Thoughts on being a server

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When I moved back home to live with my parents, I knew I needed to find a job with flexible hours that had the potential to make pretty piles of cash. Being a waitress seemed like the best option – I have previous experience working in restaurants in many different roles: busser, host, assistant waiter, line cook, prep cook, dishwasher… and yet I had never formally served before. I was confident I could do it but lots of things made me nervous.

For example… I don’t like people all that much. When people ask me what I do for a living and I tell them I’m a server, they usually have a few questions or things to say. A common one is, “I don’t think I could do that. I don’t like people that much.” I usually laugh and tell them I don’t like people at all, either. You would think it would be hard to have to deal with the public, but I don’t have a problem with it at all. This is for a few reasons. One – no matter how unpleasant a table can be, their meal is only going to last an hour and a half, maybe two hours, and then they go away and you get a fresh set of guests.

I consider myself to be, on the whole, pretty socially awkward. Once I get to know you, I am a lot more relaxed and my weird stuff seems charming. But I tend to make a pretty terrible first impression. I was nervous about essentially introducing myself to new people over and over. What I’ve learned are these things: you’re not actually introducing who you are, just giving your name. All that’s expected is for you to be polite, smile, and attentive.  And bring things when they are needed. So, I have absolutely no anxiety about all of this stranger exposure. At first I was terrified I’d screw it all up, and I did a few times!, but mostly I just got over it. Plus, these encounters with the guest are less than five minutes with breaks in between. When a table wants to start a long conversation, then I feel awkward. I usually say or do something ridiculously silly and then quickly make fun of myself for them to laugh and make a quick exit to go cry in a corner. Okay, just kidding about the last part.

Another thing people are curious about is how much a server REALLY makes. I have to say that my experience is definitely limited, but so far what I’ve seen is that there is a lot of potential to make great money… but the catch is you have to actually do the work. Being a waitress isn’t like your standard cubicle experience. The money you make is directly affected by a few factors: how many shifts you work, when those shifts are, the size of the tables (how many guests per table), how busy the restaurant is, what time of year it is, the temperament of the guests, and whether or not you are willing to bust your ass.

That sounds like a scary situation, considering I could just get a regular job where my pay is consistent, but there are tons of things I get out of working as a server that a cubicle job doesn’t provide (in my past experience in a cubicle): I get to pick my own hours so my schedule can fit my needs, I get to interact with a constantly changing group of people, I have a better relationship with management, I work with a great team of people that understand exactly what is going on, and I get instant gratification for my performance. Some days I make great money, other days I don’t make so much. At first I was calculating the tip I received based on percentage, but I quickly learned that is a bad idea. I just keep my receipts and get the total at the end of the day. Seeing over and over again someone else’s idea of compensation for my work can be really depressing. It’s obvious when someone tips well, and I take a moment to experience the joy, but I don’t really pay attention to the actual percent if I think it might be crappy.  I also don’t put a lot of stock into how much I make per shift. I just wait until the end of the week and put it all in the bank. That does make me feel good.

Things are tough these days, guys. A lot of people can’t afford to go out to eat. When they do, they want it to be worth every penny they don’t really have to spend. My philosophy is that great service often times is more important than the quality of the meal. So I try really hard to anticipate my guest’s needs and deliver the best customer experience possible. Furthermore, I don’t do this to make a buck, because that is so transparent. I do it because I really care about the people having a great meal.

One thing I will never understand, however, is the people that come in to eat and look pissed off about it. I have to tell you that I have angry irritated guests more often than guests that stiff me on the tip. It never ceases to amaze me how irate people are when they go out to eat. Maybe that’s because I hardly ever have the money to do that, so when I do it’s like freaking Christmas morning. I’m just excited to have something delicious to eat without doing any of the work – for any of it! But so often I have tables of people that just look angry at the world. It makes me sad, because the experience is supposed to be a break from life for an hour or so, but maybe they don’t see it that way.

The other thing about being a server that I love is the environment of the restaurant. In the front of the house (dining room) you have soft music, quiet conversation, and polite unobtrusive servers at tables. In the back of the  house (kitchen), it’s an entirely different world. When it’s slow it’s relaxing and people have conversations and do busy work and just chill out. All of a sudden it’s busy and it’s like a tornado of uniforms bustling about. Trays of hot food being slung about, trays of drinks flying around, yelling over the noise, tensions running high, and lots and lots of attitude. Not attitude in a bad way necessarily, but when people are busy the manners kind of fly out the window and everyone is very direct.

It’s almost a crash course in social development. A constantly changing troupe of individuals trying to build relationships with one another under all that pressure. In my opinion, everyone should spend a few months doing this. And everyone that does it should, at some point, do everything else as well. Having the knowledge that I have about other positions makes me appreciate those around me more.

