Sunday, January 13, 2008


Soon I will be closing a chapter in my life I call “Waiting.” The name refers to both the existential stage of my life it represents, as well as the job I held during this time—namely, as a waiter. Actually the proper term is server; I was instructed early on to expurgate the un-PC terms waiter and waitress from my vocabulary. It also took me several weeks to find my footing, both literally (slipping and falling on the slick floor outside the kitchen) and figuratively (for some reason I just could not remember to pass out straws with drinks). In the two months I served I saw and experienced a lot—about the restaurant industry, about myself, and about human nature. Here I attempt to synthesize it all into a concise report.

I had considered working in a restaurant during college, since it seemed to me a rite of passage for the young and transient, but figured I wouldn’t make much money serving college students. I struggled post-college to find a “real job,” and eventually settled on serving as a way to make money while continuing my job search.

I thought I knew what I was getting myself into, but I was utterly unprepared for the chaotic and stressful environment I found myself in 40-50 hours per week. I couldn’t take the heat, as the saying goes, and wanted to get the hell out of the kitchen. A shift, I once thought, would be four or five hours. It ended up being 8-10. A double shift on a college football Saturday means you’re spending 15 straight hours on your feet, with no more than a handful of two or three minute breaks.

At orientation incoming employees were briefed on the company guidelines and expectations. Much of it was the usual boilerplate: no drugs, cell phones, sexual harassment, etc. Despite these strict admonitions, I found that the rules were spurned by servers and managers alike. All but two of the serving staff were known pot smokers, including one who regularly showed up to work obviously inebriated. The cell phone policy was enforced sporadically; some servers were written up for having theirs out in public, whereas I was merely reprimanded when caught. But it was undoubtedly the warning against sexual harassment that was most frequently flouted. Some examples: The presence of an attractive female customer was noted and relayed as soon as she stepped through the door, and any (straight) male staff around did not hesitate to give her a thorough study, including (most conspicuously) the Mexican bussers. Servers were surprisingly lewd around each other, even within earshot of customers (a request from a male server for a female server to sit on his face, detailed comparisons of sexual experiences). G-rated the conversation was not.

Fairly quickly it became clear I was not cut out for the cutthroat restaurant milieu. As a dedicated environmentalist, I was horrified to see thousands of glass liquor bottles thrown away every weekend, as well as massive amounts of food left on plates or wasted in other ways. Not to mention the vast quantities of water wasted when customers left much of their 23 oz glass of water untouched. As someone who considers integrity one of his most valuable traits, I was dismayed to see bartenders use well vodka to mix cocktails, when the customer had specifically ordered top-shelf stuff, and give me two glasses of Miller Light when the customers had asked for Coors and Bud Light. Remaining a server would mean a constant battle with my morals and sense of propriety, and I wasn’t sure I was up to the challenge.

My first two weeks were a lesson in Murphy’s Law. This was a blessing in disguise, however, since facing so many stumbling blocks early in my serving career meant I would be less likely to ever face them again. Nonetheless, it was a little frustrating to seemingly bear the brunt of the bad luck for the entire serving staff. There was the day I got sat with four tables within minutes of each other—a total of 20+ people—when being “double-sat” is considered a challenge. A man at one of the tables appeared to delight in my predicament. When I asked if he needed anything, he stared sneeringly at me for several seconds, then asked if I was overwhelmed. When I answered in the affirmative, he merely smiled as if given pleasure by my misfortune. Later he became irate when I failed to deliver a drink I had never heard him order. I restrained myself (barely) from returning his rudeness, but in the end it didn’t matter; he left me $1.70 on a $43 tab. Then there was the party two days later that walked out, failing to pay for $40 of their tab or tip me on the entire $150 of their bill. To see how cruel and inconsiderate so many customers were was a truly shocking experience. There were, however, less frequent instances of shocking generosity by my customers. One man left me a $20 tip on a $6 tab, and two men left $45 on $130. It’s these bright spots that keep a server going, much as a sweet drive or putt bring a golfer back again and again, despite the 90 shots he makes in a round that don’t go right.

Customers do many things that are irritating at best and offensive at worst, things that indicate their disregard for the dignity of the hardworking people who serve them. It starts at the very beginning: “Good evening, guys, my name is David and I’ll be your server tonight.” Response: “Can I get a sweet tea?” And I always want to encourage my guests to “use their words” when they make use a check-signing motion to request the bill, even when I’m right next to them. Granted, many customers have manners and greet me right back. And there are a handful of parents who try to instill traditional values in their children by instructing them to say please and thank you and to look at me when they are speaking to me. But it’s shocking how many people leave their politeness at the door when they enter a restaurant.

There are also many customer quirks that are intriguing in their frequency. It is common for me to find straw wrappers ripped up or rolled up on the table after a party leaves, perhaps the detritus of boredom or nervousness. Some customers fold full sugar packets around their chewed gum to dispose of it, a practice I myself have even been guilty of, despite its wastefulness. Most people order a drink, but few are enticed by the availability of a special. And the most ordered menu item among the elderly? Hot dogs with coleslaw.

t’s been a wild and revelatory couple months, but I’m pretty burnt-out. And I’m not the only one. Due to the high turnover rate in the food service industry, I’ve already become one of the senior-most half of the staff (we’ve lost eight servers since I started). The job has its ups and downs, but I do not regret the experience at all. I’d encourage every young person to give it a shot; from the free food to the advantages of stress-heightened hormones, there are some nice fringe benefits to be had.

I’ve come to wish there were a restaurant draft that required everyone between the ages of 16 and 25 to work at least a month in a restaurant. It’s not as dangerous as a military draft, but it would teach teamwork, organization, and a variety of interpersonal skills that are essential for future success in any profession.

Since a restaurant draft is not likely to ever happen, I have one last word of advice for anyone who has never served: 20%. Always. (Unless the service is truly bad.)

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