I have been a restaurant rat for a long time now. My first real ‘job’ was at a quasi-fast food place in a strip mall, in Tanasbourne in Beaverton, OR. Since then I have held every possible position from dishwasher/prep cook to General Manager and everything in between. Restaurants have always been my gig except for an ill-fated six-month stint as a ‘bookseller’ at which I was an awful and restless employee arranging shelves and un-boxing/sorting books in receiving. The pace of my personality is that of a sprinter and as a result I have always been at home in the fast-paced and frustratingly complicated world of hospitality. In this world there are multi-layered relationships, alliances, and a hierarchy in which one wrong move can almost ostracize you from the collective.
Hospitality services from the inside is a study in to the human condition and can be fascinating as to the twisted duality of people forced to work in such a high-tension and self-contained society. All levels of the caste system are represented from the untouchables in the ‘ dish pit’ to the almighty and oft absent ruler known as the ‘owner’. The system breaks down as such with but a few exceptions that prove the rule, rare is the bird that can fly beyond their station in this system. From lowest to highest:
Ascension in the caste system is difficult and pock marked with the destruction of many amongst former colleagues kept at distance via smoldering bridges. Stories are abound over a few beers among your cohorts of the biosphere that is each individual restaurant. Spend enough time with any one caste in a restaurant and you will hear the gripes and the tales of those fallen from their ranks which usually results in the fallen becoming a persona non grata among the remaining staff. Within the system set forth dishwashers and bussers are the workhorses that go unthanked and mostly unseen by the patrons in a restaurant. These people sweat and work for peanuts in comparison to the rest mentioned which often leaves them hoping to jump up a rung in the ladder. Sadly though, these workers do not often possess the abilities to succeed further up the ladder. Within the kitchen staff you have hard workers and a tight-knit group who mostly resent servers. Servers are probably the most pompous and self-entitled of the rungs in the ladder. The waitstaff has an air of superiority and most often a chip on their shoulder which leads to clashes with the kitchen staff on nearly every busy evening. The bartenders are the next on the ladder. Bartenders on average earn more than servers and generally receive a tip-out at the end of a shift from the servers that evening. They are the liquor wizards that turn out cocktails and drinks which bolster server sales numbers and therefore garner a respect among servers and often a position that servers aspire to. Finally of course in the managing staff of GM’s, server managers, kitchen managers, MOD’s (manger on duty), and maybe Shift Leads. These are those that are on a higher rung than the rest of the staff. Though they may be amongst you; the server next to you, a bartender on the line, the cook at the window, etc.; they are of a high and generally more experienced ilk to whom you owe your section, schedule, and wholly your living. Lastly is the Owner, the man who’s name is on every check and who is God within the confines of the joint you are in. With ears everywhere and agents in the field always, little you do is not at least mentally noted by this specter of power that comes and goes on a whim.
As a dysfunctional family there are many circles of acceptance and much in-fighting as well as ridiculous gossip and resentment. These circles to travel in encompass day shift, night sift, and caste position. Most often these groups keep to themselves and there are few that can move without difficulty from one circle to another. Cooks stick together same as day shift and night shift keep to themselves. Day shift people don’t generally work nights, and vice versa, since the temperament of these two groups is very different. Night shifters are mostly younger, better servers, as ‘day servers’ are generally older and what I call ‘lifers’. ‘Night shifters’ are addicts that live on an odd schedule. These are people who ‘don’t do days’, they smoke, and they drink late, leaving morning to squares and normal people. ‘Night shifters’ are the equivalent of the vampires of the restaurant world. This staff has difficulty getting to the bank before it closes and does not bother itself with the operating hours of the rest of the world.
A restaurant workers ‘weekend’ is often times a two day furlow off somewhere between Monday and Thursday. When the rest of the world is relaxing, they are working. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday is the prime time for the server, the ‘money shifts’ where we prey on your stress and get every penny out of 9-5ers for the purpose of propping up our vices and utter needs. It is an odd relationship we servers have with the rest of you. While you work we sleep and while you relax we charm our way in to your wallets. Our job is to get you to buy everything you are willing, or even unwilling, to buy. We twist your arms for appetizers, high priced drinks, and steaks. Our job is to bleed every penny out of you and convert you in to a ‘regular’ so as to get you hooked on what we got to offer. Like vampiric pushers, everything we say and do is to the end of getting you to come back for more. Just shy of drug addiction, we want you to come to us for whatever your need is, from hunger and thirst to therapy and flirtation. I will admit that it can be a very salacious business picking the bones of your whim and wills that we can manage to pander to after you hit the door.
