For guests, room service is a pretty miraculous thing. You pick up the phone, talk to an operator, and within a few minutes, someone’s bringing an egg sandwich right to you. Never mind the fact that those eggs cost twice as much as they’d cost at a restaurant; you’re living the high life.
Behind the scenes, though, there’s quite a bit more to the story. We spoke with several room service workers to learn some of the secrets of the trade.
“Late night[s] in hotel room service creates quite a bit of entertainment,” says Lisa Brufere, currently a food consultant, who worked for several years as a room service chef in several high-end hotels. She’s not kidding.
1. Room service can be a dangerous gig.
At night, room service deliverers try to stay outside the guest’s room or keep the door open during the delivery. In some hotels, they’ll work in pairs. There’s a reason for that: Guests aren’t predictable, and even at upper-scale hotels, servers encounter some pretty creepy situations.
“You sometimes ended up having to send security to the room because you couldn’t fulfill some of the guest’s needs,” Brefere says. “There were always some crazy things that went on middle of the night, but I can’t tell you about most of those.”
To put it another way, guests often ordered things that, ahem, weren’t on the menu, creating uncomfortable situations for servers. Needless to say, high-end hotels have policies in place to keep the room service team safe, but it’s still not a job for the faint of heart.
“It certainly wasn’t a problem with every guest, but people can be really creepy when you’re in their hotel rooms at, say, 3 in the morning,” says Jennie, a 31-year-old former hotel waitress in St. Louis. That’s not her real name, by the way.
“When I’d just started working, I had one guy step in front of the door when I brought the food in, and he kept trying to…I don’t know, I guess be suave, although that’s probably putting it nicely,” she says. “He eventually moved, and I got an apology the next day, but I was more careful after that.”
As with any other job, great management makes a difference.
“My manager was pretty cool, so if we got [creeped out] by a call, he’d make the deliveries,” Jennie says. “He was like 6’3″, so I wish I could have seen those guests’ faces when they opened the door.”
2. They’re ready to accommodate unusual requests.
“I’ve worked in traditional restaurants, and hotels are a bit more flexible with their menus,” says Jennie, “mainly because we can take a few extra minutes if the guest requests something weird. If you want a peanut-butter-and-mayonnaise sandwich, sure, we’ll cook that up for you, provided that you’re willing to pay for it. And yes, that was a real order, and no, I don’t know how it tasted.”
I call room service with the weird request of salt – just salt – and it's brought to my door with a smile within 4 minutes. Impressed.
— Emma W 💙🇪🇺 (@mzlondon) April 12, 2011
Guests often make those special requests after long nights of partying. Brefere says that she created her own secret menu for those situations, including dishes like the “Athletes Know Better,” which consists of scrambled eggs, dry toast, chilled Pedialyte, and a protein shake. That’s a great meal for loading up on electrolytes and rehydrating your body, if you catch our drift.
“I’m not sure that that did the trick,” Brevere admits, “but it made our guests feel good, and, of course, it drove some extra revenue.”
People also order food for their pets. That might get you kicked out of a normal restaurant, but again, room service is happy to oblige.
“We’d regularly get orders for people’s pets. People would order steak, chicken, even vegetable plates for their dogs,” Jennie says. “Eventually, we started keeping wet dog and cat food on site. We’d never put Purina on our menu, though, so guests still had to ask the right questions.”
If you’re ever staying in a hotel and you’ve got a hankering for something strange (within reason, of course), simply call and ask. Chances are, the order taker has received stranger requests.
What if you’re not looking for something particularly unusual—you just want to make sure you get a decent meal? Brefere recommends ordering items like chicken noodle soup, turkey clubs, grilled chicken caesar salad, steak, burgers, and french fries.
“Those are consistent,” she says, “and most everyone in the kitchen knows how to make them.”
Avoid items that seem out-of-season, particularly if they aren’t local specialties; while you might have a hankering for oysters, if you’re staying at a hotel in Idaho, you’re better off settling for mashed potatoes.
