Somehow I made it through college, graduate school and 11 years in Chicago as a musician, without ever once waiting tables. Sick of corporate America, I have recently taken a job at one of Chicago's fine restaurants. I'm grateful they hired me with no serving experience and I plan to show them they can hire an Ivy League graduate with confidence. So far I've been having a great time. I really like my co-workers and managers, and it feels so good to be part of a team again. (I’m refraining from railing about my former job using lots of italicized words, so imagine you've already read a paragraph on my awkward boredom and loneliness of sitting in a quiet corner for two years, interacting with no one but my boss who I never liked.)
I was trained as a server last week and Tuesday night was my first shift with my own tables to cover. It went very well. I’ve memorized most of the menu and my co-workers are great about helping me when I have questions. The bussers are cute, the other servers are fun, the managers are nice and the customers are friendly. I also really like the work. I love interacting with and hosting people. And serving is very physical with lots of lifting, walking and carrying. Not being chained to a desk for eight hours at a time is so great I don’t mind the sore feet . My new job feels like a perfect fit.
Wednesday I was excited to work on a busier night and was hoping to start bringing home some money. Now I understand why it's so important to tip well in restaurants. Restaurant servers earn some below-minimum hourly wage and really do live on their tips. I always doubted that was true, but it is. In fact, sometimes the official paycheck is zero. So when anyone suggests that 20% is the decent percentage to tip in a restaurant, please believe them and do it. Your tip really is all the money the server takes home, and that's after she splits her tips with the bartender, bussers, hostess, and/or whoever else gets a cut. Imagine all those people being paid from that relatively small amount you leave for the server at the end of your meal. I'm serious: imagine that and then act accordingly because I'm still having a hard time imagining it. At first I thought being a server might earn me just enough to starve slowly, but this week I'm thinking it might earn me enough to starve quickly.
My second shift as a server started out slow and I waited for an hour and a half before I got my first table. My customers were a couple with two sons, maybe 8 and 9 years old. They ordered sodas and the dad ordered a Samuel Adams. I'll never forget what kind of beer he wanted because when I returned to the table, I dumped it on him. I was horrified, I apologized, I used napkins to help dry him (and the booth and the table and the menus). The bussers came and helped clear the table so they could put down a dry tablecloth. The family was just getting settled again and I was recovering by bringing the man a second bottle of Samuel Adams -- when I dumped the second bottle of beer as well! It spilled more on the table (and menu and basket of bread) than on him, but at that point I didn't know what to do. How many times could I apologize, how many times could I offer to bring another beer, how many times COULD I SPILL IT?
Both the shift manager and the general manager were now at the table, along with the bussers and one of the servers (with 35 years of experience) who had trained me. Jesus Christ. And speaking of Jesus Christ, I can only hope that's not what came out of my mouth in front of this family with their two young boys. When the second bottle tipped over, I think I remember saying, "Oh my gosh," but I might have said, "Oh my God" and I can only hope I didn't say "God fucking damn it." (And exaggeration -- I'm sure I didn't.)
Anyway, the guy was very nice about it and no one in the family gave me so much as a raised eyebrow throughout the exercise. I told them it was my second week on the job. They were great and I was a mess. The shift manager served the third bottle of beer while the general manager took me aside, but he didn't proceed to criticize me. He gave me some very useful tips on how to hold a tray of drinks and serve them without spilling them on customers (better on myself or the next table.) (Just kidding about the next table). And my fellow servers, the managers and the bussers all took turns for the next ten minutes telling me (in English and Spanish) not to worry, it happens to everyone, it happens to everyone, don't worry.
And hey, I didn't fall apart. I actually managed to keep breathing and keep my internal panic mechanism down to medium. Incredibly, a couple of minutes in the women's room was all I needed to go back out there and face my nightmare. I did finish serving that table, but I couldn't tell you how big their tip was because I was afraid to look and then later I forgot about it and their tip got mixed in with everyone else's. By the end of the shift my attention was back on the earnings. After I split my tips with the bussers and the bartender, I didn’t bring home very much. How do waiters and waitresses ever economically survive? I have my doubts about this, but I'm more than willing to hang in there because I really like this job. The answer had just better come clear soon, and preferably before the next beer shower.