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July 26, 2008

The split check and other horrors


The weekend seems like a good time to post this because it's very long.

When I e-mailed the owner of Birches asking if he wanted me to post something about this exchange on my blog, I got this measured response, which doesn't convey the passion of the original e-mails:

I would be flattered if you were to initiate a conversation regarding restaurant patron etiquette in and around Baltimore City. Please feel free to use any of my e-mails for your means. I look forward to a lively discussion on split check policies.  Thank you very much, Brian W. Bruso Chef/Proprietor Birches Restaurant ...

Here's the e-mail I got from Mr. Bruso first, with names appropriately changed:

In my 20 some years in the restaurant industry I have had to deal with a large number of idiots that should not be allowed out in public at all.  This past Friday we had 27 of them here at Birches Restaurant for a party, and believe it or not, 5 of them had just graduated from [University U].  We had one contact person, [Jane Doe], with whom we had confirmed price, menu and reservation time. For starters, the party arrived almost an hour after their scheduled time of 6:30 p.m. Then when they did arrive they were appalled that we would not do separate checks for them. It did not stop there, every five minutes someone else in the party harassed my servers about the separate check issue. I had one of our servers ask [Jane Doe], our contact person, to come downstairs to discuss the situation with me. She never did.  Things escalated so badly that I was forced to confront the party, in person. With the threat of being thrown out, they quieted down and continued their meal. 

Then, 24 hours later I received an e-mail from [Jane Doe], who apparently is completely clueless on public etiquette.  Not only should it be a patrons responsibility to figure out, beforehand, any and all financial policies of each individual restaurant, but when told of such policies they should control their guests’ behavior regarding such policies.  Do you agree with us?  The party still received stellar service and incredible food.  Although, everyone here hopes to never see those people again.

Here was the e-mail Mr. Bruso got from Ms. Doe:

Dear Brian,

I've been going over in my head several times the events of last night, and feel I need to tell you how truly disappointed I was at how we were treated. I had been looking forward to our event at your restaurant for some time, and never expected things to evolve as they did.  Clearly, there were miscommunications taking place last night, and hopefully we can both learn from this experience. 

Being that I was the one to advocate for your restaurant and promote it on your behalf, I felt utterly humiliated when you stormed up the stairs and treated my dearest friends and family with such disrespect and accusations of treating your staff poorly.  It is a shame that you were not able to meet us before our party, because I think you would find that we really are quite an accommodating and good-hearted group and that none of us would want to be difficult.  I apologize if there was any miscommunication on my behalf or on the behalf of my guests towards your servers, but the issue of money should have been dealt with between you and me, and should not have been the main topic of conversation among the guests as we were trying to celebrate our graduation. 

It seems as though it should have been your responsibility as the restaurant owner to see that any issues regarding finances be discussed prior to the event.  I have never been to a restaurant that only accepted 4 credit cards, and therefore it would never have occurred to me to ask you whether each family would be allowed to pay their individual bills.  

My suggestion for the future is that you have a contract completed with a potential party of our size prior to the event to avoid miscommunication.  I regret that you have lost 27 potential customers in the future, as we truly enjoyed the food and atmosphere, but would prefer to dine where customer service is still a priority.  I would love to be able to bring friends back to your restaurant, but I don't think that I ever could after how you treated us.

Thank you for providing a wonderful meal, I'm sorry things ended as they did.


Jane Doe

So this was Mr. Bruso's reply:

Dear Jane,

After lengthy discussions with our staff and various advocates of ours, we find the need to tell you just how wrong and naive you are.  Birches has been operating successfully since the day we opened, eight years ago, and we have never had such a disgraceful display of immaturity and blatant disregard for our business as you and your party showed us last Friday.

How dare someone with your incompetence give us advice.  You booked one single party, just one party, for 27 people, not 5 separate parties. Our pricing and seating would have been significantly different, if you had ever bothered to inquire properly.  Not one party in eight years has ever expected us to split the bill on to more than 2 credit cards.

Here at Birches, everyone prides themselves on exemplary customer service, however this does not include allowing the public to dictate how we operate.  Your party was scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m., yet an hour later only a few people had shown up.  Normally, any party that is more than a half hour late is automatically canceled if no one has called by then. Your “dearest friends and family” had the utmost disrespect for our staff and establishment from the moment they arrived.  As the party planner and main contact, you are the sole person responsible for ensuring that your party’s finances were in order before arriving at the restaurant.  Even then, you refused to meet me outside to discuss the mounting problem your guests were becoming.

Even though you had not handled things properly to start, everyone in your party was made well aware of our policy concerning “no split checks” long before going upstairs. That was their’s and your acceptance of this policy.  The whole issue should have been over at that point. Your party should have either kept their mouths closed or left instead of further harassing our staff.

It is a real shame that your “dearest friends and family” behaved so childish that it caused me to have to take action.  Then again, maybe that was all they were begging for in the first place.  Rest assured, you and your friends are not welcome here at Birches.  On top of that, this matter is no longer open for discussion between us.

However, your email along with our response is being forwarded to the Baltimore Sun’s restaurant reporter, Elizabeth Large, along with a large number of Baltimore’s restaurant owners.  We feel it is very important that his whole matter and subsequent fall out becomes public knowledge, if for no other reason than to help educate people, such as those in your party, who patronize restaurants.

Sincerely, etc.

Wow. Several issues are raised here: Is the customer always right? How do private parties differ from regular guests? How could a party think being an hour late would be OK? But how do you feel about Birches after reading this? What about splitting checks anyway?


Posted by Elizabeth Large at 6:34 AM | | Comments (120)


I have never heard of a "private party", held in a separate dining room in a restaurant, with a fixed menu and fixed price confirmed in advance, for which the restaurant would look to anybody other than the "host" (the one who booked the party) to be the one to pay for the party. My sympathies are with Birches here.

Based on the evidence, Birches wins. Cased closed.
The dictate, "the customer is always right" is neither natural law or an ammendment to the Constitution. It's a pithy bit of hyperbole writ by advertising and appropriated by idiots.
Birches had me at "an hour late."

As a former server, I agree with Mr. Bruso wholeheartedly. At each restaurant I worked at, they did not split checks for large parties. One of the reasons is that the server is running around trying to take care of the party and trying to figure out who got what in order to split the checks becomes difficult. If it had been that big of a deal, they should have asked when they booked the party. They should not have berated the server with their complaints with the issue, especially since the server can not make the policy change. It was also extremely rude of the party to arrive an hour later, without so much as a phone call. Not only is the restaurant and the server losing money by holding up the tables, but they may also be holding up other parties that are scheduled to arrive later.

