As you may have read in my previous articles, my first job at age 15 was at the Unocal gas station on Redwood Road in Vallejo. I was subsequently fired from that job for being a smart aleck, which was probably a deserved outcome. If I recall correctly, I called my manager a “moron.” Let me just say that he was in fact, a moron, but calling him one wasn’t my best career move. But where my story begins is with my second job at a restaurant in Benicia. My cousin, who was the chef, got me the job. I bussed tables, then waited tables through high school, and bartended a bit during college, graduate school, and yes, even for a few post- graduate school years while still “finding myself.”
It was a great job; I was paid minimum wage, plus tips. I worked on school days (after school and at night) instead of studying. As a busboy I made $20 a night, which was not bad for a high school kid in 1980. As a waiter during my senior year of high school, there were nights I made $100 in tips. Because we were the nicest joint in town, our patrons were generally out for special occasions and in good moods. Every night felt like a party.
The money was good, but the work was hard. Even so, bussing and waiting tables gave me skills I have used every day in my career. On busy nights, I had to make time-critical decisions. These decisions could keep me efficient and on-time or cause me to become further “buried” as we called it. I watched waiters getting yelled at by the chefs, the bartender, the hostess, and the customers all at the same time. Prioritizing was what it took to survive the shift and be paid good tips. Waiting tables requires multi-tasking, and just plain hustling, talents invaluable to a productive career. Waiting tables is a low-risk entry into that world.
I was and still am a (fairly) shy person. As a teenager, I would hang out in the corner at parties, feeling insecure. Waiting tables gave me an invaluable opportunity by forcing me to meet and greet folks while determining the “currency” at a moment’s notice. A waiter or bartender needs to assess the table and its patrons. Are they out for a romantic evening, a family dinner, a business dinner, or just friends looking to catch up? Are they in a hurry? How I approached each group was different, and how quickly or slowly I moved them through the dining experience was critical to being a good waiter. Is it the food they came for? Or the wine? Maybe the interaction and jokes? Or a little bit of both? I’m in the customer service business now and spend my time ascertaining the most important issues to my customers and clients. I find as I move through my life, my time in the restaurant business gave me a foundation that I apply continuously.
Our daughter, Olivia, just finished her first year of college, and while there, got her first job as a hostess and bussing tables in a popular vegetarian restaurant. She said recently, “My job is so much fun! I will never look at a restaurant the same way again.” She has made mistakes, been yelled at by Shannon, an experienced waitperson with little patience. She has learned how to pour water from a pitcher, without splashing, while keeping one hand behind her back. She’s received snarky comments as well as compliments from the patrons, made new friends, great tips, and headed back to her dorm exhausted with tired feet. I think she has only scratched the surface of what she will learn about people and herself along the way.
So next time you dine out and your server approaches you with, “Good evening and welcome in,” remember to be kind. Whether your server is experienced, or a college kid working her first job, the shift is never easy. Relax, enjoy a cocktail, and oh yeah, tip big!
“This is my soap box, get your own”