Work Week: My job as a restaurant server

work week restaurant server

It's Work Week on AOA. We'll be talking with people about their jobs and working. Part of that includes anonymous conversations with people about what it's like to do their jobs.

Next up: The Restaurant Server.

While she currently divides her time between restaurants and a teaching job, the Restaurant Server has been in the restaurant business for 30 years, most of that time here in the Capital Region.

What are some of the things people don't get about the job? What do you wish more diners understood when they came to a restaurant?

I don't think they understand the value of the real estate that they are sitting at -- that when you are in a small restaurant you really can't come in at six o'clock and expect to sit there until nine or 9:30 at a table for two and drink water for the last hour. We need to have guests in there that are consuming, otherwise you don't stay in business.

I had a party over the summer -- they said they would be seven and they were adamant that they wanted to sit on the patio and they ended up being nine and we had to pull another table over. And then they said they wanted separate checks and started waving credit cards. It's a time suck. I mean if someone is giving you six different credit cards, it's impossible to do that and still maintain proper service to your other parties.

I don't know, when I go out to dinner with my friends, I bring cash or I have some idea of how it's going to go. I would never... I couldn't imagine doing that to a server. And the bottom line is when you divide the check up, nine times out of ten the differential between the low point and the high point is like $5. These people are your friends and you can't even float them $5 to divide it evenly and pay? I don't understand that.

Also, just how the kitchen works, you know. Any kitchen I've ever been in it's all being cooked to order. We are not spooning stuff out of some preheated area. We're not microwaving things. They're cooking for you and sometimes it takes a little bit of time. If you have a time constraint and you tell me about that when you sit down I'll work with you and persuade you not to order something that takes a long time to cook. I think I can intuit a lot from people, but I can't read your mind, so if you tell me 20 minutes into your wait that you have somewhere to be in five minutes and you haven't mentioned that previously and you ordered your steak well done, there's not a lot I can do with that.

And I don't think they understand that all servers really want them to enjoy things. That's my motivation: I want you to have a good time. I want you to tell your friends. I want you to come back.

And I don't think they understand that all servers really want them to enjoy things. That's my motivation: I want you to have a good time. I want you to tell your friends. I want you to come back. I really try to treat people like I like to be treated. It's warm. It's hospitality. And I don't think that people realize that if I make a mistake, it bothers me. I will think about it all night long if I ordered the wrong thing for somebody or if I made an error. I think about it. I don't obsess about it, but I definitely reflect on my night.

What are some of the toughest things about being a server?

No benefits. I hate the fact that people in this industry work as hard as they do and if they fall down and break a leg there's no net for them.

The hours are really hard for having a family. It's tag team parenting for couples and that is really challenging. The holidays. You have to make your own holidays in a way other people don't.

You've been in the business a long time, though -- and you seem to enjoy it. What do you like about it?

I like the buzz. I like the adrenaline. That's a big part of it. I like making people happy -- I'm a pleaser -- so I enjoy that part of it. I love the satisfaction at the end of the night that everybody walked out of the door happy. That's the goal.

At the end of the night, and I don't necessarily mean monetarily, you know what your night was like. You don't have to wait six months until you are testing kids to see what they learned that day. You know if it was a good night or a bad night. Then you have a glass of wine. Or two. On a bad night I'd be more inclined to have two. On a good night we congratulate each other. It's one of the only businesses that, at the end of the night, people hug each other good night when they leave. I mean, I don't think they do that at most offices. There's a real sense of family helping each other out.

And I like food, and I get a good meal every time I go to work (laughs). The chef will make me anything I want to eat.

I've told my own children, "If you don't want to go to college right after high school, I have no issue -- go get a restaurant job. Go to Martha's Vineyard for the summer. Go to Colorado and ski in the winter." It's something you can take with you just as well as a plumber. I think it's not as tangible but it can be as valuable.

I also like being... almost... an example to the younger people that I work with that it is a real job that it's not just a joke of a job. I've told my own children, "If you don't want to go to college right after high school, I have no issue -- go get a restaurant job. Go to Martha's Vineyard for the summer. Go to Colorado and ski in the winter." It's something you can take with you just as well as a plumber. I think it's not as tangible but it can be as valuable.

And people are really nice to me. I have a family that I started taking care of at [former restaurant] and they followed to [current restaurant], they come in when they know I'm there and we always have a good time together. We share pictures. People become by extension part of your family in some way. I've been waiting on some people since college and they've seen me grow up and graduate and get married and have kids and get divorced. And you know, it doesn't matter where we are -- we still have that connection.

What do you do on those nights when you just don't feel like you have it in you and you have to be nice to people.