I always said that everyone should work at a restaurant at least once in their life. You'd be amazed at how much you would learn about what really happens and become much more tolerant of what can and can be controlled at a restaurant. When something goes wrong with my dining experience, I know what should and shouldn't be done and what the server can and can't do.

Yes, I absolutely agree with Birches. I hope these people do a better job of representing themselves and their university in the future.

We have frequently split checks with one other couple, but I agree that a four-way split would be an inconvenience for the staff.

Perhaps some written bit about policies on check-splitting should be posted on a website and/or menu so that the owner would have something to point to in any future situations of this sort.

I have to second SusanPG's remark about how everyone could benefit from working at a restaurant. I waited tables in college, which is not quite the same thing, but it was certainly an eye-opener for me (which may be why I am inclined to tip more generously than my husband, who never waited tables!)

I agree Birches is the correct one. I just "hosted" a party for about 13 people for my graduation and only 1 person paid for the bill. If they really wanted to pay by family just have one person put it on a card and then everyone pay that person. I have done that a million times when getting tickets to things or just eating out with another friend or something. The party themselves started problems right off the bat being an hour late! I also agree thatt he host should have gone to talk to the owner in person that night and should have asked questions when setting up the reservation.

Twice a year I am part of a similar party. About 30 of us gather for a meeting that usually starts on a Monday morning, and anyone who can get to the venue Sunday evening meets in the hotel lobbey to go to dinner. Our convener pays for the food (usually by check) but alcohol cannot be expensed, so each table works out its own arrangement with the server. Without fail, we make an effort not only to be clear about what we want, but also to be accommodating to the staff. And without fail we are rewarded with superb service -- for which we tip well.

Frankly, I don't remember anyone ever schooling me on this sort of thing, beyond basic training in kindness and common sense. How sad that these seem so lacking in some people.

Birches wins on each and every individual issue; judgement for the customer.

The customer may not always be right, but he/she is always the customer. And Birches needs customers one helluva lot more than customers need Birches.

This dude should have never responded to Ms. Doe's complaint letter with any more than an acknowledgement. You don't think his adversarial response is being passed around to Ms. Doe's 26 friends, then on to 10 of each of their friends and on to 10 of each of their friends and on to...?

But the dumbest thing is him wanting this argument aired in public, in a venue that reaches...what?...millions? of readers. If 90% of the people who read this side with Birches, so what? The other 10% are alienated potential customers. What's the upside for Birches in this exercise?

Well put. EL

Having worked in the Hospitality industry for over 20 years, the actions and expectations by these "guests" no longer surprises me. The general public seems to have taken the attitude that "service" means slavery, and that servers and all in hospitality must kowtow to their every stupid and misinformed whim. An hour late to the Doctor's, and your appointment is gone, and you'll be fit in whenever. Try splitting your checks at the Lawyer's office! Why does the public think that restaurant owners and employees are second class citizens that can be treated like less than human servile creatures! GROW UP, Jane, and get out of the sand box!

This story makes me want to applaud Mr. Bruso for standing up for his servers! As a former server, I am still horrified at the disregard customers often exhibit for the people who are serving them. I also think it's great that Mr. Bruso, as the owner of an independent resturant, was able to take this position. I bet those spoiled students expected their every whim to be satisfied, and the manager of a chain restaurant would have felt much more pressure to do so.

Welcome to the adult world, Jane Doe, where we own up to our mistakes and responsibilities!

I have to agree with Birches myself. Splitting up checks for that large a party would be quite a headache.
Like Jessica, we've often gone out with others, had one person pay the bill with their card and then we would settle up later on.

My parents, sister and her husband recently visited me down here on the Emerald Coast. Every time we went to dinner, always at a different restaurant, the server always asked if we wanted separate checks. We didn't, but my folks from up north thought that to be a great thing.

I do hope The Birches included an extra Service Fee with the bill.

Both at work (when I was still working) and outside of work I have gone out to lunch or dinner with from 5 to 25 people and cannot remember ever having split the check. The check would be passed around and each person would contribute what she or he owed. If we came up a few bucks short we would put in more; more likely we would have extra, which was usually passed on to our server.

Of course most of us are long out of college and, maybe, a bit more "restaurant experienced."

Bucky's really put his finger on what's weird about this whole story. "The customer is always right" isn't a law, but it's something that needs to be in the back of your mind if you're in the service industry. Why escalate things even if the party acted badly? It's not like they broke up the furniture or tried to run out on the check. If you're the restaurant owner you're happy they won't be back, but why shouldn't it end there?

I have to say I agree with Bitches on this.

I do have one thing to add though. More and more (and especially younger people) are forgoing cash in favor of credit cards. This is especially true since almost everywhere accepts cards for even the smallest of purchases. I think restaurants might want to take consider this and adjust for this.

In theory, I agree with Birches. I would never have thought that our party would receive that many separate checks.

Although I wonder why Birches never asked the question: Who's paying for this? After all, it was quite a large party and Birches is the professional.

I am in agreement with Bucky. Brian's response and subsequent forwarding to Elizabeth Large is over the top. He seems way to focused on winning the argument.

This is not surprising to me. I came to know Brian and his wife when I worked for another business that he dealt with. Although usually mild-mannered, he would occasionally become irrational and hot-tempered. Based on this, I have never been to Birches despite all the positive reviews. This situation reinforces my decision.

His wife, on the other hand, was always a pleasure.

Maybe he should stick to the cooking and let her handle the customers.

A more curious aspect of this story is that, as the Sandbox may remember, Birches is for sale. The MLS listing is still active, as is the (recently updated) Craiglist entry. The effect of this blog entry on that process is unclear (although a prospective buyer apparently need not fear the return of "Doe, party of 27").

Birches is right in principle. This sounds like a terrible night for them and their staff.

However, I am disturbed by the somewhat abusive nature of Mr. Bruso's reply (terminology such as naive, incompetent, how dare you, kept their mouths closed, mocking dearest family and friends, etc.).

