I was either the best or worst waitress (according to handwritten notes on my check receipts). My status depended entirely on circumstances because even the most skillful waiters could not pull off a triple seating on a Friday night when you're understaffed and you got assigned the one busser who just started. To make everyone in your section happy, you need to be able to multitask like a super mom, think like a 911 dispatcher, know the rules of service like Miss Manners, entertain like the Greatest Showman, and move like a mogul skier. And every table is a new table, with unknown variables that will make your head spin.
I must say I am grateful for what I have learned from my time in restaurants (20 years of on-and-off work: busing, hostessing, bartending, expediting, managing, and waiting tables in cafés, corny food chains, and fancy Zagat-rated restaurants).
So I would like to say, thank you San Luis Obispo County servers for making sure we have everything we need when we're fortunate enough to eat out. I wish I could start a support group for you, but in lieu of that, I'm going to get raw about how hard your job is.
Here's a quiz the pulls back the curtain on this side of food service. Maybe you can relate.
Waiters don't care
False. I've seen that look of disappointment on the faces of hungry people. It's hard to swallow. Your waiter is stalking the kitchen window like a vulture waiting for meat to drop on the line. They're afraid to face you until they have your food. If it were true that waiters really couldn't care less how your meal goes, then why is their greatest fear seeing you frown at your plate?
Waiters are overpaid for what they do
False. Some people think all a food server has to do is plop a plate down on the table. My friend's daughter recently left restaurants to become an ER nurse. And every time she enters another room with a patient undergoing a medical emergency, she has to catch herself before she says, "Hi, I'm Lauren, I'm going to be your server tonight." Seriously. The ER is comparable to a busy night in a restaurant.
People who think food servers are rich and don't deserve tips are the same people who have never waited tables. Waiters make minimum wage, plus tips. Insurance is rarely included. No 401K and no retirement. And you have to claim a portion of your tips on your taxes. So your paycheck is usually enough to cover one, maybe two grande Starbucks drinks. You make tips, but you have to give the largest percentage to your busser, the hosts, the expediter (who runs the food), and sometimes (if the owner is too cheap to pay them properly) the cooks. After tipping out, depending on the business and price point of the restaurant, you can gross anywhere from $12 to $300 in tips.
Waiters only wait because they failed other careers
False. Comedian Chris Rock said it best when he said some people have careers and some people have jobs. People who have careers better shut up when they're around people with jobs, he said (using a few more bad words). But here's the thing: Aside from a handful of people I know who bartend because they love socializing with people, MOST people who work as servers are brilliant, and some may even be their customer's future boss. They're smart enough to know that waiting tables means short shifts (four to six hours tops) and cash, and it will pay the bills while they finish their master's or doctorate, rehearse their star role, or raise their own children instead of paying a day care $15 an hour.
Celebrities are fun to wait on
False. Too much pressure! This is when your favorite manager becomes a micromanager! I once worked in a place that was such a scene, the hosts would hand us a piece of blue card stock with every table to let us know which celebrity we were waiting on. We had to bring them all the extra freebies that the chef would also be stressing over. I always felt like regulars should be treated like stars—you come in all the time, you're my celebrity.
There are good servers, and there are bad
False. They are slammed, or not slammed. Remember the ER comparison? There are as many moving parts in restaurant service as there are angels in heaven. And when your perfectly presented steaming hot food ends up on your plate on time, after the drinks are served chilled to perfection, water refilled, delusional and health-detrimental special requests granted, check presented right after the last sip of espresso and dessert, it's a beautiful miracle.
It's such an easy job
False. Those wines on the wine lists don't sell themselves. You have to study their properties and memorize their special qualities like you're a premed student. Sometimes you even get quizzed by the GM or the chef himself. You are the face of the food!
Your server will not be reading your Yelp review
True. As much as you want to make them pay, I never met a food server who was masochistic enough to read critiques on their place of work.
Waiting tables can be fun and funny
True. Ever seen the movie, Waiting with Ryan Reynolds? Well watching that is even better than having a server support group. It's raunchy, hilarious, and 100 percent plausible. Folding napkins is the best time to get to know some remarkable human beings. You make good money. You work short shifts. And there are former food servers who appreciate your every move! Δ
New Times contributor Beth Giuffre dedicates this column to all the food servers, past and present, suffering from job-related-post-traumatic stress. Send a fiver to firstname.lastname@example.org.