Five O'Clock Somewhere

Welcome to Five O'Clock Somewhere, where it doesn't matter what time zone you're in; it's five o'clock somewhere. We'll look at rural life, especially as it happens in Rio Arriba County, New Mexico, cats, sailing (particularly Etchells racing yachts), and bits of grammar and Victorian poetry.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Iced tea management

Getting it right isn’t as easy as it looks

On the way home, Pat and I made a quick stop in Española for supper, at a New Mexico fast-food chain restaurant. It’s slower than the national big chains, but the burgers are much better – certified Angus, fresh rather than frozen, and they don’t start cooking until you order, so they never sit under a heat lamp, so they’re good and fresh.

I ordered iced tea with my burger, and I ended up with tea that was cool but not cold and that had no ice in it.

This is one of the key areas in which fast-food workers face a challenge with iced tea. For soft drinks, the beverage is already chilled, and so it doesn’t take much ice to keep it that way – in fact, when I’m drinking a soft drink, I prefer not to have so much ice. But with iced tea, especially if it’s brewed rather than from concentrate, it will be room temperature, or, if it’s fresh, often warmer. That means it takes more ice. A good fast-food worker will recognize this fact and adjust the amount of ice accordingly. In a fast-food place where the drinks are self-service, I will put ice into the cup to a level appropriate for room-temperature tea, and then I will start to add the tea; if the ice melts quickly, indicating the tea is warm, I will add more ice before filling the cup with tea.

On the other hand, there should also not be too much ice, or the customer gets very little tea. One fast-food chain that I often visit errs in that direction. It uses crushed ice, which packs more densely than ice cubes, so there is less room in the cup for tea to start with. And then the workers pack the ice in tightly before adding the tea. In a 44-ounce cup of iced tea, I may get only eight ounces of tea. If I get such a cup on the way to work, I have discovered that, after I have consumed the tea, I have enough ice left that I can go to the campus cafeteria (if it’s early enough in the day that it’s still open), get a large hot tea (the only iced tea at the cafeteria is overpriced, bottled, and heavily sweetened) with two tea bags to brew it strong, pour the hot tea into the cup of ice, and get a just-about-perfect 44-ounce iced tea.

Iced tea management is also important at full-service restaurants. In the vast majority of American restaurants, refills of coffee and tea are free (except in New York City, where I once ordered many refills and only later discovered that each one cost $4), and the servers at such restaurants need to know the finer points of refilling the iced tea.

When the server is pouring tea from the pitcher, he or she has a choice of pouring through the front spout, which will allow only a few ice cubes to pass, or maybe not any at all, or of pouring over the side of the pitcher, allowing plentiful ice to pour as well. Some pitchers have a wide spout-like area at the side, which allows the server to pour smoothly with a minimum of splashing; other pitchers don’t have that design feature and therefore require more finesse on the part of the server. Sometimes the pitcher is so poorly designed that even finesse doesn’t work; in that case, a good server picks the glass up and holds it away from the table while pouring, in order to avoid splashing the customers.

It is important for the server to observe the customer when choosing which pouring method to use. There have been times when I have been very thirsty, and I have drained the tea from my glass while consuming very little ice, but the server pours from the side of the pitcher, giving me more ice along with the tea. With each refill, I get more ice, until there is very little room in the glass for tea, and I need a refill more often because it takes me very little time to consume the tiny amount of tea. On the other hand, if the tea is warm to start with and the ice is melting fast, or if the customer is eating the ice (a horribly rude habit that irritates me extremely but nevertheless still happens), the server should pour from the side of the pitcher. Pat is often left with a glass of lukewarm tea because the server wasn’t attentive to the ice level and never poured from the side of the pitcher.

Yes, this may seem like a really trivial issue. But it is important. When Pat and I are deciding on the tip, we take into account the server’s attention to detail, and the server’s iced tea management is one of our considerations.

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