches so they'd be confused a few days later when they passed it.

Who checks their poop so thoroughly as to notice, let alone be confounded by, a single kernel of corn?

Anyway, I waitressed at a very busy, stressful, diner for a year or two. Many of the employees were really on the edge of making a decent living, and most of the customers were cops, firefighters, EMTs, or patients & visitors from the nearby hospital. I saw guns drawn a few times, but no spitting.

And I will always send food back if it's not what I ordered. As long as you're nice, I think everyone takes it in stride.
posted by cocoagirl at 1:18 PM on September 13, 2009

Sure, you joked about it, but that sort of thing would having been an instant firing offense at any of the restaurants I worked at. If my coworkers were spitting in food (or worse), they were keeping their sick pleasure to themselves.

I served a lot of miserable dickheads over the years who probably never paid for a meal anywhere ever, since they were obviously trawling for freebies. These people instantly made themselves known and I hope all their food gets spit in everywhere they go. But most people were pretty sheepish about complaining about their meals. Some of them even apologized for complaining. And I never had a problem getting those people whatever they wanted. In fact, I was glad they spoke up because most times, the solution was simple (heat something up a little more, undercooked steak goes back on the grill for a few more minutes) and the customer is eating again in no time and has forgotten about it by the time they're filling in the tip line on their bill.

I also worked with some servers who were dim bulbs. These kinds of servers usually aren't malicious, just dumb, although they may harm you by forgetting to tell the kitchen about your food allergy.

How I miss being in a hot kitchen with hotheaded cooks and chefs who took it personally and had a fit when a meal was returned instead of just fixing it right now and bitching about it later. But most of them would just jump right in and fix the problem as best they could. Most of the chefs and cooks I know are proud motherfuckers and they want you to love what they made you.
posted by futureisunwritten at 2:10 PM on September 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

A girl I knew who worked in a small cafe used to spit in rude customers' foods. She wasn't psychotic, but she did have anger issues.
posted by np312 at 2:20 PM on September 13, 2009

On the flip side of the coin, don't be that person who always has to have a special order made up.

Whatever. How about people order their food the way they like to eat their food, and the people who are there to make food make it the way its ordered?

Anyway. OP, you should be much more concerned about sanitation than retaliation. You're going to get fifty times lot more dirt and biological matter in your food because the kitchen is dirty than you are because you sent something back.
posted by Jairus at 2:24 PM on September 13, 2009

For those of you who have worked in kitchens or in other food service positions, have you seen this happen a lot? A couple of times? Ever

Not often, but I have seen it. The case I remembered involved a large dose of tabasco.

And having worked in food service in the past, and knowing some of the folks who work these jobs, I cannot say that it would be paranoia to believe this sort of thing can happen.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 2:31 PM on September 13, 2009

The only things I'll send back is stuff like chicken that's raw in the middle.
posted by reptile at 2:50 PM on September 13, 2009

It famously happened in an Australian establishment, called the Coogee Bay Hotel which followed "a trivial altercation with the hotel's management".
posted by b33j at 3:07 PM on September 13, 2009

I worked in a restaurant for several years during high school and college. Once, a group of middle aged suburban moms brought their kids out to the patio to be waited on. You'll be shocked to hear that 20 drinks, coming from various locations in the restaurant didn't arrive all at once. They were dissatisfied. Then I spent my time running around to get the 15 kids fed, while I took their orders and tried to keep things going smoothly. They were dissatisfied.

When one of them finally shook her glass at me - something only topped in obnoxious patron behavior by snapping at a server - I took it, refilled it with diet coke and licked the entire straw before putting it back in.


One particularly awful evening, I licked the entire top of a guest's slice of cheesecake.


And once, when I ordered a pasta dish with crawfish, it arrived bland and decidedly uncajun. Because that was before I ever waited on a table before, I asked them to spice it up for me and they brought it back to me at an inedible spice level. That was the first and last time I ever sent anything back.


Your demeanor is the deciding factor. If something is wrong with the dish, and you are polite about the problem (act as embarrassed as you would feel if you had served it to someone else), then you should have no problems. If you just don't like something, but it is cooked properly, and it just wasn't what you wanted after all -- suck it up, and learn to be more probing when trying to decide what to order.