Your first encounter in the restaurant is the all important but oft overlooked hostess. Though often the least experienced individual in the restaurant industry, the cute and friendly hostess has maybe the most influence in the whole building. A hostess has to keep a wait list, seat tables, often times busses tables as they can, and control the ebb and flow of the waves of customers threatening to tip the precarious ship that is the S.S. Hospitality. With a dynamic and cool-headed hostess server sections will have proper rotation so as to keep servers cool and out of ‘the weeds’ as does a measured seating pace which can keep the kitchen from going to DefCon-4 emergency procedures; steps include cursing, yelling, and giving up on both plate presentation and sub-twenty minute ticket times. A bad hostess can also be the catalyst for a high tension, bad night.
The prettier the better in a hostess, I say. A cute smile and that high school voice is able to cool the hottest tempers most often and can disarm even the most caddy of customers. The double-edged sword of the hostess classified as a 7 or better is that the male staff can revert to ravenous wolves in pursuit of her adoration. Hostess/staff member affairs are not uncommon in many establishment, especially if she is of the magic age of 18 and up. Men become boys fawning over her and in the kitchens across America the conversation in the boys club can get vulgar on par with sailors at port on a two-day pass. Swirling winds of sexual tension are ever-present within the staff and a knock-out hostess of age only complicates things. This tension does extend to the patrons as well. If an attractive woman wanders in to this testosterone drenched pit then within minutes a floor server will make mention of the ‘blonde at table 17’ and every jock wearing member of the staff will make a pass or peer from the kitchen to lay eyes on her so as to join in the lewd bonding that is inevitable in such a place as this.
The best hostess is able to rule the door with a velvet clad iron fist. Most often times in their teens, these young women need to assert themselves as the be all end all decider of what you, the customer, ‘gets’ to do. A hostess commonly has to smile as people complain about the 45 minute wait, or that two groups of four have sat before the Johnson party of eight. A hostess is often told her job in not so many kind words and is glared at as people wait. Dismissed as just a pretty face by some, the cream of the crop are able to control the hungry, thirsty mass seething at the door in anticipation of being set free from their patronage purgatory. Under that pretty face can be a bubbling distaste for particular servers, kitchen staff, and their position on the totem pole. Know that if the hostess has been crossed by any staff member, especially floor servers, then the section will be ‘accidentally’ skipped, tables will sit uncleared just a bit longer, and somehow your section will be populated by the elderly and white trash with coupons before you even get a chance to wonder what you did.
We judge you from the moment you sit down. As rotations and sections are used per establishment, we see a table that it is ‘our turn’ to take and we judge you from head to toe in about 3 seconds. In this time I decide everything about you and I challenge you to defy my assumptions. Your age, ethnicity, clothing, personal hygiene, number in your party, presence of children, etc., are all tabulated in the time it takes for me to introduce myself. I smile coyly as I tell you my name, I categorize you as I tell you what the drink special is. I decide if I should even ‘try’ with you as I tell you the soup de jour. If you are a beautiful woman I decide how I can flatter you in to a big tip as I describe the dinner special as well as undress you with my eyes; you’re a 7 at best, but nearing 30 I will card you when you order your martini...20% at least and fuck the A-hole you’re with. You haven't even gotten your coat off and I have already decided the lowest common denominator for your group. White trash/well done steakers, heavy drinkers/bad tippers, elderly cheap skates who don’t know the value of a modern dollar, 10 percenters, family on a budget, young/bad tippers, couple splitting an entree, fun table/good tippers, annoying food allergy tables, “can I get the sauce on the side” tables, “extra tartar sauce” I won’t use tables, campers, “we’ve got a movie to catch at 6” tables, and the quintessential “it’s her birthday” tables, not to mention the holy grail of 8+ in our party/18% gratuity tables.
