Champagne and shame
Serve it chilled and don’t shake the bottle.
In my early twenties I played a lot of different roles and a lot of different games. Much of my time was pretending to be a waiter in a fine dining restaurant in Toronto. I was so good at it in fact that I ACTUALLY did this in restaurants, with people, for money.
On this particular evening? I was playing the waiter for a corporate function game. This game had two objectives 1: Give everyone the best time ever and 2: make the number at the bottom of the check go up up up.
It was early February in 2000. Back then the apocalypse was going to come when the calendars on the computers couldn’t turn from 1999 to the date 2000. It was also the turn of the millennium. That new years eve was turned into a big deal. No parties like that one for a thousand years!
The restaurant where I was playing make believe was also playing make believe. Aside from being a breeding pit for future directors and VP’s of marketing, it had pretences of being a ‘classy’ place. With that in mind, they stocked a lot of very expensive champagne for the occasion.
None of the champagne sold. Oops. Management experienced some slight rises of shame there. It was minimal. Who knew that our clientele didn’t want to spend $450 plus tax and tip on a bottle of booze. Either way y2k came and went. The same could not be said for almost ten thousand dollars of champagne. That was expensive inventory.
The night of this story? We were hosting a forty person team from one of the major banks. They were celebrating something or other. I asked the host about the budget. Their reply? “The sky is the limit”.
My eyes got big, my breathing, shallow. Just how far could I push things? It seemed like a dare, a challenge and no single individual’s money was being spent. I was determined to set a single party sales record.
I stared by moving them. Originally, they were going to be sat in a big, open, unfocused area with a smooth floor. I moved them to a much more constricted, closed in, intimate and focused room on the other side of a big area of cobblestones.
But even before that? I had them chill all eighteen bottles of $450 champagne. They also chilled another five we were selling at two hundred a pop. Next? I had the service support staff bring me service carts. We had two types of service carts: New ones that we attempted to use only in the dining room. And old ones that had all of the subtlety of a massively lifted four by four coal rolling a Prius.
They squeaked. They shook. They generally looked like they could fall apart at any moment.
They were fully loaded with all of the expensive booze that I could find. In total four carts were used. We rolled them out from the back with the kind of pageantry that would make the royal family blush. I waited for a gap between songs for maximum impact. We hit the cobblestones in full stride. By the time I was across them and in front of the host, every member of their party was looking directly at us.
“So, shall I start opening these now?” I took a bottle and put it into the hosts’ hand. He swallowed with doubt and likely just a bit of fear. I could feel everyone looking at us. I was certain he could too. “You said, ‘sky’s the limit’ didn’t you?” He froze for a moment, paused to swallow, then uttered a gloital “Sure, go ahead.”
In some ways I knew exactly what I was doing. I knew I was creating a spectacle. I knew I was creating a sense of social pressure. I was creating a crisis of sorts for the host. I knew I was setting up a tough situation to navigate. And a failure to navigate the social pressures well might end with them experiencing shame. The shame part? I used the threat of shame without even knowing that was what I was doing. The poor guy didn’t have a chance.
And it got worse.
I added and padded that bill at every opportunity. I did this shamelessly. In fact, I was doing EXACTLY what the restaurant wanted: Increased sales. I was rewarded for making the experience as expensive as possible. This went against every frugal bone in my body. If my grandmother would have known about how much was being spent she would have declared it shameful. My boss, free of over ten thousand dollars in booze, found it liberating. The guest of the party felt great. I felt no shame. Sensing where the host might hold back, fearing being asked to justify his decision to spend so much, I simply relieved his shame with his own words: “The sky’s the limit”
The sky wasn’t quite the limit. With only three thousand dollars of food pre sold to the party, I managed to make the bill reach twenty thousand dollars in four hours. I did well. After the event was over I went to present the host with the bill for the evening. There, I had one final shameless trick up my sleeve.
The host was standing with his boss. His boss told me about how they value staff and how she believed in generosity and rewarding great work. I knew I had them just where I wanted them. In my pocket I had two bill folds. One had the regular gratuity for a party that size, the next had a gratuity that was half as much again.
“It’s that time,” I said, “To bring the bill. Typically on a party this size we have an automatic gratuity. That’s the minimum, the standard. But I think this was an exceptional experience and I should be compensated accordingly. One of these bills has the standard gratuity, the other, a gratuity for exceptional service.” I placed them both on the table in front of the two executives and waited.
Without hesitation, the host picked up the bill fold with the larger number. I closed the sale with our credit terminal and the night was complete.
The host HAD to have picked up the bigger number. His boss had just finished talking about generosity and rewarding hard work. To not reward the work we had done that night would have been contrary to the stated cultural values as determined by his boss. To have taken the smaller bill fold would have been shameful.
I was shameless in creating shame traps for this host. As a result, I left with a bellyful of food and a wallet full of money.
Though this would be a shameful story for my grandmother, in the context of a restaurant, it became the stuff of legends. Shame is an emotion that really depends on culture and on context. It is also such a part of what we do, it’s frequently used outside of our awareness.
Have you ever engaged with shame or shaming like this without being aware that shame was part of the experience?