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The Spirits of New Orleans and a Glass of Orange Juice on the Side

April 17, 2012
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With a history dating back to 1718, New Orleans is crawling in tradition—and crawfish platters for that matter. It's impossible to traverse the streets and not think about the past as you look up at the wrought-iron balconies and pass the Creole cottages with their gabled roofs. Regardless of whether you believe in spirits, there is a spirit to N'awlins that I've not encountered in any other city.

It is a spirit of hope and good vibe. It is a spirit of life. But it's a spirit for spirits, too.

I had the opportunity to revisit the Big Easy when I attended the American Copy Editors Society conference last week. I hadn't been to N'awlins since the mid-'90s. The French Quarter hasn't changed much. The souvenir stores, voodoo shops, bars and domiciles of debauchery remain, as do the Hurricanes, beads and multitude of musicians.

In the early 1920s when The Journal of Personnel Research, Workforce Management's predecessor, began publishing, Prohibition was in full effect. The ban on alcohol must have been a tough time for New Orleans in particular, a city that lives on libations. But, from what I've gathered from articles on the Web, New Orleans didn't change that much at all, but perhaps restaurants were a little sneakier about serving their Sloe Gin Fizzes. At least some restaurants. According to one account I found on the Web, it took a federal agent exactly 37 seconds to get a drink. But the story goes on to say that one cabaret would have the band play How Dry I Am when they suspected a federal agent was approaching so customers could down their drinks and skedaddle.

Without alcohol, the landscape of restaurants in the U.S. was changing to a more casual atmosphere with lunch counters and a need to turn tables quickly so a worker could get back to work in a hurry and an owner could bring in more bucks. People at the time were moving away from the sack lunch and to the quick bite to eat away from the desk. Things haven't changed much in that regard, although in today's work-more economy it can be tough to find time to leave the office for lunch. So I'm not complaining about fast service at lunch, but that doesn't mean customer service has to suffer with it.

Having been a waiter back in the day, I truly appreciate the difficultly of the position. On the last day I was in New Orleans, I ventured down Chartres Street in search of nourishment before the conference began. I happened upon a small restaurant a couple of blocks from my hotel. I sat down and the waitress immediately took my drink order, which I definitely appreciate. I ordered my usual breakfast beverage: orange juice. From there, admittedly, the service left much to be desired. It took quite awhile to get my eggs and potatoes, but maybe that's nothing new for New Orleans. I found this menu from 1900 that has a nice little message at the end telling folks "Patrons will please exercise patience, as all meats, etc., are cooked to order." Alrighty then.

As I was waiting for my breakfast, I heard the manager chastising the waitress on a number of things in front of the five people sitting in the restaurant, the last of which I'll share with you. (It immediately made me think of this scene from Charlie Chaplin's The Immigrant—cue to the nine-minute mark if you don't have time to watch the whole thing—as an example of how not to act in front of a customer.) When a couple walked in, the man ordered orange juice just like I did. So the waitress went behind the bar and grabbed the same name-brand carton and poured it into the glass.

The manager noticed this and scolded her. "That's the orange juice for cocktails," she said as she grabbed the glass and poured the juice back. "Here's the fresh-squeezed juice you give people who just order orange juice." I felt so bad for the waitress that I decided to give her a couple of extra bucks as a tip. It also made me realize how convenient it is to have credit cards to pay the bills, something a restaurant-goer in the 1920s didn't have as a luxury. Who knows what the manager might have done had I not been able to pay.

Bad service may be nothing new, but it still can dampen your spirits—even in New Orleans.

James Tehrani is Workforce Management's copy desk chief. To comment, email editors@workforce.com.

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