Showtime. [A former employer] used to say, "It doesn't matter what happened before you walked in the door, now you're here, you punched in." People don't want to know about your problems -- people want to have a nice time and you're here to give it to them. So it is performance. On some nights sometimes it's more effort than others.

When you go out to eat, do you expect more? Are you a harsher critic or more understanding?

A little of both. If they are trying and they are sincere I am completely sympathetic and empathetic to that, but if somebody is going to give me an attitude I don't want anything to do with that and I'll shut that right down.

I had two experiences recently. I was driving back from Syracuse and I stopped at this little place in Utica that I'd seen reviewed that looked like a good little breakfast spot. I sat at the counter and I ordered -- and it was a pretty simple order -- and people sat down next to me and ordered and they got their food and another guy came in and he got his food and I still had no food. I waited about 20 minutes and I finally called somebody over and asked if someone could check on my order. And it was really busy -- I could see that they were slammed, and somebody had dropped my order and it just didn't get ordered. Someone made a mistake and they comped me my meal and I left her a good tip -- about the price of the meal, essentially. But I'm not going to hold a grudge against her because somebody had made a mistake.

If [a server in another restaurant is] trying and they are sincere I am completely sympathetic and empathetic to that, but if somebody is going to give me an attitude, I don't want anything to do with that and I'll shut that right down.

And then I was in New York with my girlfriends a few weeks ago and we went to this little place and we just wanted margaritas and, like, nachos. And we had just the worst service I'd ever had in my life. It was unbelievably bad and the server wasn't friendly, he was not efficient. He was just... a loser. He was a terrible, terrible server and when he came back to the table with the check that we had requested -- this is after we had been to the bar and gotten our own drinks and everything -- he came out and he said, "How's everything?" and the three of us just looked at each other and just laughed. I mean we weren't angry at him, we were just aghast that he could be in that profession and just be completely clueless bout how to provide service.

Locally, I would say when I go someplace, I don't expect to be treated as if I'm Julia Child or something but restaurant people take care of each other and I would think it was strange if I came into a restaurant where I know people and I wasn't either given a good table or some kind of apéritif or something ... that 's what you do, you take care of each other.

It's a very physical job. It seems like it would be really exhausting.

One night I wore a pedometer to work and we only had two people on. In that one night I did seven miles -- in a small restaurant. It's not like tray service in the old days but it's definitely a very physical job. There's lifting stuff and carrying garbage.

One night I wore a pedometer to work and we only had two people on. In that one night I did seven miles -- in a small restaurant. It's not like tray service in the old days but it's definitely a very physical job.

And you have to remember things. You'll tell a new person how do do something twice, but after that you don't want to tell them anymore. It's prioritizing and knowing which table you have to approach first -- making sure everyone has everything they need, the silverware they need. It's attention to detail.

And then there are the restaurant nightmares.

Restaurant nightmares?

I would say that most full time restaurant servers have restaurant nightmares. I've had them ... I don't have them with frequency, but I have them. They're horrible. The ones I have, you come in for your shift and it's not prepped for some reason, so you go in the back to get whatever it is they need -- water glasses, napkins, whatever -- and you come out and you have a table. So you go back and greet them and you get what they want and you come back and you have three more tables and none of them have menus. And it just cascades into this horrifying thing where you're just running back and forth grabbing things and the population just keeps getting bigger -- and you're always alone.

What is life like in the kitchen?

It's colorful. It's a bawdy place for the most part ... there's a lot of colorful language ... most of it playful. I've never really worked in a hostile kitchen. It's an adult area, though. It's not a place for kids.

And then you've got to transition to a whole different atmosphere in the dining room.

The language is different, but it's not as hard as you might think. I've been a teacher and it's the same thing -- you know you've always got this professional thing going on in front, but in the back of your head you're thinking, "You know, kid... you're an asshole." (laughs)

[A former employer] also taught me that when the dishwasher leaves, you look at him and you say thank you. And I do that every time the dishwasher leaves. It's not my place, I don't own the restaurant, but I feel like, you know, you have to acknowledge people's efforts and that they helped get it done. It's very much a collaborative effort.

You treat people well, though. One of my employers taught me that on a cold day you offer your delivery people something hot and on a hot day you offer them something cold and [then] on a Friday night at 9 o'clock when you run out of linens, your linen guy is coming out to bring you some. And I've always subscribed to that. He also taught me that when the dishwasher leaves, you look at him and you say thank you. And I do that every time the dishwasher leaves. It's not my place, I don't own the restaurant, but I feel like, you know, you have to acknowledge people's efforts and that they helped get it done. It's very much a collaborative effort.

