Advice, Fun, People, Play, Waiting, Work

The Art of the Waitperson

SUMMARY: Some personal recollections of working as a waitperson, along with a wee bit of advice about how to do it.

(About a 9 minute read)

If I had to rank three very different experiences for how fun each of them was, I’d rank waiting tables the third most fun job I’ve ever had.

What made restaurant work so much fun for me were both my coworkers and my customers.  My coworkers were an eclectic group of mostly mild social misfits.  The sort of folks who are a bit oddball in one way or another, but not so much oddball they feel fiercely alienated from society.

For instance, a fellow waitperson, Sabrina — whose mother named her after a TV witch — was a young Evangelical Christian woman who was completely tolerant of people different from her.

That in itself is a bit rare in this town (although not as rare as it is sometimes thought to be), but Sabrina was also something of an intellectual (her ambition was to become a medical doctor) despite having been a drop-jaw gorgeous cheerleader when she attended her private Christian high school.  She was devout, but accepted the theory of evolution.  In short, she broke the stereotypes in many more ways than one.

One of Sabrina’s closer friends on the waitstaff was Tom.  Tom was also devout, but a Presbyterian and a homosexual.  He was much older than Sabrina, and worked only part time.  His regular job was teaching.

Neither Sabrina nor Tom shared my somewhat wacky sense of humor, but both seemed to accept it — and me.  Especially Sabrina, who once invited herself to go to an opera with me, and who asked me to regularly write to her when she quit work to attend university. That she could be so tolerant of someone who she knew didn’t share many of her own views struck me as a mark of her extraordinary character.

The most junior assistant manager was Rodney.  Rodney was almost the only black person on the staff.  In this case, that was most likely because of the neighborhood the restaurant was located in — pretty much white suburban folks — than because of any prejudice on the part of management.  Rodney himself certainly harbored no prejudices.  He was very fair-minded.

While he was still quite new to his job, Rodney made a horrendous mistake one day involving his mismanaging an employee.  Rodney knew I’d once worked in management, and about a week later, he took me aside to ask how he should have handled the affair.

In my experience, it takes guts on the part of a junior manager to ask for anyone’s advice other than that of his or her superiors. Among other things, I told him he shouldn’t beat himself up about it, that I’d made worse mistakes myself, and that sometime we’d get drunk together and I’d tell him about them, just so I could see him laugh his butt off.  Rodney’s mistake was bad, but it wasn’t the kind of mistake that would mark someone as not managerial material, and I let him know that.  Above all else, I appreciated his obvious willingness to learn.

Another fellow waitperson had once worked as an underage dominatrix.  She was married now with two children, but when she’d been 16, her upstairs neighbor had recruited her to help out with her business — which was S&M.

She got so she was missing school in order to stay up at nights, so the truant officer hauled her into court.  Unfortunate for her, she came up against one of the toughest judges in town — a man in his 70s who sentenced her to two years probation plus hundreds of hours community service.

A few months later, the same judge showed up late one night as a new client of hers.  She proudly told me she handled the situation “professionally” and did not attempt to exact revenge.  Nevertheless, he never came back.

There were about 30 of us on staff at the restaurant, and just about everyone had some kind of interesting story, or some quirks, to make them interesting.  Not to even mention, most of them were pretty decent people.

The quality of the crew was largely Ken’s doing.  He was the general manager, and he was exceptionally talented at his job.  Especially when it came to judging people’s character.  No one bats a thousand at that, but Ken did an above average job of selecting good people to work with him.

The restaurant was the busiest in its chain.  By the time I started working there, I already had some experience working at other restaurants, so I more or less knew that waiting tables is as much of a performance art as it is merely serving food.  At least if you want the tips, it is.

To be sure, you’ve got to serve the food.  It has to be on time, and it has to be hot.  But how you deal with the customers beyond merely taking their orders and getting the food to them can make quite a difference.

The restaurant kept a log book at the front desk that customers were encouraged to record their experiences in upon paying their bill (all bills were paid at the front desk, rather than at the tables).  I got favorably mentioned by name two or three times a shift, which was more than most of the waitstaff.  Yet, I wasn’t the best server.

There were other wait people who went through the mechanics of taking orders, getting the food out, and checking back to see if everything was well and good, better than me.  On the other hand, I made a performance of those things.

Most of what I did cannot be adequately described here since it involved such things as body language, tone of voice, and so forth, that are a bit beyond my skill as a writer to fully convey.

For instance, when I would approach a table with a young child or children of a certain age, I would sidle up to the child, gaze off into the distance, and in a fake whisper say, “There will be NO biting the waiter!”   I’d then repeat myself until the child got the joke and began cracking up.  Once the child started laughing, the whole table would start laughing.

That gag proved so popular that families would tell me their kids demanded to go to the “bite the waiter restaurant”.

Beyond humor, I tended to be a good listener — which is key to rapidly befriending people.  Whenever I had a moment, I would use almost any “in” I could see in order to get my customers talking about themselves.  That shamelessly included complimenting them on their dress, if it looked new, or other such things.

And of course, I went beyond performance to pay attention to detail.  For instance, whenever I had a table with very young children, I would deliver extra napkins early on with the explanation that they might be needed for spills.

Of course, restaurant work wasn’t much fun at the start.  My first restaurant was going out of business. About three or four tables a day, and I was barely able to cover my monthly rent on that volume of business.

My second restaurant was better, but still not sufficient to more than cover my bills.  It was only with my third — and last — restaurant job that I found myself easily able to not only cover my bills, but also have money left over for numerous road trips, and all while working less than 40 hours a week.

Today, I don’t know how many people could do that.  There’s been a lot of inflation since my last restaurant job, and friends of mine who wait tables today tell me things are much tougher now.  Back in the day, I could make rent — my major expense — in about 12 hours of work.  Today, assuming the same hourly earnings, it would take me nearly 30 hours to make my much greater current rent.

I think something to keep in mind when picking a restaurant to wait tables at is both the average meal price and the volume of business.  My last restaurant was a high volume, mid-scale restaurant.  Tips per table were middling at best — almost no hundred dollar tables, or anything like that.  But I averaged almost four times the minimum wage of $6 an hour plus some change.  That was mainly because the volume was high.

I’ve never worked as a waitperson in a high end restaurant, but I have been told by friends who have worked in such restaurants that it is extremely rare to get less than 20% of the meal price even on tickets well over $100 or $200.

Here’s the thing though.  If you want to work as a waitperson and also be the most frustrated, unhappiest waitperson in town, simply work for tips.

That might sound contradictory, but — except perhaps in high-end restaurants — you will almost never work a whole shift in which everyone tips you well.  Many people are so opposed to tipping in principle that they either don’t tip or tip a dollar at most.  If the primary reason you’re waiting tables is to earn tips, those folks are going to upset you.  Every shift, they’re going to upset you.

I have long been an advocate of working mostly for the fun of it.  Not only do I believe that some kind of work is necessary to keep one mentally and emotionally healthy, but I also believe that work should be fun.  In fact, I will take jobs that are no fun — no matter how much they pay — only out of necessity or near-necessity.  And I will do my best to make even those as fun as possible.

As for the funnest jobs I’ve ever had?  The first was fire fighting (minus the rescue calls), and the second was owning and operating my own business. But those two are so close together that some days I think having my own business was the most fun.  If I hadn’t changed as a person, I would still want to do that.

Questions?  Comments?

This post was inspired by some questions Bryan Fagan, who blogs here, asked me.

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