It’s T-minus Mother’s Day at your favorite lavish, all-you-can-eat brunch place. Chefs will admit that for weeks, cooks have been cutting off the unappetizing ends of ham and tossing them into the freezer for that “Deluxe Omelet Bar.” Sauces, made several days ago, already are congealing in the walk-in. Chimichangas, made on Thursday and getting soggier by the minute, are waiting for their turn to be revived in the deep fryer. And housekeeping has stocked bathroom stalls with plenty of full rolls of toilet paper in anticipation of the gastric distress that will hit the anxious, the angry and the overeaters, starting about half an hour after the first bites of that “deluxe” brunch are eaten.
Welcome to Mother’s Day, the busiest restaurant day of the year. More than any other holiday, it’s one that seems to come with a near-legal mandate for a group reservation at the most extravagant brunch spot the family budget will allow. According to the National Restaurant Association, 87 million adults went to a restaurant for a Mother’s Day meal last year. You can be forgiven for feeling as if every single one of them is waiting in the lobby along with you on the big day because the crush of humanity on the second Sunday in May is often positively claustrophobic.
Why not give yourself — and mom — a break? Here are four reasons you may want to skip the restaurant meal this year, along with some suggestions on how you can make her day much more serene for everyone involved.
Reason 1: Servers want you to hurry up and get out.
The mad-dog Mother’s Day crowds are a mixed blessing for restaurant owners. Yes, the kitchen might be cranking out less-than-perfect food to hangry diners who have been waiting much too long and spending way too much time together. But a high-traffic service on Mother’s Day can be a real boost to a bottom line that’s been leaning toward the red side after so many slow business days of winter and early spring.
“You’ll get pushed for first drink orders and for refills, but they’re not going to ask you if you want a third round of cocktails on Mother’s Day. They want to get you out so they can reset.”
“You can start out with $15,000 in inventory at the start of Mother’s Day and, by the end, you can be down to $7,000,” John Sugimura, owner of PinKU Japanese Street Food in Minneapolis and a corporate executive chef for Taher, Inc., told HuffPost. Even if chefs and servers are tearing out their hair in the chaos, he said, “the corporate office loves it.”
This is where the “mixed” part of the blessing comes in. Restaurants can make that green only if the tables keep turning. Watch for the ways, both subtle and overt, that wait staff encourage you to drink up, eat up and get the hell away from their stations. One example: “You’ll get pushed for first drink orders and for refills, but they’re not going to ask you if you want a third round of cocktails on Mother’s Day,” Sugimura said. “They want to get you out so they can reset.”
“The servers do everything but say, ‘Look, if you want to talk, do it outside,’ because they have to turn those tables,” said Yia Vang, chef at Union Kitchen in the Twin Cities. “Brunch people can get very loungey, so staff has to shoo them out.”
Back in the kitchen, it’s brunch-apocalypse, with plenty of frowny faces to go around. “A lot of the front-of-house and back-of-house staff will have had to work until at least midnight the Saturday night before, and of course they went out drinking afterwards, because [they’re] restaurant people,” Vang said. “No one wants that early swing shift, so if they’re working, they’re probably grumpy.”
Reason 2: Larger dining parties contribute to more chaos.
One of the biggest contributors to Mother’s Day misery is the likelihood that most of the parties being seated will be larger ones than the restaurant is used to seeing on a typical Sunday. According to Open Table, there are more group reservations on Mother’s Day than any other day of the year.
And if you didn’t make a reservation, heaven help you. “Do you really want to sit with your mother for 90 minutes at the bar, hoping for a table to open up?” asked Sandy Davis, a longtime chef at Cowgirl (formerly Cowgirl Hall of Fame) and now chef for New York City’s Roxo Events. “She’ll think you’re an idiot for not snagging that prime noon reservation in the first place.”
“Parents with young children are often some of the worst when it comes to keeping a table clean or making any effort to clean up. That means that the staff ends up with an unbelievable mess to deal with — likely on multiple tables — so they’re aggravated, and it becomes a domino effect.”