I was a bratty kid who wanted my pasta spicier at a table with too many demanding people. My pasta arrived back as edible as nuclear waste. Those women wanted me to babysit their children while they played Sex and the City, and then when I was preoccupied fetching pomegranate juice for their little brats, had the audacity to complain that I wasn't paying enough attention to them. I don't even remember what that other guy did, but he probably snapped at me to get my attention and I in turn snapped and took my revenge out on him via cheesecake. I should have just eaten my stupid pasta. Those women should have called ahead and made a reservation for twenty people, and when the service was not to their liking, they should have taken a moment to realize how demanding it must have been to wait on them. And that guy...well, there's NEVER an excuse to snap at your server. It's just plain rude. And someone who has been on their feet for ten hours is liable to go a little crazy.
posted by greekphilosophy at 3:31 PM on September 13, 2009

I've worked at one place as a server, and another place as food preparation. This sort of thing might vary, but for the most part servers don't care if you send something back unless you're a dick about it or claim it's the server's fault when you ordered something wrong. It's nothing to the server if you don't like your food; it's not like they have to pay for a replacement out of pocket. Most servers, unless they have psychological problems, aren't going to be angry with you for sending something back when there's something legitimately wrong going on. They're going to be eager to correct the problem. I was always quite glad when someone would tell me that something wasn't to their liking, because it was a chance for me to do something to possibly get a bigger tip.

As far as food preparation: never saw anyone do anything remotely shady. Where I worked, we just wanted to make the food as fast as possible (without screwing up -- just costs us more time) to move on to the next thing. You're too damn tired to care about who sent what back, or even keep track of who it belonged to. Whenever something was sent back to us, it got extra attention only to make sure it was absolutely perfect the next time around. Having to remake something can be stressful because it generally jumps the queue and disrupts the system, so even the people who didn't seem to give a damn about the customers or their job made sure that stuff was perfect just so it wouldn't interrupt their food-making queue again.

Also, as both a server and a food preparer, nearly all the time when something would be sent back it elicited comments of sympathy because something was so messed up we'd all have done the same thing. We'd sometimes give the person who screwed up some friendly crap about it.
posted by Nattie at 4:06 PM on September 13, 2009

Way back when I worked as a broiler cook in a steak place, we hated customers who sent their steaks back but we loathed those who ordered them Well and sent it back as undercooked. No one ever spit on them that I know of but we pressed and burned them as much as we could. One time someone actually sent one those back, so we also microwaved it. It was a piece of leather by then, of course. They ended up with a free meal but the manager was happy to get them out of the place and we were only given a half-hearted "don't do that again" talk.

So, I guess I'm saying you're taking your chances sending things back. I never do.
posted by tommasz at 4:32 PM on September 13, 2009

My sister was a food server for 20 years. I asked her this question once and she said that she did witness it, but only once. It was at a deli in Toronto that's around Bathurst and Eg. She chewed out the spitter but, for reasons she's never adequately explained to me, didn't report the bastard.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 4:59 PM on September 13, 2009

In high school and college I worked at both a high end steakhouse and a fast food restaurant.

At the fast food place, I saw one of the kitchen employees spit on a burger two different times, both times because the customers had gone through the drive through twice, complaining, then came into the restaurant and start screaming at the staff.

At both places, though, I have seen food messed with other ways. A steak that was "undercooked" got dropped on the floor before being put back on the grill, hamburgers being pulled from the waste-bin for problem customers who wanted it made fresh. There was one chef at the steakhouse who used to like to stir problem send-backs with dirty utensils from the bus-tubs. That kind of stuff.

In general, if it is a small thing, and you are nice about it, nothing will happen. But be nice to the server. They are not telling the kitchen staff to do stuff, but if you are nasty with them you set off a chain reaction that goes all the way back to the dishwasher. THAT is when I have seen terrible things happen to food.
posted by Tchad at 5:28 PM on September 13, 2009

I work in a steakhouse as a hostess/busgirl. Some costumers have nearly driven us crazy, but we still do our best to serve them well. I've never seen anyone spit on anything, just various talks about doing so or "accidentally" throwing drinks. Nothing every materializes. We pretty much bitch about the bad costumers when they leave, though (and sometimes before they do).

Just be nice, know what you're ordering (especially when it comes to meat) and be polite if you need anything. Voice your displeasure with things, but don't yell it or scream it.
posted by cobain_angel at 5:53 PM on September 13, 2009

Watch shows like Top Chef, where the contestants poke and prod the ingredients while they're cooking and plating the food. I think there's almost always going to be some form of human contact between the kitchen and the customer.
posted by vickyverky at 5:55 PM on September 13, 2009

My two cents; I've been cooking for the last nine years and have never seen it, nor heard of it (in any kitchen I've worked). I have heard stories.

One close call was a place I worked at, the GM was fired and his work cell was given to our chef. On it, this douche had all kinds of messages left on it, slamming the chef, trying to get him fired. Luckily, the owners saw through this and fired him.
He came in with a date a few months later, and the chef told me later, that he had never messed with a dish, but came damn close that night.

