I show up for my shift at the restaurant where I work as a part-time server 15 minutes early, not knowing what kind of night I have in store. Is the restaurant going to be fully reserved? Is the kitchen going to be short-staffed? Am I going to have to serve an entire minor rep hockey team of children with undiagnosed ADHD? Every shift is basically a crapshoot. (No pun intended, even though I just so happen to work at the restaurant attached to my local hockey arena.)
Having pretty much zero serving experience, other than a short-lived stint as a banquet serving at the ever so elegant Holiday Inn, I hesitantly applied for a job in the food and beverage industry about four years ago. Shockingly enough, I was actually hired. Since I already have a full-time 9 to 5, serving on evenings and weekends seemed like the best and most efficient way to make some extra money to support my excessive throw pillow habit. For those of you who don’t know me, serving also pushes me so far outside my comfort zone of being a shy introverted writer, but has paid off for me in so many ways- and I don’t just mean the tips.
I’m sure that I don’t have to tell you that being a part-time server is not an easy job (or maybe I do, if you really don’t have a friggen clue). Often times we are run off our feet making entire pots of decaf coffee for the ONE customer in the entire restaurant who orders it, or scrambling to get orders into the kitchen before the dinner rush. What many of you probably don’t know, is that before the doors are even open for service, we are tasked with the daunting job of setting up the entire restaurant. Polishing cutlery, setting tables, stocking side stands, refilling ketchup bottles, and memorizing all 19 ingredients in the soup de jour. By the time customers start pouring in, we’re usually just about ready to pour ourselves a big glass of crisp Chardonnay, but in reality, our evening has only just begun.
When we’re not sprinting to refill your diet Pepsi for the seventh time, we can usually be found hovering around the kitchen staff, anxiously waiting on a plate of chicken fingers for an impatient table with a fussy toddler. With each passing minute, you can actually hear the calculation of your tip diminishing. Meanwhile, the tip-out that you have to cough up to the kitchen staff at the end of the night stays exactly the same. The only plus side to lingering around the kitchen is that you can usually sneak the odd french fry or handful of popcorn while you wait- which is the only food that you’ll actually have time to consume the entire evening. Hope you don’t like eating dinner! My advice to any new server: suck up to the kitchen staff. They are essentially holding the power of your potential income in their giant metal spatulas, and if they don’t like you, good luck getting your extra side of mayo.
A restaurant kitchen can be an intimidating place. I’m sure you all have Gordon Ramsey’s Hell’s Kitchen as the image in your mind, but you’d be wrong. It’s worse. The burning fiery flames of hell are probably more calm than the staff of a high octane restaurant kitchen during the dinner rush. There are usually remnants of food on every surface, smashed french fries on the floor, and sweat dripping from everyone’s faces (hopefully not into anyone’s food). Everyone is yelling at each other in code, and for the longest time, I had no idea what anybody was even talking about.
“We’re really in the weeds tonight, with all these chits piling up, and there’s 20 open menu’s on the floor. The expo has 12 tickets on the rail and we need four orders of chicken fingers all day. We just fired up three pounds of wings GBD, mild and honey garlic, SOS. We only have enough sauce for two pounds, so we’re gonna need to stretch it. We also need an order of mozza sticks on the fly. Oh – and can you let all the servers know, 86 hamburgers?”
Seems pretty self-explanatory, right? LOL
Besides overcoming the intimidating and sometimes downright hostile kitchen environment, you have the joy of enduring the many different characters that are your restaurant patrons. We get to meet some pretty interesting people (and a lot of assholes) in the restaurant industry. I’ve compiled a list of the most common ones that I’ve come across in recent years.
- The menu modifiers – There’s always one person at a table who is deemed the picky eater. The person with a pretentious food allergy or strict dietary restrictions (no, we don’t have any menu items that are keto-friendly). I once had a customer order a hamburger, cooked medium-well at exactly 150 degrees Fahrenheit with no onion, no tomato, no bun, add cheese, wrapped in lettuce with sweet potato fries, extra crispy – no salt with a side of kiss my ass. Look, lady, nobody’s impressed that you haven’t eaten gluten since 2007, how ‘bout you make your ridiculously high-maintenance dinner at home next time.
- The dorky dad – Everybody loves a good dad joke. Except for your restaurant server. I don’t want to have to pretend to understand your jokes and fake a laugh, just to make a 10 percent tip.
- The broski’s – These guys are usually a good time. Easy-going, drinking a bunch of beers and reminiscing about that old mustang GT they used to drive in high school. You’d think these guys were on some sort of hall-pass or something. They are all wearing wedding rings but still feel the need to make sexual comments when you warn them about the HOT plate of nachos you just sat in front of them. Oh, I’m hot, just like these nachos? Thanks, Chad, you really just made my day comparing my physical appearance to a platter of greasy chips and constipation-inducing cheese. Your wife is a real lucky lady.
- The elderly – Have you ever worked at a Tim Horton’s? Well, that’s how it’s going to feel all night as you run back and forth to the kitchen 10 times to make pots of coffee by the oil drum. They usually split a single order of fish and chips, ask for two plates and a knife, and then make a passive-aggressive comment about the high food prices. The elderly are also crappy tippers. I get it, those old-age pensions are pretty shitty, but how about you take that cheque and cash it over at Swiss Chalet with the rest of the silver hairs.