That’s me on the floor. 20+ individuals at 4-6 tables at any one time in a Friday night with every person with a drink that needs to be full, special orders, jokes I need to tell, and people I need to pander to one by one while every one of them thinks they are my only concern. As I try so hard to keep up with what I can only assume is an iced tea addiction for the guy at table 74 I have other concerns outside serving. While I go table to table I need to keep up the stop and go conversation with my fellow servers. While I keep six orders in my head, writing nothing down, I need to crack jokes with person A, listen to person B bitch about the D-bags at table 42, tell my boss “I’m good, boss,” and keep up a sporadic conversation with the guy at the end of the bar near the drink station. You know the guy at the bar, not my customer, but he is in here every day chatting it up with servers on every subject his wild, loneliness-addled mind wants to talk to you about. As I get my three beers, two martinis, kid’s Sprite, and three waters for table 65 I have to try, in 30 concise words debate the merits of Duke in the Final Four with chatter-box McNoFriends while still getting out of there in time to not piss off a table of what I decided were shitty tippers.
Now I need to get the food from the kitchen and this can be a cluster-fuck of epic proportion since cooks generally despise and simultaneously envy servers. As a server is dealing with 20+ people, a kitchen of two to four cooks is dealing with every single obnoxious and ridiculous order in the restaurant. As much as the kitchen staff can be shitty hard-ons, they deal with every single person in a removed capacity. I do not envy them on a busy night when the rail is full and are trying to get 60+ orders out the window in a timely fashion when I come up and tell them I need table 62 I just rung in ‘on the fly’, 15 tickets deep. My cook does not give a shit about my problems, he has them of his own, and here I am basically knocking over his frail house of cards with a salad I needed five minutes ago as the customer wants it before his meal which was an after-thought as I passed him with a tray full of drink balanced precariously in one hand. This is where tension comes from for the server and the cook; it is a misunderstanding that the cook sees every order that comes in while every server wants their table flawlessly performed for while the other tables can go jag off in the alley for all the server cares. The kitchen thinks servers are assholes while servers think cooks suck and should just do their fucking jobs. “You don’t have to face these people, you’re making me look stupid right now! Get me my salad!” Oh Friday nights.
So what after the rush? What is it like to try and mend fences and keep out of the pitfalls of inter-restaurant relationships? Well you need to remember that one server is banging a manager while two managers are also banging, but they are in a fight right now, so don’t bring that up. Also, person B secretly resent you for having such good shifts, which isn’t your fault, but they would never say anything to you. You heard it from person C, who used to date person B until they broke up on Valentine’s Day and now there is a rift in the staff taking sides. Then there is the new hostess all the guys are hitting on, creating some “I saw her first” testosterone to be pumped out over beers after the shift. You also need to keep an eye on person D who is gunning for your spot kissing some serious ass of the server manager to get your Thursday shift talking shit on how little you care about ‘sidework’. You also need to make sure you stay close to one manager and the ‘core’ staff while keeping peace with the outsiders. See, there is the core five staff members, you included, that make the place really run on the fast nights, but you don’t want outright weird tension with those not in the collective. The ‘cool’ group, to use high school terminology-let’s face it, this is high school with more sex and alcohol-is where you are and you go out on days off and evenings to hang out, but you can’t ignore the outcasts, so you make small talk and chat with them, on shift, and try to be ‘busy’ when they need a shitty opening shift covered or even want to hang out outside of work. Just as in life it is who you know, ya know?
What server you will get is a roll of the dice though. ‘When’ you go to a restaurant depends on the service you will get. There are classifications of servers, three of them actually, and when you show up depends on the server you get. Classification one is the worst of them, the ‘extreme part-timer’. The server, often a teenager who is working for extra cash while going to school or they have a job because their parents want them to learn “what it is to work for your money.” This server is a ‘two-shifter’, tops. They know little beyond the printed menu and can’t tell you much about the scotch or wine selection, they’re in their teens after all. They are bad servers, overwhelmed by three tables and not a part of the ‘core’. They are bubbly, care-free individuals who will deliver mediocre service and be late with drinks and always a bit awkward stumbling over special and drink descriptions while they write everything down. This server is generally a ‘girl’, not a woman and gets decent tips often from men who think they are cute; God help them if they aren’t cute and imaginable in compromising positions.