Like the dishwasher, for example. That is a filthy job. I mean really filthy. And once you do it you can be sensitive to the needs of your dishwasher so as not to disrespect them. Stack things properly and don’t throw things around too much because just on the other side of that station is someone getting covered in god knows what because you weren’t paying attention.

I feel the same way about bussing tables. I’ve done that, and it’s hard work. It’s just constant lifting and carrying and moving at a really fast pace and dealing with attitude from the servers that it isn’t fast enough, etc. I always try to bus my own tables if I can because I just like helping out, but I always tip the same no matter what.

Another person to be courteous to is the bartender. Since we can’t make our own drinks, we completely rely on our bartender to take care of us on behalf of the tables. I always try to be patient and not hover and tip even if I don’t have any bar drinks in a shift. They work hard no matter if I need them or not, and at some point I will need them.

The most respect I have, however, is for the awesome men and women on the line. I think as a general rule the servers think the line should have their shit together enough to make sure the food comes out in a timely manner, and the cooks think the servers should realize that while they are taking care of three tables, the cooks take care of the ENTIRE restaurant. When I find myself in the weeds or really busy, I just remember that no matter how busy I feel with three tables and maybe 12 guests, the line is taking care of every table in the restaurant which amounts to a hundred people or more. Furthermore, the servers purposefully time when the meals go in, and sometimes the line can get hit with ten orders all at once. While they are in the middle of working on that, more come in. I know from experience that the beginning of a night for a cook can be slow, but once things get going they don’t really stop until the very end. Servers either have a steady pace or get hit all at once and then have periods of breaks or down time. Cooks don’t really experience that once it gets that busy. On top of that, a team of four of five people are trying to handle the needs of fifteen or twenty people asking questions and needing things from them, on top of the guests. Very rarely do I see a cook ask a server for anything, but we are always asking them for things. I definitely have mad respect for the line.

It’s one giant machine engineered to work so long as all of the pieces function properly. It sounds super cheesy but we really are one team and no part of that team is less than another. And, there is a fluidity there that is comforting. If I get tables sat at weird intervals (cause that just happens, it’s no one’s fault really) and my pace is off, I just have to wait an hour or so for it to reset and everything starts over. On a really weird night when the pace of the entire restaurant is off, everyone might leave pissed and tired, but the next day is a completely fresh start.

All in all, I try really hard not to piss anyone off, and I never get angry at my team. Mostly I just get frustrated with myself when I am having an off day, especially if it affects those around me. And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been a complete bitch just because I am stressed or tired or it’s just because I am not thinking. It doesn’t happen often, I hope, and it doesn’t happen that consistently with anyone that I work with. We are all bitchy or mean at one point or another, we just can’t help it, and sometimes we have to be. We’re also sometimes so incredibly over the top sweet to one another… when we really need help with something. It’s sometimes kind of fake and self-serving, but we are all supposed to lean on one another anyway and throw the crap out the window. But we all laugh and have a good time and no one is permanently affected (I don’t think).

It’s a great job and even though there is more stability working in a cubicle, it’s way more fun to do what I do and way more fulfilling. I can’t tell you how many times in my cubicle life I felt underpaid, under recognized, or poorly treated and let slip through the cracks and it was definitely not worth the steady paycheck. Those things do not happen in this environment as long as you are loud and assertive and also kind and understanding and polite. It’s definitely a balance and worth the weird hours and sore feet and being tired and never knowing for sure how much you’ll make.

As a person going out to eat, I would encourage you to definitely think about all of the things that go on behind the scenes to ensure your experience is a good one. Also, I can’t tell you how many times I have been stiffed for something that wasn’t my fault. The best thing to do, if you are unhappy for any reason at all, is to ask to speak with a manager. If you still want to stiff me because it makes you feel better, go for it. But problems don’t get solved by not paying a server. They go to the other servers, bitch about what happened, and if they can’t figure out if it was their fault – they chalk it up to you being cheap. We know you have better manners than to outright say you’re unhappy. I’ve been in that position… and it feels weird to complain to your waitress. But I am always happy when someone asks to talk to a manager because that means the problem is going to be solved and you leave happy rather than leaving and telling your friends about your terrible experience with our restaurant.

The whole point is to go out and have a fabulous meal with fabulous service and leave wholly satisfied! Happy eating =)

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One thought on “Thoughts on being a server

  1. I actually worked in a retirement home dining room when I was 17. Much smaller volume, but I can comiserate on agitated guests. What we lacked in volume, the old people made up for in sass.

    I’m glad you’re enjoying the work. It makes me happy to know that you’re doing well up there!

    =)

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