A post about interrupt theory.

You most likely have never been in the weeds. If you haven’t worked in food service for extended periods of time, let me explain it to you.

In the weeds is bad. It’s not the worst. But it’s bad. It has such an innocuous name– in the weeds. That makes it sound more like you’re perhaps a little off the beaten path. I don’t think that it can quite capture the state of mind where you’re trying as hard as you can to balance the plates. Literally. Moments away from total oblivion. One side of ketchup stands between you and a mental breakdown.

I hated being in the weeds, because I hate asking for help. Asking for help is often the only way to get out of the weeds efficiently. Eventually you’d get to the point where somebody would ask “What can I do?” and you can’t even formulate a plan. You just tumble a plate into the dish pit and yell “I don’t know!”

I was a career bartender and server for over ten years before I learned how to code. I’ve worked in fine dining (for around here, at least. When I visited NEXT in Chicago it took all my will to not ask for a tour from the FOH manager) and really shitty hotels.

Eventually I developed an idea called interrupt theory.

In fact I believe interrupt theory applies to more than just food service. I think it’s one of those grand overarching theories, an idea that applies to many systems.

When you’re running food and serving, every second counts. It’s a fine dance of “Hello how are you?” and making polite and fun banter, while being aware that there is an external clock ticking on every interaction with everything you do.

Everything is timed based on some outside factor. Food is up in the window, it can’t go cold. A table has been sat but not greeted yet. You have the drink order from one table. All of these pieces have to be put together while pretending you’re having a ball, and making polite conversation.

When it’s going well, it’s in a flow. Everything is timed correctly, batched, and efficient. It feels like a perfectly choreographed dance, and let me tell you, if you haven’t felt that kind of flow, you really should. It’s great. Nothing can touch you.

When it’s not going well, when you’re in the weeds, I can bet it’s because of what I call an interruption. A series of unexpected requests. An unusually talkative guest that you can’t extricate from. A spill. An order mistake. There are millions of ways this dance can be interrupted, and it can send a service spiraling.

Sometimes it can even come from a series of ill-timed seatings. As in you get sat, get a drink order, fetch the drink order, and come back to being sat two or three more times. In reality it would’ve been more efficient for you to batch all of these orders together, but now it’s staccato.

The point is, something causes you to stumble, and this sets off a chain of irreparable effects that ultimately destroys your night (and soul).

Interrupt Theory

Interrupts are usually bad. Even if they’re teensy-tiny.

Yeah yeah, I know, of course interruptions are bad. Expect the unexpected.

Taking steps to reduce interruptions of ANY kind, is what causes a system to run smoothly. It sounds dumb when you say it out loud, but it was a revelation for me to focus on when I was serving food. (And I think it applies to any complex system.)

If you can anticipate and pre-empt even the smallest interrupt, it can save your ass.

The act of being interrupted, and not the task itself, is whats important.

Take a water refill. A water refill on your own time, instead of an interrupt is worth it’s weight in gold. Or water if you’re in the desert.

What I’m saying is that a prophylactic task’s time is worth more than a task done in reaction. Reactivity is bad.

Anticipating a need and fulfilling that requirement before it becomes an interrupt is worth more.

I have to go, but I’m sure I’ll expand on this in the future.