Bear in mind, the work in kitchens is back-breaking, extremely low-paying (Tucson avg: $9hr), and generally, you're treated as badly as you're paid. I heard Bobby Flay admit he never sends food back; no explanation. I don't either. I just don't go back. I also have a hard and fast rule; and that's never to go to a new restaurant until it's been opened for a while.
posted by JABof72 at 5:58 PM on September 13, 2009

I am surprised by how many assert it doesn't happen. I have seen it - in a restaurant I waitressed in, a kimmelweck roll that was sent back because it was "too salty" had the offending salt rubbbed off it by the chef (using his armpit). That's just one thing I saw, but I'll say that the customer earned that one.

Years ago a courier at my husband's office resented being sent out to pick up the receptionist/boss' wife's lunch order, mostly because she'd always find something wrong with it (no pickles! limp lettuce!) and would send him back and make him deal with the complaint. I don't know what the restos did to her sandwiches, but he admitted to um...having a shake... in her subs a few times in the elevator on the way back up.

Those instances are encouragement enough for me to very nice when I send things back. Which I have - but I try to have good reason and I try to be diplomatic and reasonable. Like when a place advertised that they were famous for their lemon meringue pie, and when it came it had whipped cream on top. Not meringue. And I really did have to insist that meringue was a mixture of beaten egg whites and sugar that was baked and was about to ask for a dictionary when the server protested that nobody else had ever complained - but I just decided to just pass on dessert after all and ask for the bill to be adjusted.
posted by peagood at 5:59 PM on September 13, 2009

At this point I think the smart thing to do when served awful food is NOT make a scene. get the bill, tip the minimum, if a servers asks about your food say something like "I didn't really care for it" and leave the restaurant.

Then, go home, and write a clear and truthful review about what wasn't good on one of the big review sites like Chowhound or yelp. All the good restaurants are checking their feedback and will take it to heart if it's coming from a real place.

All the results, none of the saliva
posted by rileyray3000 at 6:17 PM on September 13, 2009

I personally prefer my steak pink with no red and no blood. That usually means medium well.

I'm pretty sure that's not what medium well means. All the more reason to ask, I suppose.
posted by ook at 7:26 PM on September 13, 2009

How often are you sending food back? More than once a year?

I was a food service manager/customer service manager for 5+ years and I NEVER send food back. I might ask for something terrible to be removed from the bill at the end of the meal but I send nothing back.

FWIW its the wait staff you should worry about not the busy kitchen people. If anything is going to happen it's going to be the waitress that you were rude to who stirs your drink with a finger, licks your plate, or samples from your dessert. NEVER be a bitch to the hardworking people who bring your food!
posted by saradarlin at 7:39 PM on September 13, 2009

Also, I confirmed with him over dinner that in the 70s my father dumped a 1/2 quart of white vinegar into a customer's freshly made Caesar Salad because they were drunk and saying filthy things about the server who was originally waiting on them before my dad stepped in to "take care of them."

I reiterate: it's all about how you treat the person working for you.
posted by greekphilosophy at 8:16 PM on September 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

it happens.
posted by bunny hugger at 8:02 AM on September 14, 2009

for those reading this thread who think that adding a single kernel of corn will be funny. please don't. corn is one of the more common allergies.

i only ever send something back if it's brought to me with meat on it. i'll only send it back once. after that, i just won't eat it. too many chefs/cooks have personal feelings about vegetarians and i'd rather not chance it.
posted by nadawi at 7:11 PM on September 14, 2009

I think the biggest worry in a kitchen is cross-contamination. For example, chefs using the same chopping boards and knives for cutting raw and cooked chicken to save a precious few seconds when they are in a rush. It should never happen in a good kitchen with basic hygiene rules but I am sure it does. Most people live to tell the tale though.

After that, someone spitting in your food is the least of your worries.
posted by ClanvidHorse at 6:19 AM on September 15, 2009

Just another data point: I worked at a middle-niceness restaurant (not high end, but not cheapo either), and I never saw anybody do this. We made fun of people, sometimes (for instance, one kid sent his fries back twice for not being salty enough...), but never messed with anyones' food.

To be fair, the owner was an ex-Marine, and it was an open kitchen. But I wouldn't worry about it too much.
posted by Jebdm at 5:23 AM on September 19, 2009

You don't have to do anything to get your food messed with. Personally, I'd avoid fast food, as the workers there are underpaid and bored- and this tends to make them do unsavory things.

I personally know one person who urinated in the pickle jar at Arby's out of boredom and someone who randomly masturbated onto pizzas at Little Ceaser's because they thought it was funny (and it was probably a weird fetish of theirs).

Just accept the fact that you've probably eaten more semen in your life than you remember putting in your mouth.
posted by keep_evolving at 2:22 PM on September 29, 2009

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