3. You get asked to help with marriage proposals on a somewhat regular basis.
Oddly enough, some people seem to think of room service as something hopelessly romantic. Guests often ask hotel staff to help them pop the question, and for the most part, the staff is happy to oblige.
“One of our guests was going to propose to his future wife, and he wanted to have waiters in their closet ready to celebrate with chocolate-dipped strawberries,” Brefere recalls. “But first, he wanted us to bury the ring in a roasted chicken dish or pasta or something.”
This week, we had the honor of being in on a very special moment for two of our awesome guests! The gentleman had arranged for room service to be a part of delivering a very important question… She said, YES!!! #Proposal #RoomService #MarryMe #OrleansCasino #BoydGaming pic.twitter.com/PBsVwsJUPh
— orleanscasino (@orleanscasino) April 20, 2018
As an experienced chef, Brefere had seen guests scarf down entrees in a matter of seconds, so she refused to actually bake the ring into any of her dishes. Instead, she asked to speak with the guest.
“We convinced him not to put the ring in the food. There are too many bad things can happen with something that expensive,” she says. “However, we did hide in the closet with [drinks] and sweets in an adjacent room—along with the rest of their family.”
Apparently, that wasn’t as awkward as it sounds; Brefere says it was one of her favorite memories of her time in room service.
With that said, if you’re thinking about asking room service to help with your proposal, remember: They’re not perfect, and they’re not used to playing Cupid. Just ask travel blogger Bino Chua.
“I was in the middle of my morning routine when the doorbell rang and a hotel staff member delivered breakfast in bed to my girlfriend while I was in the shower,” recounts Chua. “Part of it was a cake that was initially covered with a tray. [The cake] carried the message, ‘Will you marry me?'”
It would have been the perfect proposal—but Chua hadn’t ordered the cake. That led to an incredibly uncomfortable moment during an otherwise-romantic getaway.
“She lifted the tray and after seeing the message [and] thought that I was proposing. Needless to say, it was an awkward experience, having to explain to her that the cake wasn’t actually from me.”
Understandably, Chua later complained to the hotel.
4. Room service is a dying art, which may or may not be a problem.
At a large, ritzy hotel, room service makes sense (and cents). At your local motel, it’s not exactly worth the investment.
“Most people think that [room service] is a way to rip off the guests because of the pricing,” Brefere says. “Many don’t realize that room service usually loses money: 24-hour service requires a tremendous amount of payroll.”
In fact, according to a report from The New York Times, room service rarely breaks even; hotels offer the service as a convenience, but even high-end hotels are reconsidering the practice. In 2013, the New York Hilton Midtown discontinued the service, replacing it with a café.
If you’ve never worked in a hotel, that might not make much sense. Hotels already have kitchens, right? Why is room service such an extravagant expense?
“Typically, if there is room service in a hotel, you have to have at least three staff members: an order taker, server, and a cook,” Brefere explains. “But depending on the business, that number can fluctuate. Many of the hotels I’ve [worked] in made a business decision to offer premade sandwiches on the overnight shift or eliminate all but one staff member for the morning shift. [That staff member] would do floor sweeps and have other responsibilities.”
Brefere doesn’t think the trend will change anytime soon, as customers have other ways to get food delivered to their rooms.
“Over the years, there has been a significant reduction in room service usage,” she says. “Guests now have the ability to order delivery services from a variety of local restaurants for half the price.”
These days, fewer hotels are offering room service apart from pre-made foods. Jennie says that’s not surprising to anyone who’s worked in the industry.
“I have fond memories of working room service, but I didn’t see it as a career,” she says. “Even at a nice hotel, you’re not making incredible food or anything. If I was staying in a hotel, I’d just order out from a restaurant—not because of anything I saw during my time in the kitchen, but just because I don’t feel like paying $25 for an omelette.”