Even if she deserved it, I think it was unprofessional to respond that way. Everything in that response could have been said in a more even tone, which would have had the effect of Mr. Bruso seeming like the most reasonable, kind, and respectful person of the two. And, if delivered differently, could have served to educate the woman instead of what I am sure only served to further alienate her and many others who read the response.

I am a good customer as far as I know, but I just hope that if I ever go to Birches I don't do anything naive or stupid. I'd hate to experience Mr. Bruso's wrath. Just reading that response gives me an uneasy feeling about going there.

(And given Mr. Bruso's escalation in his reply, I now believe Jay C when he said something happened there once with his party that put the situation impossibly beyond mending).

The other 10% are alienated potential customers. Nonsense (sorry, Mr. Bucky, but on this your are wrong.) The 10% of potential customers who find Birches' actions and reactions to be negative are not really a loss to Birches. Yes, those people will not give their custom to Birches, but since they are likely to have expectations and actions similar to the 27 Thugs, I don't see a down side. How can it be bad to not have trouble makers patronize your business?

Of this 10% of potential patrons, if this is their first exposure to Birches, I would argue that they are not, in fact, potential customers. Reading about Birches in this blog for the first time and saying 'I'll never eat there, look how they treat customers' is a hollow threat. This can be bad for business only if someone who realistically would eat at Birches is oaf enough to side with the 27 Thugs and change the decision to go to Birches.

What this has done is put Birches on my current RADAR (I've already read the menu) and increased the likelihood of a visit. And while my dinner may not swell Birches bottom line a great deal, Book and I will at least be decorous in our behaviour. (BTW, Book says he has DISTANT relative like the 27 Thugs: they are sold in book stores on Baltimore Street.)

I think there is a difference between spliting checks and allowing people to put parts of the total bill on different credit cards so that the sum is equal to the entire bill.

I would never ask a restaurant to split up a check, so that each item is itemized. I, however, don't have a problem asking a server to put $50 on one card, $40 on another, and $110 on another if the entire bill was $200.

As to the owners desire to air the entire thing in public, all I can think is WTF. What is he hoping for? A bunch of sympathetic souls will say: "wow, that places puts its customers in their place when it is warranted. I want to go there so i can be called out. Now, maybe this might appeal to those looking for a culinary dominatrix experience, but outside of the fetish crowd, I don't think there is going to be much of market.

I was so happy to see someone in our INDUSTRY have the big ones and step out publicly about some customers, if you call them so.
Also I have one comment for burky as well Miss Large that reply to him, do not forget we are people as well, and like i said in a previous story people need to understand that we are not, i repeat myself, WE ARE NOT slave of your daily mood, we are here to provide service great ambience and service.
Also your equation it is right the customers always right, and you say that this location needs them more that they need the restaurant?
are you out of your mind or you just talking without thinking, just scroll down all the comments and you'll see that you are the only one going against his way of handling the situation.
And no I will not say my name because I do work for a company that do not allow me to kick some customers in the butt showing them the door.
just go at Mc Donald’s.
this is just ridiculous from you.


The comments from gosseyn, AMS and LJ made me go back and read the original emails one more time, and I have to agree that the tone of the proprietor seems disproportionate to the alleged crimes. That in tun made me go to their website, where I found this:

Birches' Answers to FAQ's

We are sorry Anne Lester, we do not split checks, and we will only accept 2 credit cards per check.

That's right, each dinner is prepared a la minute. That is French for your meal may take more time than at a chain, however, everything is put together especially for you!

Correct again, we believe in the whole experience ~ Food, Libations and Good Company to enjoy your evening with.

Unfortunately we typically find it necessary to add 20% Gratuity to parties larger than 5 people.

Finally, we still reserve the right to refuse service to anyone who fails to comprehend how to relax and enjoy themselves.

Dahlink -- I, too, saw those rules on the Birches website, but it's unclear whether those were just added; they don't appear to have been there back in 2005, per the Internet Archive. (Perhaps "Anne Lester" and "Jane Doe" are one and the same?)

As for various commenters' observations on the e-mail exchange -- true, Mr. Bruso's response could have benefited from a more civil choice of words. However, if Ms. Doe had no intention of paying for the whole thing with her own credit card, she owed it to her own guests, at the time of booking the party, to ask about Birches' payment policies.

I grew up in an era when a "fine dining" restaurant would take American Express, Carte Blanche, and Diners Club, but not BankAmericard or Master Charge (yup, I'm that old). Even nowadays, many restaurants don't take Discover, some still don't take Visa or MC, some don't take AmEx, and a few holdouts take cash, only. I wouldn't dream of booking a private party for 27, at a cost of a few thousand dollars, without asking about the restaurant's payment policy at the time of booking. If nothing else, that could avert extreme embarrassment at mealtime if one of my guests were to show up expecting to charge all or a portion of the check to a card not accepted by that restaurant.

Finally, once Ms. Doe's party was advised of the policy, they had the option to leave. If they wanted separate checks, I understand that McDonald's now takes credit cards. There was no reason for them to badger the servers about the policy thereafter, to the point that it became necessary for Mr. Bruso to intervene. University U diplomas do not absolve the recipients of personal responsibility for their own boorish behavior.

hmpstd, I had the same thought about the identity of the mysterious "Jane Doe." But unlike RtSO, I don't think the people of the party of 27 were necessarily "thugs." Perhaps young and inexperienced, and giddy at having just graduated. Since they mention that family members also attended this dinner, I am surprised that one of the parents didn't step in to calm the waters.

Birches wins on facts here, but looses on attitude. It wasn't on my list of places to get to, but now it is on my list of places to not get to.

Whenever I ask a server to split a check, I do it before ordering and tip extra. I never ask for split checks for a party larger than 4. A large party should never ask for split checks.

But, you don't publically humiliate your customers, even the bad ones. It is also very, very bad nettiquette to make someone's e-mail public without their permission. Everyone involved, except the servers, has behaved badly.

While I do agree that the customer and his or her opinion should always be at the back of a restauranteur's mind, especially in situations like this, having worked in a restaurant, uh, very much like Birches, let's say, I can tell you that the relationship between a restaurant's staff and ownership, and its customers, NEEDS to be one of mutual respect. Just because you are the customer, and the staff is there to ensure you have a good time, does NOT mean that you can push them around and act like you are the only person/ party they have to worry about.

