Restaurant people are rarely surprised by the inappropriate behavior of entitled or uninformed customers. Tales of poor tippers, unsolicited advances, and the hellacious actions of unsupervised children are the stuff shift-drink banter is made of.
That’s why Brad Belding, the general manager of Boone’s Fish & Oyster House on Commercial Street in Portland was so taken aback on Sunday afternoon.
“A family from New Jersey wanted to sit outside on the patio, so even though it was raining and windy, we sat them there,” Belding said. “We had cut lunch staff due to the weather, so the bartender took the order. Everything was fine until one of our waiters walked by the table and saw they were eating food carried in from another restaurant. They opened up the containers and were eating from them at the table. Our server said it really wasn’t OK to do that and apparently, they didn’t like being called out. They did spend about a hundred dollars on drinks and appetizers, but that’s not the point.”
Belding, 53, is new to the Boone’s team but not the restaurant business. Having spent 25 years living on the island of St. Maarten, he has owned bars in the Caribbean and knows all too well what “cross and unforgiving” tales sound like.
“When this occurred, I was outside in the alley talking with Ken (MacGowan, owner of the neighboring Porthole) about staffing and someone came out to get me,” Belding said. “On the back of the family’s signed credit card slip they wrote a note about how badly they were treated. Then, the family left the restaurant, but actually, the dad came back to speak to me about it a little later. I’m glad I had a moment to read the note and hear what happened from the server. I like to be careful with problems and get the details before I react.”
Yes, the family ordered off the menu, but bringing food into a restaurant is wrong on so many levels. Author, blogger, and foodservice expert Darron Cardosa, better known as “The Bitchy Waiter,” has addressed the topic a multitude of times. Most notably: “If you want to put food into a bag and then carry it somewhere else to eat it with friends, that is called a potluck dinner or a [email protected]#ing picnic. That is not what you do when you go to a restaurant.”
Cardosa points out the obvious illegality of the practice, along with deceptive ordering to save money and potential foodborne illness that might later be blamed on the restaurant. That’s the same valid argument behind why Tupperware from home is a no-no.
There are a few situations when carry-in might be acceptable: Artificial sweeteners are free, so who cares? Baby or young toddler food is OK. Asking for hot water and lemon and bringing your own tea bag is sketchy. A preapproved, celebratory dessert is fine (but if the restaurant sells desserts, be prepared for a per-person plate charge; otherwise, why not bring in your own Caesar salad and cheese board?).
Legit carry-in workarounds can be as simple as looking at the menu online, and calling (during non-service hours, please) to ask questions about your dietary needs, food allergies, religious restrictions, or ethical preferences. Chefs and managers want to please you, so if you have a reasonable request just ask. You may be pleasantly surprised.
That said, reasonableness can be subjective, so for the love of Anthony Bourdain, don’t bring in your own food from home, or worse yet, food from another restaurant. Just don’t.
Belding, meanwhile, is looking to the future and was philosophical about the carry-in event.
“We’re very busy and it’s a tight staff with a lot of training as we go. We’re held together by a day-to-day Band-Aid, but we’re the only place around still open seven days a week for lunch and dinner,” he said. “I’m watching the news for pandemic updates, but in September, we’re bringing back happy hour (yes, the oysters, too), Sunday brunch, and have hired an event director who’s booking into 2022.”
As for the family of five, he leaned into his years working in the tropics: “A full-moon, rainy day, and high tide will bring out the riff-raff every time.”
Natalie Ladd is a Portland restaurant veteran, freelance writer, and connoisseur of all things Bruce Springsteen. She loves Boston sports, chewy red wine, and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. She can be reached at [email protected]