Working as a waiter, learning life lessons

The Baltimore Sun

It's 7 on a Saturday night, your section is full and you're repeating the specials of the night for the third time to a timid thirtysomething who must be suffering from short-term amnesia. You glance at the customers at your other tables: Two need bread, two are waiting to order and the family of five in the corner needs refills of chocolate milk and Shirley Temples.

Waiting tables is a stressful, fast-paced and, at times, utterly chaotic occupation. Perhaps that's the reason that every week, according to People Report (a Dallas-based research-and-consulting company), more than 250,000 restaurant employees put in their two-week notice. And that's not including those who quit on the spot.

On the other hand, if you can stick it out, it's excellent training for navigating the world.

After spending most of my teen years working as a busboy and a waiter in casual and fine-dining restaurants, I've come to view the daily grind of service as a fine way to learn life lessons. Here are my top four:

Roll with the punches --I started as a busboy at the age of 14; it wasn't pretty. I would work so quickly that I would become a stumbling fool who dropped glasses, plates, flower vases and anything that wasn't bolted down. I consider myself lucky to have kept my job, especially after an incident involving a loss of balance, mushroom sauce and a customer's white silk shirt.

In exchange for staying employed, I was trusted only to pour water and retrieve baskets of bread. Work was difficult when I wasn't allowed to touch anything, but I learned that having a sense of humor can help someone overcome embarassment and build confidence at the same time. Confronting my lack of balance and coordination, I also learned to slow down. I eventually grew out of my clumsiness and was allowed to wait on tables.

The customer is not always right --This startling realization came to me after working a few months in the business. One night, a man and a woman were seated at the restaurant where I worked. Each ordered a strip steak and finished every morsel.

As I cleared their plates, the man began to explain how delicious his steak was when the woman chimed in. She complained that the steak was too fatty and demanded not to be charged. No words could explain my thoughts at that point. I looked at the plate; it was empty. There was no gristle in sight. "What a strange phenomenon," I thought. Was the fat eaten, or was it hiding somewhere?

I told the owner. He was dumbfounded and approached the table. He explained that he had to charge the woman for the meal for a simple reason: She had ordered it and eaten it. The woman stormed out and left her husband, mortified, to pay the bill.

Don't check your own judgment with your coat -- in the restaurant or out of it --I've found that many people can be uncomfortable and nervous when they first enter a restaurant, fearful of saying or doing anything that makes them appear less than intelligent. Others are free of inhibition.

All the restaurants I have worked for had outdoor seating. What perplexes me still is that when customers are asked if they want to sit outside, many respond with the question, "How is it out there?" or "What does it feel like?" even though they were outside moments before. Many times I've felt like unleashing some vicious sarcasm. But I've learned that a little empowerment works better. I ask gently, "Would you like to check for yourself?"

Not-so-good deeds will be remembered -- at least by your waiter --If you've dined at a particular restaurant before, there is a good chance the staffers know how you treated them last time.

Waiters have an uncanny memory for the faces of those who tipped well for good service (more than 20 percent) or not so well (less than 15 percent). Some waiters also like to pass the word to their co-workers after an unjust tip. (Don't count on hiding under a new hat or hairdo.)

Ultimately, the difference between a 10 percent and a 15 percent tip rarely amounts to a memorable sum of money for a waiter. A waiter might remember your face but he or she probably won't be dwelling on your bad tip for the next week.

On the other hand, waiters could dwell on how a customer treats them. After all, waiters and waitresses are human beings like everyone else and don't deserve to be disrespected.

The biggest lesson I'll carry with me is that the way a person treats a waiter or waitress is a great indication of character. And though a customer might be the most gracious, warmhearted and forgiving person outside of a restaurant, it doesn't mean that person is allowed to act differently when seated for dinner.

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