The Key to Walking a Tightrope? Stay Flexible!

We were there.  We saw him cross the falls, mist swirling and floodlights streaming, step by step across a treacherous steel cable.

It’s only by coincidence that we caught the spectacle live.  The Williams family doesn’t go for crowds.  Even the fall fair in tiny, Paris Ontario tested the limits of our comfort zone, with sticky neighbours pressing against us on the wooden bleachers at the demolition derby.  We would never be one of those enthusiastic families dragging picnic baskets and blankets down to the edge of the falls a day in advance to stake out our viewing area, only to end up standing shoulder to shoulder with the masses when Nik finally took his first step.

Many months ago, Jack’s baseball team registered for a tournament in Niagara Falls for the Father’s Day weekend, and locked in a block of rooms at $129 a night.  When Wallenda announced the date of his highwire walk we were thrilled at the thought of seeing it live.  But when the time came, we were tempted to watch the whole thing on TV from the comfort of our hotel room.  With the streets around our hotel closed to traffic, we were tired from the walk to and from our Friday night game.  Lugging camp chairs, bottled water and baseball gear 1.5 kilometers wasn’t a huge deal, but the detour to Dairy Queen for a celebratory Blizzard on the way back had left us dozy.  It was 9pm and surely all the best viewing spots near the falls were taken.

Our hotel room offered no view.  In fact, someone joked that the name of the hotel might have been more aptly named the “Wallsview.”  But on the 33rd floor there was a restaurant that advertised a spectacular view.  We arrived at 9:45 pm, just half an hour before the Wallenda walk would begin, and secured the last table for four.  On an ordinary evening, our shorts and t-shirts might have been a bit out of place in this upscale restaurant, but that night the patrons were abuzz with excitement over an impossibly long wire strung across the thundering falls.   Unfortunately the staff was not at all comfortable with the carnival atmosphere that had emerged in sharp contrast to white linen tablecloths and candlelight.

When people stood up from their seats to sneak a peek out the window, the hostess frowned.  When kids had the audacity to take a step away from their table, waitstaff complained loudly about serving hazards.  And when three starry eyed young boys were invited by a family with an excellent tableside view to stand next to the glass, the manager stepped in and shooed them away.

Our waitress audibly sighed when we ordered wine, soup, salad and a couple of kids’ meals.

Why do staff at upscale restaurants feel that it’s appropriate to make certain patrons feel unworthy?

Years ago, Craig and I went to Oliver’s, an Oakville dining landmark, to celebrate our anniversary.  In this case the server was an older gentleman who literally looked down his nose at us, through half closed eyes as we placed our order.  Unlike our Niagara Falls experience, we were dressed to the nines and spared no expense in our order.  I’m unsure whether it was our age, or some other secret ‘tell’ that led him to believe we weren’t fine dining regulars, but it was clear that he judged us to be beneath the standards of his precious restaurant.  After the appetizer course, he made a huge deal of bringing a silver brush and dustpan to our table and spent what felt like an eternity sweeping up every breadcrumb that had strayed from my plate in my apparently boorish consumption of a very crusty roll.

This is different surly service from what we regularly encountered at one of our favourite Bronte Village haunts: La Parisienne.  At this artery clogging (but incredibly delicious) crepe restaurant, the owner does the serving while his wife does the cooking.  He is brisk and impatient and you can usually hear him arguing loudly with his wife behind the kitchen door, but in this case it’s all part of the charm.  You don’t take it personally; he treats everyone this way.  They are real French, from France, after all.

The transitory nature of Niagara Falls hotel restaurant patrons will likely keep this business alive for years to come, but I worry about the Oliver’s Restaurants of the world.  Walking the tightrope of razor thin margins, most foodservice ventures can’t afford bad reviews from ANYONE.

Our restaurant had an opportunity to demonstrate some flexibility in how they catered to the needs of their customers last Friday night.  On the night Wallenda made his incredible journey across the raging falls, the staff of a restaurant filled with excited people of all ages could have chosen to demonstrate some flexibility.  Trying to force fit this round group of customers into the square hole of a typical fine dining experience was a mistake.  And they missed a rare opportunity to knit their business into their patrons’ memory of this historic evening in a positive way.

As is, whenever the topic of Wallenda comes up, I’ll likely say:  “We saw it live.  It was INCREDIBLE!  But we had this snotty waitress…”

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One thought on “The Key to Walking a Tightrope? Stay Flexible!

  1. Hi Diane,
    What an odd experience in that hotel restaurant given the event happening within everyone’s view! The staff must have known that some patrons weren’t appreciating their response to the excitement of the event and, therefore, their tips would be negatively impacted. Huh.
    We didn’t get to La Parisienne, but did go to Oliver’s a couple of times and didn’t have the same experience you described. Maybe by the time we started going the owner wasn’t serving anymore. We did notice that the clientele did look like mostly a mix of regulars, and groups of men that we assumed were enjoying their evening on a business expense account. Given the economy, I wonder how many are still enjoying the freedom to expense steaks and sip scotch without question. Perhaps, Oliver’s has had to adapt to survive.
    Good for you though to have scored hotel rooms at the right time, thanks to Jack’s tournament and your decision to support him in his athleticism. How did he team do?
    Love, Winnie

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