Just the other day, I read an article about the four jobs every person needs to have at least once. One of the jobs was being a waiter/server. Then an epiphany hit me! I remember doing that only a few months ago and what I learned from that job was invaluable.
This past fall, I was in a financial bind. I was working but I wasn’t making enough money to sustain myself and my new roommate (who was working but hadn’t gotten a paycheck yet). So like most people, I went looking for another part-time job to fix my situation. The problem was the only sustained work experience was in college teaching. I had some experience in being a retail salesperson (at a bookstore and a department store) but it was less than a year in length. Then I hear about a new restaurant opening up in my area and I am immediately drawn to it.
Mind you, I had zero experience in serving anyone except my family during holidays, family reunions, and family visits but I figured that I could learn on the job and I was right. The first week was focused solely on training – being a “marathon” server, having “fun” while you work, and treating the customer like gold or better. I also was the ONLY person who never served in a restaurant before so I stood out a little. But to sweeten the deal, I (and all the experienced servers) had opportunities to “win” free food from the menu and was paid for the training.
Once training ended, the real test began. On the first few days, local businesses and neighbors with coupons came for free meals. It felt more like intermediate training with live specimen than actual shifts. Either way, it was a winning bargain – customers got free food and decent service while we new servers got the practice and work experience we needed. And some of us servers even got tips from the free meals we served.
Finally, the real world of restaurants collided a week later. We servers got order books with a mini binder to carry them, aprons, the miniature menu “cheat-sheet,” and finally, table sections (usually 4-6 tables a shift). Then the “real” paying customers started coming to eat. The real test of my serving competency began.
The majority of customers were very nice and understanding. They allowed me to go through my server script of opening greeting and appetizer/beverage/entrée suggestions. I made friends with the kitchen and expo staff so that the right food came out on time and with little hassle. I learned to coordinate the time it took me to get beverages and input food orders into the touchscreen computer with the time to took for food orders from other tables to be cooked and ready for their customers. I’m not going to say that it was a simple process but over time, I learned how to do it effectively.
And like new restaurants, more people came and more money was spent. I would like to say that my tips increased but that would not be the complete truth. The truth is complicated, like many things in life. When I first started, I had trouble understanding how to complete a cash transaction for a bill. Do I give “the house” all the money? Do I give the bill’s cost to “the house”? Do I keep it and give to my manager after my shift? My training didn’t go over that so I had to learn through trial and error. That meant I tried to hold on to as much money as I was supposed to, give those earnings to “the house” at the end of my shift, and hopefully, I wouldn’t have given all of my tips to my manager in error. Some days/nights were better than others.
But what I learned the most was how people can transform when they become restaurant customers (and managers for that matter). In regular circumstances, mild-mannered people are hospitable, courteous, and accommodating. But something changes when these “regular” people cross the power barrier to become customers or managers at a restaurant. The old adage of “absolute power corrupts absolutely” has never been more true in this situation.
Like during our “free meals” sessions, the majority of customers were very understanding and in good spirits when things went well and not so well. However, the minority sometimes spoiled the bunch of the majority. This minority of “elite” felt entitled to perfection at every meal. Now I can understand that expectation. You go out with your hard-earned money and expect to be treated like a human being (or maybe even royalty) at a restaurant. I want that too when I go out to eat.
However, behind the curtain, with unreliable food shipping schedules, weather hazards, missing crucial ingredients/supplies, inexperienced kitchen staff, and evasive managers, perfect service may not be a reality in some cases. Unfortunately, all customers get to see is the server and food. The server has the uneasy role of being the face of the restaurant and if things behind the curtain shut down, he/she left dealing with it in the presence of the customer. So naturally, the server has to think logically and quickly in the face of turmoil while looking like he/she is completely in control. It becomes even more stressful when the problems behind the curtain are not revealed until the order is taken.
This minority of customers may only focus on the obvious – missing/late/cold food/beverages, over-booked restaurant, and slow service. The manager may be called so the customer can vent his/her frustration out on a person of authority instead of the “inexperienced” server. The customers may either accept the problem with some grumbling, get bill reduced for the trouble, or get the entire bill paid by the restaurant. In either case, the tip for that server will be nonexistent.
I say all of this to say that working as a server taught me a great deal about people and myself. I learned that some people in power will abuse it to make themselves feel better.