- The regulars – These guys feel like they own the place and that everybody should know their name. Well, this isn’t the set of Cheers. What the regulars never seem to understand is that we see a lot of faces night after night and are forced to remember literally hundreds of orders. Do you really expect me to memorize that you drink your caesar extra spicy, no ice with two beans, no rimmer, and a shot of Worcestershire in a large glass? I can barely remember to take a pee break.
- The under-agers – If you have the balls to walk into a bar underage and order a drink with confidence, good on you. When I was underage, I couldn’t even run into the convenience store to buy my mom her menthols without breaking a sweat. And my mom would be sitting in the car out front waving at the store clerk, as a way to verify that the cigs were for her and not me. I always get super anxious when I actually have to ID someone. First of all, I can never remember off hand what year I’m supposed to be looking for, and second of all, how would I know if I were in contact with a fake ID? I don’t have enough CSI training to be able to detect a tampered with driver license. I swear the whole process stresses me out way more than it does them. Can’t you just pre-drink in the parking lot beforehand, like the rest of us used to do when we were all underage? Kids these days…
- The crappy tippers – Every server’s nemesis. These people obviously haven’t been to a restaurant since 1922, because they still think magic beans and pocket lint are an acceptable tip for awarding good service. My personal favourite are the patrons that pay a majority of their bill with a gift card and then only tip out on the remaining balance of the bill. Excuse me, did I not just serve you $120 worth of food and drinks all night? Thanks for the 12 percent tip on $20 (eye roll).
- The happy tippers – God bless these (typically tipsy) customers sent from common human decency heaven. These are the same people who participate in Pay it Forward initiatives and always say “yes” when asked if they’d like to donate a $1 to some made-up sounding foundation at the grocery store checkout. The happy tippers recognize hard work because they themselves work hard…to not be assholes. (It’s really hard for some people.)
Every server can relate to the sheer panic that overwhelms your body when the restaurant experiences some unforeseen natural disaster that is completely out of your control. The debit machines go down, the draft beer taps are only spitting out foam, or the POS system fails to submit your orders to the kitchen. There is never a good time for a technical issue to arise in a restaurant and it sure as hell isn’t at 7:15 p.m. when everyone wants to settle their tabs at the exact same time in order to make it to their seats out in the jammed packed arena. As if the stress levels weren’t high enough, just add-on all 10 waitresses on the floor fighting over the one working debit machine, 5 minutes before puck drop.
With high-stress levels, also comes the glamorous scene of profusely sweating like a hooker in church for a solid 6-hour shift. Luckily our uniforms are thick, breathable hockey jersey material (HA!). Fortunately, we have been given a thin t-shirt option this year, but that just seems to emphasize the sweat even more. We really just can’t win (much like our local hockey team…sorry guys). Running around in ugly supportive shoes that I would never be caught dead in outside of these restaurant walls, I find myself often hovering like a dog waiting for a crumb, making sure all of my tables have full drinks, extra napkins, ketchup, and a pulse.
The art of being a good server is all about maximizing your revenue. Some servers can get by on their looks or tight cleavage-bearing uniforms, but at a family-friendly establishment, the options are very limited. You know how people have a telephone voice that sounds nothing like them? Well, a part-time server has the same thing. It’s our job to provide a pleasant dining experience to patrons and to also up-sell and highlight certain menu items (ie. clear out the last of the un-contaminated romaine). In no time at all, I found phrases cascading out of my mouth in a tone that was virtually unrecognizable.
“Hi, I’m Natasha, I’ll be taking care of you this evening…” (Meanwhile, I forgot to feed my cat 2 days in a row.)
“Do you have any questions about the menu?” (No? Good, because I haven’t even looked at it.)
“Still doing ok over here?” (Table hovering.)
“Are you still picking away at that, or can I get that plate out of the way for you?” (Still, table hovering.)
“Are we celebrating anything tonight?” (Hopefully a big fat promotion.)
“How are the first few bites?” (I’m praying that your mouth is full so I don’t really have to hear the answer.)
“Can I tempt anyone with dessert?” (My favourite thing is to watch everyone at the table rub their stomachs as they politely decline.)
The end of your hectic night is here, you bill your last table and finally sit down to do your cash out, almost forgetting what it was like to be off of your feet. You never realized just how good you were at math until accurately calculating your tips was at stake. After revealing that you actually made some pretty decent money, you realize that you now have to walk to your car at the very back of the dark parking lot, miles away from the restaurant doors, late at night with wads of cash in your pocket. But then peace of mind starts to set in when you remember that the regulars will have to show their faces again next week, the broski’s are all busy responding to passive-aggressive texts from their wives, and you can most certainly outrun the elderly.
I’m quite fortunate to work with an amazing group of supportive and friendly staff who are all team players and help to create a lively and fun work environment. You can’t help but become close to your fellow servers. It’s probably because there are very few people in the world who can share in the sheer satisfaction of getting a free leftover cold pizza slice at the end of the night. Although serving is a stressful, sometimes downright dirty and awful job, it really is the most fun I’ve had while at “work”. Do I love being a part-time server enough to say I’d do it for free? Absolutely not. I’m sure nobody would serve for free, although after a series of crappy tippers, you might as well have.