I started in the food service industry when I was 15, baking bread for a Greek catering service in the heat of a New Jersey summer. In spite of the sweat drenching fact that we didn’t have air conditioning, I think fondly of that job. It also started me on the road to paying my way through the art of serving food. I continued to wait tables until my college graduation in 1991. I slung tacos, fish, chicken, ice cream, and steak; worked in Italian, Mexican, Home-style, and Irish restaurants; waited in teams, duos, buffets, and solo; opened, closed, tended bar, and slopped out garbage. And loved it. It is a hard, dirty, exhausting, trying-your-patience, get-your-hand-off-my-ass-you-drunk-customer, tough way to make a living. But it also taught me some very valuable lessons.
Lesson 1: You make much better tips if you take a huge tumble down a set of stairs while carrying an oversized tray of dirty dishes. Of course, this isn’t something that you can do every day without causing yourself serious harm (or suffering irreparable damage to your ego.) The thing I remember the most about the night always to be referred to in our house as “The Crash of ’89”, was watching the plates fall to the floor in slow motion and then break out into the most amazing sunburst pattern. Bruised ego and shins aside – that particular night covered most of my college books for the semester.
Lesson 2: When walking on a slippery floor, learn to walk like a duck. It’s not a pretty walk – certainly not sexy, but it will keep you upright on a slippery floor. Let me explain and you can try it. Okay – stand up. Put your knees together nice and tight. Now turn your feet slightly outward. (Are you still standing or did you fall over?) Now walk forward moving your legs only from the knee down… Voilá! You look and walk like a duck! Silly, but when moving through an ice cream parlor with a slippery floor, it’s the only way to keep upright. If you don’t – lesson #3 happens.
Lesson 3: Spilling an ice cream sundae on a woman in a white fur coat may not be as bad as it sounds. Fur cleans really well – which might explain why my white cats seem to be able to stay really white no matter what trouble they find. A lot of “I am so very sorry,” 2 free dinners, and a bottle of club soda did the trick. (Refusing her tip seemed to help too.)
Lesson 4: Bussing someone else’s tables goes a long way to fostering good will. Many restaurants use a team system, but often you are on you own. In a restaurant, as in life, helping others is key to happiness – unless you forget to tell your teammate that you put his tips in a cup for safe keeping. Oops. I don’t believe I ever made that mistake again.
Lesson 5: Always keep a clean change of clothes in your locker. Why? See lessons 1 and 3… and 4 actually. That mistake involved being the recipient of a cocktail sauce and gravy painting on my white button down. Makes a great abstract painting, but not a great look on your clean black and whites.
Lesson 6: Smile – always smile. No matter how bad you feel, or how nasty your customers are, smiling at them always makes you the winner. Sometimes you have to hold that smile for so long you think you are starting to look like the Joker – but trust me, a smile goes a really long way. Maybe not to the person you plastered it on your face for, but those around who can see you smile at the worst customer, will tip you even more at the end of the night.
Lesson 7: Listen – listen really well. Listen between the lines. Watch their body language. Hear what they are saying. This lesson helped me match my customers with exactly what they wanted. A lesson that has helped me through every other job I have ever had. Selling food, bridal gowns, costumes, or widgets, all involves the same thing. Listen to what the customer says and find the product that will make them happy. (Most of the time in a restaurant it involves chocolate – just saying.)
Lesson 8: Get to know the biggest bartender really well. While you keep smiling (and thus protecting your earnings potential) he can keep the overly-obnoxious, way-too-drunk, thinks-he-is-a-gift-from-the-gods, misbehaving-dolt, and needs-to-be-removed-by-the-cops, idiot off your back. Always a plus in my department.
Lesson 9: Be nice to your co-workers. That way on your last day at Pepé O’tooles, the bartender will pour you lots of ice cream drinks – heavy on the adult beverage mix, light on the ice cream. And she will keep them coming until she needs to call a friend (who’s number to her before she mixed the first drink), to pick you up off the floor and pour you into the back of his hatchback and take you home. (Naturally, this is all theory because I would never, ever, drink anything with ice cream in it….)
Lesson 10: Life is like waiting on tables. Sometimes you get rewarded for doing a great job, sometimes you get stiffed. Sometimes you need help, sometimes you give help. Sometimes you meet really cool and interesting people, sometimes you want to … (never mind, I won’t put that down in writing – my mother reads this after all – hi mom!) But most of all, life is tiring, energizing, satisfying, interactive, dirty, trying, uplifting, scary, fascinating, painful, full of surprises (like ice cream drinks), often requiring a change of clothes (or undies), populated by wonderful-caring-kind-let-me-help-you-up-off-the-floor-do-I-need-to-call-an-ambulance-people, with need-to be-tossed-out-with-the-trash-jerks, and most of all rewarding.
Enjoy today – it’s the only one of its kind. See what you can make of it.