Have the restaurant business or diners changed in the last 30 years?

I think people are a lot more sophisticated than they used to be. There's a lot more exposure to different types of cuisine and different ingredients. I can't say they are more demanding than they used to be -- you always had your difficult people and your pleasant people. I know years ago lunch used to be a real shift in a restaurant, and I don't think it is anymore. I mean, people are not having cocktails at lunch the way they used to. That's done.

There is also that whole local component. We've served mushrooms that were foraged in Rensselaer County by my friend's husband, and cheese from Cohoes. People like to know where their stuff is coming from. Not in a crazy Portlandia sort of way, but I think there is more of an awareness of what they are eating than there used to be.

Has the Capital Region's taste changed in that time?

When I first came here there was Chinese and Italian, and there was Yono's. And when the Thai place opened on Lark Street it was like earth shattering. So, I think so. It seems to me that when Ric Orlando was at Justin's he had to leave the area to do what he wanted to do and then could come back here.

You must see and hear a lot that goes on at tables. Do servers talk about that stuff?

Yes, absolutely. The people with 101 issues, you know, they are very restricted about what they want and all of a sudden dessert comes and ice cream is no longer a dairy issue (laughs). Valentine's Day -- tables of three on Valentines Day -- we're all "what is that?"

Do you overhear too much?

Yeah, at times you definitely do. You can tell when, for example, it's a blind date. You also have to be aware of placing people in a restaurant -- political types we have coming in for example. You don't want this person who is at odds with that person to be near each other.

Do servers judge you for what you do or don't order?

There are things I serve that people seem to love... that I'm not going to eat. I'm just not getting down with bone marrow. It's not for me. I usually encourage people to try something they wouldn't cook at home . And that could be something like duck because I almost set my house on fire trying to cook duck. You have to render the fat and if you don't it's a disaster.

What has working in the restaurant business taught you that has helped you in other parts of your life?

My first serving position was at the New York State Thruway at a rest area, and I remember training -- following these women who were my friends' mothers. That was their career, working there. And when it was my first time to take a table by myself I froze. I couldn't imagine, "Wait, you want me to go over there and talk to them? I don't know them. I can't possibly do that." And I can talk to anybody now. Nothing phases me in terms of making a connection with somebody.

I think it's a noble profession. I know some people look down on it, but if I could have health insurance and work 182 days a year and wait tables, I'd do it in a minute.

This interview has been lightly edited.

Comments

Great interview. Really spot on from the server side of things.

This is a great interview and a great column. Reminds me of the years I spent slogging in the restaurant trenches. We should all be so lucky to be served by someone who knows their job as well as the interviewee. My one issue: All servers must learn to embrace the notion of separate checks. It is a sure-fire tip-reducer for me whenever a server shows even the slightest irritation at the request. If you are a smart, competent server, you can probably read when a group may likely ask for separate checks. Why not ask a simple question: "Would you like this all on one bill, or broken up separately?"

Very Well Done... Bravo!

I agree with Aaron.

Sometimes you end up at a restaurant without planning to be there and don't have cash. Not that many people carry cash on them and when I do have cash at a restaurant I usually would like that going towards the servers tip rather than my meal.

As a former waiter, it shocks me that the author would allow herself to be put in a position where she would be surprised to receive 9 individual methods-of-payments. The key to being a good server is anticipation and attentiveness. You see them running low on drinks? You bring refills - you don't wait for them to empty and then wait to be flagged down. You see a large, relatively disorganized group settling into your section? Unless you're cool with individual payments, it's your responsibility to let them know upfront that you can only divide the check "x" number of ways, and perhaps leave them a pen when you drop it off so they can instruct you how to then divvy it up. However, that "time-suck" is also often made-up by the tip you'd get (usually automatically added to the bill). If you played your cards right, 1 large table (vs. a few smaller tables) requires LESS physical and mental work as it is, so the time-suck argument is a wash.

That's a great tip about kids traveling before college (or between semesters) by finding a serving job in a city they'd love to visit / spend time in.

Nailed it!!!!!

So happy to see this new feature on your site! It just keeps getting better and better. Keep up the great work!

Love the advice about taking care of the people you depend on, in the back of the house and elsewhere.

I have worked in the restaurant biz(sorry) since 1982, so this is old news. Both my boys that I raised as a single mother have worked in restaurants. My older son is now in New York and my baby boy ran away and is doing landscaping stuff. (he really didn't run away, he just wanted out of restaurants)
I just want to say that even though people put down servers, we work harder than anybody, and we can raise awesome kids.

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