I remember my initiation into the world of service jobs quite clearly. It was the summer of 1998 and I entered using the wrong door- you know, the front one. My boss quickly informed me that employees are to enter in the back and oh, by the way, you’re also to use the completely disgusting, gets cleaned once a year, bathroom in the back of the kitchen instead of the one for the restaurant patrons. I was starting my position as a busser at the Charlevoix Country Club and my first course in what it means to be in a different social classes than those you serve.
Now, over ten years later, the restaurant industry is like an old friend…well, not a friend I guess, so much as that old blanket you keep in your trunk. You would never use it for comfort or special occasions, but sometimes you need it. It’s old and rough and a little smelly because you actually used it to towel dry your dog once, but it’s in the back of your car, its presence in the back of your mind.
That’s what waitressing has been to me- not comfortable, not soft, not easy- but something that I know is there to come back to when I need it.
And right now I need it- and the income it brings.
It’s not all bad, really. Just as that old blanket may hold fun memories of picnics in the sand or days reading on the lawn in the middle of campus, waitressing has been fun at times. There were the multi-thousand dollar weddings on hot summer nights, catering in million dollar lake homes, and of course all of the creative competitions and dancing that happen with coworkers in the kitchen or the late night swimming off the pier after work.
But there are the obnoxious aspects too.
Like Mr. Whiney-pants expecting to get special treatment because he’s a frequent diner. Uh, sorry Sr. but everyone else in this restaurant is paying to eat too, and no, I won’t kick someone out of their window table so you can have it. Please wait like every other person.
or Mrs. Helpless. Um no, I refuse to shell all 25 of your shrimp for you. I don’t care if the other server did it for you last time- s/he probably had two tables, I currently have eight.
or Mr. Flirtatious. I’m not giving you my number, I’m really not concerned that you’re gonna tip me less, because you probably weren’t planning on tipping me well in the first place (it has always amazed me how many men waste their efforts flirting and then give a lousy tip. Do you really think we’d go for someone who only tips 10%?)
Yes, I am “the help.” They are the guests. But I have standards.
And now, coming back to serving after about a three years hiatus (a hiatus I had hoped I was retirement), those people have shockingly not changed. Neither have some of my habits. They are as familiar as that old blanket.
Like the way I circle the women’s chairs in my notes so I’ll know who to serve first. Or how I also circle apps and salads so I know what has to come out early. The way I make sure to have a wine key, matches, pens, and $100 cash in my apron every day. The way I make sure to serve food from the left and clear it from the right. The way I make sure that I clear everything but water glasses and spoons, and how I wait until everyone is finished before I even start clearing. The way I keep a cloth napkin hanging from the back of my apron so I have it if I need to serve a hot plate or wipe my hands off after clearing. The way I try to be generous when I tip out bussers and bar tenders, because I want my tables to be generous to me.
I have to say that working in the restaurant business has slightly ruined my own dining experiences when I go out. I can’t stand it when my entree comes out before I’m done with my appetizer (I would never do that to my tables!) and I have to refrain from going ballistic every time they put the bill down before I’m done eating (uh, I realize you want to turn your table, but I’m probably not going to pay and leave after taking only two bites of this heavenly potato encrusted walleye with duchess potatoes) But being a server myself means that I can’t tip less than 20% even if they do these things- and if they don’t I’ll tip more.
Ah, but what am I getting at? I don’t know, I guess it’s just interesting what we come to know in life. Who would have thought serving would become such a staple in mine? I hate stuck up people, and I hate being called ‘honey’ or ‘baby’, and I hate serving scrumptious food all night without being able to eat anything more than a lousy dinner roll.
But I do love a lot of the things I’ve learned from serving.
- Serving taught me that a lot of rich people are snotty, but a lot of middle class people are snotty too.
- It taught me that a lot of middle class people are kind and generous, but a lot of rich people are kind and generous too.
- It taught me that hard work and kindness are worth it even if they’re not always recognized or rewarded.
- It taught me what it feels like to be a servant.
- It taught me how to work hard.
- It taught me how to save and manage money.
- It taught me how to treat others who work in service when I’m out dining our shopping.
- It taught me humility.