Ask a Waiter

Carolyn Wandell-Widdoes of Union Square Cafe Knows How You Like It

“I believe I developed a TMJ disorder as a result of jaw clenching.”Photo: Melissa Hom
Carolyn Wandell-Widdoes was a graduate student when she took a part-time job at Union Square Cafe. Social work didn’t wind up paying the bills; eighteen years later, her co-workers call her Mom. We asked her how she has survived picketing animal-rights activists (she’s a vegetarian), the smoking ban (she’s a cigar smoker), the eternal struggle for tables between tourists and regulars, and her boss’ customer-is-always-right attitude.

How does Danny Meyer’s commitment to hospitality play out during service?
We’ll split entrées into appetizers to make a tasting menu. Within reason we’ll open a bottle of wine to sell a glass from it. If they were really deliberating between one or two appetizers and they decide to order one, we’ll bring the other one and comp it.

Does that vary between an older customer and a new one?
We note special tables [our regulars] like to sit at: “This one likes to have his drinks in this kind of glass” or “This one doesn’t like to hear about the specials. He just wants to order.”

Have you ever had to really grit your teeth and be nice when the customer was clearly in the wrong?
I believe I developed a TMJ disorder as a result of jaw clenching. But I’ve learned how to handle my stress.

Are the tables in the front room pretty much held for regulars?
Honestly, the entire front room is probably regulars who do power lunches.

Grove/Atlantic publisher Morgan Entrekin’s table is next to Farrar Strauss and Giroux publisher Jonathan Galassi’s table. Think they ever try to steal each other’s book ideas?
Unless you’re really looking, you won’t realize what’s going on around you. It’s almost like they’re there so often that it’s part of their office.

Does hospitality translate into sweet employee perks?
Our profit-sharing plan discontinued once we created Union Square Hospitality Group. Our medical plan is quite good. Our dining credits in each of the restaurants is quite a coup. At ten years and twenty years, they bless us with a wonderful bonus.

How often are Danny and chef Michael Romano in the restaurant?
If Michael’s really invested in a new project, he’ll be in twice a week during the day. Danny comes in at least twice a week.

How do you accommodate walk-ins?
The bar counter is always open for incoming guests. If they come early, say, 5:30 p.m., we can usually get them in. Eat early, people, it’s healthy!

Did people stop ordering foie gras when protesters were picketing you?
No. These people in the front window were holding their signs up while I was taking an order. I served the same amount.

You also survived the smoking ban there.
We lost Isaac Mizrahi and Mark Morris to that.

Do you talk shop with your husband, Michael Widdoes, who is a server at Gramercy Tavern?
There’s bitching and moaning. But it’s mostly on how he or I are not handling the situation properly. He reads Buddhism. We assist each other into a better way of thinking about it. —Daniel Maurer

Carolyn Wandell-Widdoes of Union Square Cafe Knows How You Like It