The second class is what I call the ‘lifers’. These servers are up there in age from 40 years old all the way in to their sixties. They are campy and corny servers. When I have worked with them they usually have great lengths of experience at the Denny’s and Carrow’s of the world. A breed of server that has kids and have lived the life of a server for far too long, these are almost exclusively women who have waited tables all over the world and have the fallen arches to prove it. As an insider they feel they deserve the most shifts and can’t be told how to do anything, since they have been there and done that. They resent the young, quick server. We resent them for their ‘old dog, no new tricks’ manner. There is a sense of entitlement in the ‘lifer’ and you will find them on the day shift almost exclusively. They resent the ‘night shifters’ who make the ‘real money’ while they struggle on four dollar tips at lunch. The Lifer is a sad sign to the young server to make something of themselves and don’t become that sad version of a server. The Lifer may be a good server, most times is, but they are annoying in their obsession with sugar substitute counts in the ‘caddies’ and their unspoken need for ‘respect’ from the ‘new kids’.
The third class of server is who you, the customer, wants. You want one that comes from the ‘core’. The core consists of ages 21-30. This slim cross-section of the industry breeds the fun, fast, and competent server. They know the menu inside and out, they know their booze top to bottom, and will give you the best experience possible on you night out. They are feisty in their sense of humor and will get you laughing. A ‘core’ server is what makes the busy nights possible for a restaurant. They can take six or more tables without losing track of what is going on and can take your table’s order without writing anything down. They have suggestions if you want them and will get you what you need, within reason, no matter what a pain in the ass you might be. If you are willing to wait, I suggest, if possible, look to the server stations and look for the group of people chatting there and getting along well enough, laughing and having a good time between trips to tables. If there is an obvious rapport between any one server and the rest then that is the server you want. Ask for the short haired guy ‘right there’ or the brunette at the computer. With this kind of careful selection process you will be in for a good time with your beer they recommended and a good meal.
A proper selection of server and location is not everything you need to have good time as a ‘guest’ or customer. What you as a patron need to know is how you need to act so as to not incur the wrath of the gatekeeper, the server. First off, don’t assume you can seat yourself. If there is a sign that says “seat yourself” then you need to be patient for a server to get to you once you sit. Secondly, don’t EVER use a cell phone when you sit down. There is a specific order of operations a server needs to abide by to expedite your service, and being on a cell phone when you sit down will only enrage a server and they will completely ignore you until you are done for a few minutes; the revenge of the server. Among other things you need to not be a pain with ridiculous requests and allergies. If you are allergic to wheat then don’t try and get a burger without the bun, just get a salad. First off, it’s not a burger without a bun, and secondly you incur the wrath of the kitchen being pissed by such a request same as the server.
When interacting with a server you need to be polite, the term is server, not servant. ‘Please’, ‘thank you’, and ‘when you get a chance’, are terms you need to use. We are not slaves so show some respect for a fellow human being relegated socially to the glorified panhandling of the service industry. Also realize that you, the guest, are not the only person being serviced in the restaurant, and definitely not the only set of needs being tended by your server. Also, don’t flag a server down carrying a large tray of drinks. If I am trying to move quickly past you with a tray of ten drinks, now is not the time to ask for a side of ranch with an attitude like I should have known this already. If you ask for anything ‘well done’ then it will take twenty minutes, period. Frankly, on a packed Friday night at a full restaurant, assume EVERYTHING will take THIRTY minutes, that way you will be pleasantly surprised when it gets to you sooner.
I have had some shitty customers in my time, more than I can recall here, but the worst were the nice tables that were fun to serve, thanked me for great service and great food, and then left ten bucks on a 140 dollar tab. I appreciate that you were happy with your service, but “thank you” is not a form of payment American Express accepts; trust me, I’ve tried. I want you, the customer, to realize that your thanks needs to be in generous monetary form. If you cannot afford 20% on whatever your tab is, then stay home and order a pizza. It may come as a shock to those that have never worked in this industry, but we literally live on tips. In some states, like my time in Wisconsin, a ‘tipped employee’ is legally paid about three dollars an hour; tipped employees make less that Indonesian Nike shoe-makers. Your tips constitute our only form of income for the most part. Sure, I, and others, may have second and third jobs, but tips are why we do this mind-fuck of a job. I would not tolerate your peanut allergy for just minimum wage, believe you me. Tipping well is your best ticket for getting amazing, falling-over-ourselves-to-please-you service, period. Here is a good rule for you masses that think 8-14 percent is reasonable...fuck off. Come to a restaurant expecting to tip 15% every time no matter the service. Don’t complain about your bad service monetarily, write an email to the Manager, but don’t take food out of our mouths by tipping just five on 60, it’s insulting; I didn’t take the burger out of your mouth when you had the audacity to snap your fingers at me, so don’t fuck me financially because I forgot your water with no ice.