Often those big tangled bunches of family members include more than a few who don’t often eat out, don’t tip well or don’t understand the basics of how to behave at a restaurant. The worst offenders, one chef said, tend to be those at either end of the age range.
“Busy restaurants often mean lots of noise, so older diners might have trouble hearing, which can make them unhappy and more challenging to please,” said Maeve Webster, owner and chef at South Street Cafe & Bakery in Bennington, Vermont. Then there are the groups that arrive with small children. “I don’t think I’m the only operator who thinks this — parents with young children are often some of the worst when it comes to keeping a table clean or making any effort to clean up. That means that the staff ends up with an unbelievable mess to deal with — likely on multiple tables — so they’re aggravated, and it becomes a domino effect.”
Reason 3: The food is disappointing (when it finally arrives).
That domino effect can have a decidedly negative effect on the food you’re eating — when it finally shows up to your table, that is. “Each big party takes more time, more food and more effort,” Webster said. “The more big parties there are in the restaurant, the more likely it is there will be shortcuts taken just to get everything out within a reasonable time. The more shortcuts that are taken, the more quality issues you’re going to have.”
Davis explained how easy it is for a Mother’s Day-beset kitchen to get into the weeds: “Those big groups clog up the works. When you get a ticket spitting out 15 entrees, you’ve jammed the kitchen for as long as it takes to put that one big order together. Meanwhile, new orders are printing, but they’re being ignored.”
When that big group’s food is finally ready, it’s often a challenge just to get it to the table. “Here in New York, we rarely have enough space for a tray stand in a restaurant, so that means all the waiters from the floor need to stop what they’re doing and take three plates at a time out to that 15-top,” Davis said. “And back in the kitchen, they can’t even stop to get a drink of water.”
Thinking about the quality of the food typically served on Mother’s Day, Sugimura said it’s “often subpar.”
“This day is all about restaurant dining at its lowest common denominator.”
Reason 4: The atmosphere is filled with tense family dynamics.
Here’s another downside to the annual maternal hootenanny: It’s a day to spend with family — whatever that portends — often for the first time since Thanksgiving, Christmas or Hanukkah. For many, the wounds from those holidays have yet to heal, and the wear and tear on psyches is evident. Everyone may be dressed up and looking their best, but no one is at their most relaxed.
“You can see those passive-aggressive faces when they walk in,” Vang said, referring to the moment when the big groups of tight-lipped “we’re having fun, dammit” relatives just keep pouring through the door. Webster said it’s a day that’s often “fraught with all kinds of tense family dynamics, so essentially you’re dealing with a powder keg.”
“For heaven’s sake, shame on you if you don’t let your mother go sit in the recliner, make her a nice meal and clean it up.”
What to do instead
Chefs interviewed for this article suggest a cook-it-yourself affair instead of going out. “Make her some eggs and pancakes or waffles,” Vang said. “I think moms just want the kids together, and brunch is something most people can cook at home.”
“For heaven’s sake, shame on you if you don’t let your mother go sit in the recliner, make her a nice meal and clean it up,” Davis said.
“My family spent years doing that deluxe hotel brunch on Mother’s Day, and now that I’m a chef and restaurant owner, I see that we were exploited,” Sugimura said. “We were paying $35 a head back then for a dozen or so people. We all had to get dressed up, and there I was, a semi-fat kid whose clothes were too tight, gorging myself so I could ‘make good’ on the money. Looking back, I see how miserable it all was.”
His mother has since died, but he remembers her last Mother’s Day, celebrated when she was battling breast cancer for the second time. On that occasion, he bought takeout fried chicken and a wedge salad with blue cheese dressing, took mom to a local park and toasted her with a bottle of sparkling wine. “I got a tablecloth and napkins to dress up the picnic table, and it all looked beautiful,” he recalled. “It wasn’t about spending a lot of money. It was about doing something peaceful and simple on a nice sunny day. It was really and truly one of the best family gatherings we ever had.”
He urged others who are contemplating a big restaurant day to “peel back the layers and give yourself permission to do what works for your family. Don’t make life harder, make it easier, especially on Mother’s Day.”