GARDEN CITY, NY—With its colorful striped awning, kids' jungle gym in the parking lot, and all-American fare, Ernie's Family Restaurant resembles many other down-home restaurants that promise to treat its customers like family. But what sets this nationwide chain apart is that it actually delivers on its pledge.
"We believe in treating our customers like part of the family," manager Dean Friesz said during Friday's grand opening of a new Ernie's location on Jericho Turnpike in Garden City. "That's why Ernie's offers, free with every Old-Fashioned Super-Duper Ernie's Entree, accusations, belittlement, and other barely disguised expressions of bitterness, despair and sour regret that typify American family interaction."
During the Ernie's grand opening, families waited upwards of 45 minutes to be seated. Among them were Deborah and George Sutton of Manhasset, NY, who, along with their two children, Jessica and Todd, were angrily berated by restaurant hostess Julie Templeton while waiting for a table.
"Look at you, George, you're so obsessed with work, you don't even know what's going on in your own kids' lives. It's no wonder they're repressed and emotionally stunted," Templeton said. "And Deborah, maybe if you carved out some sort of life of your own, you'd have a little self-esteem, and you wouldn't constantly turn to food as a means of coping with your deep anger and frustration."
When the Suttons were finally seated and George ordered a T-bone steak, waitress Karla Teicher eyed him disdainfully. "As if you really need it, from the looks of it," Teicher said. "If you want to worry about someone's stomach, worry about mine. You knocked me up higher than a kite, and you couldn't care less, you selfish bastard." Teicher then burst into tears and ran into the kitchen.
The commitment to family-style service extends beyond the waitstaff. During the grand opening, head chef Wayne Esteban periodically emerged from the kitchen to pace the aisles and make acerbic comments to random customers. "Are you going to go out and get a job, or are you going to keep stuffing your face with my food and sleeping under my roof without pitching in at all?" he asked customer Douglas Conrad, 22, of East Meadow.
Waiter Craig "Loser Dropout" Schneider served an elderly customer a BLT combo. "Why don't you finally admit you're a faggot?" Schneider shouted. "Mom died of a broken heart because of you. You and your stinking homo lies! I found those magazines and Cub Scout badges in your tool chest in the garage. Everyone knows, you perverted old shit, so why don't you just come out and admit it?"
Friesz said that, beginning March 1, Ernie's will feature special "theme nights" to lure the all-important dinner crowd. "Tuesdays will be All You Can Eat Salad Bar And You Never Do Anything Right Night; Thursdays will be Prime Rib And My God You've Let Yourself Go Since We Got Married Night; and Saturdays will be Popcorn Shrimp And I Know You're Fucking That Slut Lorraine From The Health Club Night," he said.
Friesz also noted that, while accusations and belittlement are not available to those who order only appetizers or dessert, the waitstaff does give such customers an icy, contemptuous glare that is only a thin mask for the seething cauldron of hatred and resentment that lies just beneath the surface.
"We're so sincere about our pledge to treat you like family," Friesz said, "that if we fail to do so in any way, you'll automatically receive a gift certificate redeemable for a free meal and a cutting remark about your sarcastic, negative attitude about everything."
But dissatisfaction doesn't seem likely judging from customer response on opening day.
"I'll be taking the kids here from now on," Deborah Sutton said. "Places like Chili's and Applebee's try hard, but that just makes them seem all the more phony. You scarcely get that feeling of real deep-seated resentment there. But here at Ernie's, you get the genuine, dysfunctional article."