Good tipping is the only way to get good service on a return trip. If you have messy fucking kids, 20%. If you like all my suggestions for drinks, apps, and dinner, then 20%. If I made you laugh and got your food and drinks to you in a quick manner, 20%. If you thought I was cute and charming, 20%. Your phone number is not the digits I want, I want your money. I don’t want to meet your friend Linda, I want to meet your friend Benjamin, sucka. Servers do what they do, despite the alcoholism-inducing stress and frustration, because it is the best way to make a good living on minimum hours outside of prostitution and peddling drugs. We have the constitution in us to take your shit if you are good tippers. I will do almost anything ridiculous for a terrible table, as long as I know they are tipping well. This is your thanks to the server, your tip. 15% is the industry minimum, and I say minimum strongly. You must be financially good to us and we will give you good service. We are a fickle and wild-minded bunch and we want your money so don’t do anything stupid.
Think I’m messing around? The average server lives with roommates and has no savings account. The average server has no health insurance and no 401k, obviously. The average server struggles daily to pay bills and prays every day their car doesn’t break down. We live paycheck to paycheck making just enough to afford to continue to come to work. We are a stressed bunch relegated most often to the lower-middle class at best. There is rarely a full-time server in the world. Except in the most high class of establishments your servers work maybe 20 hours a week on average. I would venture to say that most servers work less than 30 hours a week, across the board. These are people who do a stressful and exhausting job based on the hope for your charity. We are beggars with aprons and if you cross us every single staff member will immediately hear about it. Before you get out the door your stingy ways will be common knowledge and your return visit will not be a pleasant one.
First and foremost the staff of a restaurant is family; we look out for our own. If you offend one of us you offend us all, and justice will be swift. We will delay your drinks, ignore your table, overcook your food, deliver it cold, just be rough around the edges and short with you. Short of coming right out and saying it, you will not be treated as welcome and we will eliminate you from our customer base as to keep you from screwing the collective as you did any one individual. Make no mistake, if we could get away with it we would curse, laugh at you, just say no, and cop an attitude with you. If we could we would kick you out, or blacklist the shittiest of the public, but we need to fake it with you, and that is where the exhaustion comes from. Being fake is tiring and stressful, which leads to the drinking and the five minute breaks. Hell, I smoke at work just so I can get five minutes away from the ‘floor’. Non-smokers don’t get those breaks, but trust, on our breaks, if there are two to five of us smoking, we talk shit on you, the bad customer. We warn others and laugh at outlandish requests of those that don’t tip well. Tip well though, and you will be spoken of as legend and servers will argue as to whose ‘turn it is’ just to get your table.
All this considered, do you want to work beside me? Is it any wonder that the turn-over rate in restaurants is so high. It takes a certain personality type and level of conviction to do this job. When you go in to a restaurant know that it is populated by people who hate, love, and or fuck one another. When your server comes to tell you the specials, know that they have already passed judgement on you, and it is up to you to break the stereotype you might fill on the surface. Staff in the hospitality industry is a colorful cross-section of the weird and the wild from all over. Whether you are in a five-star restaurant or a shitty roadside diner, the characters are all there in one form or another. Location be damned, it is a dysfunctional family oddly tolerant of sexual escapades, salacious scandals, and the most outlandish disgust for one another accepted as the status quo. We are the people who are with you the customer at a very intimate level; we deliver to you what you put inside you, we satisfy your hunger and quench your thirst. So, as Tyler Durden would say, “don’t fuck with us.”
(Originally published in Streams of Unconsciousness)
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Wesley is a writer/photojournalist originally from Oregon who makes his home in Ventura, CA. He is currently a contributing photographer for the VCReporter and maintains an active blog (http://www.wesleybauman.wordpress.com/) where he writes on political and social satire regularly.