“Surprise me!” Two words, three syllables, and a metric ton of implications. This, thanks to the proliferation of short-form social media, is the latest phrase that’s being weaponized against beleaguered food service workers. And when the editors of The Takeout came to me with the possibility of exploring this phenomenon, my first reaction also contained three syllables: “Oh, hell no.”
This bite-back comes from a complicated place. As much as I love cooking for others, I don’t have many fond customer-interaction memories from my years in food service. The thought of a patron walking up to the counter, phone in hand and camera running, and demanding that I “surprise” them conjures certain instincts in my lizard/mammal brain that are better left unsaid. Let’s just say, some primates are known to fling things.
But look, I don’t want this to devolve into an “old man yells at cloud” story. It’s not just a social media trend; there are historical precedents for placing your food choices in the hands of others. So, I decided not to make this about me. Instead, I asked several current food service workers about the prevalence of this phenomenon. Here’s what they had to say.
“How often do people ask you to ‘Surprise’ them?”
The reaction to this question was immediate, from multiple baristas. While I didn’t pull direct quotes (because I respect that these folks are, you know, working), responses included such phrases as “Frequently,” “Really frustrating,” “Several times a day,” and “It happens even more over the summer.”
Sometimes things take a sharper turn toward the negative. Customers are occasionally shocked when their total cost is recited at the window, or after the first quick sip of their drink. “Not a fan,” they might say. Who knew that refusing to provide any direction for one’s order could result in such a catastrophe?
To be fair, one manager informed me that most of their team is used to this issue by now. Their employees have learned to ask a series of follow-up questions—“Would you like that hot, iced, decaf,” etc. Most baristas have a mental set of go-to recipes for each case, and some enjoy the freedom of expression.
If all else fails, the “surprise me!” directive can be used to push new drinks or upsell options. It’s also less of a problem if the patron is known to the employee, or if there’s a lull in foot traffic.
These are good points, and I can see how, all things considered, the “surprise me” order might work in the context of a coffee shop. Maybe not so much at restaurants.
I posed the same question to one culinary lifer who’s spent years managing kitchens in restaurants, bars, golf courses, and catering companies: “Do people often ask you to ‘Surprise’ them?”
He stared at me for a moment, eyes glazed, chewing on his reply.
“No,” he said. “That’s a good way to get yourself a butter sandwich or a kick in the pants.”
A former bartender, meanwhile, admitted to receiving such requests, and offered up his preferred response to them: a glass of water, no ice. This is more along the lines of what I expected to hear from industry vets, who’ve spent years dealing with the worst that customer service has to offer.
There’s nothing wrong with asking the server or cook about specials, recommendations, or the ingredients of a given dish. This is a normal way to navigate a sea of overwhelming menu options. But ultimately, this line of questioning keeps the burden of choice with you, the customer. A flippant request for a “surprise” (or, worse, a setup for social media content) shows a disregard for the effort and attention that service workers are putting in. And for what? So you can rate busy employees on their ability to spontaneously please you? And broadcast that rating to your social media audience? That’s narcissism, folks, pure and simple.
There are, it turns out, some exceptions to the rule—and some of these exceptions have longstanding (and even genuinely positive) precedents.
Multi-course meals, tasting menus, and even phrases like “chef’s choice”—these are venerable concepts, often carrying a sort of aspirational touch. Placing oneself in the hands of a food service professional is, in certain settings, a sign of trust or luxury. You’re not going to go to a high-end restaurant and tell the chef how you like your cheeseburger (unless you’re reenacting the excellent climax of The Menu). Given the proper context and attention, allowing seasoned pros to make your dinner decisions for you isn’t a mark of indifference, it’s praiseworthy and adventurous.
But to quote a now-ancient meme, “Sir, this is an Arby’s.” Most of the time, asking an underpaid, overstressed worker in a drive-thru to perform creative feats for your (and your followers’) amusement will never be a good look. Ask questions, be open to suggestions, and don’t be afraid to try new things. But for the betterment of all involved, take not just my word, but that of multiple food service veterans: Make your choices yourself.