Valentine's Day is one of the busiest days of the year for those who work in restaurants. It's also a day that many in the industry love to hate.
Second only to Mother's Day, Valentine's Day is the most popular day of the year to dine out, according to the National Restaurant Association. For couples, it can be a long-awaited night out on the town. But for servers and others in the industry who wait on them, it can be a night of dread, where expectations are high, the volume of customers relentless, and the tips often underwhelming.
"We kind of refer to it jokingly as 'rookie night.' It's a night where everyone wants to come out and dine," says Kip Mullin, general manager of Circa 1918 in Newport News, Va. Many of those customers, however, don't normally dine out at other times of the year.
"It's a somewhat different vibe on Valentine's Day than other nights," Mullin says. "Because we do about two-and-a-half to three times the business of a regular night. It's a much more expensive menu than other nights."
"It's a lot like herding cats" trying to confirm everybody's reservation, he says.
While Valentine's business can be solid for restaurants, it can be a different type of busy. Dining rooms are packed full of couples, leaving little room for larger parties that can garner servers bigger tips.
"I call it deuce factory, because it's two by two by two by two and it's very, very boring," says Jackie Roberts, owner of The Pink Door in Seattle.
She says the hype of Valentine's Day turns up the pressure on servers to make a guest's evening perfect. "Everyone's taking the holiday way too seriously. They want to perform way too well and there's not as much spontaneity as we usually have on a regular night."
There are surprises for the servers, sometimes.
"I've definitely seen tables that are clearly on a date," says executive chef Brian Riggenbach of The Mockingbird in Nashville. "And one of the people will leave their [phone] number for the server, which might tell you how that date's going."
Less pleasant surprises can be common, too.
"We had once where one of the guests drank too much and went and threw up all over the bathroom and then left with their date to hopefully not, you know, get too intimate," says Lara Valente, general manager of Tilia in Minneapolis.
Riggenbach has a philosophy for dealing with difficult customers. "I think my biggest takeaway ... if I have a very difficult guest was, I only have to spend the next hour and a half with you, and you have to spend the rest of your life with you."
If it's any consolation for restaurant staff, there can also be unpleasant surprises in store for customers.
"This guy came in early and he was really excited and he was all dressed up in a suit and he had flowers and he was going to propose to his fiancée. And when she showed up, she had a notebook and it was a list of everything that was wrong with him. And she sat there for an hour and read it to him."
This Friday evening, Valente's approach to get through the craziness is going to be all business: "It's a hustling night, put on your running shoes. Try to look nice and let's go go go!"
But even for the most harried server, the overarching rule comes from Mullin: "I just say to myself, 'Hey we're not curing cancer here. All we're doing is slinging food.' "
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Candy, flowers and a romantic dinner with your significant other, you know what we're talking about - Valentine's Day. But the burden of producing that special night often falls to the restaurant servers. Valentine's, they say, is one of the craziest nights of the year.
JACKIE ROBERTS: I call it deuce factory because it's two-by-two-by-two-by-two, and it's very, very boring.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Boring or not, Jackie Roberts from The Pink Door, a restaurant in Seattle, is ready. She says the hype of Valentine's Day turns up the pressure on waitstaff to try and make a guest's evening perfect.
ROBERTS: Everyone's taking the holiday way too seriously. They want to perform way too well, and there's not as much spontaneity as we usually have on a regular night.
CORNISH: And the quest for that perfect night sometimes means the customers give the kitchen staff advice on how to prepare the meal.
BRIAN RIGGENBACH: You know, you get a lot of allergy and a lot of modification. You know, people kind of build their own dishes. And that turns into a, well, I don't like this. And you have to kind of gently let them know that they, in fact, created the dish on their own, and that's not something that we have on the menu (laughter).
KELLY: Brian Riggenbach of The Mockingbird in Nashville says not all customers are so difficult. In fact, some leave their servers a special sort of tip.
RIGGENBACH: I've definitely seen tables that are clearly on a date, and one of the people will leave their number for the server, which might tell you how that date is going.
CORNISH: But not all surprises are as rewarding as that. Riggenbach recalls one Valentine's date that went horribly wrong for one of his customers.
RIGGENBACH: This guy came in early, and he was really excited. And he was all dressed up in a suit, and he had flowers. He was going to propose to his fiancee. And when she showed up, she had a notebook. And it was a list of everything that was wrong with him. And she sat there for an hour and read it to him.
KELLY: If you are working in the hospitality business on Valentine's Day, Laura Valente from Tilia in Minneapolis says the trick to getting through the craziness is be on your game.
LAURA VALENTE: It's a hustling night. Put on your running shoes. Try to look nice. And let's go, go, go.
CORNISH: And Kip Mullin from the restaurant Circa 1918 in Newport News, Va., has some words of wisdom for even the most harried server.
KIP MULLIN: I just say to myself, hey, we're not curing cancer here. You know, we're - all we're doing is slinging food.
KELLY: So remember; if you are taking your special someone out tonight, show your server some love, too.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOUNG TURKS")
ROD STEWART: (Singing) Young hearts be free tonight. Time is on your side. Don't let them put you down. Don't let them push you around. Don't let them ever change your point of view. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.