Specifically, splitting cheques can be a total horror. If you split it the wrong way, or give people the wrong cheques, people get angry. If you say "twenty on this one, thirty on this one, fifteen on this one" that's fine, but if you get to four, five, six credit cards, how can you possibly remember which one is which? A server should not have to spend fifteen minutes taking notes just to process someone's cheque.

To say that these people were unreasonable is an understatement. Mr Bruso was absolutely accurate and justified in calling her naive, because only someone who has never eaten in a restaurant ever would expect someone to split a cheque twenty-seven ways.

Finally, I submit that anyone he would have "alienated" by making this public was probably not someone he wants there anyway. Parties like that are the reason for the 20% automatic gratuity. They run you totally ragged, and act like they are the only party in the restaurant, then leave a crappy tip. Birches, while it is "fine dining," is also a neighborhood place. They make a lot of their money from repeat business, not know-it-all yuppies who think the world revolves around them.

Bravo, Brian.

Poor Brian! These people were (as my mother used to say) raised in a barn!

To AMS, who, I suspect was part of the lovely group at The Birches: I have planned many, many, many dinners in the course of my checkered career, It is ALWAYS the responsibility of the person reserving to ensure clarity on that point. (I once worked for someone who insisted on using his American Express. Not every restaurant took AmEx. It was my job NOT to send him where his card was not taken!)

Well, TwoToedSloth, I don't think the party was asking for 27 separate checks (although I have heard a horror story from the son of a friend who did get just such a request at a chain restaurant). It sounded as if they wanted to have checks for the 5 family groups. And I generally agree wit Lissa about "netiquette," but the identity of the original email writer was concealed, so I can't get too bent out of shape about this.

Having waited tables, I agree that there is a HUGE difference between separate checks and splitting one check among many credit cards. First, the server has to keep track of all said separate checks, which is impossible during a busy party and I guarantee you, one or more will be wrong. Running multiple cards on one check takes an extra two seconds on all of the software I used when waiting tables.

My sister and I dine out frequently and neither of us use cash, ever. We always split the check among 2 or more credit cards. We have never had a problem. But....she waited tables also.....she writes the last 4 digits of the card number on the check and the amount to put on that card next to it. Again, we have never had a problem doing it this way, from Friday's to Pazo, 2 to 10 person parties.

If a party of 27 wanted individual checks, they should have gone to the Golden Corral. The "graduates" probably would have even gotten their own souvenir sippy cups.

Chef forever - I want to make it clear: I was not attempting to excuse the customers' behavior (if it was, indeed, as described.)

In fact, I strongly subscribe to the philosophy, "If you want to know a person's true character, don't observe how he treats you, take him to lunch and observe how he treats the waitress."

I was (and still am) trying to figure out what good this did for the restaurant.

(Not that I'm sorry he sent it to EL. Anybody who wants to send their pet peeve over to the Sandbox, feel free. We'll groom it and feed it and teach it to fetch. I think we're pretty good at that.)

And to hmpstd: BankAmericard. My god, I had completely forgotten that. Thanks for the memory.

Considering how boorish some people are in a restaurant, I have to say that asking to use multiple credit cards is fairly benign. I don't see how, RTSO, this behavior would warrant labeling them as thugs.

I do hope that Anne Lester is not the name of the person in question. If so, and the owner/staff at Birches thought it appropriate/funny to call her out on their website, then they have lost any sympathy I might have had for them.

If the restaurant in this case is, instead of Birches, say - Oregon Grille, I wonder if there will be as many sympathizers. Just thinking out loud.

Just to clarify, I have never eaten at Birches. That was a hypothetical "our party" in my original post.

I suspect that Ann Lester is the customer and the rules were a new addition to the website. Otherwise, he surely would have pointed out that his policy about not splitting checks is published on the website.

Here is the problem with Brian's reaction: Initially he may have been right, but if Ann Lester is the customer, he has escalated the situation to a highly inappropriate level and ends up being the bad guy.

Maybe since Birches is for sale, Brian isn't thinking long term and is letting it all hang out! You know how it goes...there is always someone that you'd love to chew out on your last day of work!

Robert (of Cross Keys), These people were boorish in the extreme. Your use of the word benign doesn't make sense. Maybe you meant innocent?

Mr. Bruso did exactly what he should have. Too many restaurant owners just let the clients run roughshod over the staff . He must be quite the owner. I bet the staff really enjoys working for him.

It's about time someone called their "boorish" customers out. people seem to forget, when going into a restaurant, one treats others as they are being treated. This party came in and treated the entire staff like garbage. I'm very impressed the restaurant, and specifically Mr. Bruso, had the stones to treat them similarly.

So, a big THANKS to Mr. Bruso!

As a former restaurant manager and the wife of a server at Baltimore's premier restaurant, I applaud Brian for taking the action that he did. How dare Jane Doe ask for anything extra except water when she and her crew were an hour late! There is a certain breed of person out there that believes that clocks run on their time and sorry folks, no it does not. If you truly graduated from a University then you should have figured that out by now. You are expected to hold up your end of the deal by being on time while the venue hold up their end with quality, food, service and atmosphere. I wonder, how much of this could have been spared had Jane and company been on time and polite? I know I would pray to God that Jane passed this on to everyone she knows, for no person of any class would befriend she or her crew. That may keep them out of restaurants that require dignity and poise.

I have been a server in Baltimore for several years. So, when I go out to dinner, I never "run" the server or make them crazy when their busy. When you are busy, something like 10 orders of cappucino's will throw you over the edge. I have to say, that my family is TERRIBLE to servers. THis sounds like something they would do and if I am ever at the table, I will go out of my way to make sure the server knows that there is someone with a brain, at the table. I would have done the same thing as Brian, at Birches. It is unacceptable to let a 27 top split checks. It's ridiculous. It is very clear that no one in the Jane Doe party, has ever waitied a table in their life. If they had, they would know that this is not proper. And for anyone else, a few rules, too:
1. Do not run your server. This means, when your server asks if anyone needs anything, don't make them go fetch cokes and glasses of wine, one by one. Place your order all at once and be sure that no one at the table needs anything else before your server walks away.
2. Do not split checks for large parties. This takes time and lots of organization especially during busy times. It can make us "weeded" QUICK!
3. Don't wave your hand in the air at us. ESPECIALLY when we are at another table. We will be right there, as soon as were done with our other paying customers. You are not the only one in our section.
4. Do not order a [expletive deleted] ton of decaf coffees, mixed with a few orders of cappucinos. Go to Vaccaros.
5. Don't ask us how much the specials are.
6. Don't send your food back unless it is necessary. (Necessary reasons to send food back can be another blog session).
7. If your a pain in the ass, stay home.
I'm sure there are more, but for now, I leave you with these.

If there had been one request for separate cheques that would be one thing. But by the report there was a great deal of bad behaviour. Thus, thugs.

Whoa, naturemade--we are not allowed to ask how much the specials are? I was nodding along with your post until I hit that one.

RtSO--I still don't consider the diners "thugs," but maybe we need to define the term.

naturemade, please tell us what restaurant you work for so I can avoid it. You are one scary dude.

naturemade - I agree with Dahlink. I'm with you on everything except not asking the price of specials.

Sorry, naturemade lost me with don't wave your hand at your server. If he forgets to bring me a fork (which happens quite a bit), and my entree is sitting in front of me, am I supposed to wait patiently until he comes back to the table to see if we're finished? I think not. And why shouldn't four of us have decaf coffee and one cappuccino if that's what we want? I'm not an unreasonable customer, but I can't see why we can't order what we want to.

We can't ask how much the specials are? I'm hoping this is because the server already told us, not because we shouldn't be eating out if we can't afford, say a $40 entree when most entrees on the menu are $15-$25.

I've waited tables, and, yes, servers deserve courtesy. This includes giving servers information they need to do their job properly (like not having a fork). I detest waving at wait staff, as a good server should be glancing around as they move, so I can catch their eye and nod. Nice and subtle, lets them know I need them to work towards my table when they get a chance.

Management should back up the wait staff. But Brian needs to let this go. No one likes a drama queen in the front of the house. The chefs don't like competition .

Interestingly, I went to Birches website to see the FAQ to which Dahlink and hmpstd referred and it has been removed.

If I have to ask about the price of the specials, it's because the restaurant hasn't done its job. No, it's not enough just to list the specials in an illegible scrawl on a chalkboard that hasn't been washed since Bill Clifton left the White House, especially when I can't see the chalkboard from my seat. Nor should I be expected to memorize the server's spiel about the specials. In this era of ready access to PCs, printers, and copiers, there is no excuse not to include an insert with the daily specials, and their prices, in the menu.

Lissa nailed it. Discussion closed!

Bucky -- the FAQ list is on Birches' menu page, and it was still there when I just checked -- try this link.

hmpstd - thanks. I was looking for an FAQ. (You're really good at this internet research stuff, you know?)

Brappy, perhaps it is you who needs to go back to university. I used "fairly benign" in the sense of "relatively mild". Considering how truly boorish some patrons act, such as getting drunk and sexually harassing the wait staff or starting fights, that asking for separate checks is in comparison a relatively minor offense. They are not innocent, but we're talking about a misdemeanor not a felony.

* I'm going to go on a tangent.*

One of my pet peeves is when our language is inflated or in some cases deflated. Words matter and we should strive to use them correctly. That means that we use words like thugs to describe violent miscreants not families who ask for separate checks.

EL, you may have to get our Cincy Chili/Copy Expert in on this language question.

RoCK--that is exactly the problem I had with the use of "thugs" in this thread. Thank you.

Just out of curiosity...are "Baltimore" and "Baltimore City" different places? Or do they refer to the same city?

Baltimore City is surrounded by Baltimore County, although the City is a separate entity, incorporated in 1796.
So people will refer to the City as being in the actual city limits, when they say Baltimore, they could be in the county or the city, referring to the Baltimore metro area.

Bucky, folks say "County" here the say way they say "suburbs" in other cities.

Legally, Baltimore City is equal to the counties, as far as taxing authority, law making authority, etc.

Confused the heck out of me when I moved here. Especially when people say "Baltimore" and mean the county. (I live in the city.)

The City/County question gets more confusing when it comes to the mail. For instance, if you are mailing something to say Dundalk or Sparrows Point, both of which are in the county, you will address it to Baltimore. If you are mailing something to Towson or Cockeysville, however, you wouldn't use Baltimore.

almost any publicity is good publicity. Previous to this, I had never even heard of Birches. Now I've already perused their menu and location and found out that they have some character in a rather feisty if melodramatic chef. On top of that, its food was complimented by someone who thoroughly disliked the experience (Jane Doe). What's to lose?

I have no intention of being as boorish as Jane Doe and Birches may very well be a future dining spot for me.

There are only a few cities that are separate from the county that surrounds them. St Louis is another example. So for newbies the confusion is understandable. It not 'normal.' Its one of the factoid taught in school social study classes (at least when I was in school; of course we used scrolls - books hadn't been invented.)

Quorum of Roberts! We're only missing Piano Rob (again).

And look at PCB Rob going all hmpstd on us (est. in 1796? don't you reside in Florida?)

p.s. Hi Bucky.

A Quorum of Roberts, is that like a herd of cows, a murmur of doves, a pod of whales???

Hi Bourbon Girl. Do Civics lessons make you want to take a drink? LOL...

Actually, while the bill to incorporate the City of Baltimore was approved by the General Assembly (State legislature) on December 31, 1796, the City government did not come into existence until an election was held a few weeks afterwards, which is why the date "1797" appears on the City seal, as shown on the City's website.

A few weeks ago I had a party of 12 that wanted to lunch at McCormick & Schmick's. I called for a reservation and was transferred to the banquet coordinator. She emailed a banquet menu with instructions to choose two appetizers/salads, four entrees, and two desserts for my party. I called again and insisted that we would rather have choose from the regular lunch menu. She argued that a group of 12 might have trouble choosing from a menu with over 100 items. When I insisted, she backed down, reluctantly. On the appointed day, we were led to a very nice round table near a window. Our server and meals were excellent, and a good time was had by all. We asked if gratuity was automatically added to the bill for larger parties and if there was a problem if we wanted separate checks. The answer was that M&S never automatically adds a gratuity, and they never mind providing separate checks. Isn't that nice? We thought so! The upshot is, I'm reasonably sure every one of us will be delighted to return to M&S.

Yes, Bucky, they do. and I'm out of bourbon on a sunday night! unfortunate accident of circumstance but couldn't deal with jerry's belvedere today to get more. so it's sierra nevada only tonight. do any good pale ales originate from colorado? or do y'all just export bull you know whats?

Reading this series of posts makes me want to eat out even less often than I do.

I didn't know there were so many "rules" to abide by.

I'm glad I never worked in a restaurant, although - according to some of these posts - I (apparently) have no business eating in a restaurant if I hadn't worked in one.

I'm beginning to feel the same way. :-) EL

Bourbon Girl, I so rarely drink a beer that don't really know if we export anything other than Coors and Bud from the two big breweries. I know we have a few small breweries, but I don't know what their market is.

Have you ever heard of Fat Tire? That, I think, is likely the most famous of our local beers. (It's not a pale ale; I think you would call it a medium ale.)

Bourbon Girl,

Yes, I reside in Florida now and have for 2.5 years. But previous to that I was a Marylander (Annapolis and Baltimore) for my whole life.

thanks hmpstd for the clarifier on the incorporation. I worked at the Science Center when they and the City were celebrating their 200th anniversaries, the same year I believe. I guess I forgot it was '97 instead of '96.

Bourbon Girl! Pale Ale and Bourbon? They are my favorites as well!

"and I'm out of bourbon on a sunday night! unfortunate accident of circumstance but couldn't deal with jerry's belvedere today to get more" Ok, OT, but WHY can't we buy liquor on Sundays???? What's up with these old tired outdated blue laws! In NC we bought beer and wine in the grocery store, Sundays too- and they're in (I think) the bible belt!

They just repealed that blue law here, effective July 1st, so now we can buy liqour on Sundays.

We still can't get anything but 3.2 beer in a grocery store.

Joyce W. -- in Maryland, the liquor laws vary from county to county. (In Anne Arundel County, for example, liquors stores are free to open year-round on Sundays.) The number of liquor licenses is limited, and new licenses are virtually impossible to obtain, so you have to pay a huge sum to buy somebody else's existing license. Current license holders lobby fiercely against any proposed changes in the liquor laws that would increase competition and dilute the value of their own licenses (such as any proposals that would allow grocery stores to get beer-and-wine licenses).

Congrats to Birches for 'taking one for the team'. You have successfully argued etiquette, which all other restaurants thank you for, while at the same time casting a negative light on your own establishment.

Thanks, hmpstd. At least now I understand it's this way (although I disagree!)
Bucky - 3.2 beer referring to alcohol level?

Personally, for a group te size of 27 people, it's probably best for the restaurant to tell them their policy on seperate checks at the time the reservation is made. In fact, if I managed a restaurant (which I did in a previous life), my policy would be "no seperate checks for parties of 4 or more", and I would instruct the hosts to tell that to anyone making a reservation of more than 4 people.

However, it appears that the check policy at Birches was explained to the party before they were seated. At that point, they knew right there and then, and no one was forcing them to stay.

I'm with the manager on this one, although for a group that large I definitely would have informed them at the time the party was booked.

Joyce W...yes. I think it's 3.2% alcohol. Not 3.2 proof.

I used to do business in west Texas and in Amarillo, liquor laws were administered on a voting precinct basis. So you would have a restaurant on one side of a street that had a bar and on the other side of the street, the restaurants would be 'dry." That was a mess. (The "dry" restaurants still attracted business, I guess from people who were against liquor.

Wow, I just read through every single post. I am a fan of Birches and a frequent customer. My take?

Take one slightly bitter owner who is a hair's breadth away from retiring and getting out of the restaurant biz (if only someone would buy his building); add 27 frequent Applebees Diners celebrating 5 infantile graduates who are happily sipping beer with Mom & Dad; STIR. The final outcome is almost always a disaster in this recipe!

I, for one, had a large party at Birches a couple of years ago. It was only about 12 people, but our service was fantastic, and so was the food. The difference, other than the number in the party, was that we arrived on time, exercised manners, tipped well, and no one was under the age of 28. :)

As a restaurant manager in a former life, would you have wanted this much public attention about the problem? Regardless of who was right and who was wrong?

That was my point...Birches was "in the right" but sending this off to D@L was nothing but downside from them.

I have to agree with Birches, you were an HOUR late and you wanted seperate checks for a party of 27 and then harassed their employees. If you honestly think you are in the right, you are insane. Yes, you may be light hearted people, but you can't treat restaurant owners badly just because you booked a party. Who do you think you are? Stop trying to bash an honest working restaurant owner who told you exactly what you needed to hear. GO BIRCHES!

I was going to comment about Anne Arundel but hmpstd beat me to it. That was one surprise when I moved to Annapolis from Parkville, you could get bourbon on Sunday night, kinda late too!

Here in FL, the stores are open 7 days, from 8am until at least 10pm. And the grocery stores have quite the selection of beers too.


I find it interesting that after a weekend in which many of the regulars were going at each other over this split check issue that most of the animosity has simmered down and the conversation has turned to drinking. I think that of the 20 most recent blog entries about half of them are now dealing with bourbon, vodka or fermented cheese.

This is like the good old days in Washington when the Republicans and Democrats would go after one another during the day but come 5 pm they would all get sauced together. Now a days all they do is go to fundraisers.

Ok. ok. You're right. i was on a rampage, there. Ask the price of the specials, OF COURSE! I do all the time. My apologies. I ordered a special at Nasu Blanca, once and got the check and it was $55!!!!! Not fun and not cool. Of course servers need to offer the specials price. I just got a little carried away in the sandbox!

Bucky, if I were managing the restaurant, it would have never gotten to this point to begin with.

When Jane Doe called to make the reservation for 27 people, my host/hostess would have clearly explained the seperate check policy. Jane would then have had the oportunity right there and then to decide whether or not to book the party there.

Bourbon Girl - Thanks for remembering me.

When I was in Miami, I shared lunch with a group of Artistic Directors from around the country. There were nine of us. The first thing our "leader" did was ask our server if he could produce separate checks. He could and he did. Now, I don't know if he did this because we were nine of 15 people in the house, but it was a convenience nonetheless and I don't know if the restaurant (Lombardi's Bay Side Park) does it all the time. Furthermore, since this was a "business" lunch I'm sure most of my colleagues charged the meal to claim it on an expense account - something that I am not afforded with my group.

Joyce W - 3.2 beer is also known as "near beer."

PCB Rob - once again, I admire and respect your great taste. What is your favorite pale ale? My standby is Sierra Nevada, but recently I'm getting hooked on Backfin, which has a really crisp and clean aftertaste. Clipper City Pale Ale is a close third. NOT a fan of IPAs at all though.

Piano Rob - where have you been? Do you ever play any classical? I play myself - working on a Scriabin etude right now - it is deliciously insane!

aaaahhh, Miami. Just the mention of the place Piano Rob and I've gone to my happy place - Lincoln Road. Nothing to do with anything but feeling really good!
Yes, Rob in PCB FL, I too know the joys of Floridian life, 24/7 booze, lots of sun, great food - going to Orbitz now to dream of my winter trip to Fl!

Bourbon Girl plays Scriabin and wears a suit--at the same time? Another image in need of adjustment!

Dahlink - if you know Scriabin, you know it goes very well with bourbon, and is *never* played in a suit!

I'm amazed this post has generated so many comments/diatribes. You know what you ordered, you know the price of each item, add 6% tax and 15-20% tip; pony up. Period.

I have worked in restaurants all my life, & this takes the cake! Who cares how many forms of payment as long as the check including the tip gets paid. I am very surprised that the owner of Birches submitted all this to embarrass himself in this way, and equally shocked that the comments here sympathize with that nut! I don't see how his staff was "abused." I predict anger management counseling in his future, & I for one don't want to feed on his food or his ego.

Thanks again Bourbon Girl!
I do enjoy Sierra Nevada, but it is rather hoppy.
Haven't tried a Backfin, but have you tried a Full Sail Pale Ale? Its from Oregon and is excellent. Its got great pale ale taste but not as heavy as a Sierra. I used to really enjoy IPAs (started with McEwan's Export when I was in Scotland), but I've since found them a bit too hoppy at times.

Jeez, this sounds like it ought to be on Rob Kasper's blog.

Dahlink - Thanks for the warm welcome back (under a different blog post).

Bourbon Girl - I studied classical piano at a music conservatory but I currently spend most of my musical time conducting a chorus, composing, and doing musical theatre.

Joyce - It was my first time in Miami and I think I lost 10 pounds due to the humidity ... which also allowed me to sample some interesting and delicious food (and mojitos).

Successful? 23k owed in back property taxes, tax lien sale, & now the business property up for sale… I think they not need to worry about Jane Doe as they do about their finances.

Been to Birches a bunch of times and have witnessed mgmt. berating servers in front of customers, i think it was usually the wife of Brian and got such a laugh at reading about this situation.

Isn't there some sort of truism about how if you really want to know what a person is like, see how he/she treats the wait staff? I think that should apply to management as well.

Piano Rob, Miami's humidity is pretty bad in summer - the one year I was there during July into part of August, it rained every day at 4:00 p.m.! But those Mojitos and great restaurants - they go a long way indeed to ease the "pain"! What's hilarious is when you are coming back to Baltimore in the winter and the Pilot tell you "it's 20 degrees and windy with a chance of snow or rain at BWI" and the whole plane boos!

I'm certainly not surprised. Birches is one of the only restaurants I have walked out of for egregious service. I have been boycotting it ever since. Looks like things have not changed. Stay away.

Birches wins. End of story. Really? A party of 27 and you want split checks?? That's the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard...period. What an idiot.

Bucky wrote "What's the upside for Birches in this exercise?"

The upside is that Birches doesn't have to deal with people who don't understand basic restaurant etiquette...

Birches wins is ludicrous. How silly and stupid of a comment. Really!!! It goes against all COMMON SENSE business practices not to air dirty laundry that brings negative publicity.

Joyce W,
the humidity up here is pretty bad too, and I'm 13 hours drive from Miami.

We have better sand here too.

I read this chain of emails and comments with interest and horror. I personally haven't set foot in the restaurant for years due to witnessing the unfortunate behavior of the owners to two separate/unrelated friends. It's unfortunate b/c their food is fabulous but I cannot support bad behavior in restaurant owners. I am a neighbor and was a regular, but I routinely would find it would take 2-3 hours to even get an appetizer on the table (with 2 people). However, in this case, I'm unclear as to why, with a party so large, would it not be standard policy for the restaurant to stipulate "no separate checks". I believe this to be standard and perhaps, they need to take some ownership in the problem b/c they did not alert Jane Doe to this in the first place. Next, any large party that shows 1 hour late for a planned event, without calls in advance, deserves to lose their reservation. That was inconsiderate to the restaurant management as the space was held for them. The misc. attendees also seemed to have taken it upon themselves to argue with the server, who has no decision-making power. If they really needed to work this out, I think had Jane Doe walked downstairs to hold a private conversation with managment expressing their oversight on the separate checks issue (and giving Birches a chance to back off of the soapbox and admitt that they could have told the cusomter all this in advance). Had this mature connection been made, I'm confident that Birches management could have found a way to work wit Jane Does' party in a way that did not leave them looking like unappreciative restaurant owners and left Jane Does' 27 party attendees with a good taste in their mouth. That simple effort at good behavior on both sides could have allieviated all this. Finally, by Brian making this available to the general public, in hopes of generating sympathy, I'm afraid it backfires. Yes, I agree with him in some examples, but deliberately trying to antagonize 27 people who collectively know gazillions of other potential restaurant patrons, well...I just think that was short sighted thinking on the part of Birches. you know what the record for responses to one of your individual posts is? Because if just one more person will comment on "The Split Check and Other Horrors" (after this one is posted) it will be an even 100 comments.

Regardless of the record, I think the Sanbox should be proud of that accomplishment.

I think sandwiches may have had more, but once you have to find them with the search function, the comment number doesn't seem to be listed. EL

OK, just for the record, the following posts have result in over 100 comments:

7/10/08 - Sandwich Musings (150 comments)

5/28/08 - Beef Fat Again Already (142)

6/3/08 - Top Ten Crab Houses (137)

2/5/08 - Top Ten Locations We Miss Terribly (131)

6/5/08 - Crabtastic Fun From You Know Who (106)

7/26/08 The Split Check and Other Horrors (100, with this one)

(Although, Splitting the Check, Part Duex on 7/27/08 had 54 comments and I, for one, kept getting confused about which of the two posts I was commenting on.)

Two Posts have garnered over 90 comments:

6/2/08 - Where Else To Get A Great Crab Cake (99...missed the top list by just thismuch...)

1/15/08 - Top Ten Burgers (92)

Yes, I scrolled back through all the archives. Did you know that when you scroll quickly down page after page, eventually your eyes, in a vain attempt to keep up, roll back into your head?

They do.

And when ever this happened, my cat, who usually sits on my desk while I'm on the computer, would start hissing as my eyes started rolling back and when the only thing showing was the bottom white part of my eye ball, he would leap off the desk and go hide behind the bookcase.

This, my friends, is what passes for a fun Friday night in the big rectangular states.

By the way, EL, as I was scrolling and scrolling, I would read a little and it turns out that on 4/4/2008, you and Gailor listened to Jeff Buckley's cover of "Hallelujah" on your cross-country trip.

This performance of that song is my favorite.

Fellow Foodies…. Do not believe a word that Rob, the owner of Birch’s, says. Myself and two other friends experienced horrific service at his expense last night (March 14, 2009). It was so upsetting that I couldn’t sleep. It must have been the same for one of my dining companions who found this article and sent it to me in the middle of the night. I have never been so insulted by a human being, let alone a business to where I had just spent $200 for a meal. Not knowing the policy, and having split checks between multiple credits at many other restaurants, we innocently provided three separate credit cards. First, the server became very rude and barked, “if you’re going to pay this way we automatically include 20% gratuity”. We replied that that was fine. Next, she returns to let us know that she can now only accept one credit and that the policy is written on the menu. We were not only shocked at her tone and attitude; we were at a loss for why this was a policy. … especially in today’s day and age when most people use credit cards. That’s when a man with a dog (yes, in the restaurant!) called us a name… which if I included in this e-mail I’m sure would not be allowed to be published. I was shocked! He then began to rant about how he “weeds out customers like us” and began making these equations that were flat out lies, such as my friend was rude when he asked for water. As God is my witness, this did not happen. I have never in my life posted a negative comment on a blog, sent a letter of disappoint about service, etc. However, this experience was horrible, completely out of line, and appears to be a regular occurrence at Birch’s. The community needs to be informed. There are plenty of great restaurants in Baltimore that would gladly accept your business… especially in our current financial times. After reading the initial customer complaint, and now having a similar experience myself, it appears that this is a common occurrence at Birch’s.

Geeze, and I was thisclose to adding Birches to my list of places to eat when I come to Baltimore.

Here we go again ... Now wouldn't it be interesting if Springs1 ate at Birches?

I have never been so insulted by a human being, let alone a business

That reminds me of when the GEICO gecko flipped me off – with both hands. Interesting point: when he did that the middle and index finger make a "b" and "d" which reminded me of where my bread knife and dinner plate go.

Who was the man with the dog? What was his role at the restaurant?

I ate at Birches once and the food was not good at all. I was with people who ALWAYS paid with multiple credit cards which drove me crazy, especially since it was a married couple who each had a credit card to split the check every time. I don't remember it being an issue, just the boring food.

Tell us more about the man with the dog.

I think it's vulgar to add a 20% tip as a penalty for splitting a check. You either accept credit cards or you don't. It seems perfectly reasonable to split a $200 check three ways. If your business isn't set up to handle that easily then you are running a silly business.

More about the man with the dog please.

Dahlink, you are evil! I like the way you think.

The evil part of me really really really wants to go Birches by myself and split my check on three different credit cards and a traveller's check. On second thought, never mind.

Maybe Springs1 runs Birches. I won't go there, that's for sure.

Bucky, Keeper of the Centennial List! Here's another for you.

Fellow Foodies? Oy!

Fellow Foodies, lend me your ear and I will tell a tale of great despair.

Thanks for your support everyone. The man with the dog was the owner. I have a dog and I love all dogs...but come on...a chef and owner should know better than to bring their dog in a restaurant while customers are eating. Bigger concern...where was the dog while he was cooking everyones food? Scary to think about.

Oh Kelly, thank you for the dog-man info. I was wondering who would allow such a jerk to be in the restaurant at all, but now it makes sense. Would I be wrong if I guessed the chef with doggie hands was drinking at the bar? Sounds about right. Since they are still open, I guess he hasn't been completely successful at weeding out customers, but maybe if he tries harder....

I'm sensing an endemic attitude problem at Birches. It's unfair to judge a place based on second hand info but ....

...where was the dog while he was cooking everyones food?

My dog (and my cats) are usually in the kitchen when I'm cooking. I've never had a guest complain about this.

Now, if the dog had been on the table or on the bar, that might be note-worthy.

I'm with Lissa. I'd just want to make sure that the dog that was there before I ordered was still there after I was served. Beyond that, I wouldn't, myself, get all that worked up.

Good one Bucky. I wouldn't want see a dog named Fajita there though.

I must concur with Birches on everything except sending it to The Sun, I would have sent it to other restaurants in town to "black list" the Jane Doe. Most don't understand the murky workings of the business. A party of 27 isn't an every nite thing. So he probably ordered extra produce, meats, and booze to feed and quench these "thugs." I didn't start it but I'll run with thungs. Not to mention extra staff. Meaning he brought in people that maybe had the day off thinking "well atleast it's a large party, it should be worth it." Other than him sending this to the Sun, he's flawless on this interaction. She should have done more research. When they took the reservation is it the restuarant's resposibility to ask "are you a dumb a$$ or do you know what you're getting yourself into?" If he did that, everyone would be insulted and complain about that

quelle surprise

Can't wait for this awful place and owners to fail. I will celebrate with the new ownership when it happens. Had my worse dining experience in Baltimore there and it was entirely because of the owners. Owners need serious therapy!!!

Axe meet Grind.

Duh is on the right track...but there are few places engendering this level of enmity. Something's going on there. I do know from a spring visit the menu seems intended to be off-putting to the casual observer wanting a quick, healthy bite and not a three-hour commitment, causing a relocation to Samos, where the only negative reports are the lines. It's the opposite--they want you to be there, like them and not be weeded out as customers.

They were both wrong.

A hour late!!! They are lucky they were seated.

But I just read his menu online and just the way he explains his policies in writing is rude. Not a place I would want to eat. And by the way, there are computer systems out now that will easily split the checks and run the credit cards quickly.

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About this blog
Richard Gorelick was appointed The Baltimore Sun's restaurant critic in September 2010. Before joining the paper staff fulltime, he contributed freelance criticism and features articles about food to area and regional publications. Along the way, he dispatched for short-distance trucking companies, shilled for cultural non-profits, and assisted in cognitive neurology research – never the subject, always the control.

He takes restaurants seriously but not himself, and his favorite restaurant is